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The Lord of the Rings Amazon TV series release date, cast and budget

HBO has Game of Thrones. Netflix has Stranger Things. Hulu has The Handmaid's Tale. Disney has Marvel Studios and Star Wars. Now, Amazon has The Lord of the Rings. After years of searching for a heavyweight flagship series, Jeff Bezos' retail behemoth finally managed to beat out Netflix in an epic battle to lock down the rights to Middle Earth. It's a valuable investment — J.R.R. Tolkien's world provides a fertile collection of stories that are certainly capable of carrying the entire Amazon video streaming service to a whole new level.

The question is, what has Amazon Studios been up to since the earth-shaking news of the rights acquisition broke back in 2017? Initially, little more than the occasional rumor followed. However, a sizable number of rumblings and leaks — not to mention a curious set of maps — have finally surfaced. After a quiet start, there's no doubt that Amazon is gearing up to take full advantage of Tolkien's creation in order to bolster their streaming service's offerings. 

From release schedules to potential casting choices, from astronomical budgets to familiar filming locations, here's everything we know about Amazon's Lord of the Rings series so far.

What's the release date for Amazon's Lord of the Rings?

When Tolkien fans learned that Middle Earth would be coming to screens for the first time since Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, it's only natural that their first question was "When?" An exact answer will have to wait, as no official release date has yet been announced. However, there are a few pieces of information that can clue us in as to approximately when the series might drop.

First and foremost, there's the contract factor. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Amazon chief Jennifer Salke confirmed that part of the deal for the rights included the condition that the show had to be in production within two years. She added that the hope is to have the show "on the air" by 2021. This sentiment was repeated by renowned Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey in a separate interview where he explained that he was under the impression that Amazon "meant to start showing it on TV in 2021."

While it may feel a ways off, one does not simply conjure a project of this size and scope out of thin air. The idea that Amazon could be able to pull the first season together within four years of purchasing the rights is about as good as anyone could ask for, especially if you don't want to sacrifice quality along the way.

What's the budget for Amazon's Lord of the Rings?

While budgets and numbers are always hard to pin down (especially early on in production), there's little doubt that Amazon's adventures through Middle Earth are going to cost the studio a tidy sum. Right out of the gate, the rights alone cost Bezos and company a whopping $250 million. No, that's not a typo — the company spent a quarter of a billion just to obtain the screen rights to Tolkien's world. 

As if that wasn't enough, rumors immediately began swirling regarding how much they planned on shelling out to, you know, actually make the show. EW reported early in 2018 that the first two seasons alone were going to double the cost of the rights. 

Since then, the number has only gone up. At this point, when all costs are considered, a cool billion stands as one of the lower estimates out there, while others have pushed the figure comfortably north of that mark. While it's easy to trot out the old line that "it takes money to make money" — especially in an era rife with luxurious production budgets — the idea of dropping somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.5 billion on a single television show is about as exorbitant as it gets.

Who's in the Fellowship of Amazon's Lord of the Rings cast?

With such a gargantuan undertaking, one would think that a fellowship of actors would be put in place pretty quickly, but Amazon has been fairly tight-lipped when it comes to the bigger names involved and what roles they will fill.

The Walking Dead star Tom Payne stirred the waters back in early 2019 when he stated in an interview that he wanted to keep his luscious locks partly because Amazon was "casting Aragorn." So far, though, there has been no further evidence that Payne's unshorn ambitions will come to fruition. Another fruitless casting attempt took place in September, when Will Poulter was cast in an undisclosed role. However, that lead fizzled by December when he exited the project due to scheduling conflicts.

While the project may have seemingly been spinning its wheels early on, there were a few more promising names that did begin crop up throughout 2019. In July, Variety reported that young Australian actress Markella Kavenagh would be playing a character named Tyra. In October, two more names were added to the roster, as Joseph Mawle was reported to be playing the villain Oren and Maxim Baldry was cast in an undisclosed role. In December, the cast welcomed Ema Horvath (again, an unknown role at this point) and Morfydd Clark, who is set to play a young version of the Elven queen Galadriel.

Curiously, several of these characters' names do not exist in Tolkien's writing. The question is, are they completely new characters, or are we being misdirected?

Intriguing casting calls for Amazon's Lord of the Rings

While details regarding the lead cast may be in short supply, we do know some details about what Amazon wants from their extras. In fact, there have been numerous reports listing a bizarre string of oddly specific features that the studio is looking for.

