There are very few things in fiction that come close to be deserving of the word mythology, the works of J.R.R. Tolkien are among those illustrious few. This is due to the fact Tolkien himself and then through his son Christopher attempted to create a world as expansive as any story of old. A world populated by gods, angels, and devils; however due to its expansive nature the world Tolkien created is oftentimes unwieldy and obtuse. So much so the vast majority of fans have never looked beyond his two most popular works.
Which as I stated above is for good reason. The majority of the lore of Tolkiens works are hard for even deep fans to read through multiple times, it took me as an example three tries because I could get through The Silmarillion cover to cover and have repeated that feat only once more. As such even among fans there is a deep well of relatively untapped lore and backstory that can be brought out in interesting ways if adapted properly for the silver screen.
For simplicity sake I have split this piece into three connected but thematically distinct parts. The first deals with real world considerations such as rights and budgets. The second deals with the world of Tolkien directly and my expectations for the Amazon series. The third looks into the unknown and specifically at The Silmarillion.
Part I: On Budgets and Rights
However, with all the news regarding Tolkien of late no story can be complete with the most seismic shift regarding the authors legacy. Separate from the Amazon announcement but no less important; Christopher Tolkien the Chairman of the Tolkien Estate and Trust as well as the keeper of his fathers legacy has stepped down from his position at the age of 93.
How this fits in with the topic at hand is a simple one, Christopher Tolkien often fought tooth and nail against adaptations of any form outside of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Christopher Tolkien even viewed the much beloved film trilogy as a bastardization of his fathers work at one point. In the process he prioritized his fathers legacy over material wealth, much to the chagrin of others at the Trust it appears. With the son stepping aside there is a distinct feeling that a new Age of Tolkien works is about to unfold, one I expect that will be led by the screen and not the page as has been the case in recent years.
Of course when talking about any transition from the written word to the any screen large or small, budget has to always be considered as the main limiting factor. George R.R. Martin the man most responsible for the current explosion in fantasy adaptations for Television once said of his A Song of Ice and Fire that he intentionally wrote the series as unfilmable due to sheer amount of money it would require to bring the series to screen. We now know that he thankfully failed in that regard, however his expectations of an astronomical budget were not without merit as Game of Thrones final season will cost a reported $90,000,000.00 indeed the cost of these epic series is suitably epic.
Due to these immense sums (the budget of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring the smallest of the films in scope and ambition was $91,000,000.00) my first thought was how can this series be done justice on the small screen, without a Game of Thrones sized budget? As we have seen from The Shannara Chronicles and Inhumans a low budget can be a death knell for quality on any effect driven series. Luckily these is reason for hope.
That reason is Amazon. Or more specifically Amazon’s amazingly deep pockets. With streaming companies like Netflix leading the way towards $100,000,000.00 series such as The Queen, it is not hard to believe Amazon is willing to put serious cash behind the series. As reportedly Amazon to secure the rights spent over $250,000,000.00 and has committed to multiple seasons and potentially spin-off series. If there was any doubt in Amazon’s commitment to the property a quarter of a billion dollars should put that to rest.
With Amazon’s bank account backing it I think initial worries should be lessened, it is not to say a large budget guarantees good television shows. Far from it, however for a series born out of the mind of Tolkien a large budget is a prerequisite for success these cannot be done small scale. That being said as we have seen with The Hobbit adaptations even with good source material and a budget can fail to live up to the source. To make fantasy reality, a vision for the product must match the material being adapted. Turning The Hobbit a limited children story into a sprawling nine hour epic was a betrayal of the source material and most would agree was a grave mistake.
Which is why as Amazon pushes towards its first (of potentially many) series based on Tolkiens work it is best to look at the stories that may be possible. Based on Amazons own statement:
The contours of the first story are pretty clear. It will be direct prequel to The Lord of the Rings based on stories yet unadapted, meaning not The Hobbit. This from the Tolkien Estate and Trusts perspective was likely a selling point as the rights are connected to an already successful franchise, yet will also be a unique experience. As interestingly Warner Bro’s rights agreement only covered films, the rights sold this week are new and separate Television Rights which has always been held with the Estate and Trust.
Part II: Lord of the Rings and Amazon
Due to these limitations in scope, my expectations of what viewers can expect will likely be found not in the pages of The Lord of the Rings main works, but in its Appendices. Which tells stories spanning decades set before the events of The Fellowship of the Ring and those set following the Elves sailing to the Grey Havens and the Scouring of the Shire at the end of The Return of the King.
The stories I personally feel are ripe for the picking are Aragorn’s adventures as the Ranger Strider and Gandalf’s journeys investigating the rise of Sauron in Mordor and event that took place 60 years prior to the original story. For the first the reasoning is obvious, a character well known and loved taking his first steps to being the hero and King he was always meant to be. Spending time with a young Aragorn and the elves he eventually befriends would be an interesting and personal look at a world that has been previously only presented in an epic and bombastic fashion on screen.
