LOTRO Legendarium: What the Amazon TV series means for Lord of the Rings Online

If you haven’t been paying attention to the television market over the past few years, you might have missed the fact that we are in the middle of a revolution of how shows are made and broadcast. Streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, HBO, Disney, and CBS are greenlighting all sorts of fantastic shows with the hopes of strengthening their audience and luring them to these pay-to-watch platforms.

Game of Thrones, Westworld, The Walking Dead, The Defenders, Star Trek Discovery, and Stranger Things are a few examples of how these companies are getting acclaim and major viewership with ambitious projects. Large amounts of money are being thrown around on both the licensing and production of these shows, and companies are frantically looking around for the next big hit. So while Disney is boldly announcing a Star Wars live action TV series, Amazon went to the fantasy equivalent and nabbed a little thing called Lord of the Rings.

Yes indeed. The big news from this past week was that Amazon bought the rights to produce a multi-season Lord of the Rings series. While the exact cost of this deal wasn’t revealed, industry experts estimate that it was somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 to $250 million. No small po-tay-toes any way you look at it. But what will this series mean for our beloved MMORPG? I have a few thoughts about that.

What we know of Amazon’s Lord of the Rings project

Apart from the announcement of the acquisition itself, Amazon hasn’t spilled many specifics of what this series will entail. However, we do know one vital piece of information: The show will be set before the events of the Lord of the Rings novels, giving it prequel status (and sequel status too, if it is set after The Hobbit). It most likely won’t be tied into Peter Jackson’s vision of the franchise, so it’s probably best to separate the two projects in your mind right now.

While I would have loved to have seen the whole Lord of the Rings told at a more measured pace and with more accuracy, I agree that it is probably best to forge some new territory here. Amazon doesn’t need endless Peter Jackson comparisons, and there is wisdom in setting the show in a familiar world without lashing it tightly to a pre-scripted plot.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the show will be completely divorced from Tolkien’s works. The Tolkien Estate said that the show runners “have exceptional ideas to bring to the screen previously unexplored stories based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s original writings.” This, to me, is both heartening and intriguing. Tolkien’s Middle-earth fiction wasn’t just limited to Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, of course. The man spun numerous stories of the various ages of Middle-earth, including The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, The Book of Lost Tales, and The Children of Húrin. There is a wealth of lore and material around which to center a show, but right now we have no idea what the creators are thinking.

It should also be noted that this past week also revealed that 93-year-old Christopher Tolkien, the gatekeeper of the Tolkien Estate following his father’s death, resigned back in August. Christopher was notorious for keeping a tight reign on the Middle-earth IP, which is now open for what observers have called a “rights frenzy.” It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the Amazon deal took place following his resignation.

As truly excited — and surprised — as I am with this announcement, I’m a little concerned as well. There seems to be a trend with these high-profile series to make them as gritty and exploitative as possible and play fast and loose with the source material. I don’t necessarily want to see an ultra-bloody splatterfest with Elf prostitutes and backstabbing Hobbits.

Connecting past and present

On the surface, there is very little that could connect the TV show to the MMORPG, especially with the division of source material. LOTRO is “the game of the books,” as the devs are fond of saying, and Amazon’s show sounds like it’ll be “the show of the other, less-well-known books.” Add to that the fact that we are probably a ways out from seeing it air, and it might be safe to assume that despite a shared world, there will be pretty much nothing that will connect the two.

But I can foresee some possibilities. If LOTRO is still running whenever Amazon releases the show, it will have a prime opportunity to pick up on a renewed interest in Tolkien’s world. Pop culture is funny this way, as an explosion of excitement about one thing could spill over into related mediums. And if companies get wise and cross-promote, then “transmedia synergy” is born.

I know plenty of LOTRO players who found their way to the game after having read the books and feeling the urge to further indulge in the franchise. From book to movie to game to sordid fan fiction on Reddit, there’s always connections available when fandom is intense enough.

And while Amazon’s prequel series won’t be following the narrative of Lord of the Rings, it will most certainly be set in the same world with many of the same races, locations, and shared history. Tolkien’s creation is fascinating in its depth and detail, and availing oneself of multiple perspectives on it is a great way to get to know it better.

I am fully anticipating geeking out over seeing recognizable landmarks, thanks in great part to how the MMO has helped me become familiar with the geography and vistas. In a similar vein, LOTRO often touches on the history of Middle-earth and its people, and if both the game and the show are faithful to the same source material, then we players might find ourselves in a good spot to understand some of what’s going on from the get-go.

My hopes and wishes

Like you, I have my own personal wish list for a Middle-earth TV series. I would love for it to skew more to the intimate, natural feel of LOTRO than the big budget spectacle of the movies or contemporary fantasy shows.

I definitely hope that the creators will understand the virtues and cultures in the books so that the characters aren’t thinly veiled 21st century transplants play acting. These are characters of a different era in a different world (albeit one inspired by our own) that aren’t bloodthirsty magic users with demonic best friends. There are class divisions, racial histories, deeply ingrained patriotism, and varied relationships with the world about them.

In the meanwhile, we continue to explore the Middle-earth that is right here and right now. And as Amazon writes its own story in the past, Standing Stone Games prepares to push past the last page of The Return of the King to forge its own tale in the future. I am crossing my fingers that both will do Tolkien justice.

Every two weeks, the LOTRO Legendarium goes on an adventure (horrid things, those) through the wondrous, terrifying, inspiring, and, well, legendary online world of Middle-earth. Justin has been playing LOTRO since its launch in 2007! If you have a topic for the column, send it to him at justin@massivelyop.com.
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