Orcs, trolls, and wargs, beware! Amazon Studios is bringing audiences back to Middle-earth with a new prequel series set in The Second Age, thousands of years before the events of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Early reports indicate that the first season will hit Prime Video by 2021, and now the series has a prominent director and writing team working on it, as well as at least one actress attached.
Amazon issued a press release in November 2017 confirming the acquisition of global television rights for The Lord of The Rings and its intent to produce a prequel series with a multi-season commitment. The series is reported to “explore new storylines preceding J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring,” and the deal also includes rights for a potential spinoff series. Here’s everything we know about the show so far.
Warning: Spoiler alert!
New lead and scheduling update
Robert Aramayo, who played young Ned Stark on HBO’s Game of Thrones, has replaced Will Poulter as the show’s hero, currently known as Beldor. Poulter was forced to exit the project due to scheduling conflicts.
After issuing an early season 2 renewal in November, Amazon opted to take a 4-5-month hiatus after filming the first two episodes of season 1 in order to develop and write the bulk of the scripts for season 2. The sprawling series has yet to begin shooting.
Amazon’s Lord of the Rings spinoff is still a ways off from assembling a full fellowship, but it does have at least two cast members. In September 2019, Variety reported that Will Poulter, who helped kick off 2019 with a star-making turn in Netflix’s interactive movie, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, and helped scare audiences this summer Midsommar, has been cast in a lead role in the series. Variety does not know which character Poulter will play, although we have a few educated guesses.
In addition, Variety claims that Australian actress Markella Kavenagh has been added to the show. Amazon is keeping Kavenagh’s character a secret, so we don’t know if she’ll be playing a human, an elf, or something else. In fact, even her name remains a mystery: Variety says that Kavenagh will be playing “Tyra,” but other outlets say it’s “Kyra.”
If Kavenagh’s name isn’t familiar to you, you’re not alone. So far, the actress has only had a few roles, mostly on Australian television shows. Expect that to change soon. By all indications, The Lord of the Rings will be big enough to make Kavenagh into a major star.
Sticking to the canon
Tolkien purists can breathe a sigh of relief, as Amazon’s deal for the rights to the Lord of the Rings series reportedly include quite a few rules regarding the show’s faithfulness to the source material.
Speaking to the German Tolkien Society, Tolkien scholar and series supervisor Tom Shippey indicated that the Tolkien estate has veto power over any content in the series that doesn’t correspond with the author’s vision for the saga.
“The Tolkien estate will insist that the main shape of the Second Age is not altered,” said Shippey. “Sauron invades Eriador, is forced back by a Númenorean expedition, returns to Númenor. There, he corrupts the Númenoreans and seduces them to break the ban of the Valar. All this, the course of history, must remain the same.”
Shippey also confirmed that the Third Age of Middle-earth — in which The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are set — is off-limits for the series, suggesting that there won’t be any hobbits to be found in the show.
Going big behind the camera
After a few months without any updates, Amazon’s Lord of the Rings prequel series offered up some big news when it was announced that Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom director J.A. Bayona would helm the first two episodes of the show.
Bayona will direct from scripts penned by a writing team led by JD Payne and Patrick McKay, which also reportedly includes Gennifer Hutchison (Breaking Bad) and Bryan Cogman (Game of Thrones). Bayona will also serve as an executive producer alongside his longtime producing partner Belén Atienza.
Best known for his Jurassic World sequel (pictured above), Bayona first gained Hollywood’s attention with his critically acclaimed 2007 horror film The Orphanage, which earned him multiple awards. He later directed disaster drama The Impossible, starring Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and Tom Holland, and then helmed the supernatural drama A Monster Calls, featuring Sigourney Weaver and Liam Neeson in key roles. Known for crafting dark, epic thrillers with plenty of emotional resonance, Bayona also directed the first two episodes of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful series.
Not a ranger’s tale?
Contrary to a widely circulated, May 2018 report indicating the first season of the series will follow a young Aragorn (the character portrayed by Viggo Mortensen in The Lord of the Rings trilogy), Amazon’s series will, in fact, be set thousands of years earlier in the history of Middle-earth.
— TheOneRing.net (@theoneringnet) May 16, 2018
That early report was initially challenged when Amazon released a map of Middle-earth at the time when the series is set. The map revealed several landmarks in Tolkien’s fictional universe that seemed to indicate the show’s timeline would begin hundreds of years before Aragorn was even born.
According to Tolkienthot:
UNLESS MY MEMORY FAILS ME, IT WAS BUILT APPROX. 2000 YEARS (OR CLOSE) INTO THE SECOND AGE. HOWEVER:
It was destroyed after Sauron’s defeat by The Last Alliance of Men and rebuilt thousands of years later when Sauron returned.
