There are two pieces of recent good news for Tolkienites: a TV show is planned and Christopher Tolkien has retired. Christopher, JRR’s son, has controlled Tolkien properties since 1973, and though he has been a boon to us fans by taking great care of the estate, curating and publishing his father’s notes and unfinished works, he’s also been very stingy with the rights. Understandably, The Shire and environs have a different hold on him than the rest of us (his dad used to read Hobbit stories to him in bed as a child), but still – you could argue it was a touch of Dragon Sickness to squat on all that literary gold, like some mad dwarf.
Well, now that he’s stepped aside – and thank you, sir, for your long service – it’s the wild wild west for Middle Earth. The entire Silmarillion and many more random bits and pieces are potentially available. But you already knew all this, right? (Because you read our Overview.) It could all go horribly wrong, of course. What if it doesn’t, though?
Pack that pipe up with some ol’ South Farthing, and let’s speculate on the possibilities for new Tolkien adaptations.
Obviously, they could just invent stories out of the characters and settings we are already familiar with from The Lord of the Rings – and I’ll bet that’s the direction they take. The Adventures of Young Aragorn or Gandalf and Galadriel or Law & Order: Rohan or whatever.
It’d be easy to do a kids show. Episodes could include: “Toddler Gimli Learns How to Shave”, “Don’t Skip Stones on Still Ponds” and “Faramir Did Not Get That Bruise from Tripping”. How about a kids cartoon about ecology featuring Ents and Tom Bombadil? It could secretly be a show for dropping acid, like Yo Gabba Gabba.
The best stories might grow out of the maddeningly vague mentions you’ll find scattered throughout the works. For instance, there were 5 wizards in Middle Earth: Gandalf the Grey, Saruman the White, Radagast the Brown, and two blue wizards. They were all sent to aid men and elves against Sauron, but all that is said about the two blue wizards is that they disappeared in the east. Now, if you weren’t aware of it, Middle Earth was intended to be ancient Europe (and maybe that’s a semi-okay reason for the lack of diversity: the humans are supposed to be the ancestors of ancient Europeans). Well, what if we followed the blue wizards on their eastward wanderings, all the way through the pre-historic Mideast and Asia? You could have the adventures of Pallando and Alator (their names) in ancient China, for example. In a show set outside of western Middle Earth, every single character would not have to be either white or orc. Plus, what do they got out there in the east? I’d love to know.
Another possibility for introducing a little diversity is to set a story in Harad, the land to the south. The dark-skinned Haradrim are bad guys in the books (and movies) as it stands, but since we can certainly imagine good people whose power-brokers make wicked alliances and do terrible things, why not have some cool Haradrim folks resisting the urge to empire? This thing would write itself in our current political climate.
Personally, I’d like to see something on a massive scale: the entire history of Middle Earth. I’d watch the hell out of a long series that covered everything from the making of the world all the way up to the war of the ring. You’d have wars between gods, the birth of Elves, Men & Dwarves, continental destruction, kingdoms that rise and fall, long-running feuds — being a fan of a show like this would be a part time job. You could out-epic Game of Thrones for at least one specific reason: since Elves live for a very long time, you could have consistency with some characters over many centuries, but still have others that live an entire life and then die off. In season 12, you could have rangers sitting around a campfire singing songs of ancient, legendary figures whose mighty deeds you actually witnessed in season 2. We’d start out clueless like Merry and Pippin, but after years of watching, end up jaded but wise like Elrond. They probably won’t do that, though. (And it’s tough to compare LOTR and GOT, anyway. Not that we haven’t tried.)
Smaller in scope but still sweeping would be a series about Numenor. This was a great Second Age island kingdom of men (Aragorn is a descendant) that grew extremely powerful and eventually destroyed itself, like Atlantis. Through a combination of the political machinations of Sauron (in human form) and their own Tower of Babel-style arrogance, they decided a really good idea would be to attack The Undying Lands, the home of the gods.* Humans were forbidden to sail there from Numenor (yes, sailing), so OF COURSE the Numenorians were all, “Wait. Why not? Fuck you, we’ll go there if we want.” Classic human response. Anyhow, it goes badly, but ends really cool, as the entire island of Numenor is destroyed, and the ubermensch Numenorians become refugees in Middle Earth. It has everything: palace intrigue, fighting, romance, sailing. It would be totally epic. Plus, there are some great Elf and Dwarf kingdoms on the mainland during this time. This is more than enough material for Game of Thrones complexity.
* (Ok, I know I know, hardcore Tolkienites – they’re not exactly gods. Can we say demi-gods to avoid a fight and a book-length explanation for the muggles amongst us? These are powerful, benevolent beings (the Valar) who were involved with the creation of Middle Earth. Good enough? Can we move on?)
