An Open Letter to the Motion Picture Industry (re: Tolkien)
Dear Motion Picture Industry,
Last night, whilst driving home from Cleveland, having watched my Cavaliers collapse late in the fourth quarter against the Denver Nuggets despite looking like the better team for much of the night (three-point shooting notwithstanding) and squandering a dominant performance by Evan Mobley by seeming to forget that he was on the team in the final twelve, I stopped at one of the rest areas on the Ohio Turnpike to pop a Tylenol for the slight headache I had in part thanks to the Nuggets fan behind me screaming her lungs out every time the Cavs inexplicably left Michael Porter Jr wide open for a corner three that he proceeded to make, and took a moment to scroll through my news feed, where I was walloped by the revelation that Warner Brothers Studios and New Line Cinema have acquired the expanded film rights to the legendarium of J.R.R. Tolkien, and intend to make several new movies based upon The Lord of the Rings and other Middle-Earth tales.
As a Tolkien fan, I should’ve been thrilled by this news, leastwise according to the prevailing logic. It should’ve made me feel better about the Cavs blowing a game that, even though I expected them to lose—Denver looks like a championship team this year, after all—they rightfully should have won.
But I wasn’t thrilled. If anything, I was even more disappointed. The news seemed to confirm fears I’d held ever since it was announced that the Tolkien Estate had sold a large quantity of film and gaming rights to the Embracer Group from Sweden: that the life’s work of J.R.R. Tolkien, my inspiration for taking up creative writing, was going to be commoditized, and Middle-Earth, that fantastically real place in which I had so often lost myself, was about to become a Marvel-esque content factory.
I hope I’m wrong. I hope that whatever becomes of this acquisition captures the magic of Peter Jackson’s sublime renditions of The Lord of the Rings, which remain my favorite films ever made, and it isn’t particularly close. But The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a unicorn, the likes of which we are not likely to see ever again. The trilogy isn’t perfect—nothing made by human hands will ever be—but, for its few faults, some of which I will address in this letter, it feels like a love letter to Tolkien.
You’ll excuse my cynicism that the coming output from WB and New Line will similarly be a love letter to the author who devoted his life to bringing Middle-Earth to life, not merely as its author, or even as its historian, but as its theologian, its philosopher, its lore-master, and even the arbiter of its hard science. Based on current trends in the entertainment industry, together with Warner Bros’ own sordid history, I’ve no faith that these films will be a love letter to anything but profit.
I don’t want to be this cynical. I really don’t. Cynicism is corrosive. I want to be excited, optimistic, you name it. But I can’t. You won’t let me be.
Look, I get it. Entertainment is a business. Your job is to make money. And Tolkien is profitable, no doubt about it; he’s only the most recognizable name in fantasy, even with the surge of interest in the genre that took off in the wake of HBO’s Game of Thrones. But, as the Western world sinks further and further into this toxic, addictive relationship with its entertainment, I fear that what’s being lost is wisdom. Mainstream, mass-market film, it so often seems, isn’t made to be experienced but to be Tweeted about; an ephemeral dopamine rush that serves only to enhance that addiction, soulless white noise dressed up in endless layers of CGI wankery, designed to satisfy the cravings of all, yet careful not to ruffle any feathers, to be consumed dutifully and swiftly forgotten about when the next computer-generated treat is dangled before the audience.
This is what happens when “art” and “story” become “content.”
I’m begging you, do not commoditize Tolkien in this manner. Do not strip his stories of their enduring appeal in service to temporal trends or the allure of maximum profit potential. Do not turn them into “Snickers bar entertainment” whose only purpose is to whet the viewer’s appetite and leave them wanting—or rather, needing—more. Do not betray the man whose life’s work you are so eager to profit from.
