Queen Berúthiel’s cat is out of the bag! Amazon made its bewildering announcement last week that it has acquired the rights to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings novels” into a multi-season television show of some kind. Which means it’s obviously time for wild speculation and baseless, unrequited yearning.
What I won’t do right now is overthink this. We just don’t know too much. And now the news is out that Christopher Tolkien himself is no longer part of the Tolkien Estate, which does explain a little bit about what’s going on. As a Tolkien nut, I’m only a little anxious because I’m not particularly fond of where the fantasy genre is at, in relation to television (and I realize I may be alone in that), and I’d hate to see his world sullied by greedy hands in similar fashion. But there is always hope that this series could be amazing in the long run. And frankly, the books themselves will always be unsullied, no matter what they do.
So, care to set aside cynicism and join me for some totally unfounded and ill-considered (if Tookishly adventurous) guesswork?
All right, so what do we know so far? The official press release is maddeningly vague, saying that Amazon plans to “bring to the screen previously unexplored stories based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s original writings.” Then it goes on with:
Set in Middle Earth [sic], the television adaptation will explore new storylines preceding J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. The deal includes a potential additional spin-off series.
New story lines preceding Fellowship? Hmm, so then not really based on The Lord of the Rings itself, but I guess that includes all the things referenced by the Appendices? There’s no mention of The Hobbit (which certainly precedes it) in this press release, nor The Silmarillion—a text for which I’ve recently embarked on a primer/guide here on the site (come along for the ride!)—which makes me think it’s likely to focus on events leading up to, and probably centered around, the War of the Ring itself.
Appendix B, “The Tale of Years,” briefly summarizes the First Age but doesn’t go into any detail about it. They probably don’t have Silmarillion rights, so they’ll likely stick to latter days.
The Second Age is chock-full of great stuff, summarized mostly in the timelines of that appendix, and most of it centers around Sauron’s rise to power in the absence of his erstwhile master, Morgoth. Men, Elves, and Dwarves are the good guys, but they don’t always get along—plenty of room for drama there. Various episodes could feature:
- Dwarves! In great numbers they head over to occupy and fortify Moria. This is pre-Balrog, of course, as they mine for mithril and actually get along well with the Elves just outside their porch (you know, back when they make that fancy back door the Fellowship will later rediscover). Durin’s folk need some love, Amazon!
- The Númenóreans. Blessed with long life and possessing greater power than most other Men, they show up on the coast of Middle-earth after having ruled on their island-kingdom for some time. They’re kickass mariners and mighty warriors. Such promise and ambition! Want more female characters? Why not start with Tar-Ancalimë, the first queen of Númenór?
- The Elves (specifically the Noldor). Those who haven’t sailed West with their kin establish the realm of Eregion. Who wants more Galadriel? Oooh, I do! And here she is, ruling Eregion for a while with her husband, Celeborn. Forget the Kardashians—what’s in fashion is what Celeborn is wearing!
- Sauron. Dismayed by all these do-gooders in the north, he establishes himself in an obscure and dark little land called Mordor. There he shores up his power and begins construction on Barad-dûr, the Dark Tower. Orc contractors are probably called in. The drama, the infighting! The literal infighting. (In one one of Tolkien’s essays, he writes that the Noldor called Orcs the Glamhoth, which means “host of tumult.” Move over, Sons of Anarchy—give me the spin-off series Hosts of Tumult.)
- The creation of the Rings of Power. Knowing all too well the mettle of the Elves, Sauron tries to trick them with a ring-based pyramid scheme. When that doesn’t quite seal the deal, he makes war with Eregion. Elrond himself joins the fray in this one as he leads the Elven forces! It’s turns out to be a Pyrrhic victory for Sauron: Eregion is wrecked but the new Dark Lord is ousted from that part of the world.
- The Nazgûl origin story. With his ring gambit foiled by both Elves and Dwarves, Sauron turns the nine kings of Men into ringwraiths and starts siccing them on his enemies. You can’t tell me you don’t want to see more Nazgûl on screen.
- The Fall of Númenór. This would probably make for an entire season. Sauron lets himself gets “captured” by Ar-Pharazôn the Golden, the latest and most bombastic king of Númenór, at this point. Under his puppetmaster-style ministrations, Sauron drives Númenór into utter corruption. The saga of Númenór has a lot of conflict, a lot of Men vs. Men hostility, to sate the fans of gritty fantasy. There’s even blood sacrifice. Ar-Pharazôn goes on to lead his kingdom into folly and physical ruin as he launches an armada to attack all of Valinor. Bad idea. Númenór sinks into the sea with a great cataclysm, with only a small percentage of its population (i.e. Aragorn’s ancestors) escaping before the disaster.
