The Power review: Amazon Prime Video’s Naomi Alderman adaptation lacks that crucial spark
Amazon Prime Video's take on The Power proves broader and blunter than Naomi Alderman's novel, and lacks the essential spark needed to make it work
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Unusually, The Power opens with a trailer. “We never dared to imagine it,” says Toni Collette’s Mayor Margot Cleary-Lopez over out of context shots from the remainder of the series. “A world made for us. Where we made the rules.” A girl walks down the corridor at school, head held high. “Where we were not afraid. Where we were the ones to be feared.” A woman screams, shoots lightning from her hands. “But that world was at our fingertips. All we had to do was burn down the world that was.” It’s not unlike how YouTube adverts might open with a short, five-second summary of what’s about to follow in an attempt to catch your eye before the ‘Skip Ad’ button appears. It’s also clearly a late addition to the episode: the same trailer is being used on social media to promote the show, and leads immediately into a flashback to six months prior anyway.
Watching that opening, it’s hard not to conclude that someone, somewhere, lost confidence in The Power last minute – or at the very least in its first episode. Maybe the feeling was that, without this trailer, the series premiere didn’t adequately explain The Power’s high concept premise, where pulpy comic-book superpowers (the ability to shoot lightning from your fingertips) stand-in for power in a more sociological sense (an effective monopoly on the capacity for violence). Perhaps someone thought the stakes – the global upheaval of any and all gendered power dynamics, slowly then all at once – weren’t obvious enough without that glimpse ahead. Or, even more simply, someone just wanted to make sure that big name star Toni Collette was actually in the first episode at all (after that trailer, she doesn’t appear again until the next).
In any case, that opening salvo – and all the indecision it seems to imply – sets the tone for The Power’s first episode. Momentum builds strangely, and there’s a sense sometimes that scenes have been edited into a different running order than initially intended (and, perhaps, a thumb put on the scale to give more screen time to Ted Lasso’s Toheeb Jimoh, always charming and never unwelcome even if it’s odd to offer the male character so much focus). The Power had a difficult production – first it was delayed heavily by the pandemic, with a high cast turnover as a result, and then original showrunner Reed Morano (The Handmaid’s Tale) left after filming completed and asked not to be credited for her work – and it’s tempting to speculate and attribute some of this choppiness to that.
Probably The Power would have always been a difficult book to adapt for the screen – the central conceit reads one way expressed in prose and metaphor, and looks another when rendered with CGI inserts – but it feels like it proved particularly troublesome for this creative team. The television series feels broader and blunter, at times spelling out its themes directly for anyone struggling to parse them, and at others oddly reluctant to properly commit. There’s one quite striking moment where Mayor Cleary-Lopez, speaking to a journalist about repressive new government legislation, begins to make a comparison to restrictive abortion laws – except she’s interrupted by an aide before actually using the word “abortion”. It’s a strange thing for the show to pull back on, especially given its admirable decision to move production out of Georgia in response to real life such laws.
Certainly, there are strong elements. It’s largely quite well cast across the board: the different strands of the narrative means it lacks an obvious anchor while never quite becoming an ensemble, but Auliʻi Cravalho and Halle Bush both emerge as early standouts. Toni Collette, too, is impressive, particularly in the scenes she shares with Cravalho – the power emerges first among teenagers, and there are moments where Margot seems desperate to live in the same world as her daughter. At a more basic level, there’s the simple fact that the broad sweep of the premise of the show often makes for compelling material, like scenes of spontaneous revolution around the world (frustrating though the yellow colour grade filter often proves).
Perhaps the biggest issue with The Power, however, is that it’s another television adaptation of a book that hasn’t quite managed to translate its source material to a new medium. Part of that is structural: the first three episodes of The Power cover the opening 18 pages of the book, and it’s obvious a lot is being left on the table for potential future seasons. Any series would struggle if a pace like that were imposed, but in The Power’s case it also has the at times unfortunate result of emphasising the cathartic empowerment fantasy without really engaging in the critique that the book builds to, and indeed is ultimately the point of the whole endeavour.
Part of that, equally, is a lack of imagination. One of the big failings of the book was its rigidly binary and cisnormative understanding of gender; while the series takes steps to introduce different perspectives, it’s also apparent that the inclusion of trans and intersex characters was approached via a path of least resistance, i.e. where could supporting characters be introduced with as minimal impact on the plot and worldview of the show. It’s hard to feel like The Power meaningly addressed that in this iteration, but it remains relatively easy to see how it could have. On television, The Power might’ve benefitted from more of a willingness to reinterpret its source material and break away from what’s on the page – to not focus on exactly recreating its plot but instead consider what might warrant actual adaptation.
Ultimately, it’s not wholly without merit, and it improves as it goes along – the fifth instalment, penned by Sarah Quintrell, builds to an effective contrast between its leads that takes advantage of the strengths of episodic television – but it’s hard to meaningfully consider the series a success. For all that could or should work about The Power, in the end it simply lacks that essential spark.
The Power begins on Friday 31 March on Amazon Prime Video, with the first three episodes available at once and new episodes available weekly thereafter. I watched 6 of an eventual 9 episodes before writing this review. You can find more of our TV reviews here, and more of our coverage of The Power here.