Some would argue that you have already done this. The Hobbit trilogy, while not without its charms, and rightfully lauded for perhaps the most perfect casting choice in cinematic history in the form of Martin Freeman’s spellbinding portrayal of Bilbo Baggins, was marred by endless goofball humor, penis jokes, and insertions of contemporary politics (Lake-Town, anyone?), all of which are anathema to what Tolkien himself stood for. And this is to say naught of the dumpster fire behind the scenes, culminating in the sickening act of heartless avarice that was the Hobbit Law—in an adaptation of a story that was about the evils of greed, mind you—that I can only be thankful that Tolkien was not alive to witness.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power presents its own set of quandaries, thanks to the liberties it took with its source material. Now, as we’ve been lectured by your ideological allies in entertainment media, screen writers are not beholden to the authors whose works they adapt. And, legally speaking, they’re absolutely right. But what about ethically? As I stated before, Tolkien devoted the majority of his adult life to building Middle-Earth; doesn’t the recognition of that carry with it some moral responsibility to respect said source material—if not in letter then in spirit?
I’m not saying that The Rings of Power is the huge middle-finger to Tolkien that some of its detractors say it is. But let us not pretend that it’s Tolkienian in spirit. It’s a modern show written for a modern (as you see it) audience. And herein lies the root of my cynicism. You, dear movie business, are overwhelmingly socio-politically progressive, to the point of seeming ideologically monolithic. I say this neither as a criticism nor an endorsement—merely as an observation. But Tolkien was a traditionalist, a conservative, and there are those in your business, or who are aligned firmly in your ideological corner, who are disgustingly quick to label anything conservative, or even anything not straddling the left pole, with all manner of hideous derisions. Now, I don’t wish to bring my personal politics into play here, but suffice it to say I do not consider myself a conservative (or a progressive; whilst I prefer to eschew labels altogether, I’d like to think I’m quite centrist). I simply dislike seeing people’s beliefs and views being maligned and mocked, or people being dehumanized because you deem them to be of the incorrect ideological bent.
Let’s start with the most fundamental of Tolkien’s beliefs, namely his Catholic faith—with which your relationship has historically been, to put it kindly, less than amicable. Now, full disclosure: I am not a practicing Catholic; I was raised in the faith, and there are still teachings I try to live by (I’m a big fan of the Beatitudes, for instance), but I’ve long moved away from religion in general. But I understand and respect the vitality of the faith to Tolkien, which, alas, seems not always to be the case. Too many contemporary commentators are quick to criticize Tolkien’s Catholicism for no reason other than their own disdain for the religion, or at the least, downplay its importance in his writing.
But Catholicism is essential to Tolkien’s stories—and, by extension, adapting them with any degree of reverence. The true victor of The Lord of the Rings is not Frodo Baggins, or Gandalf, or Aragorn, or even Samwise Gamgee. It’s Eru Ilúvatar, the name of God in Middle-Earth. Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn, Sam, and the rest, even Gollum, are all merely conduits for Ilúvatar’s Will. Trying to take the Catholicism out of Tolkien is like trying to play basketball without a ball. Sure, you could dunk a cucumber instead, but it’s not basketball anymore, is it?
The religious aspects don’t need to be shoved down anyone’s throat, nor should they be; Tolkien’s great genius was in telling a Catholic story without making it overtly so. The name of Ilúvatar isn’t even mentioned in The Lord of the Rings. There are no prayers or religious rituals. The characters, for all anyone can tell, are all atheists. But Catholic values are woven into the fabric of the story, which is why the Machiavellian scheming, the Nietzschean nihilism, and the postmodernist moral relativism that are so prevalent in The Rings of Power would be fine for a contemporary fantasy show based on a story written by a contemporary author holding these views, but are completely contrary to the ethos of Tolkien. Tolkien believed that a good character should behave in a Christlike fashion; there’s no such thing as “the ends justify the means.” Because the ends, in the material, temporal sense, don’t matter. Doing evil with good intentions is still evil, even if the end is beneficial. It’s contrary to the prevailing ethos in contemporary storytelling, but it’s Tolkien. So, yes, as an irreligious ex-Catholic, I implore you: Keep Tolkien Catholic.
