It was recently revealed that Warner Bros has a live-action Lord of the Rings TV series in the works. After the initial news broke, it was later confirmed that the series would be going forward at Amazon, and that it will be a prequel series to Lord of the Rings, rather than a direct re-interpretation of the original. This news was followed by the announcement that Christopher Tolkien would be stepping down as estate director, which heralds big changes for the franchise. Mr Tolkien was known for being a Lord of the Rings purist, and someone who was not a fan of the Peter Jackson adaptations.
After the issues with the films and several lawsuits around the use of Tolkien’s works, it seemed that the franchise was finished, but recent events suggest that there is a whole new future for Middle-earth on screen. However, the response to the news was very mixed, with many feeling that a TV series was not the way forward (including John Rhys-Davies). Many feel that this is a cash-grab, not a careful expansion of the universe, and others wondered if it was at all necessary. Fantasy adaptations have moved on since the original films were made, and it may be that Lord of the Rings simply isn’t as relevant as it once was.
There’s no debating that Lord of the Rings is one of the great fantasy epics. Originally published in the 1950s, the series has been adapted to radio, stage, and both an animation and live-action film series. It has inspired music, including songs by Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and even entire bands devoted to fantasy rock like Blind Guardian, whose work is primarily based on Lord of the Rings and other fantasy series. The books were the inspiration for Stephen King’s ‘The Dark Tower’ series, which has also now been adapted for screen, and have also been parodied time and time again.
Within the fantasy genre itself, Lord of the Rings rules as king, with elements of Middle-earth appearing in the vast majority of later fantasy series. Fantasy worlds have borrowed races from Middle-earth to create their own lands populated with elves, dwarves and monsters, and the central concept of a rag-tag band coming together to defeat the greatest evil is so common as to be a staple of the genre at this point. It’s impossible to overestimate the impact that this series, and the worlds that Tolkien created, have had on the high fantasy genre… so it’s not too surprising that Lord of the Rings has been adapted so many times, and that it is being brought to life once again.
Of course, it’s not just the timeless popularity of Lord of the Rings that has led to another adaptation in the works, it’s also the current resurgence of interest in the fantasy genre for television. Genre TV as a whole is enjoying incredible popularity right now, but fantasy got an unexpected boost when a different book series became one of the biggest hits of the past decade: Game of Thrones.
Based on the A Song Of Ice And Fire novels by George R. R. Martin, Game of Thrones dove into full-on fantasy, with dragons, magical resurrections, warring clans facing an overwhelming evil, and a whole lot of swordfighting. It was something of a gamble, given the high production values and the fact that fantasy hasn’t had the greatest history on the small screen, but it was a gamble that paid off in an enormous way. And since Game of Thrones first aired in 2011, several other fantasy series have also started to appear. The Shannara Chronicles has just wrapped up its second season of a world where elves, gnomes, trolls and humans do battle with magic. The Magicians, Once Upon A Time, Shadowhunters and more are all getting a little more attention as the fantasy genre rises in popularity, and with multiple Game of Thrones spin-offs in the works, it seems that TV fantasy is going to enjoy a little more time in the sun.
It is likely that Amazon and Warner Bros are hoping to get in on this renewed interest in magical lands with their new series, and with only one more season of Game of Thrones to go, it’s probable that they will be attempting to launch the new Lord of the Rings in time to capitalize on the hole that Game of Thrones will leave in fans’ viewing schedules.
The big question, though, is not why Amazon is launching this new take on Lord of the Rings, but whether they are going to be able to do it well. Game of Thrones may have boosted the popularity of the fantasy genre, but it has also raised the bar for it. One of the biggest issues with Lord of the Rings is that it is showing its age; almost every character is a white guy, and the few female characters that exist in this world are sidelined as love interests. Warner Bros. attempted to fix this issue in The Hobbit with the introduction of a female elf (played by Evangeline Lilly), but they’ll have to do more than that to make a series appeal to modern viewers.
Another major issue is that this is a world everybody already knows. The characters, their adventures, their futures; these have all been picked over time and time again, and it will be a struggle to make them truly fascinating and novel while living up to fans expectations of them. There has been no confirmation of when the series will take place, besides being a prequel, but placing it before these events means that everyone knows what is going to happen. When one of the most exciting things about Game of Thrones is having no idea what comes next, fans may be less thrilled about a series where there are no surprises. In addition to that, there aren’t likely to be many surprises in store when it comes to world-building either. When one of the most interesting elements of a fantasy world is learning how that world works, and being enchanted by new and stunning vistas, Lord of the Rings‘ popularity works against it. We already know Middle-earth, and we may already know it too well.
In order to stay relevant, a new Lord of the Rings TV series is going to have to overcome these hurdles; and it can do that, as long as it doesn’t fall back on the same old stuff. The new series will have to create new characters to provide interest and diversity, and hopefully explore some new areas of Middle-earth as well. The lore of this world is still interesting, and many fans are hoping for a take on the ‘Silmarillion’, or perhaps an in-depth look at a particular city or race of Middle-earth. Game of Thrones has proven that complex power struggles are incredibly appealing, and this kind of take on Lord of the Rings (perhaps power struggles within the Elf kingdoms) would be more interesting than another straightforward quest… especially when we all know that good will always triumph over evil.