A first look at Amazon's The Rings of Power

The bedrock media rights to Tolkien's works are also up for grabs

A first look at Amazon's The Rings of Power
Image: Amazon

Hollywood studios have a bit of a publicity playbook for big, tent-pole projects like this to not only tell the world about the project, but to shape audience expectations. You have the announcement of a project, then a while later, you see production news filter out through fan and trade publications. It's hard to conceal what you're doing or who you're hiring when you bring hundreds of people onboard for something like this. After production and post-production, you start to get bits of practical news: titles (if they haven't been released), release dates, and maybe a teaser trailer that shows some enigmatic footage. You might get some posters as well.

Somewhere on that timeline, with some some big projects, studios will reach out to a prestige outlet, somewhere like The New York Times, New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, or Vanity Fair. Planning for this would have started months or years in advance, because they'll send a big-name reporter and/or photographer to meet with some of the folks involved in the production for what I like to call a "curtain raiser" feature: a long read that pulls the shroud of secrecy off of the project, introduces readers to it, and gives us a first look at the characters in action and behind the scenes.

That's what's been happening in the last couple of weeks with Amazon's upcoming series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. This morning, Vanity Fair released a lengthy piece written by Anthony Breznican and Joanna Robinson, which does all that, and it drops a couple of days before this weekend's Super Bowl, which'll feature our first taste of the series in the form of a teaser trailer.

Amazon’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ Series Rises: Inside ‘The Rings of Power’
One show to rule them all—the first look at a billion-dollar saga set thousands of years before J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendary trilogy.

I've been a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings for a long time: I fell for Middle-earth hard midway through high school. I re-read the books countless times in the years that followed, watched Peter Jackson's trilogy on repeat, and even presented at a J.R.R. Tolkien conference that the University of Vermont throws every year. Ever since Amazon announced that it was creating a Middle-earth series back in 2017, I've been interested—and a little apprehensive— of what would eventually end up streaming.

Amazon has dripped out little bits of information in the years since: that it would be set during Middle-earth's Second Age, that it would likely deal with the rise of Sauron (which we saw at the beginning of Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring), and a bit more here and there. Vanity Fair's piece gives us a wall of information that likely confirms and disproves what fans speculation have been speculating.

Here are some of the interesting tidbits that are included here:

  • Morfydd Clark is playing Galadriel, the elvish ruler of Lothlórien (played by Cate Blanchett in Jackson's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies. She'll be troubled by visions of a dark presence coming to sweep over Middle-earth.
  • The story starts after Morgoth has been vanquished, and Galadriel is essentially mopping up his supporters, and is on the hunt for his apprentice, Sauron.
  • Robert Aramayo is playing Elrond, an elvish ruler who lives in Rivendell. He was played by Hugo Weaving.
  • Charles Edwards will play Celebrimbor, the elvish metalsmith who forges the rings of power.
  • Maxim Baldry will play Isildur, the human warrior who we saw in Jackson's Lord of the Rings cut the Ring of Power off of Sauron's hand, and is corrupted by it, as played by Harry Sinclair.
  • The series will introduce a whole bunch of new characters not seen in Tolkien's works, like a fugitive Halbrand (played by Charlie Vickers), an elf named Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova), a human woman named Bronwyn who's in love with him (played by Nazanin Boniadi). Sir Lenny Henry, Megan Richards, and Markella Kavenagh will play some harfoots. Sophia Nomvete will play a dwarf,
  • It looks like we won't see Gandalf or other wizards like Sauron, and we won't see the Hobbits. But we will apparently see their predecessors, the Harfoots.
  • We'll see a whole bunch of familiar locations, like the Misty Mountains, Moria/Khazad-dûm and some new ones from Tolkien's lore, like Lindon and Númenor. There are also some wholly new locations like a village called Tirharad
  • The first episode of the series is called "Shadow of the Past".
  • The events of the series are compressed: the showrunners note that in Tolkien's lore, all of this will take place over the course of centuries, which would mean that they'd be cycling characters in and out each season. That seems like it's par for the course: the events depicted in Lord of the Rings takes place over decades, and Jackson's films really shrink the time down. (For example, Gandalf spent 17 years trying to track down the One Ring in the novels, and it's not nearly that long in the films.)
  • The feature hints (although doesn't quite say outright) that Amazon's gunning for five seasons of the series. This makes a lot of sense to me, given that they've dumped a ton of money into this project.

All of this points to a project that Amazon has spent quite a bit of time thinking about and working on: it looks very much like they're paying attention to Tolkien's lore and aren't just throwing it out the door when it doesn't suit them, and I'm a bit more enthused for seeing what this will end up looking like.

