Is a Lord of the Rings prequel a good idea? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself since Amazon announced a new TV show based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal series in early 2017. On one hand, a return to Middle-earth sounds like the perfect escapism from today’s world. Peter Jackson‘s original trilogy, based on Tolkien’s three Lord of the Rings novels The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King was, by my estimation, just about perfect, and still takes up valuable real estate in my heart. Nostalgia runs super deep for the source material, so revisiting Tolkien’s lush fantasy realm would be a real treat for fans like me.
But then I remember Jackson’s overstuffed Hobbit trilogy and worry that any attempt to recapture that initial magic may be a fool’s errand. Indeed, Amazon’s proposed new series sounds almost too ambitious, and given the sped-up production timeline and mounting obstacles, it could be a massive failure in the making. Or it could be a Game of Thrones-sized cultural event, a show that busts through the gates and takes everyone by surprise. One thing remains true: I am fascinated by what this thing has the potential be, and every new announcement gets me even more excited. If they pull it off, this could be the biggest thing in TV.
Here’s everything we know about Amazon’s Lord of the Rings prequel series so far.
New Line Cinema
Middle-earth will return to New Zealand
Amazon announced that showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay will film their new Lord of the Rings series in New Zealand, returning the franchise to the country where Peter Jackson shot his six films. “As we searched for the location in which we could bring to life the primordial beauty of the Second Age of Middle-earth, we knew we needed to find somewhere majestic, with pristine coasts, forests, and mountains, that also is a home to world-class sets, studios, and highly skilled and experienced craftspeople and other staff,” said Payne and McKay in a statement.
Production officially began in Auckland in 2020. The majority of filming for the first two episodes was completed ahead of a production shutdown due to COVID-19. Filming resumed in September 2020 under strict health and safety guidelines.
The Lord of the Rings creative fellowship has formed
At the 2019 summer Television Critics Association press tour, Amazon revealed the creative team behind the new Lord of the Rings prequel series.
Meet our Fellowship. pic.twitter.com/Npouu6ZlRt— The Lord of the Rings on Prime (@LOTRonPrime) July 27, 2019
The show features writers, directors, producers, costume designers, visual effects artists, and more with credits from some of your favorite films and shows. Which ones? Oh, just Game of Thrones, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, The Avengers, Stranger Things, Crimson Peak, Edge of Tomorrow, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Westworld, The Leftovers, and Fringe… To name a few.
Game of Thrones writer Bryan Cogman originally joined the series as a consultant, but left the project after completing work on season one.
John Howe, who served as a conceptual designer for Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series, is also working on the TV show. Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey was originally involved with the project, though he is no longer thought to be working on the series. This has caused worry for many fans, as his involvement insured the series was interested in upholding Tolkien’s vision.
J.A. Bayona will direct the pilot
Deadline reported Amazon tapped Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom‘s A.J. Bayona to direct the first two episodes of the series. He will also serve as an executive producer with his producing partner Belén Atienza. According to reports, Bayona completed filming in New Zealand in December 2020.
Wayne Che Yip and Charlotte Brändström will direct additional episodes
British-Chinese director Wayne Che Yip will direct four episodes, according to a press release from Amazon Studios. Yip also worked on Amazon’s upcoming Wheel of Time series, and has directed episodes of Hunters, Preacher, and Doctor Who. In addition to directing, Yip will serve as a co-executive producer on The Lord of the Rings series.
Another press statement from Amazon confirmed that Swedish-French director Charlotte Brändström will direct two episodes. She has previously directed episodes of The Witcher, The Man in the High Castle, Outlander, and Jupiter’s Legacy.
“I’m very excited to be guided through Middle-earth by J.D.’s and Patrick’s vision and immerse myself in the iconic world of J.R.R. Tolkien,” Brändström said in a statement. “It’s a great privilege to be in New Zealand to work with Amazon Studios’ outstanding ensemble of creative talents.”
The cast is enormous
Several actors have joined the cast in key roles. Game of Thrones actor Robert Aramayo will star in the series as a character named Beldor, described as the “young hero.” He’ll be joined by another Game of Thrones actor, Joseph Mawle, who is set for an unspecified role. Morfydd Clark, who appears in the A24 horror film Saint Maud, will play a young version of Galadriel.
The rest of the announced cast includes Owain Arthur, Nazanin Boniadi, Ismael Cruz Córdova, Ema Horvath, Markella Kavenagh, Tyroe Muhafidin, Sophia Nomvete, Megan Richards, Dylan Smith, Charlie Vickers, Daniel Weyman, Maxim Baldry. In December, a press release announced further additions to the cast: Peter Mullan, Sir Lenny Henry, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Benjamin Walker, Geoff Morrell, Kip Chapman, Thusitha Jayasundera, Maxine Cunliffe, Trystan Gravelle, Anthony Crum, Peter Tait, Fabian McCallum, Simon Merrells, Lloyd Owen, Augustus Prew, Alex Tarrant, Leon Wadham, Sara Zwangobani, and Ian Blackburn.
Actor Tom Budge was initially cast in the project, but on March 14, 2021, took to Instagram to announce his departure from the project. The reasoning? Amazon decided to go in a different direction with his character after watching the first filmed episodes. “I must thank the creative team for their encouragement towards trying something that I believed was new, exciting and beautiful,” Budge wrote in his post. No word yet on if his character has been recast or cut entirely from the show.
In July, The Hollywood Reporter named four additional actors joining the cast. Most notably, we have Charles Edwards, who has filled out the casts of The Crown, Downton Abbey, Sherlock, and other British staples. Additional names reported include theater actor Will Fletcher, young Amelie Child-Villiers, and Beau Cassidy. (If it’s the same Beau Cassidy, that’s David Cassidy’s son.)
