Television is going through a very fantastical moment.
“House of the Dragon,” the new prequel series for “Game of Thrones,” just premiered on HBO and HBO Max to boffo numbers, and next week “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” premieres on Prime Video, pitting two of the most well-known (and lavishly produced) fantasy properties on the planet. But if you never read the source material or watched earlier entries in the respective series, this could be all Greek (or Elvish) to you. With remarkably similar marketing campaigns, it’s undoubtedly confusing which is which (and whether or not there are actually witches in either show).
Let us break down the biggest differences between the two shows since, as Electric Light Orchestra once noted, confusion is such a terrible thing.
This is one area where they are very different. Amazon only has the rights to make one series, consisting of five seasons, based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” is that show. “House of the Dragon,” however, is the opening salvo in a lengthy, multifaceted rollout of “Game of Thrones” spinoffs and sequels. (“Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin has described this as the beginning of a potential Marvel Cinematic Universe-style interconnected web of programs.)
Among the “Game of Thrones” shows in various states of development include “Sea Snake” from “Rome” mastermind Bruno Heller, “Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” from Steve Conrad and “Snow,” a proper follow-up to the main “Game of Thrones” series starring Kit Harington. Truly, should “House of the Dragon” succeed (and all signs point to that already happening), the sun will never set on the “Game of Thrones” kingdom.
Here’s where things get interesting. Supposedly the budget Amazon allotted for the first season of “Rings of Power” is a whopping $465 million, meaning that each of the first season’s eight episodes cost nearly $60 million. (That means each episode cost about what Jordan Peele’s “Nope,” a shot-in-IMAX summer blockbuster, set Universal back.) By comparison, “House of the Dragon,” with its $200 million budget for the first season, seems positively thrifty. In fact, there were reports earlier this summer that each episode of “House of the Dragon” actually cost less than the new, super-sized episodes of “Stranger Things.” Now whether or not all of that money winds up on screen is another matter altogether.
“House of the Dragon” is very much keeping with the TV-MA-rated “Game of Thrones” universe. The first episode alone features group sex, beheadings, jousting and one of the more graphic surgery sequences this side of Clive Owen in “The Knick.” It was enough, we’re sure, to push the limits of what had come before and establish that “House of the Dragon” would continue in the blood-and-guts tradition of “Game of Thrones” before it. “The Rings of Power,” perhaps unsurprisingly (especially given the astronomical budget, see above), is going for more of an all-ages, PG-13 approach. This also keeps with what came before: all of the “Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” movies have been rated PG-13. All are welcome in Middle-earth!
Here’s where “House of the Dragon” and “The Rings of Power” are surprisingly similar – in their attitude towards deployment of episodes. New “House of the Dragon” episodes release on linear HBO channels as well as the direct-to-consumer streaming platform HBO Max on Sunday nights. “The Rings of Power” will have new episodes streaming every Thursday on Amazon’s Prime Video platform, starting on September 1 (the first night will have two episodes, both directed by “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” filmmaker J.A. Bayona). This notably skews away from the binge model that has long been favored by streaming platforms.
Where the shows differ is in how they are released on their respective days — “The Rings of Power” drops at midnight, which means people likely won’t be watching new episodes right away. “House of the Dragon” premieres on HBO and HBO Max during primetime on Sunday night, making it appointment television. (There was a TikTok video of an entire New York apartment building watching the premiere simultaneously. It was shared by the “House of the Dragon” official account that read “All dragons roared at once.”) One thing is for certain — with new episodes debuting each week, the discussion around “House of the Dragon” and “The Rings of Power” will be much longer than the one-weekend-and-done that streaming series usually get.
