As September 2nd draws ever closer, we’re seeing more and more glimpses of what is in store in Prime Video’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Most fans will already have seen the amazing images, and read the interviews, from the latest edition of EMPIRE magazine – including artist John Howe’s incredible snow troll sketch, which features on the cover of the special subscriber’s edition.
Back in early May, when staffers Justin and greendragon were invited by Amazon to join a group in London, to see footage from The Rings of Power and to talk with showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay, John Howe was also part of the gathering. There were gasps of delight from many in the audience when he was introduced; all were thrilled to have a chance to talk with such a legend. It was also reassuring to hear, from his own mouth, that Howe is actively involved in the design and creation of this new Middle-earth adaptation.
That same day, Prime Video also treated us to a closer look at three costumes from the show. Stay tuned for more from greendragon on what we saw and heard that day; we’ll also share posts from other sites, YouTubers, tiktokers and fans who were there. To start us off, here are Justin’s reflections:
[Continuing the high levels of secrecy around this show, there were no phones or recording devices allowed; therefore all quotations are paraphrased from notes & recollections.]
As the lights came up from the very first sneak peek at The Rings of Power footage (some of which we expect in the first proper trailer releasing at SDCC) the nervousness in the air was thick; not only from the thirty or so fans assembled, but also from showrunners Payne and McKay. Will we like them? Are they two of us?
“We were with you all refreshing TheOneRing.net every day for the latest news on Peter Jackson’s films!” McKay told us. These lifelong fans, Ivy League Yale educated, committed to their church, might be closer in disposition to JRR Tolkien than any filmmaker that has come before. They study every book, revision, note, letter, and interview Tolkien ever shared, to understand his motivations and inspirations. It is this thorough knowledge of the context of Tolkien that has inspired confidence from so many Tolkien influencers.
As the showrunners wrapped up the open-ended Q&A, the biggest surprise of the London trip occurred – artist John Howe walked out with a sketchbook in hand. He explained how he got involved, how much work has been put toward The Rings of Power, and took questions from an awestruck group of scholars, fans and podcasters.
“They just kept asking me to sketch things they were considering. There are 40 sketchbooks full of drawings for this show.” Howe then opened up his sketchbook to the original drawing of the ice troll. I find it very curious that our very first leak from the ROP set were photos of an icy mountain set, then leaks of a snow troll (instead of a cave troll), which carried through to the Super Bowl teaser featuring the troll, and now John Howe’s sketch. Did Amazon leak the icy set pics in the first place, as part of a long marketing game? Or is Prime Video responding to uncontrollable leaks and only revealing what’s already been hinted at? Howe did not turn the page to show any more drawings.
When asked how he keeps this new work separate from the award winning (and trademark protected) work with Peter Jackson, John Howe responded with incredible awareness and insight. “We are all professionals here in the room. You all understand running your business. Whether I’m designing for movies, or book covers, or a streaming show, there are creative briefs to respond to. But the people in charge also know what they are getting from all my previous work.” Howe went on to explain that the true creative separation from Jackson’s films is actually INSPIRATION in the new locations this show visits. “We’ve never seen the oceanic areas of Middle-earth, and it is incredibly exciting for me to discover the great seas and areas that haven’t been explored. That is the true departure from what has come before.”
While John Howe had a plane to catch, showrunners Payne and McKay hung around with fans for some social conversations in the lobby, where three actual costumes were on display. The two guys held their own in deep lore conversations with several Ph.D.s, such as ‘The Tolkien Professor’ Corey Olsen and Dr. Una McCormack. At any fan event full of world-leading-expert-podcasters, there is a tendency to weed out inauthentic creators with deep lore questions. Again, Payne and McKay held their own. There is a reason the reaction a few weeks ago was unanimously supportive of the showrunners: they know their Tolkien, and they know the lore.
