Two upcoming projects are set to spark renewed interest in the fantasy author's work. But will it bring back the LOTR fever?
Back in 2014, The Hobbit film series came to a stuttering conclusion befitting the stilted and long-troubled adaptions. Battle of the Five Armies was overlong and stuffed with needless filler, with intricate practical effects replaced by fuzzy CGI that sucked the magic out of the story. It ultimately left me questioning where the soul of the Lord of the Rings trilogy had gone. The Hobbit was not a good film franchise, and certainly not a palatable followup to the film adaptions of The Lord of the Rings—but 2019 brings two decidedly more exciting ideas: an Amazon Prime TV adaption of LOTR and a Hollywood biopic about the author himself. The announcement and promotion of these projects has raised the question: where does the wider legacy of Tolkien go from here?
It’s hard to accept that there will be a live-action cast of Lord of the Rings that isn’t the one from Peter Jackson’s movies, right? Across the board, the casting and subsequent performances were stellar, capturing the scale of Frodo’s adventure with expertise and passion. The trilogy is the benchmark for high fantasy cinema, so it’s naturally tough to remain excited for an entirely fresh adaption. However, the glitzy Hollywood sheen of Jackson’s films meant they were bereft of Tolkien’s more poetic stylings. The stories of Middle-earth are bucolic; entrenched in English countryside and natural magic. The likes of Eru and Tom Bombadil are absolutely critical to Tolkien’s world, but there’s a kind of biblical pomposity to the way they’re told—too fluffy, too wandering for Hollywood production. An Amazon series gives the story room to breath, and leaves the door open for exploring its weirder aspects.
Obviously, there are questions of budget and length, but if Amazon is willing to push the boundaries of audience expectations, the resulting series could capture the blissful, lighthearted magic that makes Middle-earth tick. Oddly enough, Tolkien (the biopic, not the man himself) might be just the thing that makes that kind of audience acceptance possible. Introducing more of the author and the experiences that shaped his writing presents a prime opportunity to set up and cash in on heightened awareness of Tolkien’s expanded universe.
I namedropped Eru as a significant figure in the lore, but the fact is that The Silmarillion—the biblical book in which the character is central—is simply too dense and broad to turn into a coherent on-screen story, especially for an audience as wide as Lord of the Rings’. It’s essentially an establishing shot for the whole universe. There’s room for elements of it to appear in future adaptions, but as a singular work it’s best consumed as extracurricular research. What’s more likely is that Amazon’s series will draw from the extensive Appendices and other, more recently-published Middle-earth stories. Tolkien’s family has, for better or worse, worked consistently to bring his lesser-known works to fruition, and some of those could easily differentiate the Amazon series from Peter Jackson’s films.
Looking further beyond this year, is there a market (or even the material) for more big-budget Tolkien on our screens? If Amazon’s series and the biopic are both successful, there’s obvious potential for a reignited interested in the author, but there’s unlikely to be fervour hot enough to make the obscure stories anything more than a passing curiosity, particularly for bigger production companies. Large-scale fantasy is often successful because it expertly distils and balances the myriad elements that it comprises—the politics, the war, the relationships, the monsters and the religions. That kind of adaption is exactly what made Lord of the Rings work, so the chances of Tom Bombadil bounding into your Prime Library are slim.
I love Tolkien, and while I haven’t universally liked the on-screen adaptions we’ve had so far, I’d love to see more of the universe seeping into future projects. All signs point to 2019’s two big releases playing it relatively safe, but they at least offer a sliver of hope for the future. Hell, I’d even settle for more animated adaptions.