The Franchisation of Tolkien

I vaguely remember, back in 1997 or so, when it was first announced that The Lord of the Rings was going to have a screen adaptation, I saw an article about Tolkien getting ‘the Star Wars treatment’. What that obviously meant at the time was that there were plans to adapt LOTR into three films rather than one, echoing the Star Wars trilogy (leaving aside the fact that the Star wars franchise started life as one film). At the time that struck most pundits as an incredibly bold move: if the first film flopped, a hell of a lot of money was going to be lost.

As it turned out that gamble paid off and the trilogy turned out to be an astonishing success. The Return of the King earned eleven oscars and Peter Jackson a knighthood. It was obviously so successful that it left New Line baying for more, which eventually lead to The Hobbit trilogy. That, for my money, wasn’t such a great move: it’s only one volume, and trying to stretch it’s contents over three films always meant liberties would need to be taken. New Line was obviously eager to repeat the success of Lord of the Rings though, and three films would make them more money than just one. Having said that, the people who made The Hobbit obviously had a deep respect for the source material, and as a work of filmic art it could have turned out much, much worse.

Yet I am now worried how prophetic that twenty-three year old headline may turn out to be. Star Wars, if you ask me, is a mess: since they started adding to the original trilogy, and especially since Disney took it over, it has collapsed into garbled nonsense which no longer has my attention or respect. The guys who make it – Lucas, Abrams or whoever – just seem interested in churning out film after film to make money. They use characters we know from the originals, but use them in stories which become so stretched and convoluted that the franchise has lost all narrative and artistic integrity. The audience has cliché after cliché hurled at them; each new film is a string of saccharine, nauseating moments designed to evoke nostalgia for the originals. It’s mass market, big budget film making of the worst kind.

What worries me is that something similar will happen to Tolkien’s work. I recently got wind that Amazon have a series in production, based on his less well known works in The Silmarillian, Unfinished Tales and The Book of Lost Tales. It’s obvious that Amazon want to use Tolkien as the basis for their own Game of Thrones, but what concerns me is how convoluted it risks becoming. While Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are fairly coherent narratives, much of the rest of Tolkien’s work is composed of shorter pieces which, taken together, form a very rich, detailed history of his created world. I fear these will be much more difficult to translate to the screen, small or big, meaning any director or producer will inevitably need to take liberties with the source material. The danger is too many liberties will be taken: Amazon will be dying to capitalize on and emulate the success of the New Line films, so they will stretch Tolkien’s work as far as possible, and possibly too far. I worry that it will eventually reach the point Star Wars now has, with films being produced using characters and settings we all know, but losing any artistic coherence or relationship with any of Tolkien’s work.

Of course I hope I’m wrong. I hope whoever is making Amazon’s new series has enough reverence for Tolkien’s writing to stop before they reach that stage. Yet I also know enough about the entertainment industry to know that they will want to bleed every last penny out of this set of stories. Once they know they have a formula which works, with characters the audience likes in a setting they are used to, a studio will want to return to it again and again. That’s the only reason why Lucasfilm made those appalling prequels. Now Hollywood has it’s greedy hands on Tolkien, the franchisation (if I can call it that) of his life’s work is inevitable: I just hope it stops before it goes too far and we see Hobbits racing on Oliphaunts.

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