lord of the rings HBO

Earlier this month, we first heard the murmurs in the dark: a Lord of the Rings TV show was in development over at Amazon. And then the confirmation with details arrived: not only was the show happening, it would be a prequel to the original tale, set in the years before Frodo Baggins and the Fellowship embarked on their quest to destroy the One Ring and save Middle-earth from oblivion.

If Amazon feels like an unlikely home for this project, that’s because…well, it is. And if you wonder why HBO didn’t scoop it up first…well, that’s because they never entered the bidding war in the first place.

If you’re hoping for a big, dramatic reason why HBO (the home of the Peakest TV of the Peak TV era) decided to not enter the Lord of the Rings business, settle down. It’s nothing too juicy.

Variety reports that the network said no to Middle-earth for one simple reason: they already have Westeros. Why pay out the nose for a massively popular fantasy world when you already have the rights to one that you’ve cultivated and grown and transformed into a modern pop culture institution? Why does the network that makes Game of Thrones, and is currently planning multiple spin-offs to fill the void when the show ends after its fifth season, need Lord of the Rings? They don’t! While Lord of the Rings (and to a lesser extent, the Hobbit prequels) were big screen blockbusters, they have yet to prove themselves as viable for television adaptation. HBO is sitting pretty with Game of Thrones. They don’t have to build anything new. It’s cozy in the Red Keep. It’s good to be king.

The Variety article is full of business-speak that backs all of this up, including a quote from HBO CEO Richard Plepler, who said, “I’d rather own our IP [intellectual property] 100%…and I’d rather have the ability to work with a product that is inextricably linked to our brand.”

Of course, the amusing thing to note here is that Game of Thrones owes much of its success to Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson’s three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnificent series proved that fantasy was viable among modern audiences…and then Game of Thrones showed up at just the right time to subvert everything about Tolkien’s humanistic approach with its weary, conniving, backstabbing cast of monsters. They’re two sides of the same coin, balancing one another out. The fact that Amazon sees Lord of the Rings as “their” Game of Thrones is inherently amusing because these worlds couldn’t stand further apart on a pure moral level. In fact, the only people who can’t say this is amusing in any way are the folks at Amazon, who are shoveling over $250 million just for the right to make the series happen and don’t have laughter in their budget.

HBO was big before Game of Thrones became an international sensation, but the fantasy series redefined what television can be. Now, it’s up to Amazon to top that with whatever their Lord of the Rings show turns out to be…and up to HBO to top that with the Game of Thrones spin-off(s) that eventually get the green light. In the game of fantasy television adaptations, you win or you die, it seems.

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