The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is an American fantasy television series developed by J. D. Payne and Patrick McKay for Amazon Prime Video. Based on the novel The Lord of the Rings and its appendices by J. R. R. Tolkien, the series is set in the Second Age of Middle-earth, thousands of years before Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is produced by Amazon Studios in association with New Line Cinema, and in consultation with the Tolkien Estate.
Amazon bought the television rights for The Lord of the Rings from the Tolkien Estate in November 2017, making a five-season production commitment worth at least $US1 billion. This would make it the most expensive television series ever made. Payne and McKay were hired in July 2018. The series is primarily based on the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, which include discussion of the Second Age, and Tolkien’s grandson Simon Tolkien was consulted on the development of the series. Per the requirements of Amazon’s deal with the Tolkien Estate, it is not a continuation of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies, despite having the involvement of New Line Cinema, responsible for both trilogies. The production intended to evoke the films using similar production design, younger versions of characters from the films, and a main theme by Howard Shore, who composed the music for the trilogies. Bear McCreary composed the series’s score. A large international cast was hired, and filming for the eight-episode first season took place in New Zealand, where the films were produced, from February 2020 to August 2021 (with a production break due to the COVID-19 pandemic). Amazon moved production for future seasons to the United Kingdom, where filming for the second season began on October 3, 2022.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power premiered on September 1, 2022, with the first two episodes, which Amazon stated had the most viewers for a Prime Video premiere. The rest of the eight-episode first season ran until October 14. It has received generally positive reviews from critics, with particular praise for its cinematography, visuals, and musical score, but criticism for its pacing and characterization.
Background and announcement
In July 2017, a lawsuit was settled between Warner Bros., the studio behind The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies, and the estate of author J. R. R. Tolkien upon whose books those films were based. With the two sides “on better terms”, they began offering the rights to a potential television series based on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to several outlets, including Amazon, Netflix, and HBO, with a starting price of US$200 million. Amazon emerged as the frontrunner by September and entered negotiations. Uncommonly for programming developments at the studio, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was personally involved with the negotiations. Bezos had previously given Amazon Studios a mandate to develop an ambitious fantasy series of comparable scale to HBO’s Game of Thrones. The studio decided to pursue The Lord of the Rings, which Bezos was a personal fan of. This made Amazon the lead contender for the project.
Amazon initially pitched a retelling of The Lord of the Rings similar to Peter Jackson’s film series, but this was rejected by the Tolkien Estate. Netflix meanwhile pitched developing several shows centering on characters like Gandalf and Aragorn, which was also rejected. Amazon eventually managed to convince the estate without any specific pitch, through a combination of its bid amount and by promising it a role in making creative decisions. On November 13, 2017, it was reported that Amazon had acquired the global television rights for close to US$250 million. Industry commentators described this amount before any production costs and without any creative talent attached to the project as “insane”, although some considered the project to be more of a reputational risk for Amazon than a financial one due to Bezos’s wealth. The Hollywood Reporter however later reported that the $250 million bid was made by Netflix and Amazon’s bid was less by tens of millions of dollars, though it was still a substantial one.
Amazon’s streaming service Prime Video gave a multi-season commitment to the series, with the possibility of a spin-off series as well. The budget was expected to be in the range of US$100–150 million per season, and was likely to eventually exceed US$1 billion which would make it the most expensive television series ever made. Warner Bros. Television was not involved in the project because Amazon Studios wanted to produce it themselves. Amazon was working with the Tolkien Estate and Trust, HarperCollins, and New Line Cinema (the Warner Bros. division who produced the films). New Line was reportedly included to allow the series to use material from the films. The Tolkien Estate imposed some creative restrictions on the series, and the deal stipulated that production begin within two years.