The Rings of Power showrunner Patrick McKay suddenly confronted me in the lobby, as his conversation circle moved to catch up. Matt (Nerd of the Rings) was shocked at some of the things we talked about – secret things I’m still hesitant to reveal. McKay wanted to know how I felt about the footage. He was extremely interested in my honest opinion. He cares what we think, what our response is to the hard-earned work over the last three years, if we feel he’s doing right by Tolkien and by fans. My direct response was the footage “looked like it should”, as I wrote a few weeks ago. It wasn’t the overwhelming enthusiasm I think he wanted, but that’s the legacy this entire show is up against: the most awarded films in entertainment history make for a high bar set by New Line Cinema.
To close, here’s one exclusive comment I will share today: McKay was adamant that this sword (below) is NOT Narsil, despite our early spy reports from people who have laid eyes on scenes featuring this sword. We will find out what’s true September 2nd; but I can’t help but remember how adamant JJ Abrams was that Cumberbatch was NOT Kahn. The only job these showrunners had in Hollywood was working for JJ Abrams, before landing this dream gig in Middle-earth…
Maybe it’s the time zones, but I really thought that John Howe’s interview with Empire about The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power was coming out tomorrow. Instead, if you’re keen (and an Apple News subscriber), you can read it right now over on Apple News.
The interview expands on the teaser Empire provided the other day, that “this is not the Middle-earth you remember”. Instead, it’s a story of a different time (the Second Age), when Middle-earth was visually and politically a different place.
Howe can’t elaborate on what that tale may be, but does hint that it takes place against a backdrop of “Sauron’s rise to power, the forging of the Rings of Power and the epic tale of [human city] Númenor” — all events with important repercussions for Middle-earth.
“I was convinced the Hobbit trilogy would be the last we’d see of Middle-earth on film,” Howe admits, explaining that it took an exciting new approach to Lord Of The Rings lore to unlock a story worth telling.
Empire’s forthcoming “Summer Preview” issue is set to include an interview with John Howe about his role as concept artist for Prime Video’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power TV series.
They’ve posted an enticing preview snippet of Howe sharing his thoughts about we ought to expect from the series in which he empahsises just how different Second Age Middle-earth is from the Third Age world that many are more familiar with.
“This isn’t the Middle-earth you remember,” he says.
“This is a world that’s very vibrant. The elves are not hidden away in Mirkwood or lingering in Rivendell. They’re busy constructing kingdoms. The dwarven kingdom of Moria is not an abandoned mine and the Grey Havens is not yet an abandoned city. I loved having the opportunity to explore that unseen history.”
He also talks about how this story is also taking to the seas.
“We’re finally sailing on the oceans of Middle-earth,” teases Howe, promising a set of sea-faring elves. “They’re daunting and enterprising and are almost colonising the world. They were a lot of fun to imagine. It’s something neither Lord Of The Rings nor Hobbit movies went anywhere near.”
Brian Sibley and Pauline Baynes are names which will be instantly familiar to many Tolkien fans. Author, broadcaster and screenwriter Sibley scripted a radio version of The Lord of the Rings for the BBC, and his wonderful book The Maps of Middle-earth was illustrated by John Howe. Sibley also wrote The Making of the Movie Trilogy for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies, and the three ‘Official Guides’ for his Hobbit trilogy.
Artist Pauline Baynes, who died in 2008, worked with Tolkien himself, creating maps and illustrations for his works. Many fans will have had her art work on their walls, as she illustrated Middle-earth posters in the early seventies. Her work adorned covers of various editions of the Professor’s works, and she first collaborated with Tolkien when she illustrated Farmer Giles of Ham back in 1949. She also illustrated all of C S Lewis’ Narnia books.
Baynes and Sibley were friends for many years, and together they created a tale of Osric the Extraordinary Owl. TORn’s good friend Jay Johnstone has finally been able to publish this wonderful work, in a limited edition of just 250 – with a foreword by none other than Tolkien scholar Wayne G. Hammond! Here’s what the official press release tell us:
Osric the Extraordinary Owl resulted from the collaboration of two friends: artist and illustrator Pauline Baynes and writer, dramatist and broadcaster Brian Sibley. It was a friendship spanning more than two-and-a-half decades, with many shared interests, among them the work of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis famously illustrated by Pauline and the subject of acclaimed dramatisations by Brian.
