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Behind the Amazon TV series

I suppose I should say something about the recent spate of news articles to the effect that Amazon has contracted to make a tv series based on The Lord of the Rings.

I’m not really your go-to expert on matters like this. I got into Tolkien studies to study Tolkien and his works, not media spinoffs. Willy-nilly they have intruded themselves on my attention, and I’ve been warned that I count as an expert on the Jackson movies even though I really don’t want to be one.

But I can say that the news reports have conveyed that this will not be a remake of The Lord of the Rings itself, but fan fiction prequels.

Oh wacko. I shall probably have to avoid this. I’m a scholar; I already have to mentally juggle all of Tolkien’s varying drafts and outlines. I can’t deal with all of this as well. The human brain’s multitudes are finite. Once in the back of John Rateliff’s car I found a card deck for some Tolkien-based RPG. I started flipping through it idly, but when I realized it contained characters the deck-writers had made up, I hastily put it down. I cannot afford to have miscellanies like that cluttering up my head.

As for what the result will be like, I fear that this is less of a parody than it looks. Tolkien’s legendarium is an enormous, widely-known, and even widely-loved creation; there’s much that could be mined out of it.

The most curious question is, what authorized entity is responsible for conveying the rights to do this? News articles in the past have often confused the Tolkien Estate – the family-controlled entity that owns Tolkien’s writings – with Middle-earth Enterprises (formerly Tolkien Enterprises), the company which owns the movie and associated marketing rights to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and which licensed them to New Line to produce the Jackson movies.

They’re not associated. Tolkien sold the movie rights outright in 1969, and they eventually wound up in the hands of the late Saul Zaentz, who was the producer of the 1978 Bakshi movie and the creator of the firm that now owns those rights. It’s this firm which is responsible for most of the trademark defense that’s hit the news over the years, but it’s the Estate that sued New Line for shafting it on royalties owed.

Since the Estate has no control over the LotR movie rights, its opinion on the topic is moot, though Christopher Tolkien, head of the family and his father’s literary executor, has expressed his distaste for them. Because of this, and because of the historical confusion between the entities, the assumption was that the new project came from Middle-earth Enterprises, despite news references to the Estate.

But that apparently is wrong, and it has to do with the fact that the new series will be television, not movies, and will be inspired by other writings by Tolkien. Middle-earth Enterprises does not own rights to either of these aspects; the Estate retains that.

This article on a Tolkien bulletin board is the fullest I’ve seen, and looks the most reliable to my eye. It cites scholar Kristin Thompson on this. Despite Thompson’s lack of comprehension of criticisms of the Jackson movies, I’ve found her well-versed on the facts of the history of the movie rights, so if she says this, I accept it.

That means, in turn, that the Estate did authorize this, and that brings up the other big news, which occurred nearly three months ago, but nobody noticed it until last week. This is that Christopher Tolkien, who after all turns 93 on 21 November, has resigned – retired, presumably – from his co-directorship of the Estate. There are six officers today, two lawyers from the firm that handles the rights, and four family members: Christopher’s wife and elder son (the novelist Simon Tolkien), Christopher’s sister Priscilla, and the son of Christopher and Priscilla’s late brother Michael. Presumably some of these are less opposed to filmic enterprises.

It’s worth remembering that the late Rayner Unwin, for many years Tolkien’s extremely loyal publisher, with a great respect for the integrity of the works, nevertheless maintained, as a publisher with his eye, as it should have been, on profit, that to continue to sell Tolkien’s works need be continually repackaged. New editions, new formats, new packaging, etc. This has continued since Unwin’s time, and the licensing of new media productions could be seen as an extension of that.

Enough, however, of the quotation from one of Tolkien’s letters to the effect that he wished for his mythology to “leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.” Nothing Tolkien ever wrote has been more selectively and misleadingly read. As for why this isn’t the easy defense of media colonization that it looks, that will have to wait for another post.

(a slightly different version of this post appeared on my personal blog under the title “not quite about Tolkien”)

About the Author: David Bratman
David Bratman is co-editor of Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review, and former editor of Mythprint, the bulletin of The Mythopoeic Society. He likes to write about Tolkienian biography and bibliography.