That said, this is an adaptation, and there has to be some give and take when it comes to getting it "right" for the medium. Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck spoke about this quite a bit when it came to the adaptation of their Expanse series, noting that they would make changes where they needed to, but all along the way, they worked to make sure that they were hitting the spirit and tone of their books. It certainly looks like Amazon is doing the same here. Judging from the images, they've really captured the look of Middle-earth, and if anything, this looks like it'll be a richly textured series.

Of course, this is just a feature: we'll get our first look at the teaser trailer this weekend, and the series itself when it debuts on September 2nd. That's when we'll see if they succeed in bringing Tolkien's Middle-earth to life properly.

Saul Zaentz Co. auctions off Tolkien rights

The Vanity Fair piece isn't the only big bit of Tolkien news this week: another came last night from Variety: 'Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ Film and Gaming Rights Up for Sale.

‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ Film and Gaming Rights Up for Sale (EXCLUSIVE)
Hollywood is about to stampede into Middle Earth. An array of movie, merchandising, gaming and live event rights to “Lord of the Rings,” “The Hobbit” and other titles from a…

This feels like a huge shift for in Hollywood for Tolkien's stories: this is the holding company that's held onto the screen rights for things like Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit for decades, and it's one reason why it's been so hard to adapt those films: the rights have been all twisted up or held back by entrenched Hollywood personalities.

This requires a little explanation (bear with me), and a good source on the history of Jackson's film trilogy is Anything You Can Imagine: Peter Jackson & The Making of Middle-earth by film journalist Ian Nathan.

After Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings in the 1950s, they became a big hit in the US (in part, because of some publishing drama when Ace Books published an unauthorized edition) and there was quite a bit of interest in adapting them. The BBC produced a radio drama in 1955 and 1956, which the author wasn't a fan of. "I think the book is quite unsuitable for 'dramatization'," Tolkien wrote to Molly Waldron in November 1955, "and have not enjoyed the broadcasts — though they have improved."

Tolkien wasn't entirely opposed to further adaptations. He wrote to his publisher, Rayner Unwin in 1957 after an inquiry came about adapting the books. "I should welcome the idea of an animated motion picture, with all the risk of vulgarization," and after seeing their treatment a couple of months later, "an abridgment by selection with some good picture-work would be pleasant & perhaps worth a good deal in publicity; but the present script is rather a compression with resultant over-crowding and confusion, blurring of climaxes, and general degradation: a pull-back towards more conventional 'fairy-stories'... I am quite prepared to play ball, if they are open to advice — and if you decide the thing is genuine, and worthwhile."

Nothing came of that project, but in 1967, United Artists approached him with a new deal. "So he agreed to part with the filmmaking rights in perpetuity to both books for what now looks like a parsimonious £104,000," writes Nathan. Those rights granted the filmmakers the right to "do just about anything it wanted with the books. It remains entirely permissible for the current rights holder to devise a sequel to Frodo's journey."

Mind, this is years before the gold rush in adaptations, and years before we even saw hints at the potential that special effects could put together. In all likelihood, Tolkien saw the money as good income that might never come to fruition. Indeed, it didn't in his lifetime.

There were some attempts: director John Boorman wrote up a screenplay, which Nathan notes would have "shatter[ed] much of the book's grandiosity," — the project eventually morphed into his 1981 film Excalibur. At one point, the Beatles wanted to do a musical version with Stanley Kubrick, with Paul McCartney playing Frodo, George Harrison as Gandalf, John Lennon as Gollum, and Ringo as Sam. Kubrick politely declined.

Wizards director and animator Ralph Bakhi became interested in the project after UA abandoned Boorman's script — he was a fan of the novels, and pressed them to produce an animated version of the trilogy. He went to MGM and after some negotiations, struck a deal: the studio would produce the film. Before he could get started, however, MGM underwent some executive turnover, and wasn't interested any longer. It was then that Bakshi turned to a producer that he'd worked with before, Saul Zaentz, who's struck gold by backing films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Next. He agreed to produce the animated film, and acquired the rights for the trilogy from UA for $3 million.

According to Nathan: "Through his newly fashioned Middle-earth Enterprises, Zaentz now retained the film, stage and game rights to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit as per Tolkien's original agreement in perpetuity." This wasn't entirely clean-cut: there was a weird split between UA and Zaentz around The Hobbit.