And this is why Tolkien fans like myself are so skeptical. We worry that you’re going to try to “fix” Tolkien, to “modernize” his stories, or worse, try to “save” them from the outdated and “problematic” beliefs of their author. Tolkien’s stories don’t need to be modernized. They don’t need to be made into allegories for contemporary politics—Tolkien himself states in the preface to The Lord of the Rings that he disliked allegory. The allure of Tolkien’s tales is in their timelessness, their atemporality, their epic scope that nonetheless never loses its quaint—and yes, old-fashioned—charm. We love them precisely because they offer an escape from the moral nihility of the modern world. They give us true heroes to root for, heroes who espouse the values of our ancestors—yes, particularly for those of us of European ancestry—and, in turn, something noble to aspire to, flawed as some of those notions may indeed be. (Or, as the likes of Sauron and Saruman, warnings of what may become of us if we are not vigilant, and reminders that even the mightiest and wisest of us are corruptible.) They aren’t just fifty shades of assholes, deconstructed and reassembled at the writer’s whim to serve a narrative need. They take us back to a purer time, a nobler one; a time that never existed in aught but our dreams and imagination. A time that we want back.
There’s a part of me that wishes you’d just leave Tolkien alone—though I know you won’t, now that you’ve caught the scent of profit. And yes, it’s in large part our—the consumers’—fault. We demand more entertainment, more “content,” vacuous, demeaning, and stupid as that word is; more stuff, more junk food for our brains. And you hear the choirs of ravenous voices chanting “Wouldn’t X be an awesome movie?” even from the same hordes whining that the last adaptation couldn’t meet the lofty standards set by the source material and their imagination, and you’re just giving the customer what the customer demands, because the customer is always right, and acknowledging that the customer is always right is good for your business. I wish you’d focus your energy on adapting stories whose authors’ beliefs are congruent with your own, rather than inserting those beliefs and references into tales where they have no place just to spite the people who hold them. Besides, not every book needs to be made into a movie. Sometimes, a story is perfect as it is written, and in its written medium.
I’m not saying you’re wrong for not sharing Tolkien’s beliefs. I don’t entirely share them, either. But if you’re standing on the shoulders of genius, I think it’s incredibly rude to urinate on its head. And, when you’re adapting stories as influential as Tolkien’s, you’re standing on the shoulders of genius. I don’t want to say you’re mooching; that’d be dismissive of the art of adaptative screenwriting. But, allow me to repeat: J.R.R. Tolkien essentially dedicated his life to Middle-Earth. You’re dedicating a few years, and not doing any of the creative heavy-lifting. If you don’t want to tell a story that’s infused with Catholicism and European traditionalism, then why are you adapting Tolkien? You can put a Middle-Earth façade on it all you want, but that won’t change the fact that, by removing those essential elements or attempting to downplay their centrality, you’ve ripped the soul out of Tolkien’s story.
And here’s the thing: you didn’t have to. You had the perfect opportunity to use the success of things like The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones as a gateway to telling a new, more diverse range of fantasy stories. You had the chance to move beyond the Eurocentric standard set by the Tolkiens and Robert Jordans and George R.R. Martins of the world, and put your money where your mouth is when it comes to diversity, representation, and all the things you pay lip service to championing. You could have highlighted authors writing from African, Asian, Indo-Pacific, Native American, etc. perspectives, drawing on those enchanting mythologies and cultures, rather than simply slapping Black and Brown faces on otherwise European-coded characters, then sanctimoniously patting yourselves on the back and calling it a win for diversity.
Instead, you chose to go back to that same golden teat, milking it for all it’s worth.