The actual making of “House of the Dragon” mimics the way that “Game of Thrones” was shot, with production primarily based in the United Kingdom, with photography also taking place in Spain, Portugal and California. “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” was shot on location and on soundstages in New Zealand, where Peter Jackson’s original trilogy and his “Hobbit” films were also made. New Zealand’s tourism industry is almost exclusively centered around the country’s connection to “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.” This is worth noting when it comes to “The Rings of Power,” because for Season 2 the production is packing up and moving to the UK, mostly due to tax incentives. One ring to rule them all, but fluctuating rebates are enough to sway massive television productions.
Guaranteed Future Seasons
Amazon, in their infinite wisdom and bottomless bank account, has committed to five seasons of “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” with production on Season 2 set to take place in the UK this October. Even if the show isn’t a hit (and with the murkiness of streaming services’ rating reports, who will ever know), Amazon is fully committed. It’s an internationally recognizable brand name from a service that is in desperate need of IP. And it’s something that people can discover while finally noticing they have Prime Video on their smart TV or Roku.
“House of the Dragon,” meanwhile, has yet to be renewed for a second season and is awaiting an official greenlight. But early reports indicate that the show is the dragon-sized hit HBO was desperately clamoring for and that the expansion of the “Game of Thrones” franchise is only just beginning.
Fidelity to Source Material
“House of the Dragon” is meant to take place in the same world and universe as “Game of Thrones,” with overlapping settings and a shared aesthetic. (Miguel Sapochnik, who won an Emmy for directing the “Battle of the Bastards” episode of “Game of Thrones,” returned to direct multiple episodes of the new show and serve as co-showrunner.) “The Rings of Power,” meanwhile, has no official connection to prior adaptations of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” (Peter Jackson has joked about getting “ghosted” by the production), although it certainly owes, if nothing else, a stylistic debt to the fantasy kingdoms Jackson created.
As outlined in the opening moments of the new show, “House of the Dragon” takes place roughly 200 years before the events of “Game of Thrones,” with the world of Westeros not significantly different than the one we saw in the earlier series. But “The Rings of Power” is set thousands of years before the events portrayed in “The Hobbit” or “Lord of the Rings” in an era called the Second Golden Age. The showrunners summed up the contrast thusly: “The Rings of Power” shows Middle-earth in a time of prosperity, whereas the timeline of events for “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” are essentially post-apocalyptic. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no character crossover – A younger version of Galadriel, the character played by Cate Blanchett in Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” films, plays a central role in the new series (this time played by Morfydd Clark).
“House of the Dragon” is based on parts of Martin’s book “Fire & Blood,” which served as a history of the House Targaryen (the events of the show are part of what is known as “The Dance of Dragons” in “Game of Thrones” lore). The still-very-much-alive Martin serves as an executive producer and co-creator on the series, noting he has a strong say in how the show moves forward creatively after being somewhat shut out of the last seasons of “Game of Thrones.”
But while “The Rings of Power” has the blessing of the Tolkien Estate (something Jackson’s films didn’t have, incidentally), Tolkien is obviously not alive to be involved (he died back in 1973) and thus the showrunners are free to make creative decisions on their own. This is doubly interesting when considering the source material for the new series is not an actual book, but based on elements contained in “The Silmarillion,” “Unfinished Tales” and “The History of Middle-earth.”
Size of the Ensemble
“House of the Dragon” primarily takes place in King’s Landing and boasts an impressive yet contained ensemble in mostly the same location, stuffed with recognizable, hardworking British character actors like Matt Smith, Paddy Considine, Olivia Cooke and Rhys Ifans. “The Rings of Power,” however, covers a wide swath of area across Middle-earth with an enormous, international ensemble cast to bring dwarves, elves, humans and others to life. The actors are less recognizable than in “House of the Dragon” but just as hardworking. And don’t underestimate the power of prosthetic dwarf ears to transform a performer’s appearance.
This is maybe the area where “House of the Dragon” and “The Rings of Power” are most united – their deep commitment to terrible, extremely phony-looking blonde wigs. It really is incredible. How much confusion would be spared if the wigs were better (and a different color)? The worlds of Westeros and Middle Earth may never know.