Normally I write only about games in this blog, but given how obsessively I’ve written about Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films during their development, I just had to write a post about today’s surprising announcement that Amazon today has acquired the global television rights to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings with a multi-season commitment to produce a television series in cooperation with New Line Cinema, HarperCollins, and the Tolkien Estate and Trust.
What makes news surprising is the support and involvement of the Tolkien Estate. J.R.R. Tolkien had reluctantly sold the film rights to his epic fantasy novel to United Artists in 1969, because he needed the money. Originally he felt strongly that his epic fantasy should not be filmed: “You can’t cramp narrative into dramatic form. It would be easier to film The Odyssey. Much less happens in it. Only a few storms.”
It proved to be a difficult work to adapt. The Beatles considered developing The Lord of the Rings into a film project and approached Stanley Kubrick as a potential director; however, Kubrick turned down the offer due to the difficulties involve. Animator Ralph Bakshi produced the first part of what was to be a two-part animated feature film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings in 1978, but he could not secure financing for a second part. The remainder of the story was eventually made as an animated television special, The Return of the King, by Rankin-Bass for ABC two years later.
Bakshi’s animated adaptation inspired New Zealand director Peter Jackson to develop a Lord of the Rings project, and he and his partner Fran Walsh teamed up with Miramax Films now-disgraced studio head Harvey Weinstein to negotiate with Saul Zaentz, who had held the film rights to the book since the early 1970s. Jackson eventually pitched the project to New Line Cinema, which agreed to finance the project as three films. The rest is cinematic history: Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films went on to earn almost $3 billion in cumulative worldwide box office receipts and a total of 17 Academy Awards, including a “Best Picture” Oscar for The Return of the King.
However, Christopher Tolkien, J.R.R Tolkien’s last surviving son and the editor of his father’s posthumously published works The Silmarillion and the 12-volume History of Middle Earth is not impressed with the film’s financial and critical success. He is, in fact, extremely critical of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings. In a 2012 interview with the French newspaper La Monde, he said, “”They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25. And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film.” In fact, The Hobbit adaptation was worse, by Christopher’s measure.
Christopher has been proactive in safeguarding his father’s legacy. The Tolkien estate and publisher HarperCollins filed a lawsuit against Warner Bros. in 2012 over the digital exploitation of Lord of the Rings characters for slot machines and other games, alleging that the studio never had rights to license characters for these purposes. The studio countersued, claiming that the estate cost it millions of dollars in license fees from merchandising when it filed a legal challenge. After a five-year battle,the two parties had resolved their differences “amicably.”
While the settlement term’s were not announced, it appears now that this television production is part of the deal. How could this be possible, when Christopher Tolkien has been so critical of adaptations of his father works? Well, Christopher retired as Director of the Tolkien Estate on August 31st of this year, and it seems that his replacement is much more welcoming to adaptations.
Things are now so amiable between the party that the Tolkien Estate is enthusiastically supporting the television show. “We are delighted that Amazon, with its longstanding commitment to literature, is the home of the first-ever multi-season television series for ‘The Lord of the Rings,’” said Matt Galsor, a representative for the Tolkien Estate and Trust and HarperCollins. “Sharon and the team at Amazon Studios have exceptional ideas to bring to the screen previously unexplored stories based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s original writings.”
So, what does “previously unexplored stories” mean? Some Tolkien fans are hoping that the series will be based on The Silmarillion, for which the Tolkien Estate has not before released the film rights and therefore has not previously been told on screen. However, the news reports specifically state that The Silmarillion will not be adapted for this project, and that the series was explicitly said to be a prequel to The Fellowship of the Rings and not The Lord of the Rings, which suggests to me that it takes place in the Third Age and not earlier Ages chronicled in The Silmarillion.
My guess is that the series will take place in Middle-earth between the events of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring. During this time period, the following events occurred in Middle-earth:
- 2942: Sauron returns to Mordor after having been driven from Dol Guldur by the White Council
- 2944: Gollum sets out from the Misty Mountains in search of his lost Precious. Bard completes the rebuilding of Dale, and is made its King.
- 2948: Birth of Théoden, later King of Rohan.
- 2951: Elrond reveals Aragorn’s ancestry to him. The first meeting of Aragorn and Arwen, in the woods of Rivendell. He goes series of great ventures throughout Middle-earth in many lands and under many guises, becoming the greatest traveller and huntsman of the age. Also, Sauron begins rebuilding Barad-dûr, and the Nazgûl reclaim Dol Guldur.
- 2953: Saruman claims Isengard as his own and begins to fortify it.
