Amazon is going ahead with a Lord of the Rings TV series, set before the events of The Fellowship of the Ring. So what will it actually be about?
To say that the reactions to the news that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels are getting another adaptation have been mixed would be an understatement of Smaug-like proportions.
Not only is it a perpetuation of the overwhelming remake/sequel/prequel/spinoff cycle that is overwhelming us with superheroes, wars in the stars and 80s cop dramas, but it is a pretty universally accepted fact that Peter Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings movie trilogy is the perfect adaptation. (It is similarly universally accepted that his subsequent Hobbit trilogy proved that not every Middle-earth-inspired series turns out great.)
Peter Jackson and his team poured so much love and respect for Tolkien’s original novels into those movies, while adapting and changing the story to fit the big-screen format, meaning that the movies and book(s) have remained perfectly separate entities, able to be enjoyed separately or together. The movies are amazing but they do not overshadow Tolkien’s original works, which were so much more elaborate and expansive. The special effects also hold up astonishingly well. It feels too soon to tarnish their legacy, whether the forthcoming TV series is amazing or terrible.
However, with the confirmation that Amazon has indeed purchased the rights to develop a Lord of the Rings series comes this significant new nugget of information: the series will “explore new storylines preceding Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring” — meaning that it won’t actually be another Lord of the Rings adaptation!
Just as The Hobbit movies attempted to fill in some of the blanks not covered by Tolkien’s novel, it seems that Amazon’s LotR series will build on and expand the canon of pre-trilogy events leading up to Frodo’s journey to destroy the One Ring. This could either be very good or very bad, depending on what stories the developers choose to focus on.
While I acknowledge the possibility that the TV series will focus primarily on new characters and storylines (as the Shadow of Mordor video games and, to some extent, the Hobbit movies did) and almost certainly will introduce new players, I believe there are several avenues to explore that incorporate existing canon and characters.
Here are three ideas about which existing characters and storylines might make their way into this ‘prequel series’, as it’s sounding likely to be:
Aragorn and Gandalf’s early adventures
Prior to his arrival in Hobbiton for Bilbo’s 111th birthday party, where the story starts in both the books and movies, Gandalf had been on quite a few adventures of his own. The Hobbit movies attempted to flesh out some of them, but what is lacking completely from either movie series is Gandalf and Aragorn’s early adventures together.
50 years before Frodo leaves the Shire, Sauron declares his presence in Mordor openly. The same year, Aragorn comes of age and is told about his true heritage; he proceeds to meet Gandalf and fall in love with Arwen, and later serves the armies of both Rohan and Gondor (hence Théoden remembering him from when he was a child).
And not only is there potential for a whole show about Aragorn here. If we assume that Amazon’s LotR series will ‘precede’ the events of the novels in taking place before Frodo’s adventure starts, there’s also a lot of potential to explore the stretch of time from Bilbo’s birthday party to when Frodo departs the Shire.
In the movies, we get the absolute briefest possible Cliffsnotes version of what Gandalf and Gollum endured during this time, and Aragorn’s part was erased almost completely in favor of him showing up at the Prancing Pony as the mysterious and possibly villainous Strider.
In Tolkien’s works, however, Aragorn and Gandalf (who might be considered the leads in this new series, which would separate it even further from the Frodo-centric movie trilogy) were very busy during this time, hunting down Gollum and searching for clues about the origin of Bilbo’s ring.
After Bilbo’s birthday party, Aragorn captures Gollum at Gandalf’s request, and brings him to King Thranduil; the Ringwraiths set out to find the One Ring; Saruman corrupts Théoden’s mind; Sauron attacks Osgiliath; Thranduil is attacked and Gollum escapes; Gandalf confronts Saruman and is arrested; Gandalf escapes and seeks King Théoden’s help, only to be turned away; finally, he tames Shadowfax and fights some wraiths all before rejoining the hobbits. Only after all of these events have occurred do Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin set out from the Shire.
Sauron’s corruption and colonisation of Middle-earth
Although the Ring has been safely hidden away in the Shire, Sauron and his followers have been gathering power for decades by the time the Lord of the Rings novels begin. Tolkien’s tale is very much about heroism, and Jackson’s movies perfectly capture the inspiring strands of hope and perseverance weaved through the novels, but there is something to be said about exploring the spread of darkness and the villains that rise to power under Sauron’s growing regime, too.