This shouldn’t be construed as a rant against the ethnically/racially diverse cast of The Rings of Power. On the contrary; I thought the actors were all great. Míriel, portrayed with aplomb by Cynthia Addai-Robinson, was probably my favorite character in that show. And even the most ardent critics of the show, leastwise those who weren’t writing with a political motive, had only effusive praise for Sophia Nomvete’s Disa. (I wholeheartedly agree, my only lament being her dearth of screen time.) But, whilst I realize that I’m a White male, on the outside looking in (and, according to some of your ilk, not entitled to an opinion), someone is going to have to explain to me how these characters represent anything more than tokenism. Most of them had no agency of their own, or had it surrendered to a White character. Remember Arondir swooning like a thirteen-year-old girl seeing Taylor Swift for the first time when Galadriel swooped in and stole his moment of triumph from him?
Here's an honest question for you lot: what would be more meaningful in terms of representation? A bunch of Black Harfoots talking in comically exaggerated Irish accents (along with, according to some, the perpetuation of disturbingly pervasive Hibernophobic stereotypes in modern fiction) about how they’ve left their injured behind, or Black characters that resemble those from African, Afro-Caribbean, Melanesian, etc. storytelling? Don’t tell me the latter can’t be done. You’re the entertainment industry; you’re the crack of the Western world. The only thing harder than getting Americans to turn off their TVs is getting them to turn off social media. Make it look cool enough, and they’ll watch it.
Now, sure, you’ll argue that you can do both. But let’s be honest here: the fact that you’re gobbling up all this Tolkien IP means that you mean to make it another tentpole franchise to compete with the likes of Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Avatar, etc., thereby throwing the bulk of your marketing heft behind it, and any other fantasy story that might’ve otherwise taken advantage of that breathing space is going to be boxed out, confined to the bowels of Netflix where it’ll inevitably be canceled after the first installment or season runs its course, and forgotten about.
Yet this is exactly the kind of diversity and representation that folks like myself wish you would put front and center, rather than trying to universalize what are, in essence, European stories. Give us a broader range of fantasy tales—yes, including the Eurocentric ones, told with reverence to their ideals just as the non-Euro ones are told with reverence to theirs—rather than oversaturating the market with more of the same. Tolkien’s stories may not have been entirely influenced by the mythologies of Northern Europe—like myself, he was an admirer of Mesopotamian lore, and of course, he drew heavily upon Judeo-Christian Scripture, which, contrary to what many on the Far Right would like to believe, does not have its origins in Europe—but his characters read like they jumped out of the Eddas, or the Kalevala, or the Mabinogion, straight onto the pages of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. As such, many of us of European ancestry view Tolkien as a bridge to the stories of our past. Those aforementioned volumes are not merely fiction; they’re the foundational stories of the Norse, Finnish, and Welsh peoples respectively. Tolkien provides us with a link to a past that, throughout the ages, has slowly been whittled away from us.
This isn’t to say that a Tolkien adaptation can’t have a diverse cast. You don’t have to be European to admire European stories, just as you can be of European descent and still admire the stories of other cultures. It’s not like we’re adapting actual European mythology here, in which instance I’d argue that the characters should be represented by White actors, as our forebears often treated those figures not merely as fictional characters but as national heroes and even deities. (Take note, Marvel. People actually prayed to Thor, and many still do.) Tolkien was simply building upon those tales, drawing influence from them, yet augmenting, if not outright replacing, their Pagan ideals with his own Christian values, thus creating new legends built upon a foundation of respect and admiration for those that came before.
Those of us who still value the lessons our European forebears taught us simply want that influence, and those values (both the Christian and the Pagan), to be respected by the folks doing the adapting, on both the creative and performative sides. We don’t want to see them melted into nihilistic sludge just because you’re afraid of offending someone with a lot of social media followers. I think it’s fair to say that most of us are keen to share our heritage, and the stories that have since blossomed from it. But don’t take our stories away from us. If you want to write new stories based on your values, using Tolkien as your inspiration, then do that. Write new stories, as Tolkien wrote new stories based on the Sagas and Beowulf, as I wrote Owl Totem with Tolkien as my inspiration but as its own story. But, if you’re going to do Tolkien, then do Tolkien right.
