Amazon has entered its Second Age. Jeff Bezos stepped down as CEO last year, a generation after founding the company in 1994. Amazon’s market value has become second only to Apple and Microsoft, its revenues and number of employees are both second only to Walmart, and its profitability – after being famously unprofitable or profit-neutral until about 2017 – now ranks near the world’s highest.
Middle Earth, meanwhile, is entering its Third Age. Christopher Tolkien, the good steward and workhorse of his father JRR’s writings, passed away in 2020 at 95 years old. His editing and publishing occupied a forty-year period, beginning five years after his father’s death with The Silmarillion in 1978 – itself forty years after The Hobbit was published. This same generation saw a trilogy of Middle Earth film trilogies produced, starting in 1977 with The Hobbit, the first of three animated movies by two different companies in the 1970s, later continuing with the live-action Lord of the Rings movies directed by Peter Jackson in the 2000s, and finally coming full circle to end in a live-action/CGI hybrid Hobbit trilogy by Peter Jackson, which wrapped in 2014.
The move to Middle Earth TV is in some ways a continuation of the trend, shown in the chart above, of Tolkien adaptations becoming less and less rushed. The early animated trilogy had to cram The Hobbit and LOTR into roughly five hours of film. Then in the 2000s trilogy, each successive film got longer (even as each book gets shorter) on its path towards Mt. Doom and Best Picture. And in the recent, butter-spread-over-too-much-bread Hobbit trilogy, it took eight hours to cover the material within a single children’s book.
The last, and draggiest, of these, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, covered only a few chapters. As one reviewer wrote, quoting from the book, “So began a battle that none had expected; and it was called the battle of the five armies, and it was very terrible.”
Many reviewers, indeed, pointed out the hypocrisy of Hollywood in making two extraneous Hobbit movies both of which centred around the theme of not lusting after gold. It was additionally irritating, to fans of the book, that despite making three long movies when one would have been more than sufficient, the films still cut many of the book’s scenes out of the story.
Ultimately, maybe the best that can be said about the Tolkien film era is that old cliche about a .300 batting average being Hall of Fame worthy. 6 of the 9 movies were whiffs. Even the three live-action LOTR films, which are excellent in their own, Hollywoodized way, still did not have the runtime or the subtlety to include or do justice to characters and scenes that many fans of the books wanted to see. One might hope TV could provide the time needed to amend this. But that is not going to happen, as a Lord of the Rings show is not what is being planned. The new show will not be covering any of The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. It might not even be allowed to cover most of The Silmarillion. Instead, Amazon will more or less have to build a world from scratch.
A lot of scratch. At an estimated 250 million dollars just to buy the rights to the books’ title and backstory, and then a first-season production budget reported to be 465 million dollars, Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings will be far and away (and back again) the most expensive show ever made.
What has it got in its pocketses?
But what precisely is that story that Amazon bought? It will not be allowed to cover the long, mythic First Age of Tolkien’s invented universe, which is detailed in The Silmarillion and features a cast of demi-gods, fallen devils, early humans and prideful elves. Nor can it cover the heroic Third Age in which The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings are set, with its hobbits and wizards and fellowships and rings.
Instead, it will be left with the mostly missing middle of Middle Earth, the antediluvian Second Age, centering on a Tolkienian version of Atlantis – Numenor, the numinous isle – peopled by a Methuselean race of humans who, corrupted by power and pride and fear of death, decide to assail the gods in a petition for immortality. In response, the God sinks the island (a Flood dream Tolkien himself claimed to have had recurringly in his life), removes the immortal god-lands to beyond the reach of men, and sends a surviving remnant of worthy Atlanteans back to the mainland. There, they found the besieged, dwindling kingdom that, centuries later, Viggo Mortensen will redeem and rule.