- 2954: Mount Doom erupts, causing the last remaining people of Ithilien to flee across the Anduin.
- 2956: Gandalf and Aragorn meet for the first time.
- 2957: Aragorn enters the service of Thengel of Rohan, under the alias of Thorongil.
- 2968: Frodo Baggins is born in the Shire.
- 2976: Denethor, future Steward of Gondor, weds Finduilas, daughter of Adrahil of Dol Amroth.
- 2977: Bard the Bowman dies and is succeeded as King of Dale by his son Bain. Adrahil become Prince of Dol Amroth.
- 2978: Boromir is born to Denethor II of Gondor, and Théodred is born to Théoden of Rohan.
- 2980: Sam Gamgee is born. Gollum first encounters Shelob in the Ephel Dúath on Mordor’s western border.
- 2982: Merry Brandybuck is born.
- 2983: Faramir is born to Denethor II.
- 2989: Frodo becomes Bilbo’s heir and moves from Buckland to Bag End.
- 2990: Pippin Took is born.
- 2991: Éomer of Rohan is born.
- 2994: Balin’s attempt to recolonize Moria ends in disaster. Balin himself, and the Dwarves of his company, are all slain.
- 2995: Éowyn of Rohan is born.
- 3000: Saruman uses the Orthanc-stone for the first time. He comes under the power of Sauron, and abandons his allegiance to the White Council.
- 3001: Beginning to suspect that Bilbo’s Magic Ring may be Sauron’s One Ring, Gandalf and Aragorn begin to search for Gollum. Aragorn eventually captures him, but after leaving him in the custody of the Elves of Mirkwood, Gollum escapes.
Given these events, I think the television series will mainly focus on the individual travels of Gandalf and Aragorn, beginning in 2951, when Aragon learns his heritage and falls in love with Arwen. Given the immortality and long-lives of the various characters, the different seasons of the series make long jumps of time between major events in the timeline, possibly with the last season ending with Saruman’s treachery.
I think the series will also allow for minor events, such as Bilbo’s visits with the Elves (and perhaps Tom Bombadil as well), the Rangers of the North’s efforts to keep the inhabitants of the Shire safe from evil creatures, Gollum’s misdeeds as he searches for the Ring, as well as minor skirmishes fought in Lothlorien.
Of course, this means that a lot of new material will need to be written, as these are “previously unexplored stories” — never written about in any detail by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Will it be any good? That depends on the creative team involved and how well they stay true to the established Middle-earth continuity. At this point, it doesn’t look like Peter Jackson will be involved, which is either good or bad, depending on how you feel about the films.
I cannot help to be interested and cautiously optimistic. New stories set in Middle-earth are inevitable, either before the copyright on The Lord of the Rings expires in 2044, or after. But with the Tolkien Estate’s involvement, I have some hope that the television series will at least attempt to remain faithful to Tolkien’s universe.
My most recent blog posts were about the impact Star Trek and James Bond had on my childhood and how both influenced my career in game development. The third, but certainly not the least, pop culture in influence on me was The Lord of the Rings, both the books by J.R.R. Tolkien and the films by Peter Jackson. From my childhood up through today, the One Ring continues to work its influence on me.
Until I was twelve years old, I was much more of a reader of science fiction — especially Silver Age writers like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein — than of fantasy. But that all changed when my closest friend in elementary school, Craig Ames, told me about a book he had just read, a book about a magic ring that everyone wanted to get a hold of. Well, that didn’t sound too exciting to me, but my best friend recommended it, so I had to give it a read.
And read it, I did — all three books in the trilogy, over a three-day weekend. I was so captivated by the story, it was as if the Balrog of Moria had fallen through the chasm and landed right on top of me. The sheer depth of imagination Tolkien displayed in creating an entire fictional world astounded me. The detailing taught me a lot about immersion, which I tried to emulate to a tiny degree in some of the video games I would later create. But most of all, it was the characters who appealed to me — the wise Gandalf, the steadfast Aragorn, the loyal Sam, and most of all, the martyr Frodo, who saved Middle-earth for everyone except himself.
I then read all of Tolkien’s other works — The Hobbit, of course, the children’s book that Tolkien wrote 1937, thirteen years before its sequel, The Lord of the Rings; his medieval fable Farmer Giles of Ham; and his charming short story Leaf by Niggle. I collected all sorts of reference material others authors wrote describing and analyzing Tolkien’s works, including The Guide To Middle-earth by Robert Foster and The Atlas of Middle-earth by Karen Wynn Fonstad. And of course, there were those wonderful Tolkien calendars illustrated by the Brothers Hildebrandt, which inspired me to draw my own illustrations of Tolkien’s Middle-earth and briefly consider an eventual career as an artist.
