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23 September 2022

The billion-dollar battle to make The Rings of Power

Tolkien family infighting, Hollywood lawsuits and Jeff Bezos, unexpected Middle-earth nerd – the long road to Amazon’s Lord of the Rings prequel.

By Oscar Williams

On a mild evening in late August 2,000 people gathered in Leicester Square for the world premiere of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. It wasn’t the writers, producers or actors, however, who welcomed guests. Instead, the opening remarks were delivered by the American billionaire Jeff Bezos.

The Amazon founder rarely appears in public, but he is a proud Tolkienist and it is Amazon’s Prime Video that has produced, distributed and bankrolled the series. Set in the “Second Age” of JRR Tolkien’s fictional Middle-earth, The Rings of Power is the most expensive television series in history, with a budget rumoured to be around $700m, a third of which was spent on the rights alone. In the first 24 hours of its release the series attracted 25 million viewers globally, a record for an Amazon Prime show.

The Rings of Power also marks a first for the Tolkien family. Its estate resisted the development of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy, which proved to be exceptionally successfully. For The Rings of Power, however, Tolkien’s descendants have worked closely with Amazon to try to protect the author’s vision and legacy.

The story that ends with Bezos hosting the London premiere begins in Oxford in the 1930s. It is, like Tolkien’s tales, a dramatic quest for power and it tells us about the lengths to which American tech giants are willing to go to hold the world in thrall.

JRR Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature at Oxford when he began work on his first novel in the summer of 1930. Tolkien, 38, a slight man of average height with short, neatly parted brown hair, wrote the opening sentence – “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” – while marking School Certificate exam papers.

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The Hobbit was published in 1937 and proved to be such a success that when Tolkien came to write a second novel, his publishers, George Allen & Unwin, asked for a sequel. Tolkien wrote a series of short stories, The Silmarillion, exploring the same world in which The Hobbit was set, which he himself saw as “private and beloved nonsense” and feared would be “rejected with scorn”. “The construction of elaborate and consistent mythology (and two languages) rather occupies the mind,” he wrote in a letter to his publisher, Stanley Unwin, “and the Silmarils are in my heart.” Unwin did not refuse to publish them outright but it was agreed that they were too obscure and had not “filled the bill” as a successor to The Hobbit.

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Tolkien turned to The Lord of the Rings, which would consume 12 years of his life and, after his death in 1973, became one of the most popular novels of the 20th century, selling more than 150 million copies. This was helped by the success of the film trilogy in the 2000s, although Tolkien’s books had first attracted interest from filmmakers three decades earlier.

Tolkien sold the Lord of the Rings film rights to United Artists for £104,602, about £1.2m in today’s money, in 1969. He is said to have made the deal, which also included royalties for him and his estate from any productions that followed, to cover his children’s looming inheritance tax bill. Many have speculated that he considered the sum a pittance, but accepted it because he wanted the money for his family and didn’t believe Lord of the Rings could be turned into a film.

In 1976 the American film producer Saul Zaentz acquired Tolkien’s rights. The deal would mark the beginning of the Lord of the Rings industry. Zaentz, a bearded Hollywood veteran who won the Academy Award for Best Picture three times, would establish a business known as Tolkien Enterprises to exploit the intellectual property he now owned. His company, later renamed Middle-earth Enterprises, produced an animated Lord of the Rings film in 1978 – innovative for its use of rotoscoping, whereby animators draw over live-action film – and a series of role-playing games.

When Peter Jackson first set out to develop his films he worked with Harvey Weinstein to secure the rights from Zaentz. Weinstein left the project shortly after and Jackson instead worked with New Line Cinema, part of Warner Bros. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Jackson’s later Hobbit trilogy, would bring in nearly $6bn at the box office, increase UK sales of The Lord of the Rings, the book, by 1,000 per cent, and attract a wider audience than Tolkien could have ever envisaged. They also led to a series of disputes both within the Tolkien family and between its estate and the films’ producers.

[See also: It’s absurd to say people of colour can’t be in Lord of the Rings]

Within the family, the central dispute was between JRR Tolkien’s younger son, Christopher, and Christopher’s son, Simon. Christopher had become, in his father’s words, Tolkien’s “chief critic and collaborator”. Like his father, he was an English professor at Oxford. He became the literary executor of his father’s will and, after his father’s death, devoted his life to organising, compiling, editing and studying the various unpublished myths and legends he left behind, publishing them in books such as The Silmarillion (1977), Unfinished Tales (1980) and a 12-volume History of Middle-earth (1983-1996).

Christopher, who resembled his father and was often pictured wearing a formal suit and tie, was reclusive and notoriously difficult to please. His commitment to protecting his father’s work was unparalleled. “I remember the crate-loads of papers arriving at his home,” Simon recalled. “No one could be in any doubt at the scale of the work he had taken on.”

After his father’s death, Christopher resigned his fellowship, moved to the south of France and cut himself off from the academic community, which had looked down upon his father’s work. He died in 2020, aged 95. Simon, now 63, has lived a more public life. He started his career as a criminal barrister, before becoming a novelist and moving to California with his wife, Tracy Steinberg.

Before the film franchise “Tolkien” was not a household name. “The only people who were interested in it were those who played Dungeons & Dragons… until Peter Jackson got hold of it,” Simon reflected in 2012. “It was like being hit by a juggernaut.”

As the release date for the first film approached in 2001, Christopher and Simon began a bitter war of words. Simon, who declined to be interviewed for this piece, told the press that he had been “excluded from the board of the Tolkien company” after a row about how the family should engage with Jackson. He had wanted to support the film and perhaps, it was speculated at the time, serve as a consultant; his father did not.

