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Because of Bezos’s immense wealth, The Rings of Power is actually less of a financial risk than it is a reputational one. Amazon needs to definitively make the case that it can produce giant prestige shows, and with this series, it’s courting the additional danger of amending and elaborating on the canon of a beloved storyteller. The showrunners, Patrick McKay and JD Payne, are agonizingly aware of the pressure. Their series will juggle 22 stars and multiple story lines, from deep within the dwarf mines of the Misty Mountains to the high politics of the elven kingdom of Lindon and the humans’ powerful, Atlantis-like island, Númenor. All this will center, eventually, around the incident that gives the trilogy its name. “The forging of the rings,” says McKay. “Rings for the elves, rings for dwarves, rings for men, and then the one ring Sauron used to deceive them all. It’s the story of the creation of all those powers, where they came from, and what they did to each of those races.” The driving question behind the production, he adds, was this: “Can we come up with the novel Tolkien never wrote and do it as the mega-event series that could only happen now?”
Galadriel’s survival at sea is not just a crucial story point at the start of the series — the showrunners remember it as a pivotal moment on set in New Zealand back in March 2020. “Morfydd was a few days into being Galadriel, which is probably terrifying,” says McKay. “She’s in water. There’s a lot of visual effects. There’s music and light.” But despite the momentous scene in front of them, the show’s crew were glued to their phones: Within 45 minutes, word spread that in nearby Australia Tom Hanks had contracted COVID, the NBA had canceled its season, and the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. “We’re all just going, ‘Oh, my God, what are we going to do? We’re going to have to shut everything down,’ ” says McKay. The panic metastasized, setting off other anxieties, big and small. “It was terrifying. ‘Oh, my God, is anyone going to understand what we’re trying to do here? Is this way too ambitious? We have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow.’ ”
But one by one, the crew put down their phones. “Everyone was crowding around the monitor as we’re doing this close-up where Galadriel’s face fills the screen and she cries, and she decides: I have to fight,” says McKay. As soon as the scene ended, the soundstage erupted in cheers. “It’s a perfect example of how Tolkien and Middle-earth have a way of finding you, even in the darkest and most uncertain moments,” says Payne.
Whatever other chaos might befall them, they finally felt they were on the right path. The first three episodes, which V.F. has seen, suggest they were. The show is a lavish, compelling mix of palace intrigue, magic, warfare, and mythology — and there are enough mysteries to power a thousand podcasts. Some characters will be familiar, and they will be the initial attraction as viewers watch their legendary fates unfurl. But the entirely new faces may ultimately become even more involving, since their destinies are literally unwritten.
Over the years Christopher Tolkien left lucrative bids for other Middle-earth material on the table. But in 2017, as he was preparing to retire, the Tolkiens held a surprising auction. They were selling the rights to the Appendices that outlined what the author had referred to as the Second Age of Middle-earth, along with any references to that time period in The Lord of the Rings itself. If you’re not up-to-date on your ages, the second one is (seemingly) a time of peace for Middle-earth after an era of horror and conflict. The wicked god Morgoth has been defeated, and his apprentice, Sauron, has vanished. As the series begins, Galadriel is hunting down the last remnants of their collaborators, who claimed the life of her brother. The Third Age — and the adventures of Frodo, Sam, and the fellowship — awaits some thousands of years in the future.
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