In April 2018, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film director Peter Jackson had begun discussing his potential involvement with Amazon, but by June he was not expected to be involved in the series. Later that month, Head of Amazon Studios Jennifer Salke said discussions regarding Jackson’s involvement were ongoing, and added that the deal for the series had only been officially completed a month earlier. The studio had been meeting with potential writers about the project and intended to have a game plan for the series and a writing team set “very soon”, with the hope that the series could debut in 2021. The studio asked for story pitches based on anything in Tolkien’s The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and its appendices. These included prequel stories focused on characters such as Aragorn, Gimli, and Gandalf. J. D. Payne and Patrick McKay pitched a series that explored the major events of Middle-earth’s Second Age, thousands of years before The Lord of the Rings, including the forging of the Rings of Power, the rise of the Dark Lord Sauron, the fall of the island kingdom of Númenor, and the last alliance between Elves and Men. These events were covered in a five-minute prologue in the Lord of the Rings films, but the pair wanted to expand this into “50 hours of television”. Payne said it felt like “an amazing, untold story” that was “worthy of Tolkien”, and McKay added, “We didn’t want to do a side thing. A spinoff or the origin story of something else. We wanted to find a huge Tolkienian mega epic, and Amazon agreed”. Payne and McKay were hired to develop the series in July 2018. They were an unlikely choice, having only done unproduced or uncredited writing before the series, but their vision aligned with Amazon’s and they were championed to the studio by director J. J. Abrams who worked with them on an unproduced Star Trek film.
In December, Jackson said he and his producing partners would read some scripts for the series and offer notes on them, but otherwise he would enjoy watching a Tolkien adaptation that he did not make. Bryan Cogman joined the series as a consultant in May 2019 after signing an overall deal with Amazon. Cogman previously served as a writer on Game of Thrones, and was set to work alongside Payne and McKay in developing the new series. In July, J. A. Bayona was hired to direct the first two episodes of the series and serve as executive producer alongside his producing partner Belén Atienza. Later that month, Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss were in discussions with several outlets regarding signing an overall deal, including with Amazon who were interested in having the pair consult on The Lord of the Rings; they ultimately signed a deal with Netflix instead. At the end of July, Amazon announced that Payne and McKay would serve as showrunners and executive producers for the series, and revealed the full creative team that was working on the project: executive producers Bayona, Atienza, Bruce Richmond, Gene Kelly, Lindsey Weber, and Sharon Tal Yguado; co-producer Ron Ames; costume designer Kate Hawley; production designer Rick Heinrichs; visual effects supervisor Jason Smith; and illustrator/concept artist John Howe, who was one of the chief conceptual designers on the films. Special effects company Wētā Workshop and visual effects vendor Wētā FX were also expected to be involved in the series as they were for the films. Additionally, Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey was revealed to be working on the series, but he was no longer involved by April 2020; other Tolkien scholars and “lore experts” remained involved.
Following development of the first season, Cogman left the series to focus on developing new projects. Kelly also left the series, while Yguado left when she exited her role as Amazon Studios’ head of genre programming. Callum Greene joined as a new executive producer by December 2020, after previously serving as producer on The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013). Heinrichs was eventually replaced as production designer by Ramsey Avery. In March 2021, Wayne Che Yip was announced as director for four episodes of the series, and was set as a co-executive producer. Charlotte Brändström was revealed as director for another two episodes in May. That August, Jackson said he had not been contacted again about seeing scripts for the series. Amazon explained that the deal to acquire the television rights for The Lord of the Rings required them to keep the series distinct from Jackson’s films, and the Tolkien Estate were reportedly against Jackson’s involvement in the project. Despite this, the showrunners had privately discussed the series with Jackson and Yguado had championed his inclusion before her exit. The second season was revealed that month to have an all-female directing team.
Prime Video gave the series a multi-season commitment, believed to be for five seasons, as part of the initial deal with the Tolkien Estate, though the streaming service still had to give a formal greenlight to future seasons before work could begin on them. In July 2019, Shippey stated that he believed the first season of the series was supposed to consist of 20 episodes. In November, Amazon officially ordered a second season of the series, and scheduled a longer-than-usual four or five month production break after completion of filming on the first two episodes. This was to allow all the footage for the first episodes to be reviewed, and so the series’s writers room could be reconvened to begin work on the second season before filming on the first season continued. This gave the series the option to film the first two seasons back-to-back, as the Lord of the Rings films had been. Amazon announced that the first season would consist of eight episodes in January 2020, and revealed the series’s full title, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, in January 2022. Payne and McKay felt the title could “live on the spine of a book next to J.R.R. Tolkien’s other classics”.
