Will Amazon make a “Lord of the Rings” TV series worth watching?

One show to rule them all.
One show to rule them all.
Image: Warner Bros./New Line
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Amazon has announced it acquired the television rights to The Lord of the Rings, confirming rumors that the e-commerce giant’s entertainment branch was pursuing a TV series based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy.

We don’t know much about the project (nor does Amazon), but we do know it’s expensive: Amazon paid “close to $250 million” for the rights alone, Deadline reported. That’s an especially enormous sum considering the series has neither a writer attached nor a specific premise. Amazon revealed only one detail: The series will take place at some point before the events of the first novel in Tolkien’s trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. So, here we go, another TV prequel!

Amazon might not know what it has, but it knows it wants a lot of it. The company has already committed to multiple seasons, and its deal with Tolkien’s estate includes the possibility of a spin-off series.

The world certainly doesn’t need more Lord of the Rings. We already have three great films by Peter Jackson and countless other works inspired by, or derivative of, Tolkien’s classic trilogy. Every modern fantasy book, show, or film is in some way indebted to Middle-earth.

This series is a fairly blatant attempt by Amazon to identify “the next Game of Thrones,” HBO’s globally popular and culturally dominant genre tour de force. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was said to be involved in talks directly, seeking this. As I’ve written previously, Game of Thrones owes a lot to Tolkien’s work (and augmented it with copious nudity, stylized violence, and timely political intrigue).

aragorn the lord of the rings
You have my sword.
Image: WarnerMedia./New Line Cinema

Tolkien fans, including myself, are a notoriously protective bunch, wary of any effort to adapt the author’s work. Amazon needs to justify the existence of its show, beyond the hope that it will be a big lucrative hit. What will this series actually be?

What it (probably) won’t be

The company’s press release conspicuously mentions only The Lord of the Rings; it doesn’t include Tolkien’s five-part epic mythology The Silmarillion, which painstakingly details the creation of Middle-earth and its entire history leading up to the events of The Lord of the Rings. Though closer in tone and scope to the Bible than a traditional novel, The Silmarillion contains a wealth of fascinating, cinematic stories that have yet to be attempted on any screen, big or small.

But it doesn’t sound like Amazon will get to be the first to try: Tolkien’s estate still holds the rights to The Silmarillion, and there’s been no indication it will sell them. Tolkien himself sold the film rights to The Lord of the Rings in the 1960s, but The Silmarillion was not published until four years after his death, in 1977. It’s possible the estate eventually grants Amazon the rights to characters and story lines from The Silmarillion, but is seems unlikely that’s what is happening now—at least to start.

What it might be

Assuming Amazon only holds the rights to The Lord of the Rings, and no other parts of Tolkien’s vast legendarium, then there are only so many ways the series could tread new ground. At the end of the final book in the trilogy, The Return of the King, Tolkien included some appendices that explored other stories leading up to The Lord of the Rings (some of which re-tell events from The Silmarillion), namely:

  • The love story of Aragorn and Arwen
  • A history of the kingdom of Rohan
  • An explanation of Middle-earth’s races and languages
  • Hobbit family trees
  • Some other stuff about dwarves
  • A brief discussion of the non-Gandalf wizards
  • A bunch of boring chronology
  • Lots of timelines

There isn’t much there that can be turned into a compelling several-episode-long TV series. The most likely scenario is that Amazon takes either a specific character (Aragorn! Legolas! Gandalf!) or a region (The Shire! Gondor!) and explores what was happening to those people or in those places in the years before Bilbo Baggins finds the One Ring and gives it to Frodo, setting off the events of The Lord of the Rings. That would allow the streamer to use familiar intellectual property as the basis of a show, but greatly expand on what was written by Tolkien.

lord of the rings frodo sam
“It’s only a passing thing, this shadow.”
Image: New Line Cinema/YouTube screenshot

What it shouldn’t be

  • “Game of Thrones, but with elves!”
  • Lord of the Rings, but with sexual violence like Game of Thrones!”
  • Anything with Gollum
  • The story of Tom Bombadil, a beloved but also ridiculous and unadaptable book character
  • A story that leads neatly up to the exact starting point of The Lord of the Rings, similar to what Rogue One did for the original Star Wars trilogy

What it should be

  • An ambitious and challenging epic story that simultaneously terrifies and warms the heart, justifying its inordinate cost while standing clearly apart from Peter Jackson’s films—while also honoring Tolkien’s work and not bringing deep shame to his legions of fans who want nothing more than to share the author’s seminal work with the world in a way they can respect and enjoy

That sound like too much? If you’re going to adapt The Lord of the Rings, especially after it’s been adapted to screen so admirably, then that’s the standard to aim for. The only way Amazon is going to find “the next Game of Thrones” is to stop looking for one.