Spoiler Warning: Beware of minor spoilers for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Though disrupted by the pandemic, filming for Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings prequel series resumed earlier this year, and the series currently has a tentative 2021 release date. That could easily slip back into 2022 depending on production-side factors, but I don’t think it’s too early to begin considering what the series could be – and what I’d like to see from it.
The Lord of the Rings was part of my childhood. Not the films – those came years later – but the books. I remember my father reading The Hobbit to me when I must’ve been only six or seven years old, and I later read The Lord of the Rings while still quite young, so it’s not unfair to say they spurred a lifelong interest in fantasy that I still enjoy today. I came to enjoy Tolkien’s works years before I watched Star Trek, so you could even call it one of my earliest fandoms!
The films, which were released from 2001-03, are many folks’ first and only encounter with The Lord of the Rings, and many elements from the films – like the music – which didn’t come from the original books are now considered inseparable from the realm of Middle-earth. The new series has a line to walk between respecting that and trying to do its own thing.
Expectations will be sky-high for this series. Not only because of its association with the most famous works of the fantasy genre, but because of the frankly insane budget afforded to the show. Simply purchasing the rights to use Tolkien’s world set Amazon back an eye-watering $250 million, and that was before any work had been done on the show at all; no actors had been cast, no scripts written, etc. The budget for the series, which has been given a preliminary five-season order from Amazon, may top out at over $1 billion. This makes it by far the most expensive television series of all time, surpassing the likes of Game of Thrones, and that alone generates a lot of attention and scrutiny. And speaking of Game of Thrones, despite that show’s controversial and disappointing final season, comparisons will be inescapable. The stakes could hardly be higher.
Our last visit to the realm of Middle-earth didn’t go so well. The first two parts of The Hobbit were decent, even good films, but The Battle of the Five Armies wasn’t spectacular, something caused at least in part by the entire film being adapted from a handful of pages of text instead of a whole book! In a way, the disappointment some fans felt at The Hobbit’s adaptation means that Amazon’s series has even more work to do. It has to convince sceptical fans that they want to come back to Middle-earth, and that there are stories worth telling beyond the first three films.
The series will be set during Middle-earth’s Second Age, which makes it a prequel to the events of Lord of the Rings. Taking a setting several thousand years in the distant past could open up myriad possibilities within the story. And we’ve seen some prequels that go down this kind of route achieve success – Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, for example. But the stories of Middle-earth in the Second Age are all background, building up slowly toward the events of the “main” books. The initial rise of Sauron – who is still alive in this era – may prove fascinating to see. Or it may feel underwhelming considering we’ve already seen his ultimate defeat at the hands of Frodo.
Prequels can be difficult to get right. The Hobbit trilogy attempted to bring in characters who weren’t present in the original book in order to “foreshadow” the events of The Lord of the Rings, and it was hit-and-miss. Some elements worked, and some fell flat. Telling a story that serves as a fully-direct prequel to The Lord of the Rings, with characters like Gandalf, Sauron, and the ancestors of people like Aragorn and Legolas could be tricky to get right – there will always be a sense that we’ve seen the main event, and this is just unnecessary fluff.
That’s what happened – in my subjective opinion, of course – with the Star Wars prequels. They took on the less-interesting part of the story, a story that was ultimately wholly unnecessary. We didn’t need a three-film saga depicting the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker to know that Darth Vader was an evil, yet ultimately redeemable, character. Everything we needed to know about Vader was already present in the original films, and the prequels – which had numerous other problems, don’t get me wrong – didn’t feel like they had a purpose or told a particularly compelling story. They did, at least, tell one single story, which is something the Star Wars sequel trilogy failed to do! But that comparison is not a redeeming feature, despite what some like to think.
But we’re off-topic! Prequels can be troublesome and difficult to get right, so one way around that is to tell a story that’s tangentially related to the main event but is otherwise a wholly standalone affair. As strange as it may sound for a show with the working title Lord of the Rings on Prime, the fewer direct references to The Lord of the Rings the better. There’s plenty of scope to see familiar places and races, and if the show keeps to an aesthetic that fits with the films then all of that will be to the good. But where The Hobbit was less interesting was when it ham-fistedly tried to “foreshadow” the events of The Lord of the Rings, so if the new series could find a way to stick to new characters and a storyline that doesn’t stray too much into setting up the events of the earlier films, I think all of that will be to its overall benefit.
Middle-earth, much like the Star Trek or Star Wars galaxies, is a sandbox. It’s a beautifully-created world with a rich lore built up over decades, but the main works set in Middle-earth focus on a relatively narrow slice of that world across a relatively short span of time. Taking us back to the Second Age opens up a lot of possibilities – as would moving forward to a potential Fourth Age! Star Trek demonstrated as early as the 1980s that it’s possible for a franchise to expand beyond its original incarnation and do completely different things. Star Wars has yet to really attempt this, as I noted once, but this is a chance for Middle-earth to do what Star Trek did more than thirty years ago. It has the opportunity to expand beyond Sauron, Bilbo, Frodo, and the Rings of Power.