Sibley’s tale of a small grey owl in search of the courage to establish his individuality and ‘be himself’ (but which can be also be read as a ‘coming-out story’) was written in 1970 but had to wait until 2007 to find an artist at a time when Baynes was without any commissions and was wanting opportunities to keep drawing and painting. As a result she produced 22 delightful, double-page illustrations featuring not just Osric and his owl family but also an entire aviary of the most spectacular, colourful birds from black swans and peacocks to flamingos and toucans.
Baynes completed her pictures for Osric the year before her death in 2008 but ‘the extraordinary owl’ had to wait another decade to find a publisher. At the Tolkien Society’s 50th anniversary conference in 2019 noted Tolkien artist Jay Johnstone met Brian Sibley and another of Pauline’s friends, Wayne G. Hammond who, with his wife Christina Scull, is responsible for many key works of Tolkien scholarship and who, as Librarian of the Chapin Library of Rare Books at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, has curatorship of the Pauline Baynes bequest of paintings, drawings. Out of that Tolkien encounter came the decision to finally get Osric’s saga into print.
After a delay, caused by the Covid pandemic, Jay Johnstone is now pleased to announce the publication of Osric the Extraordinary Owl. This collector’s edition hardback book is written by Brian Sibley and illustrated by Pauline Baynes, with a foreword by Wayne G. Hammond. It is designed and produced by Jay Johnstone and comes in a gilded presentation box. Each book is individually numbered and comes with signed book plates by Brian, Wayne and Jay.
Fans of Bayne’s art and Sibley’s writing will not want to miss out on this very limited release. You can find out more by clicking here.
Worried about what to get your favorite Tolkien fan for the holidays? Worry not! TheOneRing.net staff is here with suggestions for every fan of every age and every budget.
From all of us at TheOneRing.net, have a safe and peaceful holiday season.
*Please note prices are listed in US dollars and may change after publication*
deej recommends: Shelob ring from Badali Jewelry; $71 (sign up for their mailing list and get 10% off; plus they have Black Friday/Cyber Monday sales going on right now!). Order here.
“I have several pieces from this company, and can’t wait to add this one to my collection! If you’re an arachnophobe, fear not – Badali Jewelry has a whole line of officially licensed, hand-crafted Middle-earth jewelry. Plus you’ll be supporting a great independent business.”
Funko Pop! Rides: Gandalf on Gwaihir; $30. Order here.
“I know not everyone is a fan of Funko Pops, but this one is pretty darn cute.”
TheLord of the Rings: Motion Picture Trilogy (Extended & Theatrical)(4K Ultra HD + Digital) and TheHobbit: Motion Picture Trilogy (Extended & Theatrical)(4K Ultra HD + Digital); $89.99 each. Order here and here.
“Who doesn’t need another set of these amazing films? And in 4k Ultra HD, they are going to look and sound better than ever! Now I just need to purchase a new 4K television so I can watch the Middle-earth saga the way it was meant to be seen.”
Tolkien 2021 Official Calendar; price tbd. Order here.
“To coincide with the new edition of ‘Unfinished Tales’, you can also have a beautiful 2021 wall calendar with illustrations by John Howe, Alan Lee, and Ted Nasmith.”
greendragon recommends: “I’m a huge fan of Scottish company Oscha. Their products are gorgeous – incredible woven art, and all ethically made. If you want to support a small business, and buy something really special for a loved one, look no further. Not just baby products – their scarves, throws, bags, etc are all stunning. Even mugs!”
Legend of Frodo Garnet Ceo Scarf – This gorgeous burgundy scarf features flowing ecru Sindarin script reading “Even the smallest person can change the course of history”, while the central band of text reads the name of this design “The Legend of Frodo.”; from $51.39. Order here.
