When Lord of the Rings comes to Amazon, the project will do its best not to retread ground already covered by the feature films that took the world by storm almost two decades ago -- but they will have to be careful, because while they are trying to do something different, there are rules in place to govern exactly how different they can be. That's according to Tolkien scholar and biographer Tom Shippey, who spoke with a Tolkien site (via /Film) about the process, which he says will give Amazon a lot of creative leeway but over which the Tolkien Estate maintains veto power.
Reading his comments, it appears that there will be two basic demands likely to emanate from the Estate -- that canon itself be respected and the history of Middle Earth's Second Age will unfold as it did in the books (that is, the larger stories having to do with Sauron and the Fellowship, which seem likely to be happening mostly in the background of this story) -- and that new elements feel like they belong in Tolkien's world. So, no creating a time-traveler who knows this is all a fantasy book to serve as a wink-and-a-nod guide through the stories or anything insane like that.
"Amazon has a relatively free hand when it comes to adding something, since, as I said, very few details are known about this time span," Shippey said. "The Tolkien Estate will insist that the main shape of the Second Age is not altered. Sauron invades Eriador, is forced back by a Númenorean expedition, is returns to Númenor. There he corrupts the Númenoreans and seduces them to break the ban of the Valar. All this, the course of history, must remain the same. But you can add new characters and ask a lot of questions, like: What has Sauron done in the meantime? Where was he after Morgoth was defeated? Theoretically, Amazon can answer these questions by inventing the answers, since Tolkien did not describe it. But it must not contradict anything which Tolkien did say. That’s what Amazon has to watch out for. It must be canonical, it is impossible to change the boundaries which Tolkien has created, it is necessary to remain 'tolkienian.'"
These seem like pretty simple and straightforward guidelines for the most part, although it is worth noting that SYFY's Krypton is a master class in how ignoring canon and going wildly unexpected places can still work, assuming the owner of the intellectual property is on board with it. That series, which now officially takes place in an altered timeline within the DC multiverse, began with many fans asking whether they could make a story set two generations before Superman "matter," and that may be a struggle that Amazon's Lord of the Rings has to reckon with, knowing that things will have to remain largely "the same" from what fans already know and expect.
No release date has been set for Amazon's Lord of the Rings, which has already got a multi-season commitment and is reportedly aiming for about 20 episodes per season, in line with broadcast TV and longer than most streaming series. Production is expected to begin in 2020.