So… there are certainly some big ideas here as fodder for new canon. But there is also little in the way of specifics. The show’s era will predate established settings like the Shire, so Amazon will likely have to situate its HQ2 on Numenor instead, then try to staff it with new compelling characters and dialogue. According to the show’s official synopsis:
“Amazon Studios’ upcoming series brings the heroic legends of the legendary Second Age in Middle-earth history to screens for the very first time. This epic drama takes place thousands of years before the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and will take viewers back to a time when great powers were forged, kingdoms rose to glory and crumbled, unlikely heroes were tested, hope hangs on the thinnest of strings, and the greatest villain that ever flowed from Tolkien’s pen threatened to cover everyone in darkness. Beginning in a time of relative peace, the series follows a set of characters, both familiar and new, as they face the dreaded re-emergence of evil in Middle-earth. From the darkest depths of the Misty Mountains, to the majestic forests of the elven capital of Lindon, to the breathtaking island kingdom of Númenor, to the far reaches of the map, these kingdoms and characters will carve out legacies that will endure long after they left. ”
You might, perhaps, want to set this against an earlier quote by Tolkien, made in 1963:
I am doubtful myself about the undertaking [of publishing Hobbit-LOTR prequels]. Part of the attraction of the Lord of the Rings is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed. Also many of the older legends are purely ‘mythological’, and nearly all are grim and tragic.
As with the three Hobbit movies’ repeated warning against greed, the irony may abound yet again in this adaptation. The world’s most famous chaser of both the heavens and immortality, Jeff Bezos, is behind this show that will likely have as one of its main plots the Numenorean folly of sailing upon the heavens in an attempt to seize immortality. (Well, Bezos is at least one of the most famous of these chasers. The other, Elon Musk, has Tolkien ties too. One of the major investors in Musk’s company SpaceX is his old PayPal Peter Thiel, whose software company Palantir, which just went public earlier this year, is named for the tragic sight-seeing orbs in the Lord of the Rings. Thiel is also, after Bezos, probably the most prominent member of the billionaires-for-immortality club). Between Mars and Middle Earth, the world’s richest men seem to want to influence the sci fi and fantasy shelves of our imagination…
I am going to make a prediction here, though it may be much too cynical. I predict that this television show will be received so poorly that Amazon Studios will not make anywhere near the five seasons it has said it is planning – and maybe will not even make beyond the second season that it has already preordered. It will become, like the isle of Numenor, a legendary, cataclysmic sunk cost.
If I’m wrong about this, there will at least be plenty of time to glimpse all of those unattainable Second Age vistas. If Amazon’s five-season plan is carried out, that would presumably end up being 30-50+ hours of TV. (Season 1 is expected to have 20 episodes). 50 hours would be more than twice the combined length of all 9 Tolkien movies that currently exist! Fans wanted more Middle Earth. Amazon, as always, can deliver you what you want. It just comes with a lot of junk.
Any prancing pony can be a neigh-sayer (forgive me). But it’s harder to say exactly what you do want. If you could take the trillion-dollar reigns from Amazon, and manage to secure the rights for the LOTR books and The Hobbit, what would you want a new adaptation to look like?
I would certainly be interested to see a LOTR tv show. Having had my memory of the books jogged by this incredible, one-of-a-kind-audiobook made by Phil Dragash, I have a rough idea of my favorite scenes and characters that did not really make it into the Peter Jackson movies: Gandalf debating with his articulate foils Saruman and Denethor, the Boromir-Faramir-Denethor family dialectic, hobbit and hobbit-adjacent characters like the Sackville Bagginses, Barliman Butterbur, Ted Sandyman and “Sharky”, gaffers Gloin and Hamfast Gamgee, the Gandalf-and-Aragorn playing at Merlin-and-Arthur denouement (one of the Return of the King’s many denouements…), and even major characters like Bilbo and Gimli, both of whom get many of the books’ best lines, which the movies did not have enough run time to cover. Even the somewhat awkward Faramir-Eowyn denouement, and that talking eagle who third-wheels them, I’m into it.
Nevertheless, for a number of reasons, these books are not at all easy to adapt well, especially not for mainstream audiences to enjoy. The Hobbit, in contrast, is a very easy book to adapt well, for kids and adults alike, in addition to being the necessary introduction to the LOTR. That’s why it’s a particular shame that both of the past attempts at Hobbit adaptations have been so disastrous. But, as they say, third time pays for all. A new Hobbit movie could be a good place to start, before considering whether or not to go on to do a longer-form Lord of the Rings adaptation afterwards.
If a new Hobbit adaptation were made, to distinguish it from the iconic Hobbiton created by Peter Jackson and the amazing Ians Mackellan and Holm (as well as Andy Serkis’ infamous Gollum), I think it might be best to animate it. Maybe even to animate in a style based on Tolkien’s own beautiful hand-drawn Hobbit artwork: