I have a confession. I am a huge Tolkien fan, but when news of Amazon’s big-budget Lord of the Rings TV franchise hit social media, I furrowed my brow and scratched my head in puzzlement. With six super-sized films, I thought, did we really need a TV adaption as well?
Judging by the reaction of friends and fellow fans, I wasn’t alone – even the actor John Rhys-Davies (AKA Gimli) argued that Tolkien would be “spinning in his grave”. As The Guardian’s Stuart Heritage put it: “The initial reaction to the Lord of the Rings show was a heavy, sustained groan that could be heard the world over.”
But then I changed my mind.
JRR Tolkien is one of the most significant authors in modern times and when well-made, fantasy is a genre that has proven to dominate – from Game of Thrones and Walking Dead to Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials and Harry Potter. While Tolkien’s most famous works have already been adapted for the screen, much of the mythology of Middle Earth and its historical world of elves, men, dwarves and hobbits remains untapped.
Announcing the venture, Amazon promised it would be telling “previously unexplored stories based on Tolkien’s original writings”. This could mean many things: the adventures of Bilbo Baggins’s “Tookish” ancestors; the stories within LOTR appendixes; adapting part of the Unfinished Tales; or, most excitingly, it could even mean drawing from material within The Silmarillion.
With reports that more than $250m is to be pumped into the project, it has been criticised as a calculated ploy to win over the soon to be bereft Game of Thrones audience and rake in a tidy profit. But does that matter? Is it not rather naive to suggest Amazon is anything other than a business?
Sure, there are plenty of duds and fillers on Amazon Prime and indeed Netflix. But where it matters, where these companies chose to flex their financial muscle, the quality can often be miles ahead of anything comparable elsewhere. The money pumped into The Crown, for example, oozes out of every single shot. It is beautifully crafted, acted and directed, and a huge success for Netflix.
There is no reason to suppose Amazon’s LOTR venture will be any different. The stakes will be incredibly high, but New Line Cinema has precedent in adapting Tolkien’s work with a reasonable amount of integrity, and every effort will be made to make a first-rate production. Plus, such a huge show will doubtless have its pick of the best writers, directors and actors, and regardless of the naysayers, we will all be watching.
It should be said, though, for 21st century readers and viewers, Middle Earth certainly comes with its problems – from its implicit racial prejudices to its explicit patriarchal society. Reading The Hobbit again recently I was struck afresh by how very few female characters feature in the narrative – and those who do get the Angel Clare from Tess of the D’Urbervilles treatment: they are idealised, saintly, “pure”.
Peter Jackson went some way to address this in the films with the introduction of Tauriel (played by Evangeline Lily) and the expanding of the character of Arwen (played by Liv Tyler). Changes to the source material always come with risks, which may well irk die-hard fans, but I suspect a TV series would need to do even more.
And what is there with regards to source material? Well, in actual fact, quite a lot. The Silmarillion was first sketched out by Tolkien in the 1920s – way before the publication of The Hobbit – and grew to become a kind of anthology of the myths and legends of the world that would become Middle Earth.
Like the LOTR appendixes and Unfinished Tales, The Silmarillion has little of the depth and detail found in LOTR or The Hobbit, but all three contain material with marvellous potential. There is the tragic tale of Beren and Luthien, whose romance is set against the backdrop of the quest for the Silmarils; there is the epic story of Elendil and Isildur; and the rise of Sauron and the forging of the nine rings. These stories may be slender in print, but they are surely rich in televisual potential.
There are arguments to be had that TV companies should, perhaps, widen their net when it comes to commissions. But if we are to have a screen adaption of every single J K Rowling book, endless remakes of Pride and Prejudice and Murder on the Orient Express, and film as well as TV Star Wars spin-offs, surely there is room for a TV adaption of JRR Tolkien’s untapped work?