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Does it matter what Tolkien would have thought of The Rings of Power?

On 2 September 2022 the landscape of Tolkien fandom, fantasy media and streaming services will fundamentally change with the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, the most expensive TV series ever produced. Amazon have funded the endeavour which is the brainchild of J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, but so far the much of the online commentary is trapped either comparing the series (they haven’t seen) to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, or through the lens of the intentions and thoughts of the author.

Films of Rings

As Stuart Lee notes in The Great Tales Never End, Tolkien had a conflicted view of the BBC, but his first direct involvement was with Terence Tiller who produced a BBC adaptation of The Lord of the Rings in 1955/1956. Tiller and Tolkien worked quite collaboratively on the content of the show, with Tolkien himself accepting the need to make significant changes and cuts to the narrative (including songs and poems). Even though Tolkien thought, “Here is a book very unsuitable for dramatic or semi-dramatic representation. If that is attempted it needs more space, a lot of space”, he did at least recognise “But I suppose all this is good for sales” and provided some praise for the treatment. He later declared in negotiations with Forrest Ackerman on film rights, “Stanley U[nwin]. &: I have agreed on our policy : Art or Cash. Either very profitable terms indeed ; or absolute author’s veto on objectionable features or alterations.” I will leave readers to decide for themselves whether the sale of the rights in 1969 for £100,000 (£2 million in today’s money), plus 7.5% royalty interests, represents an aversion to adaptations, or to cash.

When it comes to The Lord of the Rings films, we now hear from fans on Twitter and YouTube how those films exhibit such a delicate fidelity to the source text that they are unassailable in their perfection and devotion to Tolkien. This argument struggles to survive contact with reality: the excision of 6 chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring (removing not just Tom Bombadil, but Barrow-wights, Fatty Bolger, and Gildor); the inclusion of the Eye of Sauron, Arwen and Elves at Helm’s Deep; the changing of Frodo’s age, the Entmoot, Faramir’s entire character, and Denethor’s view of the war; and – in my view the most critical – the removal of “The Scouring of the Shire”. The latter completely changed the feeling and message of the story from one where no part of Middle-earth was left unaffected and unmarred from Sauron’s evil, to one where the Shire is some kind of Edwardian Shangri-La hidden away from battle.

Christopher Tolkien, in the infamous interview in Le Monde, complained in 2012, “They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people 15 to 25. And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film.” He added, “Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed by the absurdity of our time. The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has gone too far for me. Such commercialisation has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of this creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: turning my head away.” So Christopher, who many would recognise as an authority on his father’s thoughts, is clear in his own mind about what he feels about The Lord of the Rings films. But note, he makes no comment on what he thinks Tolkien’s own views of the films would have been.

Moving forward, in 2017 the Tolkien Estate signed a deal with Amazon to produce a TV series based on The Lord of the Rings. Amazon reportedly paid $250 million and beat HBO and Netflix to the get rights, in a deal which presumably was signed off by the family. In the press release, the lawyer Matt Galsor who represented the Tolkien Estate, the Tolkien Trust and HarperCollins said on their behalf: “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. Sharon [Tal Yguado, former Head of Scripted Television at Amazon Studios] 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.” This doesn’t sound like an action taken under duress by Tolkien’s descendants.

We have no first-hand evidence that Christopher Tolkien’s resignation as a director of the Tolkien Estate Ltd related to the Amazon deal, but we know that Simon Tolkien – another of the directors – is working as a consultant on the series, saying that, “I have enjoyed assisting Amazon Studios in connection with the series, and in particular providing input to JD Payne and Patrick McKay on matters including my grandfather’s original writing.”

Other Minds and Hands

It’s fair to say Tolkien was “OK” with adaptations of his works, and he was certainly more than OK about being paid for the rights to adapt them. But should we be constrained about the idea of authorial intent, as if anything that does not exactly match the text is by default bad, or that we can only discuss the texts through the prisms that Tolkien himself defined? No.

Tolkien himself was an important philologist and researcher on the English language, and I presume he never allowed his own thinking or scholarship to be constrained by the boundaries defined by his predecessors. Do readers think that Tolkien limited himself only to the thoughts of the authors of Beowulf or Pearl? Similarly, we should not cap our own thoughts and feelings simply by guesswork as to what Tolkien’s would have been; not only is this outsourcing our own opinions to a (perhaps) fictionalised version of someone else’s, it is limiting our ability to use The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power as a commentary in their own right.

Often, as shown above, some of our ideas about Tolkien are simply wrong; his opinions on adaptations were perhaps more nuanced than many people will credit. But, Tolkien also had his own prejudices which jar with the public. Do all readers of Tolkien’s works refuse to read Shakespeare because Tolkien “cordially disliked” Shakespeare’s works and described reading them as “folly”? Of course not. Similarly, generations of children have enjoyed the films of Disney yet Tolkien confessed to “loathing” them. Again, anyone who insists that the Payne/McKay show be faithful to Tolkien’s perceived thoughts and feelings can ditch their Disney+ subscriptions right away.

No human being is perfect, and J.R.R. Tolkien suffered from the same imperfections as the rest of us, even though he created an unparalleled world and whose works now stand as the template for all modern fantasy literature. But Tolkien fandom need not sit in judgement over Amazon – or indeed anyone – based solely on “what Tolkien thought”, not only as he is not around to explain his own musings, but also because he also could be prone to prejudices and inaccuracies as the rest of us, and that might even extend to adaptations of his own works. But he was clear, in the famous Letter 131 to Milton Waldman where he talked about his thinking behind his legendarium, Tolkien said, “I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.” (My emphasis.) The following sentence, though, is often missed off. “Absurd.” Tolkien perhaps thought his attempt to create something so vast was unachievable. This week we will find out whether Amazon are worthy minds and hands to fulfil the task of wielding paint and music and drama. We will also discover whether their attempt is absurd, but we can only wonder what Tolkien would make of it.

This opinions in this blogpost are those of Shaun Gunner, and not necessarily those of The Tolkien Society.

About the Author: The Tolkien Society
The Tolkien Society is an educational charity and worldwide membership organisation devoted to promoting research into, and educating the public in, the life and works of J.R.R. Tolkien. The Society organises regular events (such as Oxonmoot and Tolkien Reading Day), publishes regular books and journal (such as Amon Hen and Mallorn), and is working towards a permanent home to Tolkien in the UK.