Amazon paid $250 million for the rights
New Line Cinema
After a bidding war with Netflix, Amazon finally obtained rights to Tolkien’s series for a cool quarter of a billion dollars back in 2017, a negotiation brokered between Tolkein’s estate, book publisher HarperCollins, and New Line Cinema, which produced Jackson’s films. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the massive deal includes a five-season commitment and states that the show must be in production within two years.
It could be the most expensive show in TV history
That $250 million rights package was already massive, but once production and casting costs are factored in, THR estimate that this thing will cost over $1 billion. When courting the book rights, Amazon chief Jeff Bezos allegedly told his staff he wanted to find the next Game of Thrones. Dumping a billion dollars into another beloved fantasy property is one way to do that, we guess. But will it pay off? That’s a steep price tag for a TV series that has no guarantee of success.
In April 2021, The Hollywood Reporter confirmed that Amazon will spend $465 million in U.S. dollars on the first season of the show alone. That number was released as part of the New Zealand government’s Official Information Act, which also confirmed the studio hopes to shoot at least five seasons of the show in New Zealand, as well as a possible spin-off series.
The first season might be 20 episodes
In an interview with the German Tolkien fansite, Deutsche Tolkien, Tom Shippey- mentioned that “there’s supposed to be 20 episodes for the first season.” That’s a high number for an hour-long streaming series, which are typically in the 10 to 12 episode range. But for an epic series like Lord of the Rings, it’s not totally surprising.
New Line Cinema
A second season was already ordered
While a release date for season one has yet to be announced, the series has already been picked up for a second season, according to Variety. The renewal isn’t too surprising, given the series’ deal with the streaming platform. Amazon opted into a multi-season commitment when acquiring the series, but each new season needs to be formally picked up by the streamer.
It might be about the rise and fall of Númenor
Last May, Lord of the Rings fan site TheOneRing.net reported that “multiple sources” confirmed to them that Amazon’s prequel series would focus on a young Aragorn, Viggo Mortensen‘s character in the film trilogy. They went on to state that the series will not cover the War of the Ring, as featured in Jackson’s trilogy, but would instead draw inspiration from the book’s appendices, which get into Aragorn’s family history and his role as the heir of Isildur and the rightful king of Gondor.
[BREAKING] We have confirmed from multiple sources that @AmazonStudios new billion-dollar #LOTR series will open its first season centered on a young Aragorn.— TheOneRing.net (@theoneringnet) May 16, 2018
Let's discuss whats available and how this opens up Tolkien's Legendarium. A thread. #Tolkien
But then in February 2019, Amazon created an official Twitter account for the new series, which hints that instead of focusing specifically on young Aragorn, it might instead go all the way back to the origins of his ancestors. A map posted to the account shows that the island of Númenor will exist during the show’s timeline. For those unaware, Númenor was a mythical island akin to Atlantis, that was risen from the sea and then destroyed and sunk back under during the Second Age of Middle-earth. The island was home to the Dúnedain, a race of man, some of whom fled before its destruction and established the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor.
Aragorn was a descendant of the Dúnedain and the rightful king of Gondor, a throne he ascends to at the end of the Lord of the Rings book trilogy.
The show is set in the Second Age of Middle-earth
When Shippey was still involved with the series, he shed even more light on the deal between Amazon and the Tolkien Estate. According to him, the show is not allowed to contradict Tolkien’s writings about the Second Age. That means, everything in the series has to respect the pre-established canon. The Tolkien Estate is also allegedly able to veto any creative choices made by the showrunners and writers as they please. Additionally, there are some strange boundaries set on what can and cannot be covered, which all come down to rights. For instance, the series can only reference the Second Age as it appears in The Lord of the Rings books and its appendices. It cannot reference the Second Age events depicted in books like The Silmarillion. The Tolkien Estate has all rights to the First Age, and Middle-earth Enterprises owns rights to the Third Age, so those are off limits, too.
So what does that mean? The Second Age is one of the least explored eras in Tolkien’s myth. The rise and fall of Númenor is really the biggest and most well-known event from that timeline. So it will almost definitely factor into the plot. But because so much of this era is unknown or only thinly defined, there’s great opportunity for exploration and invention. That’s both exciting and nerve-wracking. Amazon poured a lot of money and care into this project, so we’re hopeful their creation will respect Tolkien’s world. But until we have more concrete information, we really don’t know how this will all turn out. And if it will make the hardcore Tolkien fans happy.
Amazon released a synopsis of the series
TheOneRing.net got ahold of the official synopsis for Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series, which confirms some of our previous speculation. Here it is:
Amazon Studios’ forthcoming series brings to screens for the very first time the heroic legends of the fabled Second Age of Middle-earth’s history. This epic drama is set thousands of years before the events of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and will take viewers back to an era in which great powers were forged, kingdoms rose to glory and fell to ruin, unlikely heroes were tested, hope hung by the finest of threads, and the greatest villain that ever flowed from Tolkien’s pen threatened to cover all the world in darkness. Beginning in a time of relative peace, the series follows an ensemble cast of characters, both familiar and new, as they confront the long-feared re-emergence of evil to Middle-earth. From the darkest depths of the Misty Mountains, to the majestic forests of the elf-capital of Lindon, to the breathtaking island kingdom of Númenor, to the furthest reaches of the map, these kingdoms and characters will carve out legacies that live on long after they are gone.
Images: New Line Cinema
Originally published on January 18, 2019 and updated on December 28, 2020, March 24, 2021, April 16, 2021, and May 13, 2021.