Dear Jeff Bezos, “The Lord of the Rings” is not “Game of Thrones”

aragorn the lord of the rings
aragorn the lord of the rings
Image: WarnerMedia./New Line Cinema
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Amazon is in early talks to develop a TV series based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings, Variety and Deadline reported over the weekend. The rights to adapt Tolkien’s work could cost Amazon as much as $250 million, according to Deadline.

That price tag alone would make the potential series one of the most expensive on television, even before anything was filmed. But the steep cost likely isn’t an impediment to Amazon nor to its CEO Jeff Bezos, who’s increasingly engaged in his company’s TV division following the ouster of its top executive, and is said to be “personally involved in the negotiations” with Tolkien’s estate and Warner Bros. Television.

In September, Variety reported that Bezos had mandated a programming shift away from smaller, niche shows toward “high-end drama series with global appeal,” like HBO’s international phenomenon Game of Thrones. Modest shows may win awards and curry favor with TV critics, but they can’t boost subscriber numbers or tap the cultural zeitgeist like a Thrones can.

It makes sense Bezos would want a series based on one of the most beloved fantasy book trilogies of all time. But The Lord of the Rings is unlikely be anything remotely like Game of Thrones.

The Lord of the Rings doesn’t contain any of the ingredients that turned Thrones into a global hit apart from the scale of its story. Thrones essentially took Tolkien’s work and added a smörgåsbord of provocative elements: copious nudity, stylized violence, and timely political intrigue.

Tolkien’s trilogy is indeed dark and violent (it’s unmistakably an allegory for the author’s experience in World War I), but it lacks the soapy dynamics that have helped Thrones go mainstream as an ongoing series. As a potential TV show, The Lord of the Rings wouldn’t be nearly as culturally resonant as Game of Thrones.

There’s one other wrinkle: The Lord of the Rings was already adapted into a film trilogy that culminated just 15 years ago. Peter Jackson’s films, which collectively won 17 Academy Awards, still hold up well today, and simply cannot be topped. It took three years of writing, three years of filming, and about $300 million to do Tolkien’s story justice.

Ironically, the only feasible way for a TV series based on The Lord of the Rings to work is to turn it into exactly what Bezos doesn’t want—a niche drama. Jackson’s films left much of Tolkien’s universe unexplored, and a smaller story focused on one of those elements could be effective. Bezos appears to want a lot more than that.