When tasked with creating a show based on the world-famous and well-trodden source material of J.R.R. Tolkien, some might quake in their booths. Not JD Payne and Patrick McKay, the creators of the 50-hour prequel to the The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Having 9,000 years of storytelling at their disposal, Payne and McKay decided to focus their new series on the story arising from Tolkien's copious footnotes, giving them an infinite amount of milestones to hit, but also the freedom to create original narrative arcs for characters both familiar and brand new.
The result, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, is a version of Tolkien's world that includes women as protagonists (not just supporting characters) — among them Elven commander Galadriel (Morfydd Clark), human healer Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), and young Harfoot adventurer Elanor "Nori" Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh).
"I think it adds so much dimension," says Sara Zwangobani, who portrays Nori's mother, Marigold Brandyfoot. "It's reflective of the world that we live in and I think that it adds incredible depth. It's wonderful that the women aren't just there for the sake of being there, but they have their own agency, their own narrative and their own desires that they are following in the story. It's not just about serving someone else's story, and I think that's really important as far as representation goes."
Together with fellow showrunner Lindsey Weber, Payne and McKay sat down with Metacritic to discuss welcoming the challenge of adapting Tolkien for television, populating the world with female warriors, and what made the Second Age a fascinating era to explore.
When you embark on a project like this, what are the conversations around creating something new, but also staying true to the franchise?
Lindsey Weber: I joined this project at the end of 2018, and these guys had already formed part of the writers' room and written a show bible. The first page of the show bible, which was quite a thrilling read, was about staying true to Tolkien and going back to the books. They had really formed this vision for not just the first season, but all 50 hours of it — and very thoroughly I might add — of a chief value to go back to the books and be as close to the material as we could be. We worked really closely with a group of Tolkien experts, including the Tolkien estate. Additionally, [Tolkien's grandson] Simon Tolkien is a consultant on the show. We really tried to ask ourselves every day, "What would the professor have done and how did he do it?" It was always top of mind.
You decided to focus on the Second Age. Why did this seem like the right portion of this story to turn into serialized television?
JD Payne: When we first started, we knew that there was going to be a 50-hour show. That was the size of our canvas. We really started to ask ourselves, what is worthy of that size of show and that ambition that Amazon had? We looked at all kinds of various stories, because Amazon purchased the rights to the three books, the appendices, and The Hobbit, so there were over 9,000 years of possible Middle-earth history to be explored there, but very quickly gravity centered around the Second Age, because it's a fascinating time in Middle-earth's history.
One, it's the time when Middle-earth is in full swing. By the Third Age, the time of Frodo, Bilbo and Gandalf — the story that people know from that time period — it's almost post-apocalyptic Middle-earth. Elves have one foot out the door, Khazad-dûm, the home of the Dwarves, has become Moria and it's sort of a tomb. But going back to the Second Age, it's the time when the party was in full swing. And you had Númenor, which is Tolkien's Atlantis, as the greatest kingdom of men that ever existed in all of Arda, the earth of Tolkien. The Elves are in full swing in their political capitol of Linden and believe that they can make heaven on earth in Middle-earth. The Dwarves are at the height of their civilization as well. So really, it was a very interesting time for us to explore.
Also, what happened during the Second Age are these iconic events of the forging of the Rings of Power, the rise of the Dark Lord Sauron. When he's not an eye in the sky, he's an actual physical embodied being who's out wheeling and dealing and making things happen. It had all the right ingredients to be a Tolkien epic realized on the grandest scale.
These events exist in the footnotes of The Lord of the Rings, but there weren't narrative structures, correct? Creatively, that has got to be exciting.
Patrick McKay: Absolutely. First of all, we and many other amazing collaborators we've worked with, worked really hard to make this a show that is hopefully accessible to fans and non-fans. Part of the idea of going to this era and trying to realize it, in this hopefully grand way, is that it's a story that is complete in its own right. We really didn't want to do, in the era of sequels and reboots and prequels and spin-offs, a show where you have to know everything about the previous show or films that preceded it in order to even understand. We wanted it to be a story that was dramatic and hopefully thrilling and emotional in its own right, even if you don't like Lord of the Rings. This was a story that Tolkien wove throughout his books that we thought had potential to exist outside of those books. The job for us was to weave all of these threads he'd left us, sprinkled throughout the books and laid out as a history in what is called the appendices, which is like a chronicle of Middle-earth at the end of the book.
How important was it to make the series female-centric?
J.D.P: I think we just felt like Middle-earth has all kinds of characters in it that were exciting — men and women and people of varying sizes and shapes. And there are great female characters in Tolkien that you've met before. Galadriel is the wise lady of Lothlórien in the Third Age. The very name Galadriel, I think, is "Elf maiden with a crown of golden hair on her head." The reason that she's called that is because when she would be sparring with other Elves, she would put her hair in braids and up in a crown on her head. The idea of warrior Galadriel is embedded in her very name. We said, "What if we took her back far earlier from the wise, magisterial lady of the wood and meet her as a warrior and see what kinds of battles she might have fought and what sort of venture she went on and really see her when she's full of piss and vinegar? How does she obtain the wisdom that she has later on?" Likewise, there are wonderful opportunities with our Harfoots, where we said, "There could be this amazing female friendship." And, really, Middle-earth, like our Earth, is half female.
L.W.: This question always makes me smile because I think Tolkien wrote some of the greatest female characters of all time. Galadriel is my favorite character in all of fiction. And where did all those Elves and Hobbits and Dwarves come from? Middle-earth had something to do with it. So, we're very happy to have a cast be split down the middle and capture all that.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power streams Fridays