Amazon is gunning for HBO’s cult fantasy crown

“You come at the king, you best not miss.”
“You come at the king, you best not miss.”
Image: Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO
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Amazon appears to be taking the mandate from CEO Jeff Bezos to find its answer to Game of Thrones quite literally. With the HBO series bowing out in 2019, Amazon Studios is placing bets all over the genre in an attempt to seize the cult fantasy throne.

The tech giant ordered a series adaptation of the best-selling fantasy epic The Wheel of Time this week. Like Game of Thrones, the book series is admired for its remarkably rich and detailed world. Amazon has also inked deals with the king of contemporary cult fantasy, author Neil Gaiman, and Game of Thrones writer Bryan Cogman to create series exclusively for Amazon Prime.

Amazon isn’t stopping there. It’s slated to release a genre-bending, fantasy-noir miniseries called Carnival Row next year, starring Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne. It’s also developing a show based on Stephen King’s fantasy-Western franchise, The Dark Tower, which is expected to reboot the awful film released by Sony last year. And, then there’s that Lord of the Rings prequel series based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien that Amazon reportedly spent as much $250 million on the TV rights for.

HBO ignited a fanbase unlike almost anything else in modern TV with Game of Thrones and its fantastical cocktail of blood, sex, intrigue, and dragons. Bezos has reportedly pushed his company’s own studio to land a TV hit that could snowball into kind of global phenomenon Game of Thrones has become.

Amazon squandered its early rise in streaming video with series that achieved critical acclaim but never gained mass appeal, such as Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle. Since then, it’s gone after projects that have large and passionate niche audiences, which the fantasy genre is known for. And the fantasy genre is known for rich lores than can be spun into sprawling franchises, like the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. For Amazon, it doesn’t hurt that hardcore fans tend to buy merchandise, too.

Amazon isn’t the only one vying to fill the fantasy void that will be left when Game of Thrones ends, as the New York Post pointed out. Netflix is developing projects around The Chronicles of Narnia and the fantasy-action video game The Witcher. And HBO, not to be outdone, is moving forward with a Game of Thrones prequel series, one of five potential spinoff projects in the works tied to the George R.R. Martin franchise.

But Amazon, under the new leadership of Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke (previously president of NBC Entertainment) seems to be willing to try anything from optioning books, signing creators, and ordering straight-to-series projects to ensure it comes out on top.

The Lord of the Rings series, which Amazon recently hired writers for, is undoubtedly the most promising fantasy prospect. It’s rumored to star a younger Aragorn, a Tolkien character fans know well from related books and movies, before his adventures in Lord of the Rings. It would be wise choice. As Quartz’s Adam Epstein noted, Aragorn has a lot in common with Jon Snow, one of the leads in Game of Thrones, and probably inspired the character. Salke confirmed in a recent interview with Deadline that the show would feature familiar characters, but did not reveal which. She described the show as “one, big series.” It’s likely still a few years out, though.

In the meantime, Gaiman could be a real asset in building up Amazon’s fantasy credibility. The author, who has no shortage of material to work with, has a unique knack for translating his works to screens big and small, as well as a thriving and passionate fanbase. His novels Stardust, Coraline, and American Gods have alreadybeen turned into movies or TV shows, and the series Lucifer is based on his work.

None of those Gaiman projects were breakaway hits, however: Lucifer was recently dropped by US TV network Fox because viewership was lukewarm. But Netflix rescued the series after seeing fans cry out on social media. Gaiman’s perfect home could a be streaming platform like Amazon Prime that has the deep pockets to bring his imaginary worlds to life, and doesn’t care as much about ratings and box-office figures as hype and critical acclaim. Amazon is releasing a mini-series next year based on Good Omens, one of Gaiman’s beloved novels, co-written with another beloved fantasy author, Terry Pratchett.

And thus Amazon’s fantasy quest begins.

Want a better understanding Amazon and other streaming giants? Check out our guide to the streaming-TV wars