I was crushed when my mother told me in 1973 that she just read I of Professor Tolkien’s death. It news affected me more than even the tragic assassinations of the 1960’s, and I shut myself up in my room for a couple of days to mourn the loss of someone who opened a whole new (fantasy) world to me. However, I was relieved when Tolkien’s son Christopher proved to be so prolific in completing so many other works of his father, such as Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, The Children of Húrin, and especially, The Silmarillion, a narrative describing the creation and history of Middle-earth.
I lost contact with my friend Craig when we went to separate high schools, so I had no one to share my love of Tolkien’s work with until I went to college. There I met Lee Garig, who headed up the local chapter of The Tolkien Fellowships, a network of Tolkien fans founded by Bernie Zuber in the 1970s. Lee introduced me to her chapter, consisting mostly of fellow students at Cal State Northridge. Everyone adopted the name of a Tolkien character. Lee was our Frodo, and we also had a Sam (Therese Burr), Merry (Sue Corner), Pippin (Ellen Weinstein), Treebeard (Doug Farjardo), Aragorn (Mark Schlosberg), Boromir (Todd Hansen), Gimli (Albert Monroe), Galadriel (Susie Rose), Celebrian (Kathi Sea), and Fëanor (the late Earl St. Clair). I adopted the role of Legolas, despite my dark hair, mainly because I thought archery was cool (long before it became cool in current movies).
Not only did our group meet monthly to discuss Tolkien’s works, we hung out and did everything together: attending science fiction conventions, watching movies (including Ralph Bakshi’s animated version of Lord of the Rings), going to Renaissance Fairs and Society of Creative Anachronism medieval tournaments, and marching in Pasadena’s annual Doo-Dah Parade (a parody of the Tournament of Roses parade). Our Fëanor also ran game sessions of his own version of Dungeons & Dragons, a game that taught me many fundamental principles of game design, including systems, randomness and theme.
Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to develop a game based on Tolkien’s works. The closest I came was when I was hired as development director of The 3DO Company’s Heroes of Might & Magic franchise, an extremely popular fantasy turn-based-strategy game. The armies that the player accumulates consist of all sorts of fantasy creatures, including Tolkien-inspired ones such as elves, dwarves, and halflings (the word “hobbit” is trademarked by Middle-earth Enterprises, and so we couldn’t use it). I even got to become a character in the game when I returned from a short vacation and found that my development team had adding in a “Sir Mullich” character with this description: “Generally stoic, Sir Mullich is prone to spasmodic fits of uncoordinated excitement believed to intimidate his troops into working faster.” Okay, it wasn’t as cool as Legolas, but I allowed them to keep it in the game.
One day while taking a break from my Heroes work, I was looking at a list of upcoming film productions the movie website Ain’t It Cool News and was shocked to see that Lord of the Rings was going to be made into a live action film. Now, I had seen Ralph Bakshi’s animated version of half the story (his film only covered events up to the Battle of Helm’s Deep, but he wasn’t able to secure funding to do a second film chronicling the rest of the story). I couldn’t see how Tolkien’s characters and world could be done in live-action, and I started reading everything I could online about the film’s production.
A lot of other Tolkien fans were interested in the films as well, many of who were skeptical of the project being undertaken by a director known previously only for low-budget horror films and fearful of what liberties he might take with the story. The director, Peter Jackson, became an instant celebrity in his home country of New Zealand, where he was filming the picture, and so the local press produced a news story about the production at least once a day. Much of what they reported did sound alarming to Tolkien purists — Saruman dying by falling on a spiked wheel and Legolas riding a surf shield in battle — but there were also a lot of false rumors being reported by fans, such as Arwen becoming a member of the Fellowship.
To separate fact from rumor, I began compiling a list of all the documented changes Jackson was making to the storyline for his adaptation, as well as the rumors that I could prove to be false. I eventually published this list, which I called Ancalagon’s Complete List of Film Changes, on every Tolkien message board I could find. Soon I became more famous for being the author of this list than I was for my work in game development, and I was being interviewed as a “Tolkien expert” in everything from the local newspaper to an article Wired magazine published on Tolkien fandom.
The most popular Tolkien message board on the internet, Tolkien Online (aka theonering.com), run by Jonathan Watson and Ted Tschopp, offered a permanent home for Ancalagon’s list, as well as an opportunity to be a news reporter and message board moderator. As moderator, my main task was to stop flame wars between Tolkien purists and “revisionists” (those who accepted story changes as necessary in a film adaptation). However, the real fun for me was being a news reporter, which provided me with an outlet for my obsessions with the films: one day I published a total of 27 Tolkien-related news articles.