Misty Mountains Coldfells Ring Sling– This beautiful midnight blue sling features the formidable Misty Mountains, which cut across Middle Earth, with a verse sung by Thorin Oakenshield & Co in The Hobbit running in runes along the borders; from $125.01. Order here.
Map of Middle Earth Messenger Bag -This organic cotton tote bag is designed with the length and breadth of Middle Earth, from Mordor to The Lonely Mountain and beyond, based on the classic illustrations by J. R. R Tolkien himself; from $17. Order here.
HMH publications: “What could be better for a Tolkien lover, than writings from the Professor himself? This Fall, a number of new editions were published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. There’s a gorgeous new collector’s edition of HoME, an illustrated Unfinished Tales, and a new paperback three-volume LotR set for any youngsters you might like to introduce to the wonders of Middle-earth! Plus, perfect for the holidays – there’s a Centenary edition of Tolkien’s ‘Letters from Father Christmas’. My personal favourite is the brand new ‘Hobbit Sketchbook’ from Alan Lee; full of wondrous art to inspire and delight. I’d love to find that under my tree!”
THE HOBBIT SKETCHBOOK by Alan Lee; $30. Order here.
THE HISTORY OF MIDDLE-EARTH Box Set (also available as individual volumes)by Christopher Tolkien and J.R.R. Tolkien; $225. Order here.
UNFINISHED TALES, ILLUSTRATED EDITION by J.R.R. Tolkien, illustrated by Alan Lee, John Howe, and Ted Nasmith; $30. Order here.
Volante DesignsLord of the Rings Collection; prices vary. “Wow these coats and jackets are amazing. Want to roam around like a ranger from Gondor? Or skulk in the shadows like a Wraith? TORn’s friends at Volante Design have made amazing outerwear which enables you to do just that! This independent business based in Massachusetts added two, officially licensed Middle-earth designs to their amazing collection; and they’ll ship at the end of November, so just in time for the holidays!”; order here.
Madeye Gamgeerecommends: “Another independent artisan worth supporting: Cave Geek Art. I met the CaveGeek, Kfir Mendel, at DragonCon 2016, where his original map of Middle-earth created a stir among the Tolkien fandom (and a dent in my wallet). The CaveGeek specializes in pyrography, burning his designs with 3-D effect into tanned buckskin, and then painting them with primitive pigments using a deer bone as his brush. He specializes in maps across a number of geekdoms. For Tolkien lovers, in addition to Middle-earth, his offerings include Thror’s map of the Lonely Mountain, and his most recent edition anticipating the new Amazon series: Númenor. You can find his prints and original leather pieces by clicking here. Plus he takes commissions!”
Elessarrecommends: Fisher-Price® Little People® Collector Lord Of The Rings set. For fans age 1-101; $29.99. Order here.
saystine recommends: Elven diadems, ear cuffs, and hair accessories by RomanticElfJewelry; prices vary. Order here.
garfeimaorecommends: Legolas and Gimli at Amon Hen 1:6 scale Limited Edition statue by Weta Workshop; $699. Pre-order here.
Amazon Studios’ LOTR Series Heads Into Uncharted Carnal Waters with Casting Call for Nudity and an “Intimacy Coordinator”
This might be a singularly surprising or even upsetting concept to present to Tolkien fans. If I were to address this reality to Star Wars, or Harry Potter, or even Miyazaki fandom it could raise eyebrows or outright alarm. But gather ’round the campfire and hear my tremulous words:
“Prepare for a newly-sexualized version of your favorite fantasy world.”
It’s the equivalent of saying: “Get ready to watch Anakin and Padme do something onscreen that will forever alter the way you see Star Wars. Sorry about the sand. It gets everywhere.”
Is this a real lightning rod issue? Depends on your temperament. I have to be really careful about presumed gatekeeping (which is not my intention) or any semblance of that; I just want this discussion WAY out in the open. Let’s get to the heart of this, because it is a thing now.
We must clearly ask ourselves what we want and don’t want from a billion-dollar Tolkien TV adaptation, because the tracks are laid and that train is headed straight for us, via your streaming device and paid subscription.
