Wednesday, 8 January 2020


After the success of my round-up post on Amazon's Wheel of Time show last month, I thought it might be worthwhile to do another one bringing everyone up to date on what's going on with Amazon's other huge fantasy epic, The Lord of the Rings: The Second Age.

The Lord of the Rings: The Second Age - which may not be its final title - is a TV series set in J.R.R. Tolkien's signature fantasy setting of Middle-earth. It is a prequel to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and draws on material in Tolkien's other writings, most notably The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales.

The series is being made by Amazon Studios, with New Line Cinema and their parent company Warner Brothers involved as producers.

The show is officially in production. A small amount of shooting was apparently undertaken in November 2019 to hit a development deadline (without which Amazon would have lost the rights). Full production is expected start next month in Auckland, New Zealand and run for two months. This will be followed by a pause as the studio prepares further scripts and material for the second season, after which production is expected to run for at least the rest of the year and likely into 2021, during which time most or all of two seasons will be produced.

According to comments from creative consultant Tom Shippey, Amazon are planning to shoot twenty episodes in total during the initial production bloc, which will likely consist of two ten-episode seasons.

The first season is likely to air in late 2021, with the second season to follow in 2022.

Development of the project began in August 2017 when Christopher Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien's son and literary executor since 1973, resigned from the board of the Tolkien Estate. Christopher had long been opposed to authorising any TV or film adaptation of Tolkien's other Middle-earth material; the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movie trilogies were made only because J.R.R. Tolkien had sold the film rights way back in 1969, before his passing. The other members of the Tolkien Estate, including two of Christopher's own sons (one of whom had worked on the Jackson movies) and his younger sister Priscilla (who had advised on Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated film), were much more open to further collaborations with film-makers. In addition, the Tolkien Estate had several times had to take legal action to recover licence fees not paid properly from the films. With them being more closely involved in the new series, they could avoid this problem.

The Tolkien Estate themselves seems to have initiated discussions on the project, teaming with New Line Cinema (the subsidiary of Warner Brothers had had owned the Lord of the Rings movie rights since the late 1990s) to put together a package. This package appears to have consisted of certain time-limited rights to Unfinished Tales and some material from The Silmarillion (but not The Silmarillion as a whole, which the Estate considers to be a real goldmine for a future, much bigger collaboration). This deal was then shopped to at least three companies: HBO, Netflix and Amazon. HBO rejected the idea out of hand, as they remained committed to their Game of Thrones fantasy franchise. Netflix balked at the $250 million asking price for just the rights, reportedly counter-offering $100 million. When this was turned down, they decided not to proceed any further. However, Amazon, who had recently been ordered by Jeff Bezos to find "their Game of Thrones" was receptive and paid the fee up-front.

Amazon and the Tolkien Estate appear to have entered into a prolonged period of negotiation with the full deal not concluded until May 2018, although it was announced earlier (possibly to prevent any other companies from trying to jump on board and gazump Amazon, although this appears to have been unlikely).

It should be noted that the Tolkien Estate and New Line did not enter into any kind of agreement with MGM, who continue to own the film and TV rights to The Hobbit. New Line and MGM's collaboration on Peter Jackson's Hobbit movie trilogy had been tempestuous and reportedly the main reason for that trilogy's contentious filming and reception (including the decision to extend the adaptation from two standard-length films to three very long movies). Whether MGM was invited to the party and declined, or whether the Estate and New Line decided to simply not go there in the first place, is unclear. With the storyline of The Hobbit not expected to play any role in the new series, it may have been deemed unnecessary.

Content & Story
The content of the show remained a mystery for a long time, with rumours of a "Young Aragorn" series set between the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies circulating (mainly from The One, a fansite that had made its name through its exhausting coverage of Jackson's original trilogy but has had a much spottier record with covering this new series). This appears to have been based on the "interquel" movie idea proposed by Peter Jackson and Guillermo Del Toro in the early 2010s, when to address MGM's demands for a trilogy they suggested a two-film adaptation of The Hobbit and a new movie focusing on Legolas, Aragorn and Gollum set between the two series. Significant development work was done on this idea before it was dropped. This led some fans to conclude that this existing material would make a starting point for the series.