The history of the Second Age is documented, in part, in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. But unlike The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which each look in detail at a few characters across a relatively short timeframe, The Silmarillion is broad, encompassing thousands of years of history and legend within a single work. There are so many opportunities within these legends and this fictional history to either expand upon events it touches on or to create something completely new. There’s certainly the prospect of doing both.
One of the few things we know about the upcoming series is that it will look, at least in part, at the land of Númenor – an Atlantis-type land that would later vanish beneath the sea. Some Númenoreans would settle in Middle-earth, and these long-lived men would be the ancestors of Aragorn and a few other familiar characters.
The destruction of Númenor is documented in The Silmarillion, and if it’s the case that the show will look at that event (or the lead-up to it) there’s still a lot of scope to expand on the familiar and branch out into something entirely new. In fact, because The Silmarillion is a single book, and doesn’t contain anywhere near enough material for a straight adaptation, the producers of the new series will have to get creative!
Speaking of the creative team, there are some very interesting folks amongst the producers and writers. Showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay both worked on Star Trek Beyond, and amongst the writing team are folks with credits on such diverse works as Breaking Bad, Hannibal, and Toy Story 4. The director of the first two episodes has also been announced: JA Bayona, the Spanish director of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Some fans were critical when Amazon debuted the creative team, but let’s try to give them a chance. Though most of their names would not be familiar to the average viewer, between them they’ve worked on some huge and very successful projects. There’s an expression that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – perhaps that’s true here. Having spend this much money, Amazon would surely not waste that on a creative team it wasn’t 100% happy with. Unlike some recent projects, there haven’t been any high-profile firings or departures, which I take as indicative of a project progressing nicely.
On the cast front, none of the main players from The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings seem to be returning, at least not at this stage. I do consider cameos at least a possibility, but so far no announcements have been made. The cast that we do know of is led by Robert Aramayo, who is probably best-known for his flashback scenes as young Ned Stark in Game of Thrones. Nazanin Boniadi, who has had co-starring roles in shows like Homeland, also joins the cast along with Tom Budge, Owain Arthur, Morfydd Clark, Ismael Cruz Córdova, who played the Twi’lek Qin on The Mandalorian, Ema Horvath, Joseph Mawle, who played Benjen Stark in Game of Thrones, Markella Kavenagh, Tyroe Muhafidin, Sophia Nomvete, Megan Richards, Dylan Smith, Charlie Vickers, Daniel Weyman, and Maxim Baldry. What do most of these folks have in common? You’ve never heard of them. And why is that significant (aside from perhaps saving Amazon some money)? It follows a trail blazed by Game of Thrones. Set up a series with a mostly-unknown cast, give them a chance to grow into their new roles and become household names for those roles. It was a successful formula in 2011, and for the most part, people weren’t watching that show thinking “hey, I know that actor!” That was a deliberate choice, and I assume the same is true here too.
Amazon is positioning this new series as a successor to Game of Thrones. The way the casting has been handled, the amount of money being thrown at it, and the general way they’re working on the series all smacks of being an attempt to recreate the magic of one of the last decade’s most important television series. Game of Thrones built on what The Lord of the Rings films had done, and at this stage, folks who would have balked at the idea of watching anything in the fantasy genre a few years ago will surely be interested to check out what this new series has to offer. The genre has become a major part of our cultural landscape, and The Lord of the Rings films set the stage for that in a huge way.
Other than a single map of Middle-earth in the Second Age, Amazon is keeping a tight lid on this project. There haven’t been any leaks or significant rumours about the series, which is a good thing. It’s always nice to go into a new show unspoiled!
Despite some positive moves from Amazon, and the huge amount of money involved in this production, there are no guarantees of success. The show needs to be well-written, with interesting characters and a story arc – or multiple storylines – that are interesting and worth getting invested in. Game of Thrones, at least in its earlier seasons, came with that built-in because it was based on an already-successful series of novels. The Silmarillion is indeed a successful book, but as mentioned can hardly be adapted verbatim in the same way as A Song of Ice and Fire was for Game of Thrones’ earlier seasons. In that sense, this show represents more of a risk.
I’m hopeful for some truly awe-inspiring fantasy. Returning to the land of Middle-earth is always a treat, and by filming the show in New Zealand – where the films were all produced – it might just feel like a homecoming. Game of Thrones’ final season was a disappointment to many, but this new series has the potential to help us all forget about that and get stuck into another fantasy story all over again – one inspired by the works of the grandfather of the modern fantasy genre. I can hardly wait!
Lord of the Rings on Prime (working title) is the copyright of Amazon Studios. The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings books are the copyright of the Tolkien Estate. Film versions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are the copyright of New Line Cinema and Wingnut Films. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.