These casting calls started with generic descriptions for "soldiers, villagers and villains." However, it appears their first attempts at recruitment weren't enough. Further calls followed including requests for character faces with "earthy, weathered, dark skin tonnes [sic], missing teeth, wonderful noses etc etc." Other descriptions asked for hairy men and women, and older actors with "lived in" faces, freckles and scars.

Along with this focus on physiognomy, the descriptions went on to ask for actors who are roughly four-and-a-half feet tall or over six-and-a-half feet tall. They also want circus performers, magicians, dancers, jugglers, stilt-walkers, redheads of all ages, androgynous and ethereal body types, and actors from practically all regions of the globe.

A Lord of the Rings casting leak

Amazon may be keeping their casting process carefully under wraps, but it's nearly impossible for a project of this size and scope not to leak some sort of information. Late in the fall of 2019, a series of casting tapes hit the internet with audition lines for a few different characters. While the tapes were quickly taken down, the information remained in written detail on CBR's website.

The characters included the troubled warrior Eldien, a veteran fighter named Beldor, and the pragmatic rogue Aric. Interestingly, another unconfirmed report listed a string of characters, including the cantankerous Brac, the warm and maternal Eira, the charismatic Aric, the brooding Calenon, and the reserved Loda.

The list of potential characters goes on, continuing to underline a curious fact: very few names have surfaced thus far that are actually established, mainstream characters in the Middle Earth canon. Apart from select rumors like a possible Aragorn appearance and a younger Galadriel, it appears Amazon is going to chart an entirely new course with all-new characters — at least, that's how it appears. These may all still be made-up names created to mislead the rumor mill.

Will Jackson's characters return?

In another casting-related interview, Sir Ian McKellen was asked about who else should play Gandalf if the wizard makes an appearance in the new series. "What do you mean another Gandalf?" McKellen replied with surprise. He elaborated, "I haven't said yes because I haven't been asked, but are you suggesting someone else is going to play it?" The return of Sir Ian "Gandalf" McKellen certainly could factor into a series set during pretty much any point in Middle Earth history due to his age — the wizard is thousands of years old, after all. 

McKellan's commitment to the role aside, one thing that does seem increasingly unlikely is the return of any other actors from the Peter Jackson-helmed trilogy — if for no other reason than the timeline the series will reportedly explore. Apart from Gandalf, the only other real contender (from the original nine members of the Fellowship, at least) could possibly be Legolas, thanks to his immortal Elven blood. But, alas, Orlando Bloom shot that idea down when asked. Though he does like to consider himself ageless, the star explained, "I don't know where I would fit in that world." 

With all of that said, there is one possible character that could technically make a reappearance: Aragorn, son of Arathorn. However, if he does so, it will likely not be a return of Viggo Mortensen, but rather a younger version of the character.

Who's writing and directing Amazon's Lord of the Rings?

While the cast may be shrouded in mystery, Amazon has finally come right out and announced its Lord of the Rings creative team, and the list of names is lengthy, to say the least. Not only is it loaded with star-power, but the sheer number of alumni coming over from other high-profile productions is a bit hard to take in all at once. In late July 2019, Amazon dropped a short but sweet video that highlighted the collective in a very Tolkien-esque way, using epic fantasy music and a typewriter setting to facilitate the roll call. 

On the one hand, the video confirmed previous reports that Star Trek writers JD Payne and Patrick McKay would serve as showrunners, Game of Thrones' Bruce Richmond and Bryan Cogman were serving as executive producer and writer respectively, Breaking Bad's Gennifer Hutchison was on board as a writer, and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom's J.A. Bayona had been chosen to direct the first pair of episodes

But it didn't stop there. The less-than-two-minute clip continued to provide a cascade of other names, including Stranger Things' Justin Doble as writer, Avengers: Age of Ultron's Ron Ames as co-producer, Avengers' Jason Smith as visual effects supervisor, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi's Rick Heinrichs as production designer. Renowned illustrator John Howe (who also worked on Peter Jackson's trilogy) and Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey were also revealed as being involved on the project. The list goes on and on. It certainly seems that Amazon is putting its gobs of Middle Earth cash to good use in the creative department so far.

The Jackson Factor

Unsurprisingly, one other name that has continually been brought up in relation to the series is renowned filmmaker Peter Jackson. From the moment the news of Amazon's series broke, rumors have waffled back and forth regarding a potential Jackson connection. While he initially flat out denied being involved, multiple reports have refused to confirm this fact, with Jennifer Salke herself stating that the lack of any other specific news wasn't a negative. 