My biggest scoop came when a fan contacted me with a link to a file stored on New Line Cinema’s server that proclaimed that Donald Sutherland would be playing Denethor. What made this exciting news was that actor John Noble was supposed to be portraying the role. So, like any investigative reporter, I managed to track Noble down and ask him via email whether he was still in the movie. Unfortunately, he declined to answer my questions and instead directed me to New Line’s Online Marketing representative, Wendy Rutherford, who always had been very nice to us Tolkien news sites, sending us all sorts of promotional materials, but quite properly admonished me to trying to speak to the actors directly. I never did find out what the Donald Sutherland connection was all about.
One Lord of the Rings actor I was able to meet in person was Sean Astin, who played Frodo’s loyal servant, Samwise Gamgee. About a month before The Fellowship of the Ring premiered, Sean appeared at a Beverly Hills bookstore-signing event for a movie art book. I covered the event for Tolkien Online and brought my oldest son, Ben, who was 8-years-old at the time, and we got to have a picture taken with our favorite Hobbit, who many readers (including myself) consider to be the real hero of the story.
Ben was an accomplished reader for his age, and when our local Barnes & Noble bookstore in Santa Clarita started hosting a weekly Lord of the Rings reading group, it was an easy sell to convince him to go with me every Tuesday night. One evening, a new member showed up at our group — Chris Pirotta, who I knew by the nickname Calisuri, the webmaster of the most popular Tolkien news site on the internet, TheOnerRing.Net. What made this an even more amazing coincidence was that Chris had just moved to Santa Clarita from Pennsylvania because his fiancé was attending college there.
Now, there had been a history of animosity between our two sites because Tolkien Online had managed to snag the domain name theonering.com just minutes before TheOneRing.Net did, and so they wound up with the less popular .net prefix. However, Calisuri and I became friends, and we worked to end the feud between our two sites. In fact, Calisuri invited Jonathan, Ted and myself to the lavish Oscar parties they hosted from 2002 through 2004, when The Lord of the Rings films were nominated for awards. After the Oscar ceremonies, the film cast and crew would show up at the TheOneRing.Net’s party first, to thank the fans for their support of the films. The 2004 Party was particularly memorable because The Return of the King had swept the Oscars that night, and afterwards Peter Jackson himself, along with Elijah Wood, Dominic Monaghan, John Rhys-Davies, screenwriter Philippa Boyens, and composer Howard Shore, among others, came to our party.
Once the three films were released, my obsession with them started to ebb. I did interview for two jobs as on Lord of the Rings online. The first was as a development director at developer Turbine Studios, but although everyone agreed I was a perfect fit, I couldn’t agree to relocate to the East Coast. A couple of years later, I interviewed for a producer position at publisher Warner Brothers Interactive in Burbank, but although I thought I was a perfect fit, I wasn’t offered the position. As for my son Ben, his interest in The Lord of the Rings waned, but he took up a new interest: Harry Potter. He was such an articulate fan of the books and the films, that for nine years, he became the official Harry Potter expert of Los Angeles’ most popular morning radio program, The Bill Handel Show, where he gave a review of each new Potter book and film as it came out.
Tolkien became an active presence in my life again when Peter Jackson produced his trilogy of films based on The Hobbit. Although the films themselves were not of the quality of Jackson’s Rings films, the did provide an opportunity for TheOneRing.Net to hold a new trilogy of Oscar Parties, the final one being at The American Legion Hall in Hollywood. Once again, Calisuri was kind enough to invite my wife, Charlotte, and me to this fun event, where we had an opportunity to cavort with other Tolkien fans.
The excitement surrounding The Hobbit films also turned my youngest son Timothy into a Tolkien fan — maybe an even bigger one than I am. He watches the Lord of the Rings films incessantly and his room is decorated with all sorts of Tolkien memorabilia that he has collected at film events and been given as Christmas presents. Even the Legolas costume he wore one Halloween was far better than the one I used to wear in my college days (and his hair is appropriately blonde too!).
Timothy also had an opportunity to meet Sean Astin, just as his brother Ben did 14-years-ago. Sean is hosting a new documentary show about the game industry, and a couple of months ago, he and a film crew visited The Los Angeles Film School to do a segment about our Game Production program. As the coordinator for the event, I made arrangements to have Sean meet Timothy, who later told me, “That was the coolest thing ever!”
I couldn’t have put it better myself1 Forty-five years after I first read The Lord of the Rings, it continues to be the coolest thing ever! J.R.R. Tolkien created a world so immense and immersive, that it continues to overlap into my own.