“It was my view,” Simon said, “that we take a much more positive line on the film and that was overruled by my father.” It was reported that the disagreement led Christopher to disown his son, though this was denied by Christopher’s lawyers. “My father is very angry with me – angry to the point that he never wishes to have anything to do with me again. He will never see my children,” Simon told the Daily Telegraph. “And I grew up thinking this was such a wonderful person… I think my grandfather would be appalled to know that I had been treated in this way.”

Jackson played down the film’s effects on the family, telling Entertainment Weekly that Christopher and Simon had already been “estranged for many, many years” by the time the row emerged into public view. However, he welcomed the creative freedom that the estate’s lack of cooperation bought. “They had an opinion that if they were in any way connected to the film, on some sort of consultation basis, then it would be seen by everybody as the official Tolkien estate adaptation,” Jackson said. “And they felt that, if they had no power or authority over the filmmakers, they didn’t want to be seen as making it the official film. From our point of view, having to make three movies as complicated as these and having to run every decision by the Tolkien estate would have been an absolute impossibility.”

In 2012 Christopher gave a rare interview to Le Monde criticising Jackson’s work. “The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me,” he told the French newspaper. “The commercialisation has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away.”

Christopher and Simon would eventually make amends. Simon told the Sunday Times in 2012 that they had resolved the “incredibly, dreadfully painful” rift and “sorted out all our differences”. However, it would be several more years before the Tolkien estate would end its battle with the films’ makers.

In 2008, five years after the final instalment of Jackson’s trilogy, the Tolkien estate’s charitable trust began its first lawsuit. The trust, which at the time was run by Christopher and his sister, Priscilla, claimed that New Line Cinema had employed the “infamous practice of creative ‘Hollywood accounting’” to avoid passing on “even one penny” of royalties from the films, which at the time were estimated to have made £3bn.

The Tolkiens’ lawyers, working alongside the publisher Harper Collins, called for a percentage of the earnings. They warned that the trust could seek to block the release of New Line and Warner Bros’ planned film adaptation of The Hobbit if the films’ backers didn’t concede. The two parties settled out of court the following year, it was believed for $100m. The Tolkien estate launched a second lawsuit in 2012, challenging Warner Bros’ development of games and gambling products based on Tolkien’s copyright. Again, in 2017, the two parties settled the $80m case out of court.

There was a twist, however. It soon emerged that Tolkien’s estate was working with Warner Bros to develop a television series. The move suggested not only that relations had improved between the studio and estate, but perhaps that Simon, who was reappointed to the board in 2011, had succeeded in modernising the trust.

The rights that Tolkien sold in 1969 did not cover television series longer than eight episodes. His estate appears to have capitalised on this exemption to ensure that it maintained control of the projects that followed. Once it had a plan for the project, it offered the TV rights to Netflix and Amazon. Unusually, Bezos was directly involved in the negotiations and Amazon acquired the project for about $250m.

The Tolkien estate appears to have carefully protected the author’s work in the process. Simon became a consultant to advise on the creative direction of the series. Amazon employed several eminent Tolkien scholars to provide guidance as well. Their role, says Stuart Lee, a Tolkien scholar at Oxford who was not involved in the show’s production, was to give the series’ creators “advice about the Second Age, to get back to the Tolkien mythology and what it covered, and what that might mean in terms of setting”.

One of the scholars who worked on the show was Tom Shippey, who revealed to a German fansite in 2019 that Amazon only had permission to develop stories set in the Second Age. This means that the series largely avoids the plots and characters in the books. Instead, it is based primarily on additional material about Middle-earth that Tolkien included in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings.

This gave Amazon a wide creative berth when it came to developing the series and introducing new characters, but there was a significant caveat. “The Tolkien estate keeps a very careful eye on everything and is quite capable of saying no,” Shippey, who has since left the production, said. “They retain a veto over everything that concerns Tolkien.”

This was a deal that Amazon was more than happy to accept. As Hollywood studios and streaming services increasingly rely on popular franchises as their most profitable projects, intellectual property has become one of their most valuable assets. Bezos had told Amazon executives that he wanted a television show that could rival Game of Thrones. “They will hope that they can grind out lots of sequels, spin-offs and maybe even a prequel to the prequel,” says Tom Standen-Jewell, an analyst at Enders Analysis. Amazon is believed to have beaten Netflix to the rights, a reflection of its huge spending power.

Standen-Jewell says that Amazon’s model is unlike those established not just by conventional television studios, but even the other streaming giants. A show such as The Rings of Power drives revenues through the new Amazon Prime subscribers it attracts, but also the products they go on to buy, from books to garden furniture and consumer electronics. Prime subscribers in the US spend four times more than the average Amazon shopper. “You can make your money elsewhere and have your streaming content as a big shiny shop window,” says Standen-Jewell. “It’s a different model.”

Netflix announced this year that it had lost subscribers for the first time in a decade after raising subscription prices. As the cost-of-living crisis intensifies, Bezos will hope that The Rings of Power will help Amazon to avoid a similar fate.

When JRR Tolkien sold the rights to The Lord of the Rings in 1969 he could hardly have foreseen that 53 years later a billionaire would be using his “private and beloved nonsense” as a shopfront and declaring three generations of his family to be Tolkien fans on stage. But Bezos’s investment shows the power of intellectual property and television to lure customers into Amazon’s walled garden, and deter them from ever leaving.

[See also: The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power review: bold, beautiful and thrilling television]

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