The folks at Amazon have been pretty cagey about their Lord of the Rings streaming series (apparently the studio has employed guards and fingerprint scanners to prevent leaks) since buying the rights to the property back in 2017, but some news has managed to trickle out. We haven’t done the best job with our coverage on this developing series, so here’s a refresher.
On November 13, 2017, Amazon Studios outbid rival Netflix, securing the rights to a series based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 high fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings for $250 million. Amazon has reportedly committed to producing five seasons of the show – in partnership with the Tolkien Estate, publisher HarperCollins, and New Line Cinema – and, according to the agreement, must be in production within two years of the deal closing (the deal closed in May 2018). The studio has already found its showrunners in newcomers JD Payne and Adam McKay, and studio head Jennifer Salke has located the potential premiere date in 2021 but hasn’t ruled 2020 out.
The show is being reported as potentially the most expensive series ever made for the small screen (at more than $1 billion). However, this claim seems to have its locus in a Hollywood Reporter article which cites no source for this figure and could easily be a number they pulled out of their asses. So take that with a grain of salt. I think it’s fair to say the series will be expensive.
There’s already talk of a potential spinoff series, according to one of the lawyers who helped negotiate the deal, though no details have emerged on that project yet. In fact, there are few details to speak of regarding the plot of the series. Salke has said that they aren’t remaking Peter Jackson’s films but that they also won’t be starting from scratch. When coupled with the recent news that Amazon Studios has been in discussions with Jackson regarding his potential involvement with the show and the almost overlooked detail that New Line will be involved in some way with the production (including that part of the deal allows Amazon access to footage from Jackson’s films), this detail, while small and unspecific, is quite significant and throws the door wide open for speculation.
If Amazon’s show isn’t a remake of Jackson’s films, what is it?
Fan site TheOneRing.net has reported via Twitter that the first season will focus on the life of a young Aragorn (a recent rumor has The Walking Dead’s Tom Payne taking over the role from Vigo Mortensen). TheOneRing.net is generally considered to be a trustworthy site that thoroughly vets its sources, but this is rumor at this point. Still, though, it seems like the most likely scenario to me. I’m far from a Tolkien scholar, but I am fresh off a re-read of The Lord of the Rings and I did get about halfway through the appendices in The Return of the King before moving on. And I feel pretty confident in saying that there’s enough material for multiple series in Tolkien’s appendices. Aragorn’s status as the last of a long line of kings descended from the first men, the Númenoreans, is uniquely placed to serve as a jumping off point for stories about the Rangers of the North (the Dúnedain) and the deeper histories of Middle Earth only briefly alluded to in Jackson’s films.
There’s a ton of storytelling potential here. Whether newcomers Payne and McKay can properly harness it remains to be seen. The writing duo shares an uncredited rewrite of Justin Lin’s Star Trek Beyond and an unproduced script for a Flash Gordon movie. None of that is encouraging to me considering the size and scope of the show they’ve been handed, but, looking back, Peter Jackson’s resume prior to being given the keys to Middle Earth gives no indication the writer/director could handle the monumental task of adapting Tolkien’s epic novel. And since we’re on the subject of fantasy, DB Weiss, one half of writing duo Benioff and Weiss, had no writing credits to his name before working on HBO’s adaptation of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.
But what of New Line’s involvement, Jackson’s potential involvement, and Amazon’s access to footage of his films?
Since this isn’t a retelling of the events of Jackson’s trilogy, I actually welcome this news. Why reinvent everything when Jackson and company have already laid most of the groundwork? Reusing the visual language of Jackson’s movies – the costumes, weapons, and sets – just makes sense to me as it will allow this series to strengthen the films and deepen the mythology Jackson and his team have already established rather than competing with it. Besides, whatever flaws are to be found in Jackson’s films, I think most people would agree that design isn’t one of them. Concept artists Alan Lee and John Howe’s vision of Middle Earth was well-established long before Jackson hired them to work on his films; their illustrations have been used in countless Tolkien publications over the years. If an established vision of Tolkien’s Middle Earth exists within the pop culture, it’s Lee and Howe’s.
And the potential for crossover between the films and the Amazon series doesn’t end there. It’s been reported that New Zealand could, once again, act as a stand-in for Middle Earth. There’s been some debate over whether New Zealand’s studio capacity is up to the task of handling a production this big, and there have been conflicting reports that Amazon location scouts have settled on Scotland for at least part of the production. Sir Ian McKellen could reprise his role as Gandalf as well. The actor has expressed his interest, telling the BBC’s Graham Norton “Gandalf is over 7,000 years old, so [at 78] I’m not too old.” If anyone is going to reprise a role from the film, McKellen seems like an obvious choice. Mortensen is too old at this point to play a younger Aragorn, and since the character was in his 80s during the events of The Lord of the Rings, it makes sense to recast the role and use McKellen (since Gandalf and Aragorn’s relationship was well established prior to the events of The Fellowship of the Ring) – and the visual language established by Jackson’s films – to bridge the gap between the two projects.
But what are your thoughts? Does it make sense for Amazon to cooperate with New Line and synch up with Peter Jackson’s movies or should the creators of the show start from scratch? What should the focus of the series be? How far back into Tolkien’s legendarium would you like to see the show delve? What characters/actors would you like to see return? Let us know in the comments below!
UPDATE: Since writing this article, I stumbled upon a series of videos on YouTube speculating on some pictures that the official Amazon Lord of the Rings Twitter has been posting since mid February. The Twitter account, @LOTRonPrime, has published a series of pictures of maps, along with links to interactive versions of them, that fans quickly recognize as Middle Earth. But with each new tweet, more detail has been added to the map and some of the place names have led eagle-eyed Tolkien fans to speculate that the setting for the show could actually be some time in the Second Age, much earlier than initially reported. That’s a broad swath of time, but it’s been suggested additional clues might point to the series centering on the forging of the Rings of Power. I’ve embedded the videos below.
Take a look and share your thoughts below!