Like it or not, Hollywood is going back to the world of dwarves, magic, hobbits and Middle-earth. Amazon Studio’s upcoming Lord of the Rings series, Rings of Power, revisits the seminal work of fantasy literature after director Peter Jackson first adapted writer J.R.R. Tolkien’s main trilogy and then his prequel The Hobbit.
This time, a new creative team is looking deeper in Tolkien’s lore to tell a story many fans may not be familiar with. Here’s everything we know about the new series so far — including hints the cast gave to CBC on what to expect.
First look at Tolkien’s ‘Second Age’
While previous adaptations have looked mostly at Lord of the Rings‘s “Third Age,” Rings of Power goes thousands of years earlier, to the “Second Age.” That period — which itself spans about 3,500 years — includes a huge amount of backstory that leads directly to the main trilogy: the story of Númenor (the ancient kingdom of Men who would eventually come to Middle-earth), the rise and fall of major villain Sauron and, of course, the forging of the 20 rings of power.
Looking back at that history gives Rings of Power the opportunity to expand some lesser-known characters who influence the movies audiences are more familiar with. That includes Isildur, the character most famous for refusing to destroy the ring when he had the chance at the beginning of first installment The Fellowship of the Ring.
Isildur will be played by Maxim Baldry in the Amazon Prime adaptation, a responsibility he called “nerve wracking.” He called his version of the character, a young sailor from Númenor who dreams of becoming a ship’s captain, an explorer who “leaves a little bit of a path of destruction wherever he goes.”
Another established character brought in from the main trilogy is Elendil, played by Lloyd Owen. That character is father of Isildur, distant ancestor of Aragorn and the first king of Gondor — the large white city made famous by the third Lord of the Rings film, The Return of the King.
“The exciting part for me is that there are these signposts on the way that Tolkien has written, but he hasn’t actually fleshed out these characters to the extent that the other characters are in The Lord of the Rings books,” Owen said. He added he was just excited to be given “the opportunity to to begin to imagine what he might be like, personify what he might sound like.”
As Owen said, the Rings of Power draws from some of Tolkien’s least-fleshed out history. While Amazon Prime has the rights to use information from Lord of the Rings‘ appendices — extensive, but not story-focused add ons to the novels, also called the Legendarium — they don’t have access to other books Tolkien wrote that cover the same period.
As a work around, showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKaye introduce a number of new characters who don’t conflict with the canon of Lord of the Rings, but help to prop up some lacking narrative.
One of those additions is Ema Horvath’s Eärien, daughter to Elendil. Horvath said that character brings a “new female energy” to the family that wouldn’t otherwise exist. She also said the experience of bringing an invented character to the Lord of the Rings world is altogether different than what her canonical castmates are going through.
“There’s slightly less pressure, because you’re not playing someone who readers have kind of constructed in their minds yet,” she said.
“I mean, the other side of that is wanting desperately to be accepted by fans; the … existence of my character to be accepted.”
Some other new characters include Poppy Proudfellow, played by Megan Richards, and Elanor (Nori) Brandyfoot, played by Markella Kavenagh. Richards described her character as a “witty, sarcastic, fun,” hobbit who is “also incredibly cautious, which comes from her past, which you get to learn throughout the series.”
For her part, Kavenagh described Nori as a “resolute, curious, inquisitive hobbit,” with a tendency to get others in trouble.
“There’d be times I’d be reading the scripts and go, ‘At least don’t drag other people or other beings into your mess.'”
To support the expansive story, Amazon has reportedly gone all in to make the show a spectacle. With an estimated $465 million US budget — meaning, with subsequent seasons, the show could quickly surpass $1 billion — it is most expensive series ever produced, according to Entertainment Weekly and New Zealand’s Minister for Economic Development and Tourism Stuart Nash. The series was filmed in New Zealand.
Kavenagh said the financing resulted in fairly minimal green-screen work. “They built all of these sets for us,” she said. “They made them as real as possible.”
The huge price tag speaks to a hunger for big-name properties from streamers competing in an increasingly crowded field, and confidence by Amazon that people are still interested in more from Tolkien’s world.
In a Hollywood Reporter roundtable last year, Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke explained they would need a “global audience” to make the show profitable. It’s a tall order, though Salke said Amazon is “pretty confident that that will happen.”
An updated old world
In trying to capture that audience, Rings of Power is attempting to address some of the criticism previously hurled at the franchise. Critics often took the Peter Jackson adaptations to task for a lack of diversity in both gender and race, something casting has already pushed back against this time around.
After the cast list was first announced — and some fans expressed outrage over a more gender-balanced cast than previously seen — the creative team pushed back.
“It felt only natural to us that an adaptation of Tolkien’s work would reflect what the world actually looks like,” executive producer Lindsey Weber, told Vanity Fair earlier this year. “Tolkien is for everyone. His stories are about his fictional races doing their best work when they leave the isolation of their own cultures and come together.”
When asked whether the show’s plot would have women front and centre this time, Richards had a blunt response.
” Well, we’re here,” she said. “And I think that says it all.”
Another change is Sophia Nomvete, who plays Disa, a dwarven princess. Though the character was created for the series (the show has her married to Prince Durin IV, played by Owen Arthur, who did appear in Tolkien’s appendices) Nomvete’s portrayal makes her both the first woman, and the first Black actor, to play a dwarf in a Tolkien adaptation.
“It means absolutely everything,” Nomvete said of her role in bringing representation of people of colour into the Tolkien mythos. “Everyone was cast because they were the absolute best person for the role, and to be part of a redress of balance within this world is an honour.”
Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power will premiere on Amazon Prime on Sept. 2, 2022.