The world of Tolkien coming to the smallscreen

Unless you are hiding under a rock right now you may have heard that Amazon seems to have purchased the rights for the world of The Lord of the Rings. My understanding is that this deal does not cover The Silmarillion (unfortunate, but perhaps for the best as I’m not sure I’d want to see a dramatization of The Children of Hurin). So perhaps one can imagine a series about Aragorn’s earlier adventures in Gondor? If I had my pick though I’d set something during the time of Gil-galad. The Second Age hasn’t be explored in narrative, so it’s a relatively blank canvas, and like The Lord of the Rings it ends in an existential climax.

Why is this happening? Read the story I linked to above. But clearly it’s because of Game of Thrones. As some of you might know George R. R. Martin attempted to develop his works for film in the wake of Peter Jackson’s success. But A Song of Ice and Fire was too sprawling, or more concretely it’s budget would have been outlandish if one wanted to depict it accurately.

In one volume the three book in The Lord of the Rings comes in at a little over 1,000 pages. In contrast the completed books of A Song of Ice and Fire are already more than 4,000 pages.

But this is in some ways the weakness of an attempt to turn The Lord of the Rings into something equivalent to Game of Thrones: the characters are not nearly as well fleshed out in their humanity as those of A Song of Ice and Fire. Tolkien and Martin share similarities in world-building, with a punctilious attention to detail, and a de-emphasis on magic as a deus ex machina.

But when it comes to good and evil Martin’s distribution is more uniform while Tolkien’s is bimodal. The shades of grey found in A Song of Ice and Fire are great raw material for character arcs in episodic television which sprawls over a decade. In contrast, The Lord of the Rings was compressed into three films, so the relatively simple and stark characterizations were good fits in the context of the world-building and plot. I don’t envy the actor who has to play Viggo Mortensen’s role, nor do I want to imagine the abuse writers or show-runners who want to add moral complexity and ambiguity to Aragorn’s character are going to experience from the hardcore fans.

In other news, you can now get a copy of Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer. One of the greatest fantasists of our time, albeit he produces works which are Heavenly Father approved! (I don’t state this as a criticism, it’s just that the God of Sanderson’s universe couldn’t even conceive of a creature like Cersei Lannister, let alone create her)

Addendum: The Hobbit films that Peter Jackson produced in this decade are correctly described as bloated affairs. The book didn’t have enough source material to create a plot that extend across three films. But, also note that there isn’t much character development or difference in many of the characters who spanned both groups of films. Part of is that Gandolf is an immortal demigod, while elves such as Elrond and Galadriel are thousands of years old (Galadriel is one of the oldest beings in Middle Earth, she was born ~7,500 years before the events Jackson’s films). It’s hard to imagine a lot of character development over a few decades for such individuals, but one could imagine implications of having lived thousands of years and how it might drive you somewhat crazy (R. Scott Bakker explores this in detail in The Great Ordeal).

10 thoughts on “The world of Tolkien coming to the smallscreen

  1. Tolkien’s characters are archetypes rather than “fully-fleshed humans,” with warts and all. His is a work of high literature, not gritty fantasy pulp.

    However, I don’t think I want to see anymore cinematic renderings of Tolkien’s work. I think his work should remain on paper, to be imagined by readers. I was rather let down by the Peter Jackson films.

    I am more excited to hear that Legendary Pictures has bought the rights to the Dune series, and may produce a series of films or TV shows that are more faithful to the book than previous attempts (though I liked the low-budget Sci-fi channel mini-series that featured the then-unknown James McAvoy as Leto II).

  2. The David Lynch version was a mess and quite weird, but the desert scenes were gorgeous. Very Lawrence of Arabia-esque.

  3. It’s mentioned in one of the Appendices (I think) that Aragorn traveled into the east on one of his many journeys. If they wanted to try for nuance and new things, they could have that be part of a season of an Aragorn-centered prequel series, fleshing out some of the Easterling societies that worship and follow Sauron (or possibly worship Morgoth while serving Sauron). It sounds like they’ve got the Tolkien Estate’s cooperation on this, so they could actually give the Blue Wizards names this time and have them show up on screen.

    The part of the Silmarillion on Numenor has the Numenoreans setting up kingdoms and fortresses all along the coastlines of the world in their imperial phase, not just in western Middle-Earth. A Game of Thrones-ish plot could be a Blue Wizard scheme to undermine and topple one of the Numenorean-descent monarchies loyal to Sauron, that Aragorn accidentally gets mixed up in.

    My understanding is that this deal does not cover The Silmarillion (unfortunate, but perhaps for the best as I’m not sure I’d want to see a dramatization of The Children of Hurin).

    It’s a pity. I’d really enjoy a series built around Feanor, or even just a movie or three.

  4. I would enjoy The First Law series made into television or film. Probably a long series like GOT.

    The most cinematic and would make the best movie would be Red Country and that would be best if Logan Ninefingers’ backstory is not revealed. I guess it is the most cinematic since it was a rip-off/homage to The Searchers.

  5. It’s a pity. I’d really enjoy a series built around Feanor, or even just a movie or three.

    the problem with the elves who have seen the lights of valinor is that they are so hard to relate to imo. though the noldorian elves seem more earth and muscular enough to have a certain broish appeal.

  6. Amazon paid 250 Mil and didn’t even get the rights to The Silmirillion? That seems insane. One wonders how much it would’ve cost them to just make it without permission and settle the resulting court case?

    Plus, Martin’s Song of Fire was pretty clearly written as a sort of anti-LOTR, so Tolkien’s work seems almost singularly unsuited to try and make a Game of Thrones knockoff.

  7. Interesting to learn that the Tolkien estate is on board with this, but it looks like Christopher Tolkien resigned as its director August 31st. A brave new world of scantly clad incestuous elves and Misty Mountain Top Roller Coasters awaits.

  8. @PDShaw Yea, I wonder, does Chris Tolkien own the rights to Silmarillion independent of the Tolkien estate? Plus, IIRC he worked with a third author to write it, so the rights situation for that work might be even more complicated.

    In anycase, the fact that it wasn’t written directly by JRR and the fact that C Tolkien is less enthusastic about selling the rights to his fathers work than the rest of the family might account for Amazon not being able to buy it despite the crazy amount of $ they’re apparently willing to toss around.

  9. “Fleshing out” Tolkien is kind of missing one of his main story telling techniques, and a core of the aesthetic he was aiming for. He used the hobbits exactly for purposes of having some modern style characters watching the more mysterious heroic characters. I agree with those who show that the Hobbit movies show the problem perfectly. The Arwen romance in the LOR movies was also NOT a highlight.

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