One of the most obvious of the extant stories is the tale of Beren and Luthien. This is the great romance of Tolkien’s work, yes, greater than Aragorn and Arwen, greater than Eowyn and Faramir, greater than Sam and Rosie Cotton. (Actually, in the movies, you can see Aragorn singing a little song about them.) Beren was human and Luthien was an elf, so her father was not keen on the idea of them being married. He gave Beren an impossible task – to steal a particular jewel (one of three silmarils, yes of Silmarillion fame) from the crown of Morgoth (the most powerful villain in Tolkien’s work, and one of the aforementioned demi-gods – a fallen one). Anyway, Beren actually gets the jewel, but loses it almost immediately when a giant wolf bites his hand off. In the hunt for the wolf, Beren is killed. Luthien then dies of grief – (elves don’t normally die, remember?) – but she travels to the land of the gods (see above) and sings to convince the Valar to give them new life. AND THEY DO. Anyway, there’s more, of course, but it’s a pretty grand love story, with lots of action. Most importantly, there’s a really heroic dog called Huan.
Weepy trivia: JRR’s and his wife’s gravestones have “Beren” and “Luthien” inscribed on them.
Stories from this same period about a guy named Turin could be the worst story ever. You’ll find the novel-version of Turin in The Children of Hurin and shorter versions are in The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales (and a few other places). I say it’s the worst ever because it is unrelentingly tragic. Turin is the “hero”, but he does really awful and stupid things. Oh sure, he’s a great warrior and leader of men, etc., but what a twat. Newsflash: you can be talented and still be an asshole. I don’t want to give anything away, but other than kill a dragon, he gets almost nothing right his entire damn life, always killing and f*cking the wrong people. It’s like Faces of Death with Elves. God, it’s bleak. I hate it, but, you know, good story or whatever.
Still, the Turin story is set against the background of a vast invasion and Morgoth’s occupation of Beleriand (think of it as Middle Earth 1.0, as it is underwater by the time of the War of the Rings – see the above map). This whole war could make another amazing large-scale show.
A complicated Elven “hero” is Feanor, arguably the greatest Elf ever. This guy is mighty but so awful, all at the same time. I hate that it’s true, but these anti-heroes are sometimes the most interesting characters (cf/ct Anakin/Vader and a lot of Biblical heroes like murderer/poet King David, both of whom were also terrible fathers). Feanor is the guy who actually made the silmarils, so when Morgoth steals them, (and Feanor gets himself banished from the Undying Lands for being a dick), he not only swears an oath to recover them at any cost, but he also involves his sons and followers in the same. This dooms them to a long string of barbarous acts, including a massacre of fellow Elves, who wouldn’t give him the ships he wanted for chasing Morgoth back to Middle Earth. His brother Fingolfin was much less dick-y, and though he follows his brother, rather than using the ill-gotten navy to get to Middle Earth, he takes the long way around thru a dangerous icy tundra. One way to tell this epic would be to view it through Galadriel’s eyes, who was part of Fingolfin’s crew.
If you want straight-up villains, take your pick between Morgoth (also called Melkor) and Sauron, originally one of his followers. Both started multiple wars, wrought awful machinations, and both appear in several forms – eg not just as a weird Giant Eye but also in human/elf form – which would be fun, if you followed their entire careers. Melkor as one of the founding demi-gods leads a Lucifer-style rebellion against Iluvatar (the God figure). One highlight for him would be his alliance with Ungoliant, a giant spider-thing that makes Shelob look like Charlotte. Sauron would be fun on account of his Littlefinger-style work on Numenor.
A lady-hero who is a nice contrast to Turin the Dumbass is Haleth. This story could start from the last stand of her father and brother in an orc battle, after which she takes over the tribe. With a little help from some Elves, she pulls a victory out of that defeat, but then drops a “Hey thanks, but we’re good” on the pointy-ears when they offer to protect her if she only moves her people north. Instead, she leads them west, on an epic emigration through some dangerous territory, and sets up shop outside an Elf forest with a “Ima guard your western flank, yo”. All along, folks that doubt her wander off, but they always come back. Eventually, she dies of old age, instead of from having done something idiotic, and is buried in (for real) the “Ladybarrow”. Cool character, plenty of room to flesh out some story deets.
Remember Beorn from The Hobbit, the dude who can turn into a bear? I’d watch that shit. Maybe he could do a team-up with Radagast and some talking animals from Narnia. How are Narnia and Middle Earth connected, you ask? Through an old wardrobe, duh. [rolls eyes]
Whether they invent something new based on this mass of legend or they tell one of the existent stories, the quality will depend on their execution, not on the material. We already know the material is great. And hey – even if they blow it, we can just try again in a few years. What makes stories great is that you can tell and retell them. No matter what: we’ll always have the books.