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Can Amazon’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ Prequel Be the One Show to Rule Them All?

Like most prequels, Amazon’s hugely costly ‘LotR’ release has a lot going against it, but a back catalog of source material leaves leeway for speculation—and potential for compelling plots

A question mark coming out of Barad-Dur New Line Cinema/Ringer illustration

On Monday, Amazon became the latest cash-rich streaming stockpiler to pay through the nose for a recognizable brand, announcing the acquisition of global TV rights to The Lord of the Rings for a sum said to approach $250 million. The news was at once shocking and predictable: shocking because close to 20 hours’ worth of Peter Jackson–made movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s tales of Middle Earth are still fairly fresh in our minds, and predictable because the industry’s scripted-programming glut paradoxically makes familiar, already-adapted IP more valuable than original or previously untapped material.

The announcement is notable not just for its reportedly unprecedented price tag, but also its near-complete lack of detail beyond the five famous words for which Amazon paid roughly $50 million apiece. According to Deadline, “there is no concept, and there are no creative auspices attached to the possible series.” The copy includes none of the trappings of traditional press releases meant to entice audiences: creators, casts, characters, stories. For now, the license is the star — and for that many millions, it had better be.

All we can count on is that the apparently concept-less series, which will premiere on Amazon Prime at some point during the Sixth or Seventh Age (depending on your interpretation of the Tolkienian calendar), will draw on “previously unexplored stories based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s original writings,” set at some point or points preceding The Fellowship of the Ring. Whatever the product turns out to be — Young Isildur, The Good Gandalf, This Is Eru — has already received a multiseason commitment with an option for a potential spinoff. The move is consistent with Amazon’s new and not very nuanced scripted strategy, which — as described in September by since-disgraced and -resigned Amazon Studios head Roy Price — consists of landing the next Game of Thrones, in accordance with Jeff Bezos’s belief that “it takes big shows to move the needle.” Amazon’s answer to Thrones, we now know, is the even more mega-famous fantasy series that preceded and partially inspired it.

Like most prequels — Games of Thrones’ several in-the-works spinoffs included — Amazon’s as-yet-unspecified LotR release has a lot going against it. All rules about writing are made to be broken, but as literary maxims go, Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to “start as close to the end as possible” is among the most inviolable. Prequels risk running afoul of that storytelling trick the second they’re conceived.

Most massively successful fantasy stories, from LotR to Thrones to Harry Potter, are fueled by a battle for the fate of civilization, which ramps up in the first installment and reaches its crescendo before the final note. Prequels, by necessity, swap out the gnawing need to know what will happen for the less-urgent question of how the original saga’s starting conditions came to be. And almost inevitably, the events that came before the big buildup to the climactic moment aren’t as suspenseful as the climax itself.

Despite those obstacles, the temptation to produce prequels is strong. In a crowded media landscape, few companies can pass up a known name and a dedicated audience — but here, readers’ (and viewers’) hunger for happy, definitive endings comes back to bite the IP profiteers. A too-tidy ending to a beloved series (coupled, perhaps, with limited creative rights) prevents would-be sequel crafters from extending its story into the time after evil is vanquished and the leads lock lips. Often, the only solution is to turn back the clock. Consequently, not long after one adaptation finishes strip-mining a successful series, another frequently steps in to cash in on any existing scraps of story set in the same universe during the preceding years.

The results aren’t always disastrous. Some efforts — including Caprica, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and even The Hobbit (not a prequel as published by Tolkien, but an excruciatingly stretched-out prequel trilogy in its movie form from 2012 to 2014) — find critical acclaim, financial success, or a combination of both. But rarely do these prequels inspire the same fervor as their on-screen forebears. With their ceilings lowered by smaller stakes and less tantalizing mysteries, they settle for drafting off the originals in some middle-distance setting that allows for common ground and crossover characters. They tease us with Easter eggs, foreshadowing, and cameos from characters who play important roles later — a glimpse of Gollum here or a middle-aged Dumbledore there — or orchestrate confrontations with adversaries who pale in comparison with the bigger bads whose downfalls we’ve witnessed: Smaug instead of Sauron; Gellert Grindelwald instead of Voldemort; Darth Maul, Count Dooku, or General Grievous instead of Darth Vader.

Given the degree of difficulty posed by prequels, it’s fair to wonder whether Amazon, in its eagerness to cut to the front of the cultural conversation, is delving too greedily and too deep by going all in on a franchise whose prime — or at minimum, best-known — material was already (and recently!) adapted. All of that said: If Amazon was determined to peg its TV fortunes to a proven moneymaker, The Lord of the Rings wasn’t the worst choice.

