Every recommendation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s body of work sounds like it’s overselling it. For a lot of people, the walking and talking and eating is pretty boring, and the scenes where incognito warrior women doff their helms and stab vile sorcerer kings in their stupid faces are too few and far between. The Peter Jackson movies, which have come to be regarded as the definitive adaptation of the meaty central tale of Tolkien’s work, The Lord of the Rings, got by in part by focusing on those latter aspects of the story, sometimes to the detriment of viewers being able to totally understand the significance of what they were seeing. Those movies are awesome and people’s genuine love for them is a beautiful thing to see and to share in. They made Tolkien’s world smaller, though.
The Silmarillion, the unbelievably dense and unfinished (and never truly claimed to be finished!) lore-dump that contextualizes so much of LOTR and The Hobbit, features heroic talking dogs, angels that wield the primordial power of the elements, and mountain-sundering fights between creatures whose radiant good and fathomless evil defy easy description (look up Shelob’s family tree sometime). It’s all epic and gorgeous and not the selling point for me. The thing that stands out to me is a kind of rueful understanding of human nature that pervades everything Tolkien writes, a sorrow at the irreconcilability of order and goodness with the inherent corruptibility of the world and the human soul. There’s good in the world, but it’s destined to fade, and we can’t ever quite rekindle it to the brightness with which it once burned.
Not a great blurb for a Blu-ray set! Amazon Prime Video, which is an entity that is as opposite a peculiar old war veteran and linguist as you can get, is not aiming to try with The Rings of Power. Theirs is a show that promises spectacle, prequel plots, and the high-octane fuel that powers the perpetual motion machine that is the intellectual property: Lore! They could not have obtained a better IP for that. Tolkien isn’t the only guy who invented what we now call worldbuilding. They were peculiar, curious people, the writers who built worlds that seem real enough to touch.
Writers like Tolkien and Herbert, and filmmakers like Lucas and Rodenberry, ushered in a new era of how we engaged with and related to stories. Tolkien would call it an “age” I suppose. What’s clear and sort of alarming is that we’re in a completely different age now, one where the ones calling the shots are behemoths like Disney and Amazon. That one has snapped up The Lord of the Rings, one of the most tightly controlled and curated copyrighted works since the invention of copyright, sure does bespeak something about this time we’re living through.
Tolkien’s work is likened to mythology and legend—it has the feel, so many fans say, of timeless tales which inspired it, and it has come to be revered and clung to in much the same way in the short century it has existed. Stories like that aren’t owned by anyone, and so belong to everyone, in a sense. And yet, Tolkien’s work is indeed an owned, regulated, stamped, filed, and litigated property and has been since the beginning. It’s ironic that since almost the genesis of its worldwide popularity it has been tangled up in questions of profit and ownership, and Tolkien himself waded into the fray: In 1965, some perceived loophole in Transatlantic copyright law convinced American company Ace Publishing that The Lord of the Rings had gone into the public domain in America, and they raced to put out their own knock-off edition, which famously pissed off the professor. (He gave credit where it was due, though: He was reportedly glad the covers at least depicted the story’s events, in contrast to the legitimate Ballantine editions, which depicted nothing of the sort.)
Some of the marginalia around this international incident is hilariously revealing of Tolkien the man: Part of the reason Ace’s Donald Wollheim moved to seize LOTR for his paperback company was because Tolkien had rebuffed him, saying that he would never allow his books to be published “in so degenerate a form” as a paperback. And yet, that form is ultimately what catapulted him to fame in America. Throughout the years immediately following the pirating of his work, Tolkien made noise in the press and had a new, “authorized” edition printed, to great success.
Obviously, something that popular is going to be adapted into things like film or TV. And in the case of Tolkien’s work, there’s been a long and mixed record. All of it (until now) has occurred during the life of Tolkien himself, or was overseen by his son, Christopher, whose death at 95 in 2020 heralded the true end of an era.
In 1967, William Snyder had to move quickly: His studio had the rights to a film adaptation of The Hobbit, but he couldn’t drum up the treasure to mount a full production. Following a deal with 20th Century Fox that fell through, he decided to use the rights while he had them however he could, and tapped worst-Tom-and-Jerry-guy Gene Deitch to animate a 12-minute movie. It can barely be said to have been animated, and barely be said to have been a movie, but it has the dubious distinction of being the first time Tolkien’s work was adapted for the screen. In 1969, he would sell the movie rights to works to United Artists for the sum of £100,000, reportedly so that he could cover the estate taxes he expected his children to have to pay upon his own death. It was a lot of money in 1969, but a miserable sum in light of the mountainous pile various companies that have laid claim to those rights since have made off of them. Remarkably little of every Extended Edition boxed set or PS2 version of The Third Age ever actually makes it to the family of the man who wrote the world, nor do they have any say whatsoever in how the rights are used.
