Major primetime television shows used to feature 22-24 episodes in a season, but in the era of Peak TV, smaller episode counts have become the new normal for prestige shows. But Amazon’s upcoming The Lord of the Rings TV series may be looking to change that. According to Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey, who’s on the payroll for the new series, The Lord of the Rings season 1 will be comprised of 20 episodes.
Read his comments below, including a fascinating breakdown of which parts of Tolkien’s stories are “off limits” in the series.
Lord of the Rings Season 1 to Have 20 Episodes
A Fandom tweet pointed me to a German website which conducted an interview with Tom Shippey, one of the people mentioned in Amazon’s recent video showcasing the behind-the-scenes talent working on the highly-anticipated Lord of the Rings show. When asked about recent unconfirmed rumors that the series may film in places like Scotland or New Zealand, Shippey couldn’t confirm where it would be shot, but he did reveal how many episodes are intended to be in the first season:
Logically, you try to bundle all the scenes that take place in one location and film them so that you have it done and don’t have to return to that place several times. But this also implies that everything has to be clear at the start of filming, you have to know the end. There’s supposed to be 20 episodes for the first season. So until they’ve decided what the end is going to be, they can’t start filming.
If that holds true, it would be a big break from the recent trend toward smaller episode counts on major TV shows. Game of Thrones, the most obvious comparison point to this Lord of the Rings show, featured ten episode seasons for most of its run, but even dropped to seven in its seventh season and six in its final stretch. (As for the location itself, Amazon knows where it’s going to film the show, but it has not made that information public yet.)
Which Parts of Tolkien’s Histories Can the Amazon Series Use?
We’ve known for a while that the Amazon show would be set during Tolkien’s Second Age, and Shippey commented briefly on that:
The Tolkien Estate will insist that the main shape of the Second Age is not altered. Sauron invades Eriador, is forced back by a Númenorean expedition, is returns to Númenor. There he corrupts the Númenoreans and seduces them to break the ban of the Valar. All this, the course of history, must remain the same. But you can add new characters and ask a lot of questions, like: What has Sauron done in the meantime? Where was he after Morgoth was defeated? Theoretically, Amazon can answer these questions by inventing the answers, since Tolkien did not describe it. But it must not contradict anything which Tolkien did say. That’s what Amazon has to watch out for. It must be canonical, it is impossible to change the boundaries which Tolkien has created, it is necessary to remain “tolkienian.”
But he also revealed something in this interview I hadn’t heard before: apparently Amazon only has the rights to the Second Age.
“The First and Third Ages are ‘off-limits’, you can’t have the First Age. Events could be mentioned at the most if they explain the events of the Second Age. But if it is not described or mentioned in the Lord of the Rings or in the appendices, they probably cannot use it. So the question is to what extent they may hint at events that took place, for example, in the First Age, but still continue to affect the Second Age. There are several maps authorized by Tolkien, not just the ones we are familiar with, and some of those maps have places on them which are not in the other maps. But if Tolkien authorized them then that’s okay. So it’s a bit of a minefield. You have to tread very carefully but at the same time there is quite a lot of scope for interpretation and free invention.”
The site says that the Tolkien Estate retains the rights to everything in the First Age, and a company called Middle-earth Enterprises owns the rights to the events depicted in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which take place in the Third Age, and it’s unclear if Amazon has attempted to bargain with Middle-earth Enterprises to be able to reference any of those events in its upcoming show. I’ve never heard of specific ages of a fictional world being split up and sold off to different licensees, but Tolkien’s world is more expansive than most.
I’d previously assumed that Amazon was drawing from The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s massive history of Middle-earth published after his death, as it looked for stories to tell in this new show. But Shippey’s comments indicate that Amazon can only use the section of that book which covers the Second Age, and that’s only touched on in one of five divided sections of that sprawling book.
The Lord of the Rings does not have a premiere date yet, but we’ll keep you posted when we learn more about it.
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