Why it’s time to be excited about Amazon’s Tolkien show

Amazon’s Lord of the Rings prequel show is shaping into something special. With the latest reveal, most of my fears have gone out the window and I want to share with you why. Keep reading and find out why you should be pumped for what Amazon has in store for us.

If you’re anything like me, then your reaction to the late-2017 announcement that Amazon had won a bid for a Lord of the Rings-related show was mixed at best.

Now, I’m a huge Lord of the Rings / Tolkien fan, so any announcement of this nature is bound to get me excited, no details necessary. For the most part, I was, but I was also quite skeptical. After all, it was only a few short years ago that Hollywood gave us the shit spectacle that was The Battle of the Five Armies.

So on a surface level, I had worries that we would get another unfortunate disaster that would do more harm than good to Tolkien’s legacy. However, embedded in Amazon’s original press release (found here), there was a very tantalizing nugget of information: “The upcoming Amazon Prime Original will be produced by Amazon Studios in cooperation with the Tolkien Estate and Trust…” I struggled over those words when I first read them, finding them difficult to believe, but when my eyes glazed over the ink for the hundredth time and convinced me I wasn’t imagining things, I about lost my shit. In order to understand the magnitude of this particular detail, its worth a brief history lesson.

In 1969, Tolkien sold the rights to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit to United Artists (UA). Those rights have undergone a whole lot of Hollywood nonsense and changed hands over the years, to the point now where it seems to be a minefield for anyone trying to produce Tolkien-related material without stepping out of bounds. By the time of his death, J.R.R. Tolkien had certainly left his mark on the world. After all, everything we have gotten to experience over the last fifty years about Middle-earth has been adapted from those two pieces of fiction. Except for books.

You see, Tolkien was a much more prolific writer than he was an author. He wrote an incredible amount of material that went unpublished until after his death. His son, Christopher, collected, edited, and released many wonderful pieces of writing that his father left behind, including his Magnum Opus, The Silmarillion.

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Unlike his father, Christopher Tolkien held all of these posthumous works close to his chest and absolutely refused to sell the rights for any amount of money. It is quite clear that Christopher treasured his father’s work and thought that any material representation outside of print would degrade his father’s legacy. In a 2012 interview with Le Monde, Christopher went on record regarding his thoughts about Peter Jackson’s beloved and critically acclaimed trilogy, saying:

“They eviscerated the book, making it an action movie for 15-25 year olds…
and it seems The Hobbit will be the same …Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his popularity and absorbed in the absurdity of the time,” Christopher Tolkien observes sadly, “the gap between the beauty, the seriousness of the work, and what it is. has become, all this is beyond me. This degree of commercialization reduces to nothing the aesthetic and philosophical scope of this creation. I have only one solution left: turn my head.”

It is no understatement that so long as Christopher Tolkien was in control of the Tolkien Estate and Trust, there would be no chance of seeing any of this posthumous work adapted to the screen. So how, then, does Amazon get to make their upcoming series “…in cooperation with the Tolkien Estate and Trust?” The answer boils down to two things:

  1. Christopher Tolkien stepped down as director of the Tolkien Estate and Trust on August 31, 2017. This wasn’t public knowledge until the announcement was made on November 15, 2017, two days after Amazon’s show announcement.
  2. Dump trucks worth of money. About $250 million, actually.

It appears that once Christopher was no longer in charge, the new body of leadership for the Tolkien Estate and Trust gave in the overwhelming weight of wealth being offered, and now here we are. I always respected Christopher’s protectiveness of his father’s legacy so part of me mourns for this turn of events. The other part of me is excited for what this means – the greater extent of Tolkien’s legendarium is now accessible, for better or for worse, and Amazon will be the first to deliver this new source material to a wider audience than ever before.

Now the main question that lingers on my mind is: will it be any good? Early rumors that the show would be “The Young Adventures of Aragorn” bothered me, but they turned out to be false. Very recently Amazon made a new announcement:

This is the news that carried my fears away and why we should all be very excited for what Amazon is putting together for us. The roughly 3400-year period of time that makes up the 2nd Age of Middle-earth has previously been untouched by film or television. It’s a veritable playground for a high quality production team to work in, because while there is an outline of events that take place during that time, the details are largely unwritten.

The 2nd Age, to put it simply, encompasses the first rise and fall of Sauron as the principal threat to Middle-earth. As the 2nd Age starts, Sauron cloaks himself in an entirely beautiful form that alludes nothing to his inherently evil nature. He tricks the elves into making the Rings of Power and enslaves nine leaders of men, turning them into the Nazgul. He then tricks the men of Numenor, leading to their downfall and the destruction of their entire island. The only survivors are Aragorn’s ancestors and those loyal to them. Gondor is founded, as well as the great northern kingdom that mirrored it. Sauron’s power grows and the Battle of the Last Alliance ends the 2nd Age as The One Ring is cut from Sauron’s finger.

There are a ton of wonderful opportunities here. I, for one, would love to see a well-done adaptation that covers the downfall of Numenor. If I could place a bet on it, I think that’s precisely what Amazon will end up doing, unless they choose to show the drama surrounding the creation of the rings.

No matter what material they choose to cover it’s of the utmost importance that its done well and done right. In this regard, I am confident we will get both. I don’t hold this view out of any trust in Amazon or any sense of blind optimism. I hold this view because money talks and Amazon is a stunningly successful business.

I mentioned earlier that Amazon paid $250-million for the rights to this 2nd Age material. That’s an absolute butt-ton of money and only for the RIGHTS – on top of that amount comes all the cost of actually producing the show: advertising, writers, actors, directors, crew, and anything else you can think of. Let’s put this into perspective by laying out some other notable book-to-film rights purchases:

Granted these are movies and Amazon’s Tolkien series will be, well, a series, but it still illustrates the astronomical difference between some of the biggest money-making movies in film history and the amount paid for their adaptation rights. (Note: The Da Vinci Code’s $6-million price tag is the most amount publicly known to have been paid for book-to-movie adaptation rights).

Multiple sources (here , here, and here for example) indicate that it is common practice to pay about 2-4% of a project’s overall budget for the rights. Amazon is throwing this entire concept out the window though, as they expect a budget of about $750-million for a 5-season run and an approximate overall cost of about $1-billion. This is set to make it the most expensive television production in history.

So yeah, we have a project in the works for a first-of-its-kind Tolkien adaptation, the rights for which were purchased by the richest guy in the world, for the most amount ever paid for adaption rights, in order to create the most expensive TV-series ever created. If there’s one thing Amazon is good at, its making money and the only way you can make a profit on something that costs more than anything of its kind that come before it is to make that material better than everything that’s come before it.

I think we’re in for a treat.

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