It is needful to discuss and understand those qualities of Tolkien’s work that are most important to us. Fair to say we have a worldwide multigenerational scholarly and fan community that share some great common denominators of what “fidelity” means in an adaptation of Tolkien. Thankfully we have shared voices; and if we shout from the rooftops collectively Amazon Studios might, perchance, just listen.
Let’s tell them what we expect. We are the audience they need to win over, after all.
T/W: By necessity, our topics today include sex organs, bodily functions, sexual abuse and rape in other fantasy TV shows, and coordinating intimacy—so here’s the trigger warning ahead of time. New territory for TheOneRing.net, BUT HEY IT’S 2020! Bear with me. We may find an egalitarian way forward in this conversation.
Amazon’s Approach: Will There Be Sex On Screen?
Fact check: We can confirm Amazon Studios has hired Jennifer Ward-Lealand, a well-known New Zealand Intimacy Coordinator, for the Lord of the Rings production.
The only Amazon show in NZ is Lord of the Rings, a production so overwhelmingly large that Auckland film unions report that over 80% of all local production crew are working on it, leaving no crew for other TV shows. It should be known that instead of clearly stating to be on LOTR, Ms. Ward-Lealand’s official site declares the acronym for “Untitled Amazon Project” / UAP is listed on her upcoming projects, first reported on Knight Edge Media and other sites. We know for sure Amazon’s UAP is the catch-all working title for LOTR. Remember how “Jamboree” and “Little Rivers” were the working titles for Peter Jackson’s LOTR and Hobbit Trilogies, respectively. But how much nudity is Amazon considering?
Will There Be Group Nudity?
Fact check: Rumor! An open casting call for background extras “comfortable with nudity” appeared. Just how many naked extras do you need for a classy, romantic love-making scene?
Caleb Williams dug deep while reflecting on some of our earlier reporting on TheOneRing.net of new casting announcements by BGT Casting; stating ‘must be comfortable with nudity’ for upcoming roles in LOTR. Put two and two together: there’s an Intimacy Coordinator who serves an important role to ensure the well-being of actors during sex scenes (or with nudity) and then we learn nudity in certain roles is openly asked for.
Will Characters Be ‘Sexified’ That Weren’t In Tolkien’s Books?
Fact Check: Unknown! The precise story they’re telling is unknown, as is the time within the 2nd Age wherein it’s all set. Don’t know what’s in the scripts, their content, nor what proper characters are associated with already-established cast members. We do know who plays a handful of the leads (Galadriel, Elrond) with best guesswork. We follow these actors on Instagram but we don’t know exactly who this ‘Tyra’ characters is because Tolkien never named one.
We surely don’t know who’s involved in scenes of nudity/sexuality. Debate is now open on where that would be necessary in a grand story of Númenor or the Elven-smiths of Eregion, or the welcoming halls of Khazad-dûm in its pre-Balrog glory.
We do know they are using water tanks. A stunt performer was injured filming scenes underwater (and she has thankfully recovered). Possible connection to Númenor being flooded and ruined in a specific catastrophe? Yes, quite possible. Underwater scenes depicting naked people swimming? We just don’t know.
How Tolkien Presented Sexualized Content
He simply didn’t. Tolkien was super-duper Catholic. In his own words to his publisher he expressed the desire for his overall Legendarium to be presented as “‘high’, purged of the gross.” That’s from his famous Letter 131. I’ll get back to it in a bit. He did not write stories in the manner of George R.R. Martin, although the inverse is often true. The word ‘rape’ does not appear in The Hobbit, and only once in LOTR: The Return of the King (even then not referencing a person but a geographical place, Gondor: as in ‘sack’ or ‘pillage’).
There are a few notable instances of non-sexual nudity mentioned in The Lord of the Rings itself: (a) the hobbits’ bath in Crickhollow, (b) the running naked through the grass to clear their hearts and minds after imprisonment by the Barrow Wights, (c) Frodo’s rescue by Sam at the Tower of Cirith Ungol. Perhaps there’s one I missed.
