If you’re a network executive, how do you compete with Game of Thrones? Sure, there’s only one season left of the landmark HBO series, but talks of spin-offs have inundated the news cycle for months, and the Season 7 finale tallied a whopping but not unexpected 12.1 million viewers.
If you’re Jeff Bezos, the Season 7 finale was a stark reminder that Amazon needed its own Game of Thrones. The answer to this dragon-sized problem turned out to be the OG master of high fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien.
On Monday, Amazon announced that it had made a deal with the Tolkien estate and Warner Bros. — reportedly spending up to $250 million — to acquire the television rights to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. “The television adaptation will explore new storylines preceding J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring,” Amazon revealed in a press release.
The late Tolkien, a war veteran, university professor, philologist, poet, and all-around stereotypical 19th and early 20th-century Englishman, had an expectedly convoluted writing style. He didn’t take future TV adaptations into account when writing about Pippin and Merry hanging out with an ancient talking tree. He wasn’t George R.R. Martin.
Amazon now has a tough road ahead: Tolkien first published The Hobbit in 1937 and his three-volume masterpiece The Lord of the Rings — The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King — between 1954 and 1955.
The language of the time — and Tolkien’s habit of writing 30-page descriptions of feasting dwarves and the way the wind sounds in the trees — will almost undoubtedly be cut to make way for extended action sequences, quick quips, and more culturally relevant topics.
That’s not to say Amazon’s show won’t somehow maintain Tolkien’s encyclopedically thorough style, themes of adventure, bravery, and what it means to be a good person, and a ridiculous amount of Elvish. But it will be simplified, assuming it’s even based on an existing Tolkien work at all.
Unsurprisingly, Amazon’s newly announced, totally mysterious Lord of the Rings show drew almost immediate comparison to HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation, which is… fair. Martin’s Game of Thrones is the closest thing we have to Tolkien’s genre-defining fantasy series in the 21st century.
GoT showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff famously went “off-book” for Seasons 6 and 7 due to the whole “Martin hasn’t technically published those stories yet” thing. Martin acted as a guiding hand, letting the pair in on where he was planning on taking the story, but, ultimately, Benioff and Weiss drove the narrative. And even then, the show has continued to hold the world’s attention in a rare way; Martin, an American sci-fi, horror, and fantasy writer with a background in television and screenwriting, wrote an epic series that was begging to be adapted for TV. It works for a reason.
Amazon is hoping for a similar cultural obsession for its Lord of the Rings series. Peter Jackson’s monumental trilogy adaptation, released between 2001 and 2003, made more than $1 billion at the domestic box office and swept awards shows with the same fierceness Game of Thrones has.
A Lord of the Rings television series, whether a multi-season longform narrative or an anthology project, like some are anticipating, will almost invariably succeed. Just like with Game of Thrones, there will be plenty of purists crying false, but there’s no way in hell a straight book-to-show Lord of the Rings adaptation would be fun to watch. It just wouldn’t be.
Comparisons between the two shows are astute because, if anything, Martin has always cited Tolkien as one of his greatest influences, but with the caveat that he’s also one of Tolkien’s biggest critics.
While speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2014, Martin said, “I revere Lord of the Rings, I reread it every few years, it had an enormous effect on me as a kid.” Martin has also publicly questioned Aragorn’s tax codes (no joke) and always considered Tolkien’s story to be too simple.
“Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper, Martin said in a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone. “We look at real history and it’s not that simple.”
Tolkien’s fictional world has a rich history, but in many ways, it’s actually quite simple, and his prose is flowery. That’s a combination that will likely prove much more difficult to adapt for TV than Martin’s saga. That “sound of wind in the trees” thing would be good for a pretty intro song and nothing else.
The Winds of Winter, the penultimate novel in Martin’s series, is hopefully expected to publish sometime before the show’s Season 8 premiere, though no promises have been made. Martin’s still writing and advising Weiss and Benioff on the direction of the story.
Meanwhile, Tolkien died in 1973 and anything that’s come out since then, including the history of Middle-earth, The Silmarillion, has been published posthumously by his son, Christopher Tolkien. The amount of creative control allotted to Amazon by the Tolkien estate is currently unknown, but it’s not like Tolkien isaround to provide incredibly detailed opinions about the show.
Lord of the Rings, ultimately a pure story filled to the brim with triumph and bittersweet happiness, will undoubtedly change to fit the small screen more than Game of Thrones and all its corrupt, prostitute-killing politicians. And that is a good thing.
You probably like trees just as much as the next person, but there’s no way you like them as much as Tolkien did.
Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series does not yet have a premiere date.