There is also the added benefit these stories have a clear plot arc for the character, as well as the potential for expansion beyond what was written on the page. There is also the added production benefit of Aragon being a mere human (well Númenorian, we shall get to them) without magical abilities, meaning the effects budget would be blissfully limited for the most go.
The series could explore the world of Middle Earth from the ground up, a way viewers have never seen it before. It would be familiar, yet unique, as it is clear Amazon wishes the series to be seen as its own stand alone experience they could do far worse then the many adventures of Strider.
On the polar opposite side of things they could pick up the mystical side of Middle Earth with its resident wandering Istari - Gandalf they Grey. As we know Gandalf spent the years between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring wandering the Kingdoms of Middle Earth researching the rise of Sauron the Necromancer and most importantly the Rings of Power including the One Ring itself, which was sometimes aided by Aragorn.
A series focusing on Gandalf would view the world from the top down, being populated by Kings, Elves, Wizards, and all the intrigue these types bring. For an “epic” take on the source material it is an obvious point of origin for a series to look at. One issue of note I could foresee is with Sir Ian Mckellen’s near perfect performance of Gandalf the Grey how anyone could take the role in a staring capacity is a very tall order. However it is one issue that will need to be dealt with regardless as no series set in the Third Age could exist without him, to that unlucky soul I say good luck.
During these times there was also many stories that can be told but none have actually been told in writing. For example following the fall of Dol Guldur as depicted in The Hobbit films and The Lord of the Rings Appendices the Nazgûl’s history is quite vague, however it is clear they had some interaction with key characters of the saga. Likely providing their own threats and challenges during this shadowy era of history.
Furthermore the Appendices hold many more interesting stories from the time of the Second and Third Ages. Such as the Last Alliance of Elves and Men or the Conquests of the Witch King would make interesting viewing and likely fall under the rights agreement currently held by Amazon. One off limited series could work in this function and being granted freedom due to the realities of streaming a viable option.
My point with this being on the face of it a prequel to Lord of the Rings may make people cringe we are just getting another prequel. However the time between Tolkiens most popular works are actually just as interesting as those we find in his main writings. As a child growing up the stories contained in the Appendices of my edition of Lord of the Rings were some of my favorite parts of the saga. Showing just how deep the lore of Middle Earth was and how rich it could be for an adaptation.
Part III: Looking to the Future and The Silmarillion
Looking beyond Amazon and their commitments to the Tolkien Estate and Trust things get murkier to say the least. As with Christopher Tolkien’s influence already starting to fade the possibility of more adaptations will become more and more likely. This will cause the works of Tolkien I believe to become more recognized on the screen then the page as I know them, hence why I refer to this as a changing of an Age.
Currently most of the speculation on further adaption revolves around a tome I mentioned above the always interesting however little read The Silmarillion. Which in actuality is a long history of about five or so interconnected but unique tales. Recounting the birth of the world of Arda and gods through the music of Ainulindalë by Eru Ilúvatar to the passing of peoples to Middle Earth following the corruption and destruction of Númenor.
However the fact most of the people commenting think of making The Silmarillion into a feature film, exposes a profound ignorance of the work. The Silmarillion can never be made into a film as it recounts thousands of years of lore in an overarching narrative in only the most basic sense of the word.
In many way it serves as the Bible of Tolkiens myth, a collection of stories some more important than others, designed to impart knowledge rather then be entertained. An example of this is two stories recounted in The Silmarillion have been expanded into their own novels in The Children of Húrin and The Tale of Beren and Lúthien, both of which in my humble estimation could make into interesting television.
With this in mind there is the potential for parts of The Silmarillion seeing an adaption. That being through an anthology television series akin to American Horror Story. As taken as a whole The Silmarillion is too disjointed to ever be adapted as a complete entity. However taking key stories and crafting stand alone seasons around them could be profoundly interesting. As The Silmarillion deals with love, betrayal, war, and death all of which would make for interesting viewing.
One such perfect story would be the rise and fall of Númenor. Númenor being a city who’s inhabitants were granted long life as being of partial elven blood, Númenor was widely seen as the greatest city of Man. However Númenor grew arrogant and was broken under its own greed and corruption. One doesn’t need to say more but a story such as that could be timely, no?
One of the great things about Tolkiens work is how despite being so fantastic in scope and subject, his is an inherently human world. Where the vices and faults of humanity are reflected in the cultures of Middle Earth and themes such as faith and war are so paramount such as they are to life today. The Tolkien extended universe is one that should be known more rather then through Wikis, a screen adaptation could be magic if done right.
In the end my love for Tolkiens work by this point is pretty obvious, as such I hold both hope and fear in my heart for what is coming. The world of Tolkien is changing, it is growing, and with any luck the future will be a bright one. As such I will take a que from J.R.R. Tolkien himself and choose not to be a Troll as “Trolls are slow in the uptake, and mighty suspicious about anything new to them”. In this new Age let us wait and see and judge accordingly, until then all we can do is hope.
So how do you all feel with the news? As we enter the Third Age of Tolkiens work one of many inevitable adaptions, where things may change, but we can be sure the stories we love wont.
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