A few stories from The Silmarillion include incredibly dark things like incest; as with Túrin and Niënor. But that wasn’t their fault (poor things) and Amazon Studios does not have the licensing for those particular stories.
That’s not what they’re currently producing.
Tolkien vs. Other Popular Fantasy
I’m more keen to look at Tolkien’s works the way the Professor himself looked at them. He was spiritually and mentally deliberate in everything he did. With his “Sub-Creation” Tolkien meant to celebrate God’s main Creation with such language and artistry as he possessed. This Secondary World of Arda was a vessel of joy and a profound expression of faith. If anyone had a “purity” litmus test for this kind of fantasy it was John Ronald himself, as seen in a nearly 10,000-word letter to his publisher Milton Waldman, from late 1951:
Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story, the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths – which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country. It should possess the tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our ‘air’ (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe: not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East), and, while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine ancient Celtic things), it should be ‘high’, purged of the gross, and fit for the more adult mind of a land long now steeped in poetry. I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.
Excerpt from Letter 131, “The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien” (1981), p. 143
Here he admits his original ambitions may have been overreaching. Generations later we find they were not; as many other minds, artists, and hands have since played within Arda. Amazon Studios is playing in that sandbox right now, as I write this. Broadly speaking, Tolkien’s popularity helped launch an entire strata of “High Romantic Fantasy” that changed publishing forever. Previous adaptations of his books to films, plays, games, comics and audio have, by and large, held true to this aesthetic.
Notice how he describes his connected Legendarium with words like “large and cosmogonic,” “splendour,” “elusive beauty,” “majestic,” “steeped in poetry,” and the most revealing of all: “‘high,’ purged of the gross.”
He never uses words like “scatological,” “salacious,” “sexually charged,” “tumescent,” “steeped in carnality,” or “debauched.” If you are even slightly attuned to Tolkien’s stories you know the tone he set. You know the point I’m driving at. I don’t even feel like being subtle anymore.
Look… this is Tolkien telling you why none of his characters masturbate or take a pee break behind the bushes. He’s telling you why his characters are never described in acts of copulation or defecation. Yes they certainly did copulate, but none of that needed to appear; violating his deliberate idiomatic approach that served his own noble purpose. Nobody ever said the word fart in Middle-earth, at least not through the voice of our omniscient narrator. Elsewhere he makes clear his reasoning: the heroic and sympathetic characters do not engage in acts causing revulsion. He leaves that to the Orcs, corrupted enemies, demonic monsters, and their poisoned physical environments; and it greatly heightens the sense of revulsion in the reader by such measured and careful use. Tolkien said that the Orcs’ language (part of their unique cultural brutalism) was far worse than he let on. SO NOTHING IS GRATUITOUS. Not one word is wasted in its application or import.
Professor Tolkien kept the toilets, orgasms, and such other bodily ephemera offstage the entire time. Invisible. Never even suggested. This is high fantasy, remember, and a special kind too. There’s one noticeable exception in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug where Peter Jackson showed Bilbo and the Dwarves climbing into Bard’s house through the secret entrance of, yes, the toilet. Thus the word ‘toilet’ entered Middle-earth dialogue for the first time (Tolkien would have disapproved linguistically at the very least because it’s so damn French); but to some fans this silly, throwaway gag was a red flag that P.J. had *perhaps* missed some of the marks in his adaptation of The Hobbit (amongst other reasons, looking at you Tauriel/Kili/Legolas triangle) compared to the monumental achievement of his previous Trilogy.
Case in point: even the provocative director of the X-rated film Fritz the Cat, Ralph Bakshi, managed to keep it in his pants. His ambitious yet incomplete 1978 animated Lord of the Rings stays in the right lane, true to its high fantasy trope, even though the film is wildly psychedelic in its visual flair. Such a great contrast to his other fantasies Wizards and Fire & Ice which was R-rated “Adult Swim”-fare arriving decades early! Instinctively and thoughtfully, Bakshi knew that Tolkien’s story didn’t need all the Tits & Ass that had previously made the animator the darling of 70’s arthouse cinema. He kept that out of Middle-earth, indulging it elsewhere more suitably for his other films.
