‘We thought the war, at last, was ended,” says Morfydd Clark’s elf queen Galadriel in the trailer for Amazon’s new Lord of the Rings series, but she really ought to know better. High fantasy thrives on tales of epic battle, but this autumn a different kind of showdown is taking shape. Rather than good v evil or elves v orcs, a clash of eye-wateringly expensive streaming series is on the cards, the likes of which we have never seen before.
At one end of the field is Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, Amazon’s lavish, long-awaited prequel to JRR Tolkien’s hugely successful fantasy saga. At the other is House of the Dragon, HBO’s lavish, long-awaited prequel to George RR Martin’s hugely successful fantasy saga. In what appears to be a deliberate head-to-head, the 10-part House of the Dragon will debut on 21 August, two weeks before the eight-part The Rings of Power launches, which means the two series will reach their respective climaxes the same week. Who will be the victor? Do we have room for both? Or, in fact, either? And who has the most to lose?
At this stage, the final question is the easiest to answer. The most talked-about aspect of The Rings of Power so far has been its budget. It is by all accounts the most expensive show ever made. Amazon has spent more than $1bn (£820m) on it, including an estimated $462m for the first season alone. That works out at nearly $60m an episode. House of the Dragon looks frugal by comparison: an estimated $20m an episode. This is still at the upper end, though: the final seasons of Game of Thrones came in at about $15m an episode, Disney’s Marvel and Star Wars miniseries have cost between $15m and $25m an episode, and Peter Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings trilogy cost less than $100m a movie.
For most networks, Rings of Power would be betting the farm, but whereas rivals such as HBO, Disney and Netflix live and die by the success of their content, Amazon is primarily a retail business, with almost bottomless reserves of cash.
Money is no object for Amazon, but prestige and intellectual property are, says Julia Alexander, the director of strategy at Parrot Analytics. “What Amazon is trying to do is what many of these companies are trying to do – which is develop the next big franchise that they can then spin off into films and merchandising and games and really create a flywheel effect. So to that extent, The Rings of Power is a very, very important move. It’s Amazon coming into the fold and saying: ‘We can compete with the Marvel and Star Wars, and the Harry Potters. We’re willing to spend that money.’”
It was Amazon’s deep pockets and desire for its own franchise properties (along with Jeff Bezos’s personal love of Tolkien, reportedly) that saw it outbid rivals (including HBO and Netflix) to secure the rights to Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythology for $250m in 2017. However, these rights only cover the “second age” of Middle-earth lore – a period centuries before the “third age” in which the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings stories take place. As a result, Rings of Power cannot incorporate familiar characters such as Gandalf or Bilbo Baggins. There are a few exceptions – Clark plays a younger version of the elf queen Galadriel, who was played by Cate Blanchett in Jackson’s trilogy – but the second age was only vaguely sketched out by Tolkien in a 150-page postscript to The Lord of the Rings, known as the Appendices, so Amazon is in effect starting from scratch. The challenge, as co-showrunner Patrick McKay put it, was: “Can we come up with the novel Tolkien never wrote and do it as the mega-event series that could only happen now?”
Coincidentally, House of the Dragon faces a similar predicament. Like Rings of Power, it is a prequel. It is adapted from Martin’s 2018 book Fire and Blood, which is set 200 years before the events of Game of Thrones. So again, it will not include any familiar characters or storylines. Instead, House of the Dragon focuses on the Shakespearean succession battles of the house Targaryen, led by Matt Smith, Paddy Considine, Olivia Cooke and newcomer Emma D’Arcy.
Despite the rivalry, crossover between these two franchises runs deep. Martin admits his fiction was heavily influenced by Tolkien. “I yield to no one in my admiration for The Lord of the Rings,” he told the Edinburgh international book festival in 2014. “I reread it every few years. It’s one of the great books of the 20th century.” Martin’s fantasy arguably embraces more moral and political complexity than Tolkien’s (and, of course, more sex and violence), but is set in a similar quasi-medieval realm of swords, sorcery, fantastical beasts and strange names.
It was the success of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies that convinced HBO there was a market for a grownup fantasy series. So their ears pricked up when, in 2006, screenwriters David Benioff and DB Weiss pitched their adaptation of Martin’s books as “Sopranos in Middle-earth”. The pendulum has now swung the other way: the stellar success of Game of Thrones has had rival streamers seeking more of the same. In 2017, the Amazon Studios chief, Roy Price, told Variety his orders from Jeff Bezos were effectively, “Bring me a Game of Thrones.” Amazon has already had one stab at a high-fantasy franchise: last year’s Wheel of Time, adapted from Robert Jordan’s novels (for a mere $10m an episode), and led by Rosamund Pike. It is being renewed for a second series, but so far has not quite crossed over into the mainstream.
Amazon is starting from scratch production-wise as well as story-wise, which partly explains the show’s colossal budget. Unlike House of the Dragon, which can refer to a decade of world-building experience from Game of Thrones, Rings of Power has had a whole new fantasy world to establish: costumes, props, characters, sets, locations, the look and feel of the show, teaching actors to speak Elvish, and so forth – knowing that superfans will pore over every detail looking for errors.