Think about that: the biggest fantasy novel in the world, and they could do whatever they wanted with it. It's a deal that would be unheard of these days. Bakshi went on to produce his animated Lord of the Rings in 1978, which did well enough. There were some complications: UA had put together animated films of The Hobbit and Return of the King with animation studio Rankin/Bass in 1976 and 1980, and after some lawsuits, Bakshi never ended up doing a second part to the animated series, troubled by the entire experience.

Fast forward to the 1990s, and up-and-coming director Peter Jackson and screenwriter Fran Walsh were interested in producing a fantasy film, and decided to try and see what they could do with Tolkien. This is where things get interesting. Zaentz, coming off of his experience on the animated films, was reluctant to do anything with them. (It's also worth noting that the Tolkien Estate under Christopher Tolkien was also deeply reluctant around adaptations.) Jackson was persistent, and had a deal with Harvey Weinstein of Miramax. Weinstein had a close relationship with Zaentz, having helped finance The English Patient. Jackson pitched the idea to Weinstein: film The Hobbit, and then a two-part adaptation of Lord of the Rings. There rights situation for The Hobbit were a little sticky, now in the hands of MGM. Weinstein and Jackson gave up on Jackson's original vision, and opted instead to focus on Lord of the Rings.

Nathan covers the situation in exhaustive detail in his book, but this wrangling goes to show how complicated the situation has remained when it comes to adaptations of Tolkien's works.

This is where those rights going up for auction is pretty interesting to me. Per Variety: Saul Zaentz Co. (Zaentz died in 2014), has brought on a bank to help sell those rights to buyers in Hollywood, hoping to fetch around $2 billion for them, and with its new series coming out, Amazon is apparently one of the candidates.

Amazon's series occupies an interesting niche: it's not technically based on The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, but on other parts of the lore that hadn't been covered by the rights that Tolkien signed away in perpetuity all those years ago. And it's a TV series, something that Zaentz apparently doesn't have the rights to.

Thus, we're getting a streaming series set in the Second Age, which was covered in things like The Silmarillion and other writings. It's why we see New Line Cinemas jumping on the bandwagon with an animated film called The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Rohirrim, which comes directly out of the novel's appendices: they still have the rights to do that sort of thing, because it's part of that body of work that they have access to.

New Line Cinemas is producing a new, animated Lord of the Rings movie
Amazon’s Middle-earth TV series is coming, but that’s not the only project set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s world that’s set to come out: New Line Cinemas has announced that it’s producing a Lord of the Rings anime, based off of a story in LOTR’s appendices.

The Zaentz Co. apparently holds the rights to a whole bunch of things with the property that go beyond films: video games, merchandising, live events and theme parks — not TV shows. According to Variety, the Zaentz Co. says that the rights to produce a new film has reverted back to them from Warner Bros., and that apparently convinced the company to put everything up for sale. It's a big shift, one that comes right in the midst of a boom in streaming entertainment.

Thinking about this, I suspect that there's also something of a ticking clock here: The Hobbit will enter the public domain in 2035 (provided there aren't major copyright changes in between now and then), while Lord of the Rings will do so in 2050. That's just 13 and 28 years away: not long at all, considering that Jackson's LOTR trilogy came out 21 years ago. After that, I can't imagine that the basic rights to those works will actually be worth $2 billion. Looking at it that way, Zaentz is getting out while the going's good: let someone else deal with a property that they can't resell in that amount of time. This is all speculation on my part, but I certainly wouldn't want to spend $2 billion on something that's about to enter the public domain.

What'll this eventually mean? Well, if Amazon picked up the rights from Zaentz, it would give them some additional options to continue to build out their Middle-earth franchise beyond the Rings of Power: they could set new projects in the Third Age, produce their own adaptations of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings — or, whatever they can wrestle away from whatever rights bifurcation The Hobbit is saddled with before 2035. Any other studio looking to get in on the property could do the same.

But $2 billion is a steep price tag: Amazon spent a quarter of that on getting the rights and the first season of its series (and if Vanity Fair's assertion is correct), and will spend half of that on five seasons of the series. That's still a lot of money.

Thanks for reading. My usual plug: this type of report is the product of some research time: pulling out books from the library, taking notes, and so forth, in order to put together something that I think is worth understanding. This newsletter is supported by subscribers, and if you'd like to help support this work, please consider signing up as a paid subscriber, or by telling folks about this newsletter.

With all of this in mind, I'm thinking that it's a good time to throw The Silmarillion onto my to-read list (I've tried over the years, but just never got into it), along with the trilogy. And of course, maybe it'll be a good weekend to rewatch Jackson's trilogy.

I'll be back tomorrow with a regular roundup,