This initial idea, which was not well-received by fans, was soon replaced by a much more promising one. The series would instead be set in the Second Age of Tolkien's legendarium, the time when the One Ring was forged, when Sauron first made war upon elves and men and when the world was dominated by the mighty island-empire of Numenor in the uttermost west. This idea also seems to have gained traction from the enormous success of Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor, a 2014 video game which featured extensive flashbacks to this time period.

Despite almost a year passing since the confirmed Second Age setting, Amazon have not yet firmly confirmed the precise setting and background. The most likely starting place for the story would be circa the year 1600 of the Second Age, when Sauron, disguised as an elven prince named Annatar, makes alliance with Celebrimbor, Lord of Eregion, and works with him to create the Rings of Power. This leads Sauron to create the One Ruling Ring and unleashing his armies on the elves. The elves are almost defeated, but an alliance with Numenor swings the balance in the other direction. Sauron then resolves to destroy Numenor, helping first corrupt it and then tricking its rulers into bringing about their own downfall. This leads, many centuries later, into the War of the Last Alliance as seen in the opening to The Fellowship of the Ring.

To do this story justice, the TV show would have to be an anthology of sorts, leaping forward perhaps years or decades between episodes and centuries between seasons. The immortal elven characters, such as Elrond and Galadriel, could appear throughout the show's run, but the human cast will likely have to change on a regular basis.

The new series appears to be using artwork, ideas and material which first appeared in Unfinished Tales (1980), marking the first time the Tolkien Estate has allowed post-Lord of the Rings material to be adapted.

Budget & Rights
Amazon have already paid $250 million for the rights to make the series and have pledged a budget of no less than $10 million per episode and up to $15 million per episode. They have also provisionally agreed to a five-year run for the series (and have already renewed the show for a second season). This doesn't mean that the show will run five seasons regardless, even if it is a massive bomb, only that this is the current plan. If five ten-episode seasons are made at the maximum budget, then combined with the initial rights payment this will give a round figure of $1 billion, or almost twice what HBO paid to make eight seasons of Game of Thrones. This would comfortably make The Second Age the most expensive ongoing TV show ever made.

Because Warner Brothers and New Line are involved, the project has inherited their screen rights to The Lord of the Rings and its appendices in full, which is likely why the project has so far borne the title "The Lord of the Rings" despite being set long before that book. The use of the map of Numenor - a copyrighted part of Unfinished Tales - on promotional material seems to confirm that the Tolkien Estate has also provided rights to that book. As well as the map, Unfinished Tales contains a detailed history of the Second Age and several short stories set during that time period, as well as extensive information about the goings-on of characters such as Galadriel and Elrond. One unknown is whether the Tolkien Estate has provided rights to The Silmarillion, as one large section of that book ("The Akallabeth") focuses on the Downfall of Numenor and the arising of the more familiar kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor from its ashes. It would be hard to tell the story of the Second Age in full without access to that material.

Intriguingly, composer Brian Ralston recently posted some music from an audition for the role of composer which was rejected. This music includes nods to lyrics from The Lost Road, part of the History of Middle-earth series, which suggests that the deal may include material from those books as well.

The show's title has not been officially confirmed, with Amazon referring to it only as The Lord of the Rings or "the Lord of the Rings TV series". This is likely due to rights issues, confirming it is a spin-off from the existing TV licencing deal, and not related to the Hobbit movies.

The final title will likely be something along the lines of The Lord of the Rings: The Second Age or The Rings of Power, or something along those lines.

The Creative Team
The showrunners of the series are Patrick McKay and John D. Payne. Payne & McKay have built up some interest in Hollywood based on the quality of their early scripts, although their only produced script of note is that for the film Star Trek Beyond (2016), which was heavily revised prior to shooting. Notably, McKay and Payne had no showrunning or production experience before landing this job, which some has felt is an odd choice for what should be the most in-demand job in Hollywood.

