On the Success of Peter Jackson
Going by the Best-December-Opening-Ever record smashing by ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’, and the combined box office haul of over four billion dollars being raked in by Peter Jackson’s various Tolkien-based movies, I think it is safe to say that New Line Cinema, MGM, and Warner Bros. are all going to want to keep this franchise rolling. The decision to expand The Hobbit from two to three films, despite the slimness of the source material, clearly speaks to that desire. The combination of Peter Jackson and JRR Tolkien seems to be a bona fide cash cow or golden-egg laying goose depending on your preferred metaphor.
But with the most popular of Tolkien’s works already up on film, where will the studios turn to next? ‘Leaf by Niggle’ or ‘Farmer Giles of Ham’? Perhaps they’ll try conducting more archaeology on the ‘Lord of the Rings’ Appendixes or let Peter Jackson craft new films wholesale. We may even get an entire movie of Tom Bombadil! One thing seems to be clear though, and that is studios today are all about developing major cinematic franchises and the various stakeholders in the Tolkien media industry are not likely to toss away the possibility of making another four billion dollars off the late author’s legacy.Truthfully there is still a huge amount of Tolkien material that could be put on film, and a lot of it really deserves the treatment at least as much as ‘Lord of the Rings’ or The Hobbit. JRR Tolkien was by no means done with Middle Earth after he published his most famous work. Rather instead he was hard at work crafting an entire mythic cycle full of new stories and legends up until he passed on in 1973. The most complete versions of those stories were assembled and edited by his son Christopher, who has spent much of his life serving as a literary historian for his father. Thanks to Christopher’s work, there have been several books published posthumously by JRR Tolkien that further explore the Middle Earth legendarium (a term Tolkien used to describe the connectivity of these works).
The most famous of these various posthumous collections and literary commentaries is The Silmarillion, which was published in 1977 and won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel in 1978. In my own opinion, the writing in The Silmarillion is Tolkien’s best. All of the other posthumous collections are essentially made up of earlier and unfinished versions of the stories which made it into The Silmarillion– except for Children of Hurin which is an expansion of one of The Silmarillion’s better sections. It is a shorter novel- and I hesitate to use the term ‘novel’ to categorize what is essentially a mythology and history text- than the Lord of the Rings but it is filled cover to cover with far more loss, sorrow, pathos, and beauty than any of his other books. The Silmarillion also shows us that Tolkien is fully capable of writing women, something that is so lacking in the The Hobbit and ‘Lord of the Rings’ that Peter Jackson had to make up new characters or drastically expand minor roles for the movies.
The only problem with The Silmarillion is that it is unfilmable.
On the Unfilmability of the Silmarillion
The Silmarillion stretches across an unknown amount of time, starting before the beginning of time and covering the entire history of Middle Earth. The entire saga that of ‘Lord of the Rings’ is summarized in a single small chapter within The Silmarillion. There is little in the way of a central story-arc or principal character that unites the entirety of the story. This is not a simple three-act story structure that could or should be transformed directly into film. Asking Peter Jackson to film The Silmarillion would be like asking a director to film ‘The Bible’ or Edward Gibbons’ ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’. The concept does not make sense. The immediate question becomes, “Which parts”?The business model for Tolkien-movies thus far is based around the concept of an epic trilogy that tells one story. That does not work for The Silmarillion because there is not a single storyline to carry throughout the book. There are thematic lines, notably the continual decline of a world that is marred and corrupted by willful evil and misplaced pride. The Silmarillion is a dark, dark book and it is much more complex and rich than ‘Lord of the Rings’ or The Hobbit.
In it, Tolkien’s writing refutes the critiques of his earlier works- that he does not write women, that the dichotomy between good and evil is too stark and too simple. For anyone who thinks that the Elves are Good People through and through, read The Silmarillion. Tolkien creates a thematic and moral arc within the history of Middle Earth, but not the sort of plot arc that makes for a good movie. Imagine a movie, or three movies even, trying to tell a story that is tens of thousands of years long with no definitive protagonist. If Jackson et al wanted to tell the story of The Silmarillion end-to-end the way it is in the books, it would require something much more akin to The History Channel’s ‘The Bible’, devoting an hour or two of screen time for each chunk of story and even then giving us only the barebones version. The Silmarillion is not built to be turned into a movie and it never should be.Instead, it should be turned into a movie franchise.