- The Last Alliance of Elves and Men. Sauron returns to Mordor, having helped destroy the mightiest of Men, then goes on the defensive when he finds that the High King Gil-galad and his Elves have gotten organized along with the surviving Númenóreans. Gil-galad, with Elrond in tow, fights alongside Elendil and his son Isildur in the Battle of Dagorlad and then later at the foot of Mount Doom! Sauron loses his Ring in that famous moment, and his power is broken (for now). This moment would totally be a series finale.
The main problem with all this Second Age stuff is that the details just aren’t there in the Lord of the Rings Appendices. For that you need The Silmarillion, or other books. Not sure Amazon is able to use those sources…yet. That would open up a heck of a lot more, for good or ill.
Meanwhile, what does the Third Age offer? The Lord of the Rings takes place at its tail-end, but plenty of great stuff occurs beforehand, and that just might be what Amazon is going to look at. What stories could you tell with multi-season television programming if you really want to?
Well, here are a few, in no particular order.
- When the Dwarves in Moria finally delve “too deep”—and rouse the Balrog. Not a good day for Durin VI, I can tell you. Surprise, Balrog! Good for at least one episode, right? Action-packed.
- The Witch-King of Angmar. Everybody’s favorite Nazgûl has more of his history fleshed out in Appendix A of LotR. After Sauron’s defeat he eventually returns to rule the northern kingdom of Angmar. Even when Angmar falls, being a ringwraith, the Witch-King “lives” on. How great would it be to hear aloud the prophecy that foreshadows Éowyn’s later victory over him (#ShePersisted)? Glorfindel himself says it: “Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of man shall he fall.”
- Almost anything involving the Easterlings and the Haradrim. And maybe preferably in times of peace. They do invade Gondor at various times, and yes, they’re almost always allied with Sauron—but Tolkien makes it clear that all Men on the Enemy’s side were deceived by his lies. Men, quite unlike Orcs, are not intrinsically evil. Moreover, we only ever see the soldiers who march in Sauron’s war—the ones who, as Samwise wonders in The Two Towers, might “rather have stayed” at home. I think most of us can agree that it would be exceedingly awesome to see those parts of Middle-earth where white-skinned people aren’t the majority, or calling all the shots. Every culture has its stories and its heroes. Even the Númenóreans as a whole bend to evil and hubris eventually—but not all embrace it. All the stories of Gondor came from that tension.
- Elrond’s romance with Celebrían. Elrond is one of the sons of Eärendil and Elwing, and Celebrían is the daughter of Celeborn and Galadriel. Because of their famous parents, these two are already celebrities by the time they get married in the Third Age. Now we’ve all seen way too many weddings in movies and on TV, yes…but we have seen Elf weddings? Totally different. They give birth to their two sons, Elladan and Elrohir, 29 years later, and then have a daughter, Arwen, only a scant 111 years after that. To add to this family’s storied history, some 2,268 years later still, Celebrían is captured and tormented by Orcs in the Misty Mountains. She’s rescued by her sons, but though her body heals her mind does not; she must set sail for the Undying Lands, the only place she can be fully mended, and leave her family behind until they all make the same journey far in the future. This is some serious family drama, folks. Think This Is Us but with *way* bigger leaps in time.
- The adventures of the Istari! These seemingly old men show up in boats on the shores of Middle-earth, but where did they all go during the 1,341 years that passed before the events of even The Hobbit? I mean, we know of a few places, and of the White Council where at least two of them end up. But wouldn’t it be cool to see the moment when Gandalf first meets a hobbit, and when he tries pipeweed for the first time? How about seeing Saruman strolling in the woods alongside Treebeard, talking as they once did before things got dreadful. And how about those Blue Wizards?
- Círdan the goddamned Shipwright! This is the only Elf ever described as having a beard. How can we not want to see more of his story?
- Young Aragorn meeting Gandalf, and their adventures together. Theirs could be like a buddy cop show—one is sagacious, cranky, and knows more than he’s saying, and the other is young, skillful, and doesn’t play by the rules. (Actually, he probably totally plays by the rules; Elrond raised him.) Then we can follow Aragorn’s solo adventures under the alias Thorongil—first in Rohan then in Gondor. And let’s not forget about the mid-season finale when he meets Arwen in the woods, à la Beren and Lúthien.
- Two words: Tom Bombadil. Think Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood but way crazier, and involving plenty of trees, water-lilies, and mischievous barrow-wights. And some seriously questionable fashion on his part. Can the mainstream world handle Tom? Probably not. But maybe his lovely wife, Goldberry, will make seeing him on screen more palatable.
Really, that’s just a tip of the iceberg of what Amazon could possibly tackle, in terms of storylines. I’m almost sure they’ll do none of these things.
So, what’ve you got? What would you want to see?
Jeff LaSala will hope for the best. And when there is none, then we may at least be avenged. He wrote a Scribe Award–nominated D&D novel once, some cyberpunk stories, and some RPG books. And now he works for Tor Books.