Earlier this week, Amazon announced it had struck a $250 million deal to produce a multi-season Lord of the Rings series. As a lifelong fan of all things Tolkien, this is not minor news.
The name is a little misleading, of course, as this won’t be a television adaptation of the famous book (which had already been adapted to film by Peter Jackson in a wildly successful trilogy). Rather, the plan, according to their press release, is to “explore new storylines preceding J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring,” along with a potential spinoff series.
That’s the part that gives me pause, especially in light of the fact that Christopher Tolkien, longtime guardian of his father’s literary legacy, has stepped down from the Tolkien Estate.
I’ve no problem with adaptations of Tolkien’s work. I’ve watched or listened to The Lord of the Rings in many forms, including multiple radio adaptations, two feature film adaptations (Peter Jackson’s and Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated film), and more. I love it all, even the kind of atrocious final Hobbit movie. Yes, I’ve said many times over the years that Tolkien was and remains extremely important to me, inspiring me to write in my youth and setting me down this road towards the written, but I’m not one of those fans who demand unerring devotion to every word he wrote, treating the work like religion rather than an amazing life of creativity. Though it often tossed the source material out the window, I adore the initial Peter Jackson trilogy, for example.
Writing new narratives in Tolkien’s world, though?
I’m not sure that sits well with me.
For the most part, the stories of Middle Earth have been Tolkien’s alone. Middle Earth is the life’s work of one man, sprung from the well of his imagination and worked on over many decades. It was a very personal wok for him; it is his legacy; it is what he leaves the world. And thus far, we’ve been quite happy with that. We’ve enjoyed tribute art and adaptations, but spinoffs and the like? No. What non-Tolkien Middle Earth narratives that exist have largely been relegated to the world of video games. They’ve not had much impact, either, and some, such as Lord of the Rings: Online, are deeply steeped in Tolkien lore. Plus, video games are meant to provide a framework for players to create their own stories. That’s far different than presenting a whole, finished, static work that the public will embrace as being part of Tolkien’s world.
Tolkien adaptations have taken liberties with his work, but ultimately they’ve still told Tolkien’s stories. Even the biggest liberties taken by Peter Jackson were still taken within the confines of a narrative initially told by J.R.R. Tolkien, surrounded by characters he breathed life into, and attempting to capture the spirit of his work. Jackson & Co.’s re-invention of big portions of The Hobbit, for example, involved taking actual elements from the books and rearranging them like so. Fans can debate the merits of those choices, but they still come down to having their roots in Tolkien’s work.
Amazon’s press release appears to suggest that won’t be the case here, especially when it comes to the idea of spinoff series. There just aren’t that many stories preceding The Lord of the Rings to tell without wholesale invention — and yes, I understand that The Silmarillion is kind of a big giant sprawling thing with loads of stories to tell, but there’s no indication that’s what they mean and historically, it’s appeared as if adaptations of that have been off the table as far as the Tolkien Estate is concerned. The rights have not been sold to them.
So what stories do they tell? Are we going to see the adventures of young Aragorn, or Mirkwood elves having adventures, or people from Gondor dealing with the growing threat of orcs from Mordor?
Perhaps. And I’m not sure I really want to see that.
At best, we’ll see stories from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings fleshed out and expanded upon. That’s the speculation of The One Ring.net, and it’s probably close to the mark. That means taking summaries, mostly a few paragraphs, at times just a few sentences, and turning them into entire seasons of TV.
I suspect J.R.R. Tolkien wouldn’t have been keen on that. Christopher Tolkien certainly wouldn’t have been. He stepped down from the Tolkien Estate effective Aug. 31, at the ripe age of 93. I suspect other forces within the Estate had been negotiating with Amazon and others for some time now, knowing they could only finalize the deal after Christopher was out of the picture. He’s been a fierce defender of his father’s literary legacy over the years and would have been unlikely to allow new stories based on his father’s work.
The timing of all this is kind of stinks in that regard.
Adapt Tolkien all the live long day. I’d absolutely love a faithful, mature series adapting the myths from The Silmarillion, for example. But I’m not sure that I’m ready to see someone else penning new stories in Tolkien’s world or taking brief summaries and turning them into hours worth of television. That strikes me as elaborate, expensive fan fiction, and I have no interest in seeing that. And frankly, there is no need for more stories built around The Lord of the Rings. All the important bits are already there. The characters, the themes, the people, the places, they are all fleshed out in great detail. Adding more serves little purpose and can only undermine the whole, turning the work into just another Generic Fantasy Story instead of the rich, important work it is.
There are some positives. Apparently, Amazon is working with the Tolkien Estate, so that’s kind of good. (Only kind of because the best protector of Tolkien’s literary legacy is now gone.) And New Line Cinema is involved, which suggests that perhaps there will be some design and visual continuity with the films, which would be highly welcome and may mitigate some of my other concerns. At least then I could think of them as part of the film universe, something distinct from the book universe.
And I can’t lie: I’ll be watching. Day one. No question about it, I’ll at least give it a try (and yes, I’ll go in with as open a mind as I can muster, just as I always have).
But it still kind of sits a little uneasy with me. With Christopher gone, the danger of Middle Earth become another generic, marketed to all hell wasteland of garbage products churned out year after year, with spinoff books and the like, is quite high indeed.
And I don’t like the sound of that.