Marvel Studios has shown how you can take a larger cinematic universe and use it tell not one story but several stories linked together by various connective tissues. Warner Bros. is busy trying to create the same thing with the DC Comics properties and Fox is trying out the concept with the X-Men and Fant4stic universes. Even Star Wars, under Disney’s management, is moving toward this kind of wide-franchise model with a planned big trilogy on odd-numbered years with stand-alone films on even-numbered years. The various directorial issues and failures (Fant4stic, Amazing Spider-Man spin-offs) that have accompanied these attempts may make studios wary but will certainly not cause them to give it up entirely.
The Silmarillion is not a novel and it should not be a movie or a movie trilogy. It is a collection of great stories, and, once properly unpacked, these stories could each become a feature film within a wider ‘Silmarillion’ or ‘Middle Earth’ universe. There is a backdrop of epic proportions, a centuries-long war between a Dark Lord and the ancient kingdoms of Elves, Men, and Dwarves but in many of the ‘Silmarillion’ stories it really does become just a backdrop to tell a tale of sorrow, loss, pain, and, occasionally, victory.
On Beren and Luthien
Personally I cannot think of a single story Tolkien ever wrote that best deserves to be transformed into film than the story of Beren and Luthien. Set during one of the darkest times of Middle Earth’s history, when the Dark Lord Morgoth is at the height of his power, it is one of the few glimmers of light and victory within the long decline of the First Age. There is everything that one would want in an adventure story here- valorous warriors, evil sorcerers, beautiful Elf-maids, werewolves, vampires, deceit, challenges, and Huan the talking hound of the Valar (the angelic order that rules Middle Earth).
The core of the story is purposefully familiar: There is a princess (an elven princess) named Luthien and a mortal prince, Beren, bereft of land and family. The two meet and fall in love, but the princess’s father is over-protective of his daughter and believes the penniless mortal too far beneath her to allow any marriage. Instead of celebrating their love, the Elf-King Thingol (who is basically a jerk throughout the tens of thousands of years over which we get to know him) sets the mortal with an impossible quest that he hopes will kill off the unwanted (from his perspective) suitor. Beren is sent out from King Thingol’s protected realm and tasked with reclaiming one of the incomprehensibly beautiful gems that the Dark Lord stole from the land of the Gods before the rising of the Sun and Moon. Much like the journey of Frodo to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring, this quest is seen by all as foolish and impossible, but Beren accepts because of his love of Luthien.To say that the story of Beren and Luthien is a rollicking adventure would be disingenuous, but it does have a structure that would well fit the adventure-movie mold. From there we get all kinds of great action. Sauron shows up early on as a servant of the real Dark Lord and we get to see more of him in action here than anywhere in Lord of the Rings. There is a great and noble Elf-Lord named Finrod who joins Beren on his quest but there are also Elf-Lords of less noble intention who are covetous of the Silmarils, of Finrod’s kingdom, and of Luthien herself. And there is Huan, a wolfhound who is destined to die only after fighting the greatest werewolf who shall ever live. Huan has some of the best parts of the story and gets to talk three times. We get to see not one but two amazing duels of sorceries- beautifully written pieces- when Sauron is challenged by first Finrod and then Luthien. Eventually we get to the very bowels of Morgoth’s hellish fortress. There are painful losses but also a great victory dearly bought. The story epitomizes the thematic soul of The Silmarillion, that from evil can come things good and beautiful without redeeming that which was evil. Beren and Luthien would make a great adventure movie, but it can also be an important movie, one that truly deserves to be told. There has long been a critique that JRR Tolkien could not, or chose not to, write about women characters. That critique is fully merited for both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. There are no female characters in The Hobbit and only two of any note in The Lord of the Rings. For the movies, Peter Jackson expanded the role of Arwen and created a female elf wholesale in Tauriel. These are probably the best additions that Jackson makes to the source material, additions that actually accomplish something within the films. But Tolkien can write great female characters, and he does so in The Silmarillion. Beren