Rings of Power is expected to run for at least five seasons, so many of these are one-off costs, but the series has been beset by other issues. Filming began in New Zealand in February 2020 but shortly after, the Covid pandemic shut down production for several months. New Zealand’s strict quarantining rules stranded 800 cast and crew members there, and prevented outside visitors coming in. They muddled through, but a year ago, Amazon announced it was relocating the entire operation to the UK. Season two is already in production at Bray Studios in Berkshire. “What that tells me is ‘car crash’,” says one industry insider, who estimates the cost of such a move alone as $30m. “You don’t move like that unless it’s not going well.” As well as the dismantling and reconstruction of sets and the like, such moves often entail expensive reshoots and money wasted on unusable footage, they suggest.
There are also question marks over Rings of Power’s relatively inexperienced showrunners: McKay and JD Payne, whose only credit to date is co-writing 2016’s Star Trek Beyond (Star Trek producer JJ Abrams apparently recommended them to Amazon). “The pressure to succeed for Amazon is enormous,” the insider continues, “but with projects of this scale, there can end up being too many voices in the room, drowning out the creatives. Things start to eat themselves at that stage.”
HBO has a reputation for being more experienced, more in tune with its creatives, and less profligate, but it has also had its challenges. For one thing, Game of Thrones didn’t exactly go out on a high. Many fans complained the grand finale was disappointingly rushed and clumsily written, to the extent that 1 million of them signed a petition demanding the final season be remade. To make matters worse, Benioff and Weiss parted ways with HBO, signing a $200m deal with Netflix in 2019.
Like its rivals, the network has been desperately seeking “the next Game of Thrones”. In 2018, HBO put five different Game of Thrones spin-offs into development, with five different showrunners, almost like a tournament. The winner was a script known as Bloodmoon, run by Jane Goldman, the writer of the Kick-Ass and Kingsman franchises. The network spent an estimated $30m shooting a pilot, led by Naomi Watts, but according to reports HBO was “not thrilled by the results”, and abruptly pulled the plug on the show. They then switched horses to House of the Dragon with showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik, the latter of whom directed several Game of Thrones episodes.
Such headaches are par for the course with this scale of production, and are by no means indicative of the final result. In fact, HBO abandoned its first attempt at Game of Thrones. Again, they were “not thrilled” by the pilot, so went back to the drawing board and spent nine months redeveloping the show to make it more realistic. The strategy paid off.
But above this mega-budget fantasy fray hangs a broader question: why should we watch either of these shows? Given today’s diverse, progressive, global audience, might these high-fantasy sagas seem a little archaic? Both are essentially reimaginings of feudal, patriarchal, medieval Europe, created by white, middle-aged men in the 20th century.
As if to acknowledge this fact, both shows are making concerted efforts to modernise their material. In both Tolkein’s fiction and Jackson’s adaptations, Middle-earth was an almost entirely white realm. Different mythical races existed, such as elves, dwarves and hobbits, but not humans of colour. Rings of Power attempts to mix it up racially. For the first time, we see elves, dwarves and “harfoots” – ancient ancestors of hobbits – being played by actors of colour, including Lenny Henry. Inevitably, there has been a backlash from some corners of Tolkien fanbase.
Game of Thrones attracted similar criticism for its lack of actors of colour in leading roles (not to mention Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys Targaryen, who was presented as a pale, white-haired “white saviour” amid the darker-skinned Dothraki people). House of the Dragon makes some amends by casting Steve Toussaint as Lord Corlys Velaryon, a central character who was white in Martin’s source novel.
In terms of female representation, too, both franchises have made changes. Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were overwhelmingly male-dominated affairs, but Rings of Power promises a more equitable mix. And while Game of Thrones featured multiple female protagonists, many found its casual approach to sexual violence objectionable. It is rumoured that House of the Dragon will slightly tone down the sexual content and focus on the brutal treatment of women, including the violent nature of childbirth.
But perhaps it is a mistake to see the two shows as direct competitors at all. Unlike when rival movies or network television programmes have gone up against each other in the past, streaming is less of a zero-sum game. Fans do not necessarily have to pick a side. Simply measuring which programme had the most viewers is “an antiquated way of looking at it”, says Alexander. “Because the bigger questions are: how many subscribers did it bring? How many subscribers did it stop from leaving? How many of those customers are engaging with the platform elsewhere? Of course, viewership is still a huge part of it, but it is so beyond just the one-to-one relationship.” From Alexander’s research there is no clear frontrunner. “There is an insane amount of anticipation and demand for these two shows.”
It may be more enlightened not to view this as “one franchise to rule them all” competition, but the fantasy genre is not exactly renowned for its love of peaceful, diplomatic resolution. It thrives on conflict. Martin, for one, has welcomed the head-to-head, even as he bemoaned the perceived rivalry. “I hope both shows succeed,” he said in a recent interview, before adding: “I hope we succeed more. If they win six Emmys – and I hope they do – I hope we win seven.”