Minas Anor didn’t become MINAS TIRITH until AFTER Osgiliath and Ithil were lost by Gondor. I’m beginning to become quite confident that show most definitely isn’t about Young Aragorn.
This is WAY before he was born. Give or take 931 years.
That assessment was then confirmed by Amazon with a post on Twitter indicating that the show will be set during The Second Age of Middle-earth — a period of several thousand years that encompassed the rise of the villain Sauron and the creation of the One Ring. (For reference, Aragorn was born several thousand years into the period known as the Third Age of Middle-earth, which encompassed the events of both The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings films.)
In February 2019, Amazon released an interactive map of Middle-earth featuring the lands that will be featured in the upcoming live-action series.
????️ ???? Explore the map: https://t.co/z9WOqI9Seo
— The Lord of the Rings on Prime (@LOTRonPrime) February 15, 2019
The map was revealed via a pair of posts on Twitter, with the first introduced with a passage from the original saga reading, “Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky …” A follow-up post offered a link to the interactive map, which lets users zoom in and out on various locations throughout Middle-earth.
A second map was released in March, offering a few more details about the landscape at the time of the series.
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne. In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie. pic.twitter.com/hRmGQbOhLj
— The Lord of the Rings on Prime (@LOTRonPrime) March 6, 2019
Another interactive map was released a day later, and this one was accompanied by official confirmation of the series’ setting in The Second Age of Middle-earth.
Welcome to the Second Age: https://t.co/Tamd0oRgTw
— The Lord of the Rings on Prime (@LOTRonPrime) March 7, 2019
Target date and more
In an exclusive interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Jennifer Salke — the recently installed head of Amazon Studios — divulged lots of interesting information regarding the action plan for Amazon over the next few years. The Lord of the Rings series came up, as you might expect, and Salke offered some tidbits worth sharing.
Most prominently, Salke confirmed that Amazon is targeting a 2021 debut for the series, even saying some involved parties would prefer 2020. Salke also says negotiations with Peter Jackson are ongoing, and that the two haven’t yet made a decision regarding his involvement or its capacity. She says that, instead of finding a showrunner and allowing that person to assemble a group of writers, Amazon plans to source talented writers and then elevate one to a position of leadership.
Wait, how much money?
Several months after the acquisition, more details of the deal emerged, with The Hollywood Reporter indicating that the series has a five-season commitment and a budget that will collectively amount to more than $1 billion. That massive sum — one of the largest budgets any series has ever been granted from the start — doesn’t include the spinoff series that’s also expected to come out of the primary show. The entire arrangement is contingent on the series beginning production within two years, so the project appears to be on a fast track.
Also mentioned among the reported details is the potential for “material from the films” to be used in the series, and the possibility that The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit franchise director Jackson could also be involved in the show. According to the report, Jackson’s attorney, Peter Nelson, “helped start a dialogue between Jackson and Amazon” regarding the series. Whether Jackson gets involved is entirely up to him, the report claims.
The first reports regarding Amazon entering a bidding war for the rights to properties related to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings and Hobbit series emerged late in 2017, with CEO Jeff Bezos personally involved in those negotiations. According to Variety, Amazon had designs from the start on producing a multiseason television series based on the books, with Bezos hoping that the show can become the “next Game of Thrones” (in terms of ubiquity). While it’s rare for a CEO to engage in such matters directly, Tolkien’s work is a particularly valuable property.
The show will be produced by Amazon Studios in collaboration with the Tolkien Estate and Trust, HarperCollins, and New Line Cinema, and could be a major coup for Amazon, which has had success with original series like Transparent and The Man in The High Castle, but has yet to produce a “must-see” series like Game of Thrones or Netflix’s Stranger Things. The yet-to-be-named series will be an Amazon Prime exclusive, and we don’t yet know when it will see the light of day.
The initial news came on the heels of a shake-up at the executive level of Amazon’s original programming division, with president Roy Price departing under the cloud of a sexual harassment scandal. Executives Joe Lewis and Conrad Riggs departed soon afterward, and executive Morgan Wandell jumped ship for Apple, which is looking to bolster its own original series efforts.
From the start, there were some eye-popping numbers involved in the deal. The rights payments alone for the property are reportedly in the $200 to $250 million range. According to the report, that payment had to be made sight unseen before a single line had been written or actor had been cast.
Updated on January 8, 2020: Added news of Robert Aramayo replacing Will Poulter in lead role and scheduling updates.