This week, Amazon announced that it’s going to make an expensive, expansive TV series based on The Lord of the Rings. It’s pouring tons of money in to it, has already committed to five seasons, and is banking on it becoming a big hit. Basically, Amazon is looking for “the next Game of Thrones.”
What does that mean? Can the success of something like Game of Thrones be duplicated? Should studios even try? Do we want to see it? And if so, where should studios look for inspiration? And could a Lord of the Rings show pull this off? Let’s talk.
RICHARD: How many times can one catch lightning in a bottle? Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings show (I’ll call it AmLOTR from here on) is being billed as a prequel, so it will be new but situated within the extended framework of Tolkien’s fictional universe. That’s the way it works for other prequels, including successful efforts like Better Call Saul (Breaking Bad) and Black Sails (Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island).
There are few literary properties that have been more expensive, daunting and expectation-laden than LOTR. Let’s take a look at some of the positives and negatives regarding Amazon’s attempt to milk gold from Tolkien’s imaginary world:
Saturation: The viewing public and LOTR fans have been served up a smorgasbord of LOTR films and merchandise in the last decade or so. Peter Jackson’s exemplary Lord of the Rings film trilogy (2001-03) and prequel Hobbit film trilogy (2014-16) have set the bar extremely high. Has the general viewing public had enough of Middle Earth?
Cost: Amazon knows how much this will cost. You can’t cheap out on LOTR, so the baked in epic-level production expenses place a brutl amount of pressure on the showrunners before even one frame of film has been exposed. Stanley Kubrick once turned down a Fellowship of the Ring project because he thought it was too “immense” to be filmed. This kind of pressure can cause the producers to try to hedge their bets and create a program that appeals to everyone, and that often robs a show of originality, turning it into a bland, viewer-repelling bucket of tapioca financial disaster.
Name Recognition (the bonus of saturation): As one of the most successful and recognizable franchises in recent entertainment history, it will be incredibly easy to advertise and rally up enthusiasm for the AmLOTR multi-season TV series.
Endless Universe: There is no literary world more developed than Tolkien’s universe, so the producers have a magnificent playground to design their stories in.
So, what is going to happen? Amazon’s acquisition of the Lord of the Rings property smacks of coattail riding, an attempt to have its own Game of Thrones-style flagship show without earning one. Amazon is entering the supremely expensive game of high expectations TV — AmLOTR has to knock everybody’s socks off right from the get-go or it will be labeled a bomb, probably a death sentence for a show so pricey, regardless of how long a run the parent company might guarantee.
Maybe it will be great. I harbor Amazon no ill will and I wish them luck. But personally, I’ve had my fill of Tolkien for a while. It’s a much tougher nut to crack at the start, I realize, but I would love to see them championing a new concept or one of the great but relatively unknown (outside their genre fan bases) fantasy or historical fiction book series already out there, just like HBO rolled the dice with George R.R. Martin’s stuff. For example, the History Channel’s Knightfall (original programming) premieres in early December, and I’m gonna be there, watching and hoping they give me something new, fresh and exciting.
People forget how so many blockbuster TV shows start with a slow burn and a unique voice where failure isn’t too expensive to overcome, and where viewers are able to discover the new gem through accumulating positive reviews and word of mouth. Viewers weren’t waiting with bated breath for The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, The Leftovers or Seinfeld, but these shows repeatedly rewarded our emotional investments and proved they were worth our time.
DAN: That is a hell of a Small Council entry, Richard. A couple of comments:
I am totally calling it AmLOTR.
We don’t actually know that AmLOTR will be a proper prequel. That’s how some outlets are reporting it, but all we know for sure is that the show will “explore new storylines preceding J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.” So maybe it’ll be a full-on prequel, or maybe it’ll start somewhere between The Hobbit and Fellowship and work its way up. I ‘unno.
Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy did not set the bar high. It was a rancid crater of a movie trilogy…in my opinion. Although Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema share a lot of the blame for this.
But other than that, I agree with pretty much everything you said. To me, Amazon seems to be trying to manufacture a pop culture phenomenon, which is something you just can’t do. Game of Thrones, although expensive by any standard, didn’t start life as a massive hit. It grew slowly, gaining fans as it picked up steam. Fast-forward seven years, and it looks like Amazon is going to try and ape that success by throwing ungodly amounts of money at it.
And it might work — Hollywood has thrown money at many a blockbuster movie franchise before, and it’s often reaped hefty financial rewards. But that’s never going to feel as special as something that grew organically, and somehow AmLOTR already feels less special than Game of Thrones. All companies want to make money, but it feels like that’s the only reason this is happening, whereas with Game of Thrones there was some artistic risk involved.
And I say this a guy who loves The Lord of the Rings. I’ve loved the series since I first read the books in middle school, and I will find a way to watch a splashy TV series set in that world. I just wish my enthusiasm felt less obligatory, and I fear that in looking for “the next Game of Thrones,” Amazon is undertaking this project for the wrong reasons.
COREY: I’m of two trains of thoughts here, but first I have to state that I will unequivocally watch this show. There is a reason that Martin’s work is often compared to Tolkien’s, including by Martin’s himself. Like Martin’s Westeros, Tolkien’s Middle-earth is incredibly complex, with a history that spans thousands of years. As in Game of Thrones, the story of Lord of the Rings represents the culmination of thousands of years of history. There is a ton of material to mine for the Amazon series.
I imagine that Amazon, which has more money than Tywin Lannister, is banking on fans like us to buoy the series in its infancy before building a larger audience. But back to my two thoughts. If Amazon is attempting to buy itself a Game of Thrones-esque show, LotR is the wrong material to use. Intricate as the world-building is, Tolkien’s work is not morally or politically complex enough to mimic Game of Thrones. It’s only slightly more morally complex than the bedtime stories I read my daughter. If Amazon attempts to shoehorn in those elements, disaster awaits.
If, however, Amazon is simply attempting to mimic Game of Thrones’ financial success and is content to let LotR be its own show, I think it can be successful. Not every show has to feature to dark or gritty subject matter to work. A morally black-and-white show can succeed, and could even be a breath of fresh air in a world dominated by Thrones, The Walking Dead and Stranger Things.
Time frame might also be a factor, depending on how far into Tolkien’s invented past this show goes. As with Martin’s invented history, Middle-earth becomes less magical as time goes on. Martin and Tolkien’s world start with the most fantastical elements you can imagine — giant spiders, dragons, god-like villains and the like — before tapering off to the more real-world type stories we’re used to. It remains to be seen how much the general public has an appetite for wizards, spells and magic.
What do you guys think of this?
Source: WIC Staff (https://winteriscoming.net/author/wicstaff/)