"Published in three volumes from 1954 to 1955 by British scholar and World War I veteran J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings revolutionized the high-fantasy genre. A hobbit named Frodo, an unassuming creature with hairy feet, is aided by a fellowship of a wizard, two men, an elf, a dwarf, and three other hobbits as he attempts to carry a magical and corrupting ring created by the villainous Sauron to a volcano so it can be destroyed.
The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King established enduring themes—environmentalism, the power of friendship in the face of evil, and how even the smallest person can change the world—that have found their way into megahits like Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, and Stranger Things. In the early 2000s, Peter Jackson adapted the books into a near perfect film trilogy, the last installment of which still shares the record for most Oscars won in a single night. Jackson later split Tolkien’s The Hobbit into yet another three-part film series. Together, the six movies grossed nearly $6 billion worldwide.
Anyone attempting to take on Tolkien would inevitably live in Jackson’s shadow. But that didn’t deter Hollywood: Dozens of writers pitched Amazon on series ideas in 2018. Many conceived origin stories for Tolkien’s best-known characters—like ranger turned king Aragorn and the wizard Gandalf—a popular device employed recently by shows like Netflix’s Ratched and Disney+’s Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Payne and McKay had a different take: they told the company it was sitting on a gold mine and didn’t even know it. The extensive appendices that appear at the end of The Return of the King serve as a prequel of sorts, outlining the rise of Sauron and creation of the titular rings. As the showrunners put it, Tolkien had left the stars. They just needed to make constellations. “We beat out people they would have felt more comfortable giving it to because this was the show,” says McKay.
The duo sketched out a new series that turns the five-minute prologue of Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring film into five seasons of television set in the Second Age, over 3,000 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings. The evil lord Morgoth has been defeated. Middle-earth is flourishing, but the flaxen-haired elf Galadriel is convinced that Morgoth’s missing servant Sauron is amassing power. Audiences will explore the dwarf mines of Khazad-dûm and the seaside kingdom of Númenor; they’ll encounter harfoots, the nomadic ancestors of hobbits, as well as Isildur, the man who will eventually take the one ring from Sauron but fail to destroy it; and they’ll meet a mysterious stranger—maybe a certain familiar wizard?—who falls from the sky in the first episode.
When McKay and Payne scored the Rings of Power job, their old boss J.J. Abrams offered advice: “Trust your instincts,” he wrote in an email. “But say, ‘I don’t know’ a lot.” So they filled their fellowship with people who did know how to tell an epic story, beginning with fellow Bad Robot alum Lindsey Weber, 42, who has handled Star Trek and Cloverfield productions, as their executive producer. They used the practical and digital visual-effects companies co-founded by Jackson, Weta Workshop and Weta FX, and consulted with the Tolkien estate, particularly his grandson Simon Tolkien. J.A. Bayona, who helmed Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, directed the first two episodes, and Bryan Cogman, who worked on Game of Thrones, came on as a consulting producer to offer his experience with episodic television."