The Corner

Film & TV

Amazon’s Lord of the Rings TV Series Should Be Expensive, but Shouldn’t Compromise Tolkien’s Vision

Elijah Wood stars in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. (New Line Productions, Inc./IMDb)

In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke was asked about the enormous price tag of the Lord of the Rings TV series Amazon has in the works:

Jen, there were reports about Lord of the Rings, which put the first-season budget at $465 million — making it the most expensive series ever. What does that price tag say about the market today, and how well will it need to do to justify that price tag?

SALKE The market is crazy, as you saw with the Knives Out deal. [Netflix paid $469 million for two sequels.] This is a full season of a huge world-building show. The number is a sexy headline or a crazy headline that’s fun to click on, but that is really building the infrastructure of what will sustain the whole series. But it is a crazy world and various people on this Zoom, mostly Bela and me, have been in bidding situations where it starts to go incredibly high. There’s a lot of wooing and we have to make decisions on where we want to stretch and where we want to draw the line. As for how many people need to watch Lord of the Rings? A lot. (Laughs.) A giant, global audience needs to show up to it as appointment television, and we are pretty confident that that will happen.

I have two thoughts on this. One: Of course $465 million is a justifiable sum to spend on a Lord of the Rings TV series. Realizing J. R. R. Tolkien’s incredible vision can, theoretically, be done on the cheap — just ask the Soviets! — but I am perfectly content with Amazon shoveling millions into this show, which I will definitely watch. If Amazon founder Jeff Bezos can blow $500 million of his billions on a boat, certainly this TV show is worth roughly the same sum. Money is not a guarantee of quality, though: The Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings trilogy cost less, on the whole, than his Hobbit trilogy, which was much worse.

Which brings us to my second thought: There is a lot in the phrase “giant, global audience.” If Salke just means she wants a lot of people to watch, great. Peter Jackson’s film trilogy from two decades back was, rightly, a global phenomenon as well. But if she’s saying that the material needs to be somehow substantively altered specifically for global appeal, I have concerns. Oftentimes these days, that means changing or outright excising elements so as to better appease the censors of the Chinese Communist Party. Given that this series will take place in a fictional universe, that will be a lot a harder to do. Likelier is that the series might compromise on the fundamental morality and decency of Tolkien’s work in an effort to broaden its appeal. There have already been worrying indications in that direction. But Lord of the Rings isn’t Game of Thrones, and it never should be; its “appeal” on its own terms is unquestionable. If it is Amazon’s intention to make it otherwise, well . . . it should expect shaken spears and splintered shields, at the very least.

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