A few years ago, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was reportedly looking for something that would be for Amazon Studios, his company’s entertainment division, what the epic fantasy series Game of Thrones was for HBO. So, naturally, Amazon secured a $250 million television-adaptation deal with the estate of J. R. R. Tolkien. You may know Tolkien from such works as The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion — a.k.a., the O.G. modern epic high fantasy world.
The whole thing has been shrouded in mystery since — if not quite Tom Bombadil levels — but some clear facts have emerged. It is being filmed in New Zealand (as were the films), will run for several eight-to-ten episode seasons, and will cost upwards of $1 billion, making it the most expensive TV show ever. Perhaps most noteworthy was that the deal would preclude any kind of “readaptation” of what we’d already seen in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings movies from earlier this century. But this was hardly a huge stumbling block, as Tolkien’s expansive imagination — expressed variously in The Silmarillion, in appendices to other works, in letters, and elsewhere — imagined literally thousands of years of history for Middle-Earth, the world he created (also known as his “Legendarium”). The tales with which mainstream audiences are most familiar are only the culmination of this (and, at that, something of a faint echo, given the scale of what had come before).
In other words, denying what is known in-universe as the “Third Age” to a prospective Tolkien adaptation leaves plenty of other material. And the picture of the Amazon Lord of the Rings TV series coming into clearer focus suggests that it will explore some of it. Here’s a just-released official synopsis via fan site TheOneRing.net:
Amazon Studios’ forthcoming series brings to screens for the very first time the heroic legends of the fabled Second Age of Middle-earth’s history. This epic drama is set thousands of years before the events of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and will take viewers back to an era in which great powers were forged, kingdoms rose to glory and fell to ruin, unlikely heroes were tested, hope hung by the finest of threads, and the greatest villain that ever flowed from Tolkien’s pen threatened to cover all the world in darkness. Beginning in a time of relative peace, the series follows an ensemble cast of characters, both familiar and new, as they confront the long-feared re-emergence of evil to Middle-earth. From the darkest depths of the Misty Mountains, to the majestic forests of the elf-capital of Lindon, to the breathtaking island kingdom of Númenor, to the furthest reaches of the map, these kingdoms and characters will carve out legacies that live on long after they are gone.
There is a lot here, and I don’t want to go into too great of depth yet. (I’m sure there will be time for that later.) To start, though, the elves we see in the Lord of the Rings movies were in the twilight of their civilization, in the process of departing Middle-Earth forever. Being immortal, they had lived there for thousands of years prior, enduring a fascinating and complicated history of their own. And though the Age of Men begins in the movies, they had a prior history as well; in fact, the humans we see in the movies have fallen from the great heights they once achieved on the island of Númenor, a kind of Atlantean paradise undone by its own hubris. There are rich storytelling veins to mine in both of these stories (we shall see if, as in Moria, some could awaken a balrog by doing so).
That’s the promise of the Amazon adaptation. The peril is that it abandons the essential spirit of Tolkien’s world. That Bezos sought an equivalent to Game of Thrones and found Lord of the Rings is rational in a purely financial sense, but in a literary sense, it is a bit misguided and worrisome. George R. R. Martin explicitly (in both senses of the word) created his world as a kind of deconstruction of the ostensible high nobility and clear morality in Tolkien’s. (Forget, for a moment, that there are plenty of situations and characters in Tolkien’s universe of subtlety and moral complexity.) It’s possible that the talent behind this new show might just try to ape GoT’s luridness for its own sake. There are worrying signs of this, such as the production’s hiring of an “intimacy coordinator.” Faithfulness to the Tolkien Legendarium in this project is also in question after the hiring and then removal of noted Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey, and the dubious nature of the Tolkien estate’s ability to “veto” series content.
There remains much promise in the Amazon TV series. I am not reflexively opposed to the idea of one that explores some undercovered aspects of the Legendarium. But there is also a peril that the people involved don’t actually understand what they’re working with. The quest lays upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little, and it will fail.