What should Amazon's Lord of the Rings series be about?
Light the beacons of Gondor: J.R.R. Tolkien is coming to the small screen.
Amazon Studios announced Monday that it has officially greenlit a multi-season television show based on Tolkien’s beloved fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings. Here’s what we know: Amazon reportedly shelled out as much as $250 million for the rights, and the streaming service is producing the series in cooperation with the Tolkien estate, HarperCollins, and New Line Cinema. The new show will be set in Middle-earth and “will explore new storylines preceding J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.” Amazon has also already committed to multiple seasons, with the possibility of spin-off shows further down the line.
The biggest news in Amazon’s announcement is that one little word: “preceding.” Rather than rehashing the full events of The Lord of the Rings, the show will focus on what happened before Bilbo Baggins ditched the Shire and left the Ring to Frodo. That information is helpful, but it really doesn’t give us that much guidance as to what the show will actually be about. Tolkien’s writings on Middle-earth span thousands of years of history, stretching all the way back to the very creation of time. (Basically, God and the angels sang the universe into existence. It’s a whole thing.)
This announcement, of course, raises more questions than it answers. Will the show be a direct prequel, set in the years leading up to the War of the Ring, or will it be set further in the past? Will it draw heavily from Tolkien’s canon, or will it create an entirely new story set in Middle-earth? And why should we put our trust in Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos if he refers to Middle-earth as “Middle Earth”? (Come on, Jeff. Get it together.)
We’ll have to wait and see, but in the meantime, we can make some wild (and very nerdy) guesses about possible plotlines the series may explore. After all, Tolkien’s legendarium is filled with wonderfully weird characters who’ve never gotten their due on screen: The evil Queen Beruthiel and her nefarious cats! Bandobras “Bullroarer” Took, the heroic Hobbit who beheaded goblins and also invented the game of golf! Círdan the Shipwright, master shipbuilder and also the only Elf to have a beard! Below, we round up a few of the Tolkien stories that Amazon may want to consider adapting.
If Amazon is looking for stories to tell before the events of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the obvious choice is to draw from The Silmarillion. Outside of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, The Silmarillion is Tolkien’s deepest and most detailed work concerning the events of Middle-earth, telling the stories of generations of Elves and men.
And if Amazon wants its own Game of Thrones, The Silmarillion might be a good place to start. I mean, come on, there’s even dragons and accidental incest! In one of the stories, the dragon Glaurung puts a spell on this woman Nienor and causes her to forget who she is. As a result, she falls in love with her brother Túrin and they get married — until the spell wears off and she’s so horrified that she kills herself. Eat your hearts out, Jon and Daenerys.
Also, there aren’t any White Walkers, but there are orcs and werewolves and a giant spider who is perpetually hungry and devours all forms of light. Which is pretty rad.
Still, it seems unlikely that Amazon will choose to tackle Tolkien’s strangest and most ambitious book. For one, if the streaming service was explicitly adapting The Silmarillion, they probably would have said so by now. Also, trying to adapt The Silmarillion into a multi-season television narrative would be about as easy as adapting the entirety of, say, the Bible. The Silmarillion is a distinctly weird novel, and it doesn’t exactly have a singular narrative. Instead, it’s part creation myth, part collection of legends, and part millennium-spanning history book. There are certain parts of The Silmarillion that would make for compelling television — the sweeping love story of Beren and Lúthien, the family drama of Fëanor and his seven doomed sons, the incestuous tale of the aforementioned Túrin and Nienor — but it’s hard to make a TV show that starts with the literal beginning of creation and stretches across the centuries. If Amazon is looking for a more character-based, narrative TV drama, The Silmarillion might be a bit too epic.
Beren and Lúthien
Of all of Tolkien’s non-LOTR stories, the tale of Beren and Lúthien is perhaps the most beloved. The best-known iteration of the tale comes from The Silmarillion, but it pops up every once in a while throughout Tolkien’s legendarium: Tolkien’s son Christopher published a standalone version of the story earlier this year, and characters in The Lord of the Rings compare Aragorn and Arwen to Beren and Lúthien.
And really, the two couples are pretty similar — except Beren and Lúthien are way more hardcore. She’s immortal; he’s not. She’s a beautiful Elf; he’s a rugged outlaw. Before long, they fall madly in love — and wind up on an absolutely insane quest together, as he tries to win her hand by stealing a Silmaril from Morgoth (the big bad of The Silmarillion, who’s basically the Emperor to Sauron’s Darth Vader). Along the way, they befriend a giant talking dog, fight some werewolves, defeat Sauron, go undercover as a vampire and a giant wolf, break into Morgoth’s stronghold of Angband, and — finally — steal the Silmaril. Beren loses a hand in the process, and he later dies fighting the enormous hellhound who bit off his hand — only for Lúthien to relinquish her immortality in exchange for Beren’s resurrection. It’s dramatic. It’s romantic. And it would make for killer television.
