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In 2017, Amazon Originals splashed into the news when it purchased the global rights to a television adaptation of The Lord of the Rings for a cool $250 million. The modern Lord of the Rings films, directed by Peter Jackson and adapted from the beloved novels by J. R. R. Tolkien, are among the most profitable and awarded films of all time, racking up $2.9 billion at the global box office and earning 15 Oscar awards (out of 30 total nominations). The importance of Tolkien’s novels can’t be understated; they are definitive works of fantasy about power, courage, and loss, mythopoeic masterpieces credited with launching the genre into the modern age.
In September of 2019, The Hollywood Reporter reported that Amazon will film its series in New Zealand, where the Jackson films were famously shot (and where Lord of the Rings fans drive over $27 million a year in tourism). Here’s everything we know about the series so far.
What will the series be about?
A new official synopsis from Amazon confirms key details about the world-spanning series, including its setting. The synopsis reads in full:
Amazon Studios' forthcoming series brings to screens for the very first time the heroic legends of the fabled Second Age of Middle-earth's history. This epic drama is set thousands of years before the events of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and will take viewers back to an era in which great powers were forged, kingdoms rose to glory and fell to ruin, unlikely heroes were tested, hope hung by the finest of threads, and the greatest villain that ever flowed from Tolkien's pen threatened to cover all the world in darkness. Beginning in a time of relative peace, the series follows an ensemble cast of characters, both familiar and new, as they confront the long-feared re-emergence of evil to Middle-earth. From the darkest depths of the Misty Mountains, to the majestic forests of the elf-capital of Lindon, to the breathtaking island kingdom of Númenor, to the furthest reaches of the map, these kingdoms and characters will carve out legacies that live on long after they are gone.
When Amazon released a map of Middle Earth as a teaser about the series last summer, captioned, “Welcome to the Second Age,” it revealed a pivotal plot clue, which bears out in this synopsis. The history of Middle Earth is divided into four ages. You’re likely most familiar with the Third Age, the latter years of which see the action of The Lord of the Rings transpire. The Second Age sees the rise and (temporary) defeat of Sauron, the big baddie from the original films. The official synopsis' reference to "the greatest villain that ever flowed from Tolkien's pen" all but confirms an appearance from Sauron, while the mention of Númenor suggests a storyline familiar to fans of the novels.
Fans have speculated that Amazon will tell Tolkien’s epic tale of the Fall of Númenor, given its choice to release a map that prominently features the island of Númenor. During the Second Age, men with Elvish heritage settled the island of Númenor, where they became great seafarers. The Númenoreans lived in days of peace and glory until they fell under the sway of Sauron, who promised them the eternal life they coveted in the Elves in exchange for their aid in his war against the gods. As punishment, the gods transformed the formerly flat Earth into a globe. The ocean subsumed Númenor, drowning everyone on the island but Sauron. The surviving Númenoreans, who were sheltered on their ships, fled to Middle Earth, where they founded Gondor and gave rise to a long line of kings, which would one day include Aragorn.
Will any characters from the films reappear?
Given that the series is set in the Second Age, we can expect Amazon to cast a number of familiar characters. Chief among them is Sauron, whose greed, evil, and hunger for absolute power shaped the trajectory of the Second Age. Also primed to return is Elrond, lord of Imladris, a relative of the Númenorean kings and a chief leader in the Last Alliance between elves and men. Amazon has also confirmed the return of Galadriel, Elrond’s sister-in-law, who possessed a ring of power and had great knowledge about the nefarious dealings of Sauron. The synopsis' mention of the elf capital of Lindon suggests that we can expect to visit Galadriel in her home world.
What’s young Aragorn got to do with anything?
Early reports about the series speculated that it would follow the adventures of young Aragorn, whose path prior to his introduction in The Fellowship of the Ring was long and winding. However, when Amazon tweeted, “Welcome to the Second Age,” which took place thousands of years before Aragorn’s birth, speculation was debunked.
Is Peter Jackson involved?
As soon as the news broke about Amazon’s purchase of the rights, fans speculated about the potential involvement of Peter Jackson. At first, Jackson stated that he wasn’t at all involved, saying, “I understand how my name could come up, but there is nothing happening with me on this project.” Later, Jackson changed his tune, saying, “I think they’re going to send us some scripts to see if we can help them along. I wish them all the best and if we can help them we certainly will try. It’s a big task.”
Who’s attached to the series?
Three lead actors have been announced: Will Poulter (Black Mirror, Midsommar) will star as Beldor, an "experienced fighter"; Markella Kavengeh (Picnic at Hanging Rock) will play Tyra, an "empathetic" individual who's likely an elf; and Joseph Mawle (Game of Thrones' Uncle Benjen) will star as Oren, the lead villain. It's worth noting that none of these characters are Tolkien characters--all are new, original characters.
As for the creative brain trust behind the series, the showrunners are JD Payne and Patrick McKay, who together wrote and produced films like Star Trek: Beyond, Jungle Cruise, and Escape. Meanwhile, Game of Thrones alum Bryan Cogman has signed on as a consulting producer. Amazon has also contracted J.A. Bayona (director of Jurassic Park: Fallen World) to direct the first two episodes.
What does it mean that the series will be filmed in New Zealand?
In a joint statement, showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay said, “As we searched for the location in which we could bring to life the primordial beauty of the Second Age of Middle Earth, we knew we needed to find somewhere majestic, with pristine coasts, forests, and mountains, that also is a home to world-class sets, studios, and highly skilled and experienced craftspeople and other staff.” New Zealand is also famously home to the hillside settlement of The Shire, but this is not something that we'll see in a story set in the Second Age. Seeing as Hobbits didn't arrive in Middle Earth and settle the Shire until the Third Age, don't expect to see any Baggins ancestors in this series.
With production costs rumored at a mind-boggling $1 billion, making this the most expensive television show in history, Amazon is sparing no expense. The decision to return to New Zealand promises continuity for fans of the Peter Jackson films, as well as a clue supporting speculation about a Fall of Numenor plot. Jackson’s films didn’t spend much time in coastal locations, as regions like Gondor, Rohan, and Mordor are all located inland. However, when Payne and McKay mention “pristine coasts,” it calls to mind coastal locations like Numenor.
How many seasons will there be?
A curious catch of Amazon’s deal with the Tolkien estate was a long-term commitment: in order to secure the rights, Amazon had to agree to produce five seasons of the series, and to begin production within two years of signing the deal.
Though Amazon is contractually obligated to produce five seasons, it made news by ordering a second season before production has even begun on the first season. With the first season of the show still in pre-production, Amazon plans to film the first two episodes of Season One in early 2020, then go on a four to five-month hiatus, presumably for Payne and McKay to sketch out the plot architecture of Season Two. They may also move to a schedule of shooting Seasons One and Two simultaneously, allowing the production to avoid shooting during a frosty New Zealand winter.
When will it air?
No air date has been announced yet, though in promising news, production has resumed in New Zealand after the country has declared itself coronavirus-free. 93 international crew members and 20 of their family members have been given permission to return to New Zealand to join the show's pre-production process, though shooting has not yet begun in studios across Auckland. What this means for the show's release date remains to be seen, though it's safe to say that this development gives the show a leg up over productions made in the United States, where the film and television industries remain largely at a standstill. Watch this space for updates as we continue to learn more.
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