is a great warrior and a noble hero, but he really comes off as a secondary character throughout the story. Luthien is by far the stronger and better developed character. Read about her and you can almost see Tolkien destroying every princess stereotype he can think of. Long before Disney was letting princesses like Merida go out and take the action into their own hands, Luthien was shattering old, tired tropes. A film about Luthien and Beren would, by its very nature, feature the strongest female protagonist in a fantasy movie since Red Sonja. Her father locks her up, she escapes. She is captured through treachery by some very shady Elf-lords, she escapes and shames them. Beren and Finrod are captured by Sauron and it is Luthien who frees them by besting Sauron in a duel of song-magic and shape-shifting. She has help along the way, notably from the absolutely fantastic hound-of-the-gods Huan, but always she stands out as the story’s central hero, never once should she be viewed as less than Beren’s equal. Near the end of the story it takes an Orpheus-like turn, but with the roles reversed and it is Luthien who must enter the Halls of the dead in order to bring Beren back out. Beren is brave, Beren is strong, Beren is noble but it is Luthien, time and again, who is the one saving him. The only times when Luthien is not the savior are the times when Beren and Luthien are working together to accomplish those things that should be completely impossible. On the shared gravestone of JRR Tolkien and his wife Edith Mary, the names Luthien and Beren were inscribed. This is not because Tolkien saw himself as the hero Beren so much as it is because he saw Edith Mary as the beautiful woman to whom he was deeply in love and owed so much. The tale of Beren and Luthien is a fantastic adventure and also the story of a beautiful partnership where both are made greater by the other rather than one falling into the shadow of the other.
I can easily see this becoming a great movie, though I am clearly biased. The question may be, “How does the viewer unfamiliar with The Silmarillion put this into context?” That is a valid concern. With Marvel movies, most viewers are familiar with the context, but the First Age of Middle Earth is not nearly so well known. I would argue that context is often overrated. Think about the first Star Wars movie, think about seeing it for the first time. How much did the viewer know going in? How much did they still not know coming out the end of it? Who was this Emperor? How had the Empire become evil? What were the Rebels fighting for? Very few of these questions are actually answered, but they don’t need to be. Luke’s journey through the movie is the point, not the background about the Empire. A story about Beren and Luthien could be the same way. Throw in a ten-minute prologue showing snippets of the Battle of Unnumbered Tears and Morgoth’s victory and that should be enough to get on with. The story is about Beren and Luthien struggling towards each other against all the obstacles thrown at them, not about the centuries of war that lie both before and behind their little piece of the narrative.
On Turin TurambarOh Turin, Turin, Turin. Turin is one of those characters that you want to shake some sense into throughout his story. He’s the Walter White of Middle Earth, a character with huge amounts of pride and skill who destroys everything and everyone around him. The story of Beren and Luthien is a glimmer of hope among the darkness; the story of Turin Turambar is a slog through shadow and murk. There is such a great movie here, but it is one that requires a brave director willing to embrace the tragic nature of the character. Could you make a big-budget action film about a melancholy and morally suspect anti-hero? If ever there was a time for it, it seems that now would be that time; the ‘Golden Age of TV’ is filled with exactly those kinds of characters so why not see one played on the big screen? Like Beren, to whom he is related, Turin is a mortal man whose family is destroyed by the Battle of Unnumbered Tears (this was not a good day for anyone except the Dark Lord). His father has been imprisoned by Morgoth, his mother enslaved by treacherous men in Morgoth’s service, and his entire family has a curse lain on it by the Dark Lord. From the very beginning, it is clear that things are probably not going to work out in Turin’s favor.
He gets a few breaks early on, though one suspects that is only to give him things that he can lose. He is taken in by King Thingol (yes, that Elf-King who so hated the idea of a mortal man marrying his daughter has softened a bit) and is raised in the style of princes. He grows strong and is skilled with weapons, being taught by an Elf Ranger who becomes Turin’s steadfast friend. He