I recall my Dad taking me to the movies see John Boorman’s Excalibur when I was just 12. He knew my brother and I were really big on this sword and sorcery thing. Our love of Tolkien was so strong Dad figured the King Arthur legend would be ideal for us but he didn’t comprehend what was behind the “R” rating. I remember so clearly the opening scenes of Uther Pendragon’s sexual assault against Arthur’s mother, arranged by Merlin to conceive the future King. Shocked, my Dad leaned over to check on me—uncertain what to do: “You okay son? This might be too much for you…” I waved him off, “Yeah, I’m fine,” while my retinas were seared permanently with the first sexual act I had ever witnessed in my life. It was inscrutable and jarring to a child. Confusing. Dad wasn’t prepared to discuss the birds and bees and their biological needs, not by a mile. It didn’t overly-phase me, as my young mind was too busy trying to memorize The Charm of Making.
But it would strike me as very odd (and unnecessary) that a future predicament similar to my Father’s might befall parents innocently watching “a Tolkien fantasy show.” Imagine if suddenly you have to press pause, take the smallest children out of the room, and… “have the talk.” Well, you get it.
That was assuredly the moment for me where Tolkien differentiated himself from other fantasy storytellers. Indeed, that distinction was drawn in sharpest relief. Perhaps we are lucky that Mr. Boorman never got to direct LOTR for United Artists (that almost happened for real, but he made Excalibur instead).
If you are unfamiliar or never read Tolkien and wanted to get into the fandom, would you want to start with the adaptation that stikes furthest away from Tolkien’s literary sensibilities? One which could be deemed too much for a child to watch?
Sure, there’s more than enough room for all the “adult content” of darkness and otherworldly terrors from Tolkien’s larger span of legends, there is DEFINITELY a place for that! I’m not arguing against any adaptation desirous of that. We can go as far away from the golden-hued fairy story of Bilbo’s journey that you want and go right to the 2nd Age of Sauron-inflicted deceits, treachery, and metaphysical corruption.
But why does it need to be prurient?
The horrors brought upon Númenor end up with Satanic style Morgoth-worship and ghoulish human sacrifices. Body horror? Beheadings? Ripping living hearts from a sacrificial victim? Maybe. But there are no brothels mentioned. No Littlefinger. No orgies.
The Hobbit and LOTR stand rather apart from the most insanely disturbing stuff within The Silmarillion (especially) and Unfinished Tales, so yes, it may yet be that someday we will have a separation of what Tolkien shows/movies you watch with your little ones… and those you just don’t. And now we realize the time may be upon us sooner than we think.
I’m just a guy who knows what he’s getting when he reads Tolkien. I know what I like: the languages, the world-building, the spirit of Arda. There’s a gazillion other styles and idioms of modern fantasy where you can get your fix of anything: be they puppets (The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance) or video games (hey there Witcher).
Now The Witcher comes to mind as a counterpoint to Game of Thrones in terms of sexual portrayals. GoT portrayed so much of its sex negatively, tied to assault and dehumanizing acts (yeah, yeah there’s a wee bit of “romance” in the tub Jaime/Brienne) while in contrast The Witcher is extremely playful and wink-wink (hey, there’s a magic spell for your erectile dysfunction, how cute), and the orgy scene shows a woman completely in charge of its illusory energy. Not a victim at all compared to so many other depictions of female characters in fantasy. Yes, there’s room for all that sexy “insert tab A into slot B” in modern fantasy, as we have seen, but the end results can be widely divergent.
Y’all ready for this? As I said in the Star Wars example at the top of this piece, Amazon’s series might be an adaptation that forever alters how we see Arda.
What Exactly Do We Want From Amazon’s 2nd Age Series?