The other writers include Jason Cahill (NYPD Blue, The Sopranos, Fringe, Halt & Catch Fire), Justin Doble (Stranger Things, Fringe, Into the Badlands), Stephany Folsom (Toy Story 4), Gennifer Hutchison (Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad), Glenise Mullins (Mine, Gray) and Helen Shang (13 Reasons Why, Hannibal).

The show's creative writing consultant is Bryan Cogman, who wrote many of the best-received episodes of Game of Thrones. The other consultants are Tom Shippey, a respected Tolkien scholar for many decades (best-known for The Road to Middle-earth), and John Howe, one of the most respected Tolkien artists. Howe previously worked on the Jackson movies as a concept artist and art consultant.

The only confirmed director at the moment is J.A. Bayona (A Monster Calls, The Ophanage, Penny Dreadful, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), who will direct the first two episodes of the series. Mathew Dunne and David Waters are currently reported to be assistant directors.

The other confirmed production team members are as follows:

  • Production Designer: Rick Henrichs
  • Art Direction: John Dexter
  • Costumer Designer: Kate Hawley
  • Production Manager: Jared Connon
  • Concept Art: Igor Knezevic
  • Storyboard Art: Kur van der Basch
  • Visual Effects: Dane Allan Smith, Jason Smith, The Third Floor (company)

Many more key creatives are yet to be announced, including the musical side of things. It is also unclear if Weta Workshop/Digital are going to be involved in any capacity. Peter Jackson has reportedly talked to the new team and wished them well, but declined to be involved in an official capacity.

Markella Kavenagh, reportedly playing the female lead of the new series.

The Cast
To date, almost all of the casting announcements for the show have come through secondary sources (such as agents and casting companies) with Amazon declining to confirm or deny anything. Many of these actors have also reportedly auditioned using codenames or fake names in the scripts to preserve secrecy, meaning we don't even know if this is who they'll really be playing. Still, the names announced so far are as follows:

  • Robert Aramayo (Game of Thrones) as Beldor, the male lead
  • Markella Kavenagh (The Cry, Romper Stomper) as Tyra, the female lead
  • Morfydd Clark (His Dark Materials) as Galadriel, a younger version of the character played by Cate Blanchett
  • Joseph Mawle (Game of ThronesRipper) as Oren, a villain
  • Maxim Baldry (Years and Years, Rome)
  • Ema Horvath (Like.Share.Follow)

For now, this is all the information we have on the project. Hopefully Amazon will release some more information once full production begins in a few weeks.

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Andy said...

Hate to quibble about your excellent blog, which I thoroughly enjoy, but Annatar is not an elf.

"In Eregion Sauron posed as an emissary of the Valar sent by them to Middle-earth..." (p. 236-237, Unfinished Tales)

This is a cool little snippet because it shows Sauron anticipating the role that Gandalf would later play. Sauron expected the Valar would send an emissary long before they actually did, and he used this facade to gain acceptance among the Noldor. His trickery must have made Gandalf's job harder, as he had to overcome the suspicion that he and the other Wizards could also have been Maiar that followed Morgoth, or anything else really, and not emissaries of the Valar.

If this point is covered in the new show it could really add texture to Sauron's character. He's previously just been the big bad, but a subtle and devious anti-Gandalf that can completely mislead Celebrimbor, and probably cast doubt in the minds of Elrond and Galadriel would be a must see. I hope the show makes the most of this fair-seeming facade until Sauron loses it in the fall of Numenor. And I dearly hope that this sort of content is not prohibited by the rights issues you mention.

Adam Whitehead said...

That's technically true, although the guise that Annatar comes in appears to be that of an elf. At least every single piece of artwork I've ever seen of him depicts him as such, since it's unlikely the elves would give him the time of day if he showed up as a human.