Warner Bros. Television and the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien are in talks with Amazon Studios to develop a series based on the late author’s The Lord of the Rings novels. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is said by sources with knowledge of the situation to be personally involved in the negotiations, which are still in very early stages. No deal has been set.
There's so many ways for this to result in a disaster. And there's so few ways for this to turn into something good. As a humungous fan of The Lord of the Rings and the rest of Tolkien's work, I'd love to feel hopeful anticipation for this project. Instead I feel dread. I am not the usual fan. Tolkien's works are precious to me. They are woven so deeply into my personality. Adaptations are inherently threatening to the perception of the original work. And I care so much about The Lord of the Rings that an adaptation actually feels threatening to me.
I hope it's not too obvious to state that this potential adaptation would be Amazon trying to replicate the success of HBO's Game of Thrones. They've managed to adapt a large and beloved fantasy world into an absurdly popular and profitable television series. I'm sure Amazon wouldn't mind having their own cash cow. Hell, maybe they could get me to pay for Prime again. George R.R. Martin still being alive has been a positive force for the lovers of the books, in that his influence and consultation can hone the shows treatment of his work into something he feels is honoring. Amazon would not have the same advantage. J.R.R. Tolkien is long dead. I can't imagine that his son Christopher would be interested in consulting on a television show; he didn't do it for Warner Bros.' and Peter Jackson's films. Christopher's goal seems to be the long term financial health of the Tolkien Estate, to preserve and promote his father's work after Christopher dies as well.
It's surprisingly that the Tolkien Estate is interested in more adaptations at all. They were not happy with Jackson's films, struggled with legal battles over the financials for years, and seemed to reluctantly allow The Hobbit film adaptations. Giving Hollywood yet one more opportunity to pervert and dilute Tolkien's most important work seems antithetical to the Tolkien Estates goals. But money is money, and there's not a single dimension of quality that could prevent them from making truckloads of money from this deal.
An adaptation of The Lord of the Rings faces some serious creative challenges. There's no obvious way to alter the narrative structure of the story into hour long television episodes. Jackson's films drop lots of detail for the sake of time, but even the additional time of a television show wouldn't necessarily allow those lost elements to be regained. In fact the writers would need to create a significant amount of new structure and detail out of whole cloth just to fit the format. Hopefully they at least don't try to portray Tom Bombadil on screen. That was one of the wisest creative decisions made by Jackson's screenwriters.
Another major challenge is creating the visual world. The greatest acheivement of Jackson's films was the incredible detail and quality of the visual representation of the world. Landscapes, sets, costumes, props. It all felt so correct. So true to the world of the book. From the concept art by Jon Howe and Alan Lee, to the CGI and physical world creation by Weta Workshops, it'll be incredibly difficult to create a new and separate visual representation of this world that feels accurate without copying. My recommendation is to give concept art to Ian Miller.
Culturally as well, can Amazon hope to surpass the cultural force that are Jackson's film adaptations. Those films are the canonical versions of the story for almost everyone. Can Amazon's Frodo replace Elijah Wood's portrayal in the mind of the millions of fans. Would we want them to? Jackson's films are some of the most significant forces of pop culture in recent decades; it'll require a truly landmark effort to carve out the space for a new version of these stories to exist in the mind of the culture at large.
A new creative team producing a new version of this story could also be healing. My greatest criticism of Jackson's films has always been the intrusions of crudeness and exaggerated silliness. Jackson loved for Gimli to burp loudly, make jokes about being drunk, and be generally undignified for comedic effect. The pipe-weed smoked by the hobbits was insinuated to be marijuana. It being marijuana wasn't the problem, the idea that smoking marijuana was some goof worthy of giggling over was. These mistakes were even more exaggerated in Jackson's adaptations of The Hobbit which was too painful for me to expand on here. I'd really love to see an adaptation that sets a new tone. Hopefully one that is more true to the book's deep personal detail and moments of lofty grandeur.
And maybe they can give Guillermo del Toro a season while they're at it.