In light of that, compare Snyder’s slapdash Hobbit with the absolute boondoggle that was the three-film adaptation of the same brief children’s book by Peter Jackson, a decade after his Lord of the Rings adaptation turned Tolkien’s story into an inescapable multimedia empire. The common thread between the two really bad adaptations is profit motive: Snyder wanted it done quick and dirty, and Warner Bros. wanted it done as lavishly and laboriously as possible, whether Jackson had the time to prepare and take the reins from the director who had stepped off the project or not.
It’s easy to see why Christopher Tolkien had little good to say about the multimedia side of Lord of the Rings during one of the only interviews he ever gave, late in his life, just before that Hobbit trilogy hit. Speaking to Le Monde in 2012, the younger Tolkien said he experienced “intellectual despair” at how his father’s vast imaginary world had been treated by the filmmakers who adapted it.
“Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time,” a translation of his interview reads. “The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away.”
Christopher Tolkien isn’t around anymore to tell us what he might think of the property being adapted by Amazon. This is the same Amazon that is literally an all-seeing eye, the same Amazon that is despoiling the land at an ever-increasing rate, and directing its servants to toil away in shitty conditions and dangerous environments. How the company could miss the point of Tolkien’s works to fixate on telling another story about Sauron is anybody’s guess.
And yet the rights now rest with them (and the videogame rights apparently with some scary-sounding company that is buying up tons of stuff and which I have seriously never heard of). Rather than passing from the dying hands of Tolkien and his son to, say, the public domain, they’re being parceled out by corporations, which can live far longer than the lifetime of a man (if not an elf, yet). In film and videogame form, at least, Aragorn and Arwen and Frodo and Sam don’t get to sail off into the west to the same undying land that Hercules or Sherlock Holmes occupy. They’ve gotta make that paper for Amazon and Embracer Group.
As a result, those corporate-owned forms of the characters are, sad to say, going to be the most well-known. In time, they’re likely to eclipse the subtle, lyrical (occasionally plodding) works from which they originally were born: Like all good books, the reward for engaging fully with them is directly proportional to the effort involved.
There’s a scene in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion that I’m pretty sure will never be in any adaptation. Without going into which particular branches of elves are arguing, one elf prince demands of another to borrow the great longships those elves have built. Surely, he argues, the shipbuilders can just build other ones. No, comes the reply: Once you make a masterpiece, it isn’t in you to make it again. It’s an idea echoed in another big groundbreaking event, the theft of the Silmarils. Fëanor (there’s that keyboard remapping I’ve managed to avoid this whole article) can’t just make new sparkly things. Suggesting to someone that they repeat some nigh-insurmountable task—that they can just, you know, do the thing again!—is nuts. You, a person who has probably had a term paper or school project of some kind vanish off a hard drive the night before, or who labored on a sand castle before Ulmo laid claim to it, know this. It’s one of the universal truths that make Tolkien’s work seem so much deeper than so much stuff that’s come since.
That’s what I perceive to be the selling point for Tolkien’s legendarium, but it isn’t going to move a billion dollars worth of tickets and merch (most of which, again, won’t benefit his living heirs). As sour as that makes me feel toward the companies, I’m also kind of hopeful. I probably wouldn’t have bothered with Tolkien’s writing were it not for Jackson’s movies, which are amazing and, despite Christopher Tolkien’s misgivings with them, were clearly motivated by love for the source material that’s evident throughout. Wondering at the subtext beneath all the magic swords and giant spiders was what drew me to stories of Gondolin and Ungoliant, and showed me an important truth that is very contrary to the obsession with lore and canon that modern fans have: Stories are living things made by people, and not every detail has to line up perfectly, or have a definitive answer. J.R.R. Tolkien died before he could ever fully realize the epic history in his head, and even his son, laboring until the end of his own days, leaves us with a mythos that will never be complete.
Amazon may get to write the last page for now, but I hope it leads more people to read the rest of it.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.
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