Talking Tolkien: Why The New Amazon Series Is On Shaky Ground I Oxford Open Learning


    Talking Tolkien: Why The New Amazon Series Is On Shaky Ground

    Adapting the literary works of J.R.R Tolkien to the screen is not quite like doing so for anything else. The man was more than just an author of a fantasy story. He was an esteemed academic and a remarkable linguist who possessed a keen cunning.

    Tolkien’s works are quintessential to British culture and an unrivalled part of literary history. Moreover, his works are also infused with historical and mythic elements and encompass far more than battles of good against evil. All of this makes adapting his thousands of pages of writings into snippets of screentime most challenging.

    Of course, some of his texts have been adapted before in animation and live-action. Now, Amazon are the latest group of creatives who wish to put out their own interpretation of Middle-earth for the masses to see. Only Peter Jackson has been successful, with his The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, and his second trilogy with The Hobbit fell short of users expectations.

    Amazon’s quest is a difficult one, and many warning signs are already apparent. Here is why the forthcoming series could be on shaky ground.

    Questions Around Source Material

    Amazon’s series is set thousands of years before the events of the story of The Lord of the Rings. However, beyond this, not much else is known about the plot.

    The narrative is positioned within an intriguing time frame of Middle-earth’s fictional history. The events of The Silmarillion transpire around this time, depicting the First and Second Ages, where Sauron was not a brooding dark lord, nor Gandalf a wizened old wizard. It is a period of elves, balrogs, Valar, and the making of what would eventually be known as Middle-earth.

    Questions around Amazon’s adaptation arise here. The Silmarillion can hardly be considered a complete work, and is more a compilation of stories, both related and unrelated, scattered across the First and Second Ages of Middle-earth. It reads more like a biblical or historical text, rather than a novel. Moreover, Tolkien never finished it, and it fell to his son Christopher to piece everything together as best he could with the limited resources he had.

    In addition, Tolkien’s estate has reportedly also put clear restrictions on Amazon, and the company cannot use all of Tolkien’s works for their show. Nor can they hope to knowingly or unknowingly contradict the canon of the literary works. Nevertheless, they are still resorting to making up their own characters, plots, and events – a rash move that will likely doom the show for ardent fans of the source material.

    It could be argued that the best adaptations are typically the most faithful. Unfortunately, it seems like Amazon are largely stumbling in the dark with their take on Tolkien’s works.

    Motivation Factors

    It is a bold move for anyone to claim that they can adapt Tolkien so readily. Director Peter Jackson, who put together The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, got it right with the former films. Releasing from 2001-2003, his movies demonstrated a reverence for Tolkien while also adding action scenes to make the story more palatable for cinema.

    However, The Hobbit films he put out from 2012-2014 proved to be a trickier task. They were full of blunders, and actors came forward decrying studio interference muddying the waters. Jackson faced similar turbulence with the original trilogy, with executives wanting to kill off 3 of the hobbits, despite such events never taking place in the books. Fortunately, Jackson won through on that occasion.

    Amazon has achieved remarkable things through the years, but many people think of the company as greedy, ruthless, and even downright inhumane. Unfortunately, workers have also been treated poorly over time, too. Would they truly be beyond a bit of ‘studio interference’ as well? Is the literature going to be respected? Will this all be a labour of love from a truly visionary artist? Or, is it all just about money and numbers, in the end? Sadly, it’s hard to imagine the series being much more than a corporate cash grab.

    Ridiculous Expenses

    Creating an entertainment series doesn’t come cheap. This is especially true when it comes to creating a version of Middle-earth on screen. Spectacular sets, costumes, and CGI settings need to be carefully curated. Only the best acting talent will suffice too.

    Top tier productions can have millions of pounds and dollars behind them. Even modern TV shows today can have breathtaking budgets at their disposal. However, things truly reach a mind-boggling level with Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings series. Amazon bought the rights for adapting Tolkien for £176m. In November 2017, the streaming service made a five-season production commitment worth at least $1bn US dollars. The show’s first season alone will cost £327.7m. This is all rather a lot of money.

    Despite all the doubts expressed so far, the show could be visually mesmerising- and so it should be, with all the funding behind it! All the same, one wonders if this kind of expense on the show, be it good or bad, is truly justified. Budgets reach extortionate amounts at the best of times in Hollywood, but spending this much money on a show is something of a headscratcher.

    Abandoning New Zealand

    As mentioned in that last heading, Amazon is already thinking about the show’s future (the first season isn’t even due to air until September of this year).

    Season one of the Amazon show was indeed filmed in New Zealand, as it should be. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies made the most of the stunning scenery, and today the country is thought of as the quintessential Middle-earth by legions of dedicated fans. It has, though, been reported that Season 2 will be looking to shoot in the UK instead of filming amongst the rich New Zealand locations the country is so famed for. It’s a confusing choice, particularly as Amazon seem to have limitless funds at their disposal.

    Is it premature to be thinking of a season 2 already? After all, most shows will focus first on getting a critically acclaimed and structurally sound season 1 out of the door, and see how viewers respond, before making any such hasty decisions.


    Amazon’s approach to bringing the works of Tolkien to screen is intriguing and shows how much of a balancing act such a high profile adaptation can be. It is hard to imagine the nuance of Tolkien’s works being accurately portrayed on screen by simply pouring money into it or by deviating from large parts of what made past adaptations successful, either. Ultimately, only time will tell if Amazon’s seismic gamble truly pays off.

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    I'm a freelance copywriter with an undergraduate degree in English Literature. I've written for many different outlets, including but not limited to marketing agencies, graduate recruitment websites, and online training companies. I've even interviewed a few famous actors for student and arts blogs too! Covering a wide span of material has been incredibly rewarding, as I get to turn my experiences in the arts, education and careers into helpful advice. I sincerely hope you'll find something to your liking here!