That’s the big kahuna. The ever-burning question. Observe what’s happening over there in Amazonland/Auckland. They hired a ton of very talented people but let’s focus on a couple of things:
Esteemed Tolkien scholar and author Tom Shippey was only brought on board to help with the Map of Middle-earth that launched their Twitter feed a year ago. There has not been any marketing effort since then and he is confirmed to be no longer on the project. It seemed to be only lip-service to the fans, which does NOT work. That kind of subterfuge will NOT work, Amazon. We don’t know why his name still appears on the Cast and Crew Listing over on IMDb.
John Howe is not currently in New Zealand and does not appear to be working on the production, certainly not in the fullness of his engagement as he was with Alan Lee back in the time of the New Line LOTR Trilogy. He may have provided some work for Amazon’s show but he’s seemingly not now.
Then there’s that one dude that has caused a wee bit of nerves. Bryan Cogman is onboard as a Consulting Producer, after his commanding story work for Benioff and Weiss on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Quite capable and mega-geek-centric, Mr. Cogman however was a focal point of some controversy on that production. Ringers have been quite vocal that the kind of “rapey” Sansa Stark storylines (attributed to Mr. Cogman) would NEVER be the kind of thing they’d want to see in Middle-earth, no matter how gritty you want to get.
Grit and realism have their place. Darkness and light are explored in their extremes. No one is shying away from the more “adult” things Tolkien had in his stories or saying they don’t exist. The real question is to what extent are they going to “sexify” this show for the sake of getting their next Game of Thrones mega-hit? Just look at this from Variety where Jeff Bezos has mandated a programming shift to get what he wants: another GoT.
AMAZON: So you’re okay with accidental incest, human sacrifice, dismemberment, and sins against Eru?
RINGER FANS: Yes! That’s what Tolkien wrote!
AMAZON: But… you’re not okay with depicting sexualized characters having intercourse?
RINGER FANS: Exactly! That’s what Tolkien wrote!
A predictable future tweet
My personal take: What fans want most from any Tolkien adaptation is verisimilitude. Something that carries the true spirit of Tolkien and has integrity in realizing it. Amazon’s showrunners can keep that integrity by staying true to the themes and characters and intent of the author. It is not impossible to guess Tolkien’s intentions when they are so plainly available to us, even though he is gone. #FidelitytoTolkien is a hashtag we have endeavored to use. Not perfect, but it’s a decent axiom to bear in mind.
Seeing anything remotely sexified between Galadriel and Annatar (oooh, a hot young shirtless Sauron in his seduction mode) or anything else like that is going to turn off fans so fast it will cause seismic waves through a very vocal fandom.
There won’t be any coming back from that. 1000’s of fans have replied and quote-tweeted this news with a variety of opinions for and against:
Does the Tolkien Estate Have “Veto Power” Over the Scripts?
Fact check: Unconfirmed! Well, we have been reporting that they do but it is unclear to what extent that power really exists. It is troubling. The Estate’s authority over the show’s content might not be sacrosanct; indeed it may be limited to keeping the structural frame of the narrative within the existing timelines we know are book-canon. They most likely don’t have final script approval (maybe there’s an infinitesimal chance they do); but it’s more like a general oversight to prevent fundamental alteration to the histories. We have a funny feeling that the two-episode combined pilot they are finishing up will be presented for the Estate’s approval. Time will tell.
But in my mind we’re better off tackling this as a fandom right now, and tell them what we want and don’t want from this Tolkien adaptation. They must listen.
Ringers—I ask you all: Do you want this LOTR to be just a Witcher meets Riverdale series with the branding of Middle-earth slapped on it? Why do I even say that? Because I’m afraid that’s what’s happening. Respected Tolkien twitter scholar The_Tolkienist shared an epic 30-tweet thread on the matter (with plenty of wink wink sarcasm).
Leave your comments on our message boards and social platforms: Twitter, FB, Instagram, knowing that Amazon Studios are definitely listening… and collecting data (!)… and calibrating their next efforts.
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