The best prequels pull off one of two possible pivots. Either they execute a tonal shift, morphing from white-knuckle page-turner to character study with more modest ambitions — think Better Call Saul vs. Breaking Bad — or they set their sights on a much, much earlier era — think Knights of the Old Republic, the beloved Star Wars role-playing game that takes place thousands of years before the Battle of Yavin or Order 66.

Amazon’s ambitions aren’t modest. But either way it wants to go with its impending prequels, Tolkien’s back catalog can supply the source material.

By the time The Fellowship of the Ring arrived in 1954, Tolkien had already been writing unpublished Middle Earth lore for 40 years, only snippets of which had appeared in The Hobbit. Because the creation of much of Middle Earth’s history dates from before Fellowship, it’s not a prequel or a supplement tacked on after the fact. It’s a stand-alone saga, much of it more sweeping in scope than the events we’ve seen on screen, with stakes, heroes, and villains that rival or even exceed those of the War of the Ring.

Much of Tolkien’s earlier work was assembled, edited, and published after his death in 1973 by his son Christopher, who at 92 still oversees the Tolkien estate. The centerpiece of the expanded Tolkien universe — and the richest remaining vein for would-be miners of Middle Earth IP — is The Silmarillion, a sweeping anthology that chronicles the whole history of Arda (or, as it’s more commonly called, Earth). Although the complete Silmarillion would be almost impossible to adapt — it’s written less like a novel than a formal history text, and it spans eons with few connecting characters — there’s no shortage of arcs that would work on TV, albeit with less titillation than Thrones fans expect.

An anthology series — or a series of series — could follow the rise and fall of Morgoth, a more powerful precursor to Sauron who fought elves, men, and angelic Valar in his attempts to steal and recover the Silmarils, three legendary jewels crafted by an O.G. elf named Fëanor before men and dwarves existed. On a slightly less epic level, there’s the Arwen-and-Aragorn-esque romance between the mortal man Beren and the ageless elf Lúthien, or the tragic tale of the cursed warriors Húrin and Túrin, who were much more formidable fighters than their names make them sound.

We don’t know whether Amazon has obtained, or might yet obtain, the rights to The Silmarillion; although Tolkien sold the film rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in 1969, his son — who has frequently disparaged Jackson’s action-oriented portrayal of his father’s work and launched multiple lawsuits (since settled) against Warner Bros. for alleged licensing breaches and failure to deliver royalties generated from its various LotR movies and video games — has previously refused to sign off on an on-screen Silmarillion. (In contrast, Christopher’s eldest son, Simon, has voiced his support for Jackson’s films, which briefly led to a falling out with his father.) If anything has changed on the Silmarillion front, Amazon’s press release didn’t say so — and if Christopher had, at long last, relented, one would think that the company would be eager to brag about its coup.

If Amazon’s creative deputies can’t go the Silmarillion route, they’ll have other options: either fleshing out some earlier lore alluded to in The Hobbit or LotR (without treading on the more detailed tellings in Tolkien’s other work), or — depending on how loosely we interpret the “based on” in the press release’s “based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s original writings” — constructing their own original stories within Tolkien’s larger creation that predate, overlap with, or immediately follow The Hobbit and explore previously unseen skirmishes in the long-brewing war with Sauron. The latter option is intriguing, although that kind of creative license sounds difficult to square with Christopher’s traditionally protective stewardship. Moreover, it’s hard to have faith from afar without knowing whose hands will be holding the artistic reins.

Although Amazon’s announcement stipulates that the TV adaptations’ story lines will hail from before Fellowship, that loose timeline leaves a lot of leeway for speculation — and, most likely, at least some potential for compelling plots, if entrusted to the right writers, directors, and producers. The Lord of the Rings license encompasses the life’s work of a prolific author and mythmaker, and even the picked-over bones of Tolkien’s creation have more meat on them than many fictional worlds that have made their rights holders rich.

Amazon’s quarter-of-a-billion-dollar investment — a prelude to hundreds of millions more devoted down the road to actually making TV — dominated one day of entertainment news, backed up Bezos’s bold proclamations about competing in the big-budget genre arena, and caught the attention of millions of LotR lovers. It also engendered a torrent of justified skepticism, both about what the LotR license has left and about Amazon’s ability to take the large leap from writing a press release to producing one series (plus a spinoff) to rule the streaming services. Amazon has bought a big enough name to ensure a strong rating for the first episode; after that, though, the show will have to hook us, and deep pockets alone won’t keep us captivated once the thrill of the Tolkien tie-in wears off. History tells us that it’s silly to bet against Bezos, but as Tolkien once wrote (in a novel that’s off-limits to Amazon), “Even the very wise cannot see all ends.”