Amazon Studios snapped up global TV rights to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in 2017. That has left fans with two full years in which to speculate, dream and monger a stream of wild rumors. But production is finally beginning, and we’re getting our first, tantalizing facts about this much-anticipated fantasy series.
According to a contract signed between Amazon and Tolkien’s estate, production on the series must begin in early 2020—so the network is planning on shooting the first two episodes of Season 1 very soon. This will allow producers and showrunners to evaluate the direction of the series and make corrections before the bulk of the season gets underway. (Pilot episodes are shot, recast, rewritten and reshot all the time in this manner.) Writers, producers and showrunners will have four to five months after the pilot is lensed to get the show in order.
With production on the series ramping up, a number of behind-the-scenes details have begun leaking out. We already know that Amazon Studios paid $250 million for 5 seasons worth of rights to Tolkien’s books. The budget of the series, which will stream on Amazon Prime, is set at $1 billion. That makes it the most expensive TV series in history. (Step aside, “Game of Thrones.”) The showrunners and executive producers (at least for now) are J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, a pair of unknown writers who penned an upcoming, as-yet-untitled Star Trek movie sequel. The two pilot episodes of this LOTR series are going to be directed by Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, A Monster Calls, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom). Amazon has already greenlit a second season, meaning the bulk of season 1 and 2 will be shot back-to-back in New Zealand—just like Peter Jackson’s epic take on the books. (Jackson, however, is not involved in this new series.) Amazon expects the entire shoot to take two years, meaning the show is not likely to premiere until 2021. (Though some fans are still holding out hope for a late 2020 sneak preview.)
Based on the teaser trailers leaked so far, this new series is set during the Second Age of Middle-earth. That time period ends with the first defeat of the villainous Sauron (an incident glimpsed in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings’ opening preamble). That’s about 3,000 years before the events in Tolkien’s famed LOTR trilogy. Little has been mentioned about what shape the story will take. We do know the series will mine Tolkien’s literary history, settings and characters—but it will feature an original, newly developed plotline.
Despite the lack of story details, a few cast members have been mentioned. Australian actress Markella Kavenagh (who appeared in the Picnic at Hanging Rock mini-series) has been cast in the central role of “Tyra”—although, since the character does not exist in Tolkien’s books, the name doesn’t tell us much. Also on the early cast list are Maxim Baldry (“Years and Years”), Will Poulter (The Maze Runner) and Joseph Mawle (“Game of Thrones”). As far as we know, none of the cast from Jackson’s films will be returning for this prequel series. Ian McKellen has said he’s ready, willing and able to play Gandalf the wizard once again—although he admitted in a recent interview that he hasn’t been asked. Producers could go with a younger actor, of course—but since Gandalf is over 7,000 years old, rolling back a few millenia wouldn’t make much of a difference. Also, no one involved with the production has confirmed that Gandalf appears in this story anyway, so this line of speculation could just be a pipe dream.
So far, that’s about it for details. It’s not a lot to go on. While the budget is enough to give LOTR fans hope that the series will look appropriately epic, the idea of spinning new stories within Tolkien’s universe is concerning. Are Payne and McKay and their staff of writers up to the task? Can Bayona match the majesty of what Jackson was able to accomplish? Looks like we’ve got at least another year of rumor mongering before we find out for sure.