In addition, Jackson himself later added that he was keen to help however he could, even expressing an interest in looking over the scripts. Interestingly, one could surmise that Mr. Jackson has been ready for this event since he rolled cameras on his own trilogy 20 years ago. Legolas actor Orlando Bloom mentioned in one interview that literally while filming, Jackson had said, "Wouldn't it be fun to think about people doing a remake of Lord of the Rings?" 

Despite his prophetic utterance, at present Jackson's involvement is currently little more than a denial that refuses confirmation. In other words, it's impossible to say what will ultimately happen until more news leaks. After all, Jackson wasn't slated to direct the Hobbit trilogy until the last minute. For now, though, he seems a peripheral influence at best.

How long will Amazon spend in Middle Earth?

With so much money and time being poured into the project, one question that naturally arises is how much Middle Earth cinema we're going to have coming down the pike. As far as big-picture stuff goes, the studio is reportedly laying the groundwork for a solid five-season run, along with a possible spinoff (via The Hollywood Reporter). Not only that, but Tom Shippey has also stated that the first season alone is supposed to run for a whopping 20 episodes, making it one of the longest seasons of any Amazon Prime show to date.

While it's always gutsy committing to such ambitious plans all at once, the promise of five entire seasons spent in Middle Earth is encouraging, as it gives the showrunners time to tell the story without hustling in order to meet artificial deadlines — a concern that caused infamous issues for Game of Thrones' truncated final season. 

The possibility of a spinoff is intriguing, as well. Tolkien's stories often focus on a single character for extended periods of time, with heroes like Bilbo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, or even Beren and Lúthien holding the reader's focus at various points across the Middle Earth timeline. Spinning that tapestry off into one or more tie-in series is a concept with some merit, but only time will tell if the idea has any merit.

Amazon's already announced a second season of their Lord of the Rings series

There's no doubt that the Lord of the Rings project is a pretty big deal for Amazon. With so much time, money, and effort already invested in the show, it only makes sense that it would take nothing short of a disaster to cause them to cancel things after a single season. Apparently, the execs at Amazon agree — production had barely gotten off the ground for the first episodes when, in November of 2019, the company up and announced that they were already renewing the series for a second season.

This news came with the added tidbit that the crew would be going on a four- or five-month hiatus after they wrapped filming on the first two episodes of the first season. This is likely a move that will allow them to flesh out the rest of the following episodes once they've gotten a hands-on feel for the project. However, the delay may also create an artificially short window between the first two seasons. If that's the case, we may be getting dozens upon dozens of hours of Middle Earth not long after the show finally kicks off.

Where will Amazon find Middle Earth?

The question of where the project will be produced was officially answered (at least partly) in mid-2019, when it was announced that a "huge" part of the show would be filmed in none other than Peter Jackson's old stomping grounds of New Zealand. The Pacific island nation famously served as the home to the bulk of the production of both The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies in the past, and Amazon had apparently decided that they simply couldn't beat the awe-inspiring scenery.

The return to the land of the Kiwis is rumored to focus around the cities of Auckland on the northern island and Queenstown on the southern one, with local facilities apparently already busy with pre-production. The northern metropolis has already felt the impending arrival of such a huge operation, as businesses in West Auckland have reportedly had to sign non-disclosure agreements as they gear up to do brisk business while Amazon Studios is in town.

Originally, Scotland had also been considered as a serious contender for filming. However, Radio New Zealand claimed that the Scots had lost out due to "the tumultuous Brexit situation." Either way, it seems likely that other places will also be tapped to get in on the Middle Earth production as the process continues. Tom Shippey even pointed out that there could be several locations used for filming, although he wasn't sure of any specific spots being considered.

How will the story differ from Peter Jackson's trilogy?

It should come as no surprise that Amazon is doing their level best to keep their plans for Middle Earth a secret. Still, the lengths to which they'll go in order to do so are pretty extreme. In one interview, Jennifer Salke went on record about how the studio was handling the team of writers as they secretively wove a story like spiders in the darkest depths of Mirkwood.

Seriously, the analogy holds up, as they made sure the writers were pretty much cut off from the daylight as they worked on the plotlines and scripts. "There's a fantastic writers room working under lock and key," Salke said. She went on to explain, "You have to go through such clearance, and they have all their windows taped closed. And there's a security guard that sits outside, and you have to have a fingerprint to get in there..."