(It’s also a story that was near and dear to Tolkien’s heart: Beren and Lúthien were directly inspired by his own relationship with his wife Edith. Their tombstones even read “Beren and Lúthien.” Swoon. If your partner doesn’t write an epic love story about the two of you as mythic characters defeating werewolves and breaking into Hell together, you should probably reevaluate your relationship.)
The War of the Last Alliance
If Amazon wants a story that echoes the events of Lord of the Rings but doesn’t retread them, it could do a lot worse than the War of the Last Alliance. The War of the Ring that most people are familiar with — with Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, etc. — takes place at the end of what’s called the Third Age. However, one of the most pivotal events in Middle-earth history occurred more than 3,000 years earlier at the end of the Second Age. That was when Elves, men, dwarves, and all free peoples joined forces to face off against Sauron the first time. (He’s been around for a while.)
It’s an epic war story that was teased in flashbacks in Peter Jackson’s trilogy — you see Isildur (Aragorn’s ancestor) cutting the One Ring from Sauron’s hand, essentially defeating him. Setting a story during or around the War of the Last Alliance would allow Amazon to forge its own story, while also retaining a few familiar characters — like Sauron and Elrond. (What’s Hugo Weaving been up to lately?)
A direct LOTR prequel
Perhaps the most likely choice is for Amazon to set its new series sometime directly before the events of The Lord of the Rings. Maybe it’ll be set before The Hobbit, maybe directly after: There are about 75 years between Bilbo’s journey to the Lonely Mountain and Frodo’s journey to Mt. Doom — a tiny blip in the history of Middle-earth, but plenty of time in which to create an entire television show. In some ways, this makes the most sense. It allows Amazon to capitalize on the public’s knowledge of The Lord of the Rings and its characters without retreading the main saga. Maybe we catch up with young Aragorn, as he gallivants around the north and tries to woo the way-out-of-his-league Arwen. Maybe we follow some of the minor characters from The Lord of the Rings who didn’t get their due in Peter Jackson’s trilogy — Elrond’s twin sons Elladan and Elrohir, perhaps, or everyone’s favorite stoner forest hermit, Tom Bombadil.
Interestingly, Amazon is producing its series in cooperation with New Line Cinema — the division of Warner Bros. that produced Jackson’s film trilogy. The company’s involvement suggests that Amazon’s series could be at least somewhat connected to Jackson’s adaptation — or it could not. Still, if the TV show is a direct prequel to The Lord of the Rings, it wouldn’t be completely out of the question for a few cast members to reprise their roles for the TV series (especially since many of those characters are immortal or at least blessed with long life). Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but might we see Ian McKellan pop up once more as Gandalf the Grey?
So maybe Amazon will draw on existing Tolkien stories that haven’t been adapted yet. Maybe it won’t. Maybe we’ll get Young Gandalf or Hobbit Hole Hunters or Breaking Bombadil. Personally, I’m gunning for The Real Housewives of the Grey Havens, complete with an Andy Cohen after-show and lots of shots of Elves throwing wine in each others’ faces. Either that or a one-season miniseries about the adventures of Tom Bombadil’s pony, Fatty Lumpkin.
But overall, Amazon has a real opportunity ahead of itself. There’s a reason Tolkien’s work has endured for decades, and with the right budget and creative team, this show has the possibility to be good. Really good, even.
The thing about The Lord of the Rings is that it is a story with classic fantasy tropes — immortal Elves, wronged kings, epic battles — but none of these elements are the crux of the story. Instead, The Lord of the Rings is about morality, bravery, and choosing to do the right thing even when it’s hard. That’s why the series’ primary heroes aren’t Aragorn the rightful king or Gandalf the ageless wizard; they’re Frodo and Sam, the small, insignificant Hobbits who get swept up in a larger adventure and decide to take a stand. When Tolkien does write about battles, he does so with insight (he himself was a veteran of World War I), but he never romanticizes war. He’s far more interested in how hardship and struggle can affect a person — and these are the themes that any Amazon adaptation should take to heart. For many Tolkien fans, this was the main criticism of Jackson’s recent Hobbit film trilogy, which transformed Tolkien’s original novel into a bloated action epic, trading emotional complexity for CG spectacle. Any potential Amazon show will have to navigate the same pitfalls.
(As a side note, Amazon’s LOTR series also has the opportunity to correct a longtime criticism of Tolkien’s work: The Lord of the Rings is frequently held up as an example of fantasy literature’s overwhelming whiteness, and when it comes time for Amazon to cast its new series, there is absolutely no reason why a show about Hobbits, Elves, dwarves, orcs, and giant talking trees can’t cast actors of color.)
If Amazon just wants a lavish swords-and-horses show to compete with Game of Thrones, there are literally thousands of other fantasy books it could choose to adapt. What sets The Lord of the Rings apart is its emotional core — and if Amazon keeps true to that, its prequel series has the chance to be something special.