A writers room for the series had begun work in Santa Monica by mid-February 2019. Salke described extensive security measures that were being taken to keep details of this writing secret, including windows being taped closed and a security guard requiring fingerprint clearance from those entering the room. In addition to Payne and McKay, writers on the series include Gennifer Hutchison, Helen Shang, Jason Cahill, Justin Doble, Bryan Cogman, and Stephany Folsom, with Glenise Mullins acting as a consulting writer. The writers room was set to be disbanded once production on the series began, but would be reconvened during the four or five-month break in filming that was scheduled following production on the first two episodes. The writers were expected to map out the second season and write the majority of its scripts during this production break.
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are set during the Third Age, while the First and Second Ages are explored in other Tolkien writings such as The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and The History of Middle-earth. Because Amazon only bought the television rights to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the writers had to identify all of the references to the Second Age in those books and create a story that bridged those passages. These are primarily in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, but also in certain chapters and songs Tolkien’s estate was prepared to veto any changes from his established narrative, including anything that contradicted what Tolkien wrote in other works. The writers were free to add characters or details, and worked with the estate and Tolkien lore experts to ensure these were still “Tolkienian”. They referenced The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien for additional context on the setting and characters. Simon Tolkien, a novelist and the grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien, consulted on the series and helped develop its story and character arcs. He is credited as a “series consultant”. The showrunners disagreed with suggestions that the series was only “vaguely connected” to Tolkien’s writings. McKay said they felt it was “deeply, deeply connected” and a “story we’re stewarding that was here before us and was waiting in those books” to be told. A disclaimer is featured in the series’s end credits stating that some elements are “inspired by, though not contained in, the original source material”.
Payne and McKay knew the series was expected to run for five seasons and were able to plan elements of the final season, including the series’s final shot, while working on the first. Because they were mostly not able to adapt direct dialogue from Tolkien’s Second Age stories, the writers attempted to repurpose Tolkien’s dialogue that they did have access to while also taking inspiration from religious texts and poetry. They tailored the dialogue to different characters using dialects and poetic meters. Leith McPherson returned from the Hobbit films as dialect coach and noted that Tolkien’s fictional languages evolve over time, so they are different for the Second Age compared to the Third. The series’s Elves mostly speak Quenya, a language described as “Elvish Latin” that is often just used for spellcasting in the Third Age. Dwarvish and Orcish are also heard, along with English, Scottish, and Irish dialects. The biggest deviation made from Tolkien’s works, which was approved by the estate and lore experts, was to condense the Second Age from thousands of years to a short period of time. This avoided human characters frequently dying due to their relatively short lifespans, and allowed major characters from later in the timeline to be introduced earlier in the series. The showrunners considered using non-linear storytelling instead, but felt this would prevent the audience from emotionally investing in the series. They said many real-life historical dramas also condense events like this, and felt they were still respecting the “spirit and feeling” of Tolkien’s writings.
After the series was revealed to have hired Jennifer Ward-Lealand as an intimacy coordinator, Tolkien fans expressed concern that it would include Game of Thrones-style graphic sex and violence. Payne and McKay said this would not be the case and the series would be family-friendly. They hoped to evoke the tone of Tolkien’s books, which can be “intense, sometimes quite political, sometimes quite sophisticated but it’s also heartwarming and life-affirming and optimistic.” They also said they did not want to be influenced by modern politics, instead aspiring to tell a timeless story that matched Tolkien’s own intention to create a mythology that would always be applicable.
The first season features several locations not previously seen in the film adaptations, including the Elf-capital Lindon and the island kingdom of Númenor, but it also revisits familiar locations from the films such as Khazad-dûm, which is in ruins during the Lord of the Rings films but is shown in its “full glory” during the series. One of the groups that the series includes are the Harfoots, depicted as precursors to the popular Hobbit race from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Payne and McKay explained that they felt the series would not truly feel like Middle-earth to the audience without Hobbits. Tolkien’s writings state that the Hobbits were not known during the Second Age, so they chose to explore the Harfoots instead, saying they were “satisfyingly Hobbit-adjacent”. The Harfoots are depicted as having a secretive society and their story takes place in the “margins of the bigger quests” which was compared to the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. McKay said the first season was about “reintroducing this world and the return of evil”, focusing on introducing the Second Age of Middle-earth and the heroic major characters rather than telling a “villain-centric” story. Despite being mentioned in a synopsis for the series and being a major character in the Second Age, the Dark Lord Sauron was reported to not be appearing in the first season at all. McKay said the season was influenced by dialogue from the second chapter of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, “The Shadow of the Past”, which he paraphrased as “After a defeat and a respite, a shadow grows again in a new form.” Bayona said the season would hint at the presence of Sauron, and the overall story was about “the repercussions of war and the shadow of the past”. He was influenced by his own childhood growing up in Spain following the Francoist dictatorship.
