Christopher Tolkien, the ever watchful son of his father’s legacy, strongly disliked Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. Notoriously so. As late as 2013, he was still lamenting that “they eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25.” This is arguably too dismissive by half of a younger generation who learned to love the work of his father J.R.R. Tolkien through those movies—and movies that, for whatever concessions were made to blockbuster filmmaking, still had a slavish devotion for Tolkien’s text. As a consequence, Christopher’s disdain became a source of bemusement to many Lord of the Rings fans.
Barely two years after the Christopher’s death in January 2020, however, that same cynicism toward the industrialized forces of IP-exploitation is beginning to look prescient. While J.R.R. Tolkien’s books were never the sacred texts his son and likeminded fans espoused, they also deserve more reverence than the current trends explored by media companies who are always on the lookout to expand a story’s “universe” until its narrative has the vastness of an ocean… and often the depth of a puddle.
For the record, this is not a critique of Amazon’s upcoming The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power television series. That show remains sight unseen by this writer, and clearly there is a desire there for fidelity to Tolkien’s work, at least insofar as pulling strictly from the Lord of the Rings appendices will allow (and the admittedly IP-conscious need for the series to be a direct prequel to the events of Lord of the Rings instead of maybe something more original set in the world of Middle-earth).
But whether The Rings of Power sinks or swims, it is the result of a deliberate negotiation between Amazon and the Tolkien estate, and one that began even before Christopher’s passing. This means it’s still a single work determined to tell massive events that Tolkien imagined for Middle-earth’s Second Age, such as the apocalyptic Fall of Númenor, through a lens modern general audiences are comfortable with. Which is not all that unlike Jackson feeling the need to juice up the spectacle of Helm’s Deep to keep it in-line with the tastes of early 2000s audiences, we might add.
Even so, you’ll have to forgive us if we’re more skeptical toward Thursday’s announcement that Swedish gaming company Embracer acquired Middle-earth Enterprises from The Saul Zaentz Company, which is a fancy way to say that 21st century mass media sensibilities have finally gotten their hands on the movie rights—and video game, and board game, and other assorted merchandising rights—of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. And as per the company’s own press release trumpeting the news, this could mean a Gollum origin movie.
“Other opportunities include exploring additional movies based on iconic characters,” Embracer said in a statement, “such as Gandalf, Aragorn, Gollum, Galadriel, Eowyn, and other characters from the literary works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and continue to provide new opportunities for fans to explore this fictive world through merchandising and other experiences.”
There’s a lot to unpack in that brief bit of public relations blandness, not least of which could be an early sign of competing and contradictory license holders. For example, Amazon—whose Lord of the Rings license predates and is separate from Embracer’s acquisition—is already giving us the proverbial origin story of the Galadriel character, with the Elvish Lady of the Woods appearing to be the main character in The Rings of Power. Mostly though, the initial takeaway from the announcement is chagrin.
More than a decade after movies with titles like X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) started popping up, the idea of a movie centered on Gollum reads almost like an April Fool’s Day headline. Lord of the Rings Presents: Gollum’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. After all, Gollum (or the hobbit formerly known as Sméagol) is depicted both in Tolkien’s novel and subsequent Peter Jackson movies as a hideous, wretched creature driven mad for centuries by the One Ring until he’s transformed into a cave dweller who chows down on raw, squirming fish with his rotten teeth. Jackson arguably spent the right amount of time on Gollum’s tragic beginnings during a prologue for the movie Return of the King, which was created specifically for the screen.
In six minutes of screen time, we get more than enough to understand the pitiable degradation of Sméagol. To spend a whole movie on that, presumably with an invented backstory of Sméagol being a strapping hobbit with a devil may care attitude, a rolodex of modern blockbuster-ready quips and one-liners that sound good in a trailer, and an ill-fated love interest who could set-up her own line of films (or perhaps a streaming series?), is somewhat comical.
Yet that idea seems as inevitable as the prospect of one day watching the Gandalf movie wherein instead of a literal gray wizard, we get a hunky antihero who has a lot to learn about wizarding. Perhaps Michael Fassbender is available?
Admittedly, one needs to reserve an open mind toward any nascent idea for a movie (or franchise). Unknown factors like talented filmmakers, inspired screenwriters, or innovative narratives can, in theory, make every concept compelling.
Nonetheless, it’s been less than 10 years since Disney’s massive explosion in Star Wars content began hitting the big screen with 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens (remember when “Star Wars” meant monumental cinematic events at the theater?). And even at that time, some of us took a skeptical stance toward then-Disney CEO Bob Iger’s stated desire to have a new Star Wars movie in theaters every year thereafter—forever. In 2014, I called it “Supersizing Star Wars,” and wondered if new Star Wars movies would eventually lose the mystique that once engulfed that saga. Could they one day come to more closely resemble Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe? Which is to say, “Oh, here’s the next one.”
In retrospect, that might have been too generous since Disney and Lucasfilm have abandoned the one-Star Wars movie per year model in favor of three Star Wars TV shows in the same calendar period. Pretty soon they should be able to have at least one out for every fiscal quarter.
The name of the game in intellectual property management appears to now be constant—endless—expansion and growth. The one-movie-a-year model didn’t particularly serve Lucasfilm well in the long run when movies went into production without settled character arcs (never mind finished screenplays), and even the far more successful balancing act within Marvel Studios’ quality control system is hitting arguable hiccups in Phase Four, where three movies and four TV shows a year is leaving fans a tad divided.
Middle-earth still has an allure because its world seems so vast, yet our window into it is so small. Lord of the Rings is a massive epic that defined our understanding of “fantasy” as a genre for the last 70 years. Yet other than that one sprawling book—and the three films it spawned—the only other truly finished work from Tolkien’s hand is the svelte and shimmering children’s story, The Hobbit. Yes, The Silmarillion exists for the hardcore fans, but that work is an amalgamation of Tolkien’s stories, notes, and unfinished ideas that were stitched together after his death. Beyond that remains the Lord of the Rings appendices, which are again keyholes through which we view the origins and destinies of a handful of characters.
For whatever perceived grumpiness is ascribed to Christopher Tolkien, he managed to maintain the mystique around his father’s work for nearly 50 years after John Ronald Reul Tolkien’s death. This includes after Hollywood turned it into an exciting and bankable brand in the 21st century via successes that ranged from the glorious (the Lord of the Rings movies) to the mixed (The Hobbit trilogy).
If we ever really reach the point of a shared cinematic universe consisting of a Gandalf trilogy, Aragorn prequels, and even the dreaded Gollum movie… well, Lord of the Rings’ legacy may become as glistening as a plastic Star Wars lunchbox.