And, while I probably sounded terribly negative here, that’s all I’m asking of you. Prove my doubts wrong. Make this stuff—nay, not this stuff, this art—awesome, enthralling, enduring, and most of all, Tolkienian. Please.
In conclusion, I want you to keep three things in mind for when you’re making these movies. First, all too often, I see media types and bloggers and regular viewers/readers alike making statements like “Tolkien is all about epic battles.” You mean the same Tolkien who had his main character unconscious throughout the Battle of the Five Armies, only to have its major beats recounted afterward? The Tolkien through whom we only learned of the Ents’ siege of Isengard after Saruman was defeated? I sometimes wonder if, when these people say Tolkien, they really mean Peter Jackson. Tolkien wrote far more about trees and twists in roads than he did battles. He lived through the hideousness of World War I, one of the filthiest and most pointless conflicts in human history. Many have pointed out that Tolkien would have probably been appalled by the Marvelized brutality-as-family-fun violence in parts of The Lord of the Rings films, amplified elevenfold in The Hobbit. Please, don’t just focus on the battles. And, if you have to depict violence, don’t just show sanitized scenes of CGI-monstrosity Orcs getting the snot kicked out of them. Show war as it is: gritty, ugly, visceral, and inhuman. (But, please, not gratuitous.) Reading Tolkien should make us lament the reality of bloodshed, not want to glamorize it.
Second, if you do not resist the urge to turn Tolkien’s works into a never-ending cycle of content output, with each installment meant merely to whet the audience’s appetite for the next, then you’ve completely missed the genius of Tolkien. The Marvel model is neither replicable nor appropriate in this instance. Tolkien’s stories do exactly what a good story does: they make you feel satisfied when you’ve finished reading them. The Lord of the Rings film trilogy is so endearing because it channeled this same sense of wholeness. This is why I personally hate when people say that a book “leaves you wanting more.” I know they mean it as a compliment, but it sounds as if I’ve told an incomplete story. A good story should be like a wholesome meal, not like an addictive snack. The Hobbit may be the precursor to The Lord of the Rings, but both stories are whole in themselves, and neither leaves you feeling as though you need the other to complete the experience—you certainly want to, such is the allure of Middle-Earth, but you won’t be left feeling as if the server forgot to bring the vegetables. Each of the stories in The Silmarillion follows a similar tack; the extended, novel-length editions of tales like The Children of Húrin and The Fall of Númenor are certainly most welcome, but only because they expand on stories that already have fulfilled their mandate.
Put simply, do not burden us with an MECU (Middle-Earth Cinematic Universe) that lacks purpose or vision. Make every story count, make it stand alone, and let it be its own organism, not merely part of a larger whole.
And thirdly—and this relates to the above—understand that the reason readers love Tolkien’s stories so much isn’t because they’re epic, but because, no matter how epic their scope, they never lose their sense of intimacy. As grand as The Lord of the Rings is, it’s still the story of four Hobbits doing their part to save their beloved Shire and (unbeknownst to them) serve Ilúvatar’s purposes. The myriad tales in The Silmarillion are no different, as vast as the scope of that tome is. Each story is driven by its characters. They never grow so big and sprawling that the reader gets swept asunder. I don’t want to harp endlessly on The Rings of Power, but I feel that this was its greatest failure—it was simply too big, and never gave me a chance to connect with any of the characters. Don’t lose that focus on character-driven intimacy in service to some grand franchise-building architecture that proves to be built on a foundation of sand. If you’re going to adapt Tolkien, then give us stories worthy of Tolkien.
Good luck, folks. You’re gonna need it.
(This all having been said, I’ll feel a lot better if you cast Oona Chaplin as an Elf in one of these movies. I love her as an actress, and have a strange desire to see her with pointy ears.)