See more of the story

Some of J.R.R. Tolkien's characters lived to be more than 6,000 years old. The author's legacy may last even longer.

"The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power," which starts streaming Thursday on Amazon Prime, is the latest highly anticipated journey to Middle Earth. Its $500 million budget for the first season makes it the most expensive TV series in history — and a bit of a gamble.

But those signing the checks have done their homework. Two of Tolkien's novels — "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" — are among the top 10 bestselling novels of all time. Peter Jackson's original film trilogy, which concluded with the Oscar-winning "The Return of the King," grossed nearly $3 billion.

TV viewers are the obvious next prize.

"We've really immersed ourselves in this literature and this world for the past three or four years and I think we all, to a one, feel that it's special, it's different," series showrunner Patrick McKay said earlier this month during a virtual news conference with media critics. 'We felt enormously humbled to be the stewards of a small part of it. There's a great responsibility to that, one we all take very seriously."

Amazon is so confident about worldwide appeal that it's premiering the series simultaneously in more than 240 countries.

"Tolkien is the originator of much of modern fantasy. His stories are both timeless and relatable," Gaurav Gandhi, country head of Amazon Prime Video India, said during a recent news event in Mumbai. "They continue to inspire people even today and stoke their imagination. That is why people keep returning to them again and again. And with this series, we are creating an epic world that our viewers would not have seen before."

Unlike past screen projects, which include Jackson's trilogy based on "The Hobbit," this series isn't a direct adaptation of any novel. It's baked out of crumbs Tolkien left behind, hinting at events centuries earlier that laid the groundwork for the rise of evil Sauron.

Robert Aramayo (Elrond) and Morfydd Clark (Galadriel) in “Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.”
Robert Aramayo (Elrond) and Morfydd Clark (Galadriel) in “Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.”

Ben Rothstein, Prime Video

Much of the first two episodes available Thursday — future episodes will drop on a weekly basis — deals with how characters from various backgrounds slowly come to realize that their peaceful lives are under threat.

But the series' most immediate concern isn't a Dark Lord. It's an HBO series.

"House of the Dragon," the first of several planned spinoffs from the wildly successful "Game of Thrones," debuted last week to 10 million viewers, making it the largest series premiere in the premium channel's history. Some wonder if there's enough of an appetite for two fantasy franchises to be serving up new adventures at the same time.

"I don't feel any rivalry," said Robert Aramayo, who portrays elf warrior Elrond in "Power" and played young Ned Stark in the sixth season of the "GOT" series. "I love that world, I love this world. I love fantasy and so now we all just get to watch more fantasy, which can never be a bad thing."

The irony is that George R.R. Martin, who created the "GOT" universe, is an unabashed Tolkien fan. He isn't shy about citing the author's works as a major inspiration for his novels.

He's not alone.

Tolkien, who lived from 1892 to 1973, didn't invent fantasy fiction. But he took it in a new direction by emphasizing what can happen when diverse characters unite for the greater good.

His influence can be seen in everything from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter tales to Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman" series, which debuted Aug. 5 on Netflix. Stephen Colbert moons so much over the author on "The Late Show," you half expect Gollum to show up as his sidekick.

"You see it in the Justice League and Avengers movies, different powers coming together," said Ben Penrod, creator of Twin Cities Con, the annual celebration of pop culture that takes place Nov. 11-13 at the Minneapolis Convention Center. "'Oh, you're an elf, so you do this. Oh, you're a dwarf? Do this.' Same with the Avengers. 'You can fly? You have a bow and arrow? Let's work together.' "

That message resonated with retired drug counselor Mikeal Smith, who first picked up "The Hobbit" from a paperback rack in 1973 shortly after getting out of the Navy. He was so entranced that he devoured it — as well as the "Rings" trilogy — in one weekend. He estimates that he's read the entire series more than 30 times and has collected at least 90 action figures from Jackson's movies, still in their display cases.

"There are those eternal themes of good vs. evil, but I think they're more about fellowship and friendship," said Smith, who helps run the Minnesota Tolkien Society, a Facebook group dedicated to the author. "Different kinds of people coming together to do great things, that's a big statement."

Software engineer Ben Bickel became a fan when his dad starting using "The Hobbit" as his bedtime story. By the time he was 8, Bickel was reading all of Tolkien's novels on his own.

"A lot of sci-fi today can be so grim and dark. But Tolkien's stories are uplifting and positive," said Bickel, who helps organize Con of the Rings, an annual gaming convention in Roseville that revolves around an "LOTR" card game. The next one takes place Sept. 30-Oct. 2. "There's something to be said for stories that focus on friends striving to be better, overcoming hardships, that can appeal to just about everyone in any circumstance."

“The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.”
“The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.”

Prime Video

Patrons of the Minnesota Renaissance Festival are used to seeing lots of Tolkien references, including the Hobbit Hole. The fair, now taking place weekends through Oct. 2 in Shakopee, is technically set in late-16th-century England. But entertainment director David Williams said organizers have purposely kept the rules murky, which means Frodos are just as welcome as Robin Hoods.

"We want to create a time period that feels medieval and reflects an Old World-ness, a simpler time where you didn't get around in a car. You walked or rode a horse," Williams said. "It's very Earth-bound. I think we all have a little craving for that."

Whether or not viewers will crave yet another screen adaptation is yet to be seen. But Amazon has already made a five-season commitment to "Rings of Power."

Morfydd Clark, who plays Galadriel, the mightiest of all the Elves, feels the series' chances for success are strong, especially after she visited San Diego's Comic-Con last month.

"That was a really amazing moment for us all, because it really hit home how huge and kind of long-lasting Tolkien's effect is," she said. "Just to be in a group of people who have all been kind of given respite from the world through fantasy was really wonderful."

"Rings of Power" is set thousands of years before "The Hobbit," but because some of Tolkien's characters live so long, not everyone in the new series will be a stranger.

Here's who you need to know:

  • Galadriel (Morfydd Clark): The most powerful of the elves and the one who is most certain that bad times are right around the corner. Cate Blanchett played her in the movies.
  • Elrond (Robert Aramayo): When Hugo Weaving played this Elf Lord on the big screen, he was a mighty warrior. But in this prequel, he's more of a bookworm trying to live up to his father's legacy.
  • Durin IV (Owain Arthur): This hot-tempered dwarf leader holds a grudge about as well as he holds his liquor. In the first two episodes, he's the most reliable source of comic relief.
  • Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh): The closest thing to Hobbits during this period of the Second Age, are harfoots, the most curious of which is Nori. She' s hungry for adventure — and gets it after discovering a man who has seemingly fallen from the sky.
  • Halbrand (Charlie Vickers): At first, this human seems only interested in self-preservation. But you start to sense there's more to him after he gets stranded at sea with Galadriel. He just may end up being the show's version of Han Solo.