Illustration by Ren Rader
When in September the lead for the new Amazon “Lord of the Rings” continuation series was revealed, it reminded me that such a series was in the works. I thought back to 2017 when it was announced that Amazon had purchased the rights to the Tolkien universe for, in my opinion, the paltry fee of $250 million. But since that release, I hadn’t heard much about the series. But the reveal of the new series lead also reminded me of another reality: It has been nearly 20 years since Peter Jackson and a cast of unmatched talent captured the wonder of Middle Earth on the silver screen, forever cursing any book to film adaptation to being a simple imposter to the perfect article. So can lightning strike twice, and can Amazon do what many have failed to do in crafting a new story, one that blends the magic of the old and extends a beloved universe that serves fans and critics? Or will it be another cash grab that falls flat?
The last series to attempt this feat was “Game of Thrones,” and the horrid dumpster fire that was the final two seasons of that show is clear evidence that what Amazon is trying to do with their “Lord of the Rings” series is hard to pull off and easy to royally screw up. What made the “Lord of the Rings” films so undeniably remarkable was their ability to stay true to their source material, skip the 300 pages of the Fellowship walking across Gondor and give fans of the magnum opus of fantastical fiction films that didn’t subtract from the books but added to them.
That same energy is what powered “Game of Thrones” to a cult-like following and a reputation for excellence. The show was sure to stick to the material for the greater part of five seasons, with slight variations here and there. Though it should be said that the best seasons of “Game of Thrones” were made under the guidance of the author of the Songs of Ice and Fire trilogy himself, George R. R. Martin, who was a producer on the show and wrote four episodes in first four seasons, which were subsequently the highest-rated seasons of the show. The best seasons of the show were made under the watchful eye of its father of sorts, the problems with the show beginning once he stopped guiding the ship.
That is where the Amazon “Lord of the Rings” series is rumored to be setting itself in, a no man’s land of sorts without a defined source text. The show is without the guiding hand of the books that Peter Jackson relied on during his directing of the films, and that is where my apprehension lies — when creators take the creative reins and attempt to branch away from what made the source material good.
Other cautionary tales of this sort of off-the-rails artistic license can be seen in the Harry Potter spin-off series, “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them.” While still full of magic and a slight wonder, the movies lacked what made “Harry Potter” so special: the sweeping story. “Fantastic Beasts” is just the unfinished brain child of J.K. Rowling, similar to “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.” Each brashly attempts to recapture the glory of their predecessors but severely lacks in a cohesive and grounded narrative, a fate I hope that “Lord of the Rings” series doesn’t meet.
“Lord of the Rings” has so much stacked against it. It has yet to begin production, and if they don’t begin by 2020, their license to the Tolkien rights be voided. While they have picked filming locations and some of the cast, there is so much that goes into the creation of fantastical sagas like this (the last season of “Game of Thrones” took eight months and it was only six episodes). With the deadline looming, it makes one wonder if they will just do a rush job to cash in on audience nostalgia, or will they give the show the time and care it needs to be successful. It doesn’t help that the director they picked for the first two episodes is JA Bayona, who directed “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” a film not too worried about the story and more inclined to rely on CGI science dinosaurs to fill the void of any substantive structure.
Amazon’s “Lord of the Rings” series is also entering a golden age of television, where titans like HBO, AMC, Netflix and now Apple are working hard to create shows that capture audiences with their gripping narratives, like AMC’s “Breaking Bad” or HBO’s “True Detective,” or wooing them with a mixture of nostalgia and heart like Netflix’s “Stranger Things.” They are entering a silver world full of promise, and with all the money a show could ever want (thanks Jeff Bezos). Let’s hope that the show can learn from the mistakes of “The Hobbit” and not have too many dwarf musical numbers — I can watch “Snow White” for that.