Salke stated in June 2018 that though the series would not be a remake of the films, it would bring back some characters from them. By July 2019, casting for the series was taking place around the world, with casting directors working in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Casting for extras also began in New Zealand at that time. Due to the secrecy surrounding the series, many actors did not know what roles they were going to play when they were cast. Markella Kavenagh was in talks to portray a character referred to as “Tyra” at the end of July, a series regular role. Will Poulter was cast as one of the series’s leads, reportedly called “Beldor”, in September. The role was described as being “one of the more coveted jobs” for young actors in Hollywood before Poulter’s casting. Maxim Baldry was informally attached to the series in a “significant role” in mid-October, while Joseph Mawle was cast later that month. Mawle was reportedly playing the series’s lead villain, referred to as “Oren”. In December, Ema Horvath was cast in another series regular role; Poulter was forced to leave the series due to scheduling conflicts, with his role set to be recast; and Morfydd Clark was cast as a young version of the character Galadriel, who was portrayed in the films by Cate Blanchett.
Robert Aramayo was cast in a lead role, replacing Poulter, in early January 2020. He was later revealed to be playing a young version of the character Elrond, who was portrayed by Hugo Weaving in the films. A week after Aramayo’s casting, Amazon officially announced his involvement along with the casting of Owain Arthur, Nazanin Boniadi, Tom Budge, Clark, Ismael Cruz Córdova, Horvath, Kavenagh, Mawle, Tyroe Muhafidin, Sophia Nomvete, Megan Richards, Dylan Smith, Charlie Vickers and Daniel Weyman. After six or seven auditions, Vickers was unknowingly cast as Sauron after the showrunners gave him two monologues of William Shakespeare’s play Richard III and of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost to recite for the role as Halbrand; given how the latter monologue was spoken by Satan, Vickers started suspecting that his role was for a villainous character, but remained unaware of Halbrand actually being Sauron until the showrunners told him during the third episode’s filming. Amazon’s co-head of television Vernon Sanders noted that there were still some key roles that had yet to be filled. One of these key roles was confirmed to go to Baldry in March, when his deal for the series was completed. Baldry replaces Harry Sinclair as Isildur, who appeared in flashbacks during the films. In December 2020, Amazon announced 20 new cast members for the series: Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Baldry, newcomer Ian Blackburn, Kip Chapman, Anthony Crum, Maxine Cunliffe, Trystan Gravelle, Lenny Henry, Thusitha Jayasundera, Fabian McCallum, Simon Merrells, Geoff Morrell, Peter Mullan, Lloyd Owen, Augustus Prew, Peter Tait, Alex Tarrant, Leon Wadham, Benjamin Walker, and Sara Zwangobani. Owen and Walker portray Elendil and Gil-galad, who were briefly played by Peter McKenzie and Mark Ferguson in the films.
In March 2021, Budge announced that he had departed the series after filming several episodes. He explained that Amazon had reviewed the first episodes and decided to recast his character, who was reported to be Celebrimbor. Charles Edwards was cast to replace him as Celebrimbor in July, when Will Fletcher, Amelie Child-Villiers, and Beau Cassidy were also added to the season’s cast. Seven of the series’s main actors are New Zealanders, and overall a third of the first season’s 124 speaking roles went to New Zealand actors. The rest of the cast came from Australia, Sri Lanka, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
While promoting the first season at San Diego Comic-Con in July 2022, the showrunners said they would give a role in the second season to television host and avid Tolkien fan Stephen Colbert, who was moderating the series’s panel at the convention. A month later, they said the character Círdan would be introduced in the second season. The character briefly appeared in the Lord of the Rings films portrayed by Michael Elsworth.
- S02E01 – “A Shadow of the Past”
- S02E02 – “Adrift”
- S02E03 – “Adar”
- S02E04 – “The Great Wave”
- S02E05 – “Partings”
- S02E06 – “Udûn”
- S02E07 – “The Eye”
- S02E08 – “Alloyed”
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