This is after all a story about fascism, a thinly-veiled allegory for the collapse of Europe to the dark forces that were spreading during Tolkien’s own youth. And as he himself was fighting this war (and later, his son would fight in the next one), Tolkien had seen up close how human beings could be swayed by darkness. The Lord of the Rings is as much a story about how evil spreads as it is a story about how evil is defeated.
The corruption of Saruman, in particular — representing the darkness’ ability to corrupt even a force of absolute goodness — would be a fascinating story to tell from his point of view (sidenote: Saruman is played in my head now by Charles Dance, who could 1000% carry such an arc). So, too, would be Gríma Wormtongue’s growing sway over King Théoden of Rohan, and the men and women (!) of Gondor’s increasingly desperate battle to keep evil at bay on the borders of Mordor.
In fact, the Lord of the Rings is familiar to us as high fantasy, with the Fellowship’s only human member dying in the first part of the story (spoiler alert?). But as a TV series, particularly one that wants to be ‘the next Game of Thrones,’ it might do well to focus primarily on the humans, as they — more than any of the other races, most of whom are hiding/planning on leaving by the time the story starts — are the ones fighting on the front lines for the future of Middle-earth.
Théoden, Éowyn, Éomer, Faramir, Boromir, and obviously Aragorn (despite not being totally ‘human’), represent the future of this world while the fantasy races represent the past, or the outsiders swooping in on their Eagles (i.e. America to Middle-earth’s Europe) to offer some last-minute, if sporadic, support when all hope seems lost. The fantastical players have a certain ‘wow’ factor that the series would do well to use sparingly, to instead focus on the gritty, everyday heroics of the humans fighting on the front lines and experiencing Sauron’s corruption firsthand.
This approach would allow the TV series to use a mix of original and new characters, hopefully branching out to include more prominent female characters than the novels provide.
Tom Bombadil, Glorfindel, and other fan favorites
Of course there are a fair number of significant characters left out of Jackson’s movies that might be worth focusing on in the TV series, and Tom Bombadil is maybe not the most exciting one — and if the series follows the trajectory of the previous two points, he’ll be largely irrelevant — but certainly the most beloved.
The enigmatic figure comes to the hobbits’ aid early in the Lord of the Rings, but he has a much larger relevance to Middle-earth, being ‘the eldest’ being. If the Lord of the Rings TV series intends to focus on the magical parts of this world as opposed to the human characters and conflicts, Tom Bombadil would be an interesting benchmark character as he is so intrinsically linked to all the races, including Elves, Dwarves and Ents.
If we consider this not-a-prequel prequel series the equivalent to Harry Potter’s Fantastic Beasts, that would roughly make Tom Bombadil the Nicolas Flamel to Gandalf’s Dumbledore. He might not be the main protagonist, but through him, we have the chance to dive deep into the lore of Middle-earth and flesh out some of the more etherial, mysterious aspects. It is a very different approach to the human angle outlined above (and I am admittedly biased towards that one), and would make the Lord of the Rings television series decidedly more magical than Game of Thrones.
As for Glorfindel, this particularly powerful Elf might have been left out of Jackson’s movies because he was too badass (and I don’t mind that one of his moments to shine was given to Arwen instead).
He plays a big role in the books, however, and if it ends up being a rights issue (Amazon and Warner might not legally have access to characters like Gandalf or Frodo), Glorfindel would be an obvious main character, particularly if the series intends to focus on the Elves.
Whichever angle the Lord of the Rings television series chooses to take, I think it’s fair to say that there is plenty of Middle-earthian lore to draw on.
Whether the series fleshes out the backstories of characters we know well like Aragorn and Gandalf, focuses on lesser-known players like Glorfindel, Prince Imrahil and Fatty Bolger — or indeed invents brand new lore to compliment Tolkien’s work — the story can easily stand well apart from the events of the Lord of the Rings novels, and even track the same story from a completely different perspective.
I for one can’t wait to see what Amazon and Warner Bros. TV cook up for us.