The series will explore storylines set before the events in the first LOTR novel, The Fellowship of the Ring

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING, Elijah Wood, 2003, (c) New Line/courtesy Everett Coll
Credit: THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING, Elijah Wood, 2003, (c) New Line/courtesy Everett Collection

Amazon has officially greenlit one show that it hopes to rule them all.

The company has made a multi-season production commitment to a television adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings.

It’s a major deal securing one of the biggest brands in pop culture for what’s likely to be one of the most expensive TV shows ever made.

But there’s a catch, creatively speaking: The series will explore storylines set before the events in the first LOTR novel, The Fellowship of the Ring. In other words: The war to destroy the One Ring as chronicled in Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning trilogy of films will not be told in the TV version. So this story is either set before The Hobbit or in between The Hobbit and LOTR.

This something we’ve seen with other recent TV series when they tackle major cinematic titles with certain rights restrictions. Like how Fox’s Gotham can tell the story of young Bruce Wayne but not Batman, how FX’s Legion and Fox’s The Gifted have to avoid using the term “X-Men” even though they’re X-Men projects, or how Syfy’s upcoming series based on The Purge films will be set in between actual Purges.

Amazon’s deal includes a potential addition of a spin-off series as well.

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“We are delighted that Amazon, with its longstanding commitment to literature, is the home of the first-ever multi-season television series for The Lord of the Rings,” said Matt Galsor, a representative for the Tolkien Estate and Trust and HarperCollins. “Sharon and the team at Amazon Studios have exceptional ideas to bring to the screen previously unexplored stories based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s original writings.”

There’s no cast or premiere date yet, but the series will eventually stream on Amazon Prime.

The move by Amazon comes as HBO prepares to conclude its mammoth fantasy hit Game of Thrones, which will almost certainly premiere its final six episodes in 2019. HBO is developing multiple potential prequel series based on author George R.R. Martin’s Westerosi history, though none are guaranteed to air.

In a way, Amazon’s LOTR project and HBO’s GoT prequels face the exact same challenge: The great high-stakes story and beloved characters that made each tale such a classic will have already been told — and both benefited from mining a fantasy author’s years of extraordinary effort producing more than a thousand pages of intricate creative storytelling. So can a network find writers who can successfully bootstrap a relatively new-ish story set in these familiar fantasy worlds that capture at least some percentage of the original work’s worldwide appeal?

This is what Marvel is already doing with its big screen heroes and Disney with its new Star Wars titles, so it’s certainly possible. A series is in some respects more difficult than pulling off two-hour film, however. As a wise man once wrote: “You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off…”

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