Looks like Amazon isn't willing to risk having any of their Middle Earth secrets leak out before they're good and ready. With that said, though, another interview with Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey did clarify that "the First and Third Ages are 'off-limits.'" While minor mentions may be able to slip in from time to time, all of Jackson's work took place in the Third Age, so connecting the dots may be a dicey proposition at best.

How does Aragorn factor in?

Way back in May of 2018, a rumor percolated stating that Amazon's Lord of the Rings series would focus on a younger version of everyone's favorite Gondorian monarch, Aragorn. Since then, reports have moved the timing of the show back into Middle Earth's Second Age, which leaves it firmly out of the reach of Aragorn's lifespan — we're talking about a period of time that ended nearly three thousand years before the ranger was even born.

The question of how Aragorn could fit into a series that is purportedly set three millennia before his time is a curious one, though. Could he merely be needed for an initial framing sequence as he rules Gondor in the Fourth Age before the show flashes back in time? Or could it be that the earlier seasons will start in the Second Age and ultimately end on Aragorn in his youth during the fifth season?

After all, the Gondorian king's pedigree stretches back 6,000 years to the beginning moments of the Second Age, when his ancestor Elros (brother of Elrond) established the very kingship that eventually helps Aragorn claim the crown of Gondor.

Of course, there's still the question of that spin-off series, too. As the folks at TheOneRing.net pointed out (via Polygon), starting with a young Aragorn narrative could ultimately be the perfect connection to the founding of Gondor, the kingdom of Númenor, and the Second Age as a whole. The main question that still remains, though, is if they'll actually have the rights to talk about all of these elements of the Middle Earth story or not.

Like Tolkien, Amazon started with a map

Speculating too much about how Aragorn might factor into things is a fool's errand at this point. However, there is some solid information regarding the story's timeframe, released by Amazon Studios themselves. On February 13, 2019, the studio posted a tweet that simply read "'I wisely started with a map' — J.R.R. Tolkien." The quote hearkens back to the Oxford professor's roots and his infatuation with worldbuilding and geography. At the time, though, little evidence was given as to the motive behind the message.

Two days later, another tweet went out, this time with the words "Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky," quoting the first line of Tolkien's famous poem about the rings of power. More importantly, the tweet came with a map. It was made of four folded panels, and while its topography was unlabeled, it showed the familiar geography of Middle Earth at the end of the Third Age, including a large portion of the lands further to the east. It was followed by a second tweet that linked directly to Amazon, where fans could zoom into a high-quality version of the map. Still, the lack of text meant there wasn't much for fans to discover. It was a fun little interactive adventure, even if it was hardly anything to write home about. But the studio was just getting started.

More information from Amazon's Middle Earth maps

Three days after the "three rings" post — notice the numerology at play — a second map popped up on Amazon's social media. This one was captioned "Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone." A third map followed seven days after that, accompanied by the line "Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die." A fourth map came, you guessed it, nine days after that: "One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne. In the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie."

Critically, these three newer maps were labeled, the first with a handful of major place names and the second and third with many smaller locations filled in as well. While most of the names were those that fans of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings stories would be familiar with, there were several small changes as well — including one conspicuous detail. The area where Rohan existed during the time of the Fellowship's journey was labeled "Calenardhon." 

This meant that the maps were from an era that was at least a half-century before the trilogy takes place, as Théoden's Rohan is a 500-year-old kingdom that took the place of the Gondorian province of Calenardhon. The information was intriguing (and pointed away from a Young Aragorn series), but it wasn't definitive beyond that point — at least, not until the next day.

Númenor and the Second Age confirmed

On March 7, 2019, Amazon Studios posted one final map along with the last line of the poem: "One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them, In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie." This last map had nine folded panels and a wider view of the landscape. This macro view of Middle Earth exposed one critical piece of information in the bottom left corner that changed everything: the island of Númenor

The reason this not-so-little island is a big deal is because it only existed during the Second Age of Tolkien's mythology. Founded after the catastrophic ending of the First Age, the island served as a home for the Númenóreans, a nation of blessed men that flourished during the Second Age — they're the ones that founded Gondor and Arnor on the mainland — until they were destroyed and their island sank beneath the waves not long before the Third Age began. If the map has Númenor on it, it means Amazon's creative team has its sights firmly set on the Second Age

There's been little other information about the exact setting, with Amazon's co-head of television, Vernon Sanders, even reiterating that all of the information the studio is willing to release at this point is, indeed, that it will be set somewhere in the Second Age. In other words, within a time span that is 3,441 years long. While there's been little other information about the setting, the revelation that Númenor exists for at least part of the show has brought a thrill of new excitement to the venture, as it means audiences will get to bask in an elaborate realization of a part of Middle Earth history that has never been explored on the screen before.

Will Amazon's Lord of the Rings series explore Sauron's backstory?

According to We Got This Covered, a trusted source has claimed that the Amazon series will spend a good deal of time outlining Sauron's slow, successful rise to power in Middle Earth. There's a lot of potential to this idea, as the Sauron of the Second Age is a very different character from the fairly one-dimensional flaming eyeball we know from Peter Jackson's trilogy.

The Sauron of that era is without corporeal form after being defeated by the armies of the Last Alliance — that's the opening scene of The Fellowship of the Ring, in which Isildur cuts the ring off of Sauron's black-armored hand. While still intimidating, Sauron's rise to power in the Second Age is a little more subtle — and arguably more interesting.

According to Tolkien's works, Sauron survives the catastrophic ending of the First Age and becomes, more or less, the primary villain for the remainder of the story. Throughout the Second Age that follows, he spends time operating under the unassuming name of Annatar, helps create the Rings of Power for Elves, Dwarves, and Men, and then creates the One Ring, becoming "the Lord of the Rings" in the process.

He also establishes himself as the "Dark Lord" of Middle Earth through conquest, is captured by the men of Númenor, and ultimately corrupts their entire society, leading to its own catastrophic downfall. If Amazon truly goes this route with the storyline, there's no doubt that they'll have a lot to work with.

Amazon's series promises to be "Tolkienian"

One important factor that many diehard fans are doubtlessly nervous about is the amount of leeway that Amazon Studios will have over the content itself. Will they be able to wreak havoc on the characters, storyline, and locations (a bit like the jarring myriad of changes that were done to the Hobbit trilogy) or will they have a shorter leash? Tom Shippey once again weighed in on the subject with some information that was a bit reassuring.

He clarified that Amazon does indeed have a "relatively free hand when it comes to adding something, since... very few details are known about this time span." However, he followed this up by pointing out that "the Tolkien Estate will insist that the main shape of the Second Age is not altered." He added, "All this, the course of history, must remain the same."

The fact that Amazon Studios can elaborate on the original source material isn't a surprise. But the fact that they can't alter the primary narrative nor add anything counter to what Tolkien has written is a balm for those still licking their wounds from the flagrant disregard for canon that The Hobbit trilogy, in particular, displayed. As Shippey himself stated, "It must be canonical, it is impossible to change the boundaries which Tolkien has created, it is necessary to remain 'Tolkienian.'"

An international affair

It's a small world after all, and while it's easy to think of The Lord of the Rings as a western phenomenon, it absolutely isn't. Remember, we live in an era where Avengers: Endgame made nearly three-quarters of its box office earnings internationally — with China alone bringing in over 30 percent of that global total. So you can bet that Amazon is counting on a healthy response outside the good ol' U.S. of A. in order to help float their #LOTRonPrime boat. 

Fortunately for them, it looks as if the rest of the world (and especially the box office goliath of the People's Republic) is primed and ready to go. According to an overview by Abacus, Chinese fantasy fans are pumped for the new series, harboring hopes that the new adaptation of Middle Earth could be a balm on their post-Game of Thrones wounds. Whether or not Amazon's Lord of the Rings manages to help overcome the backlash from wrapping things up in Westeros, though, it does appear that the show will have an army of fans around the globe to herald its long awaited arrival in everyone's Prime queues.

Is Amazon planning a Middle Earth extended universe?

We live in an era where everything from Marvel and DC to The Walking Dead and Star Wars have the concept of an "extended universe" built into their long term plans. Naturally, then, Amazon would be foolish not to at least have one eye on an extended Middle Earth universe of sorts, especially when they're working with the dense and storied lore of one of the most popular universe creators of all time, J.R.R. Tolkien. 

While specific franchise plans will take time to unfold, Amazon has already announced one potential piece of universe building in the form of a new Lord of the Rings console video game that is already in development. The game does not appear to be directly linked to the show, but that hardly disqualifies it as a part of the greater continuity that Amazon is in position to propagate. 

Like the show, the game doesn't have a release date yet, but it appears to be a free-to-play "massively multiplayer online" game that will, as Entertainment Weekly revealed, "give fans around the globe a new, immersive game experience for epic exploration of the vast world of Tolkien." Whether the game ultimately ties into anything from the coming show or not, it appears that Amazon's exploration of Tolkien's world is only just beginning.