The Franchise Frenzy Leaves Nothing to the Imagination
Deep in the heart of Middle-earth there is a wood—or maybe a cave or a hut—and in that wood (or cave or hut) a story takes place, centuries before the events of The Lord of the Rings. What’s it about? Who knows! It’s somewhere in the appendices of the LOTR books. And even though some of the hardest-core Hobbit fans don’t know about it, Amazon is currently crafting a whole series based on it. This, dear reader, is the promise of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.
OK, to be fair, that’s a bit facetious. But truly, when you get right down to it, it might as well be true. J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing transcends generations because it is very rich—people get lost in the world-building, imagining what could be around any corner, through any door. The problem with Tolkien’s popularity, though, is that now studios are looking in all of those nooks and crannies for more stories to adapt. Thus, on September 2, Amazon will release the first episode of what will reportedly become five seasons of television based on roughly 150 pages of history Tolkien wrote after The Hobbit and LOTR trilogy became wildly popular. Will it be amazing? Maybe! Does it seem like overkill? No doubt.
It’s hard to blame Amazon for wanting to do this, and potentially wrong to single them out. Over on Disney+, the Mouse House is making stand-alone shows for every Marvel character it can find, from Loki to Moon Knight. It’s doing the same with Star Wars, handing out series to Boba Fett, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Ahsoka the way Oprah used to pass out the keys to cars. Fans dig some of them, for sure, and it’s easy to see why Lucasfilm would want to capitalize on so many surefire favorites, but at a certain point, it just becomes too much.
Lots of culture critics, including my colleagues, have lamented the burden of streaming—the hours upon hours of content now available that no human could ever fully watch. Others decry the constant mining of well-worn properties to create yet another show or miniseries. My complaints don’t lie there; I’m not a completist, and I don’t mind if I can’t watch every show. Instead, my critique is what this kind of overkill does to the part imagination plays in fandom. If streaming services set out to devote hours of television to every Jedi/hobbit/superhero’s father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate, what does that do to our collective head canon? What does it do to the part of the story that fans get to create?
Not to get all woo-woo (I’m going to get all woo-woo), but a major contributing factor to fandom has always been the ability to make a character or a story one’s own. We all have different ideas about what happened at the Shire after Bilbo left on his adventure. (My guess? A Bye Baggins Bacchanal.) But no one needs a series about it. (To be clear, there is no series about this specifically. Yet.) Most of the great franchises—the Marvels, the DCs, the Stars, both Wars and Trek—thrive because strong world-building leaves fans to imagine what happened just outside of the frame. Having too much of that territory explored can feel like a buzzkill. Yes, imagination is infinite and fans can always just dream up new scenarios, but at a certain point, the ballooning has to stop. Jeff Bezos’ net worth sits at nearly $150 billion dollars—does he have to own the rights to the obscure corners of Middle-earth too? (Apparently, he does. Amazon paid some $250 million for the rights to the Rings appendices and is spending hundreds of millions more for each season of the show.)
Think about this long enough and the mind inevitably wanders to fan fiction and slashfic. Over there, it seems safe. Streaming services might be exhausting all corners of the known universes, but surely they can’t go that far. As much as some fans might enjoy a Stucky show, it’s hard to imagine Disney+ going that far into the realm of fic. Hopefully there are some places streaming services will never go, and certain chapters of head canon will remain sacrosanct. There’s comfort in that. But if companies are going to continue to expand the same franchises over and over again, they’d be wise to leave some realms—some caves, some huts—untouched. But frankly, I wouldn’t put it past an ambitious development exec to start scouring FanFiction.net or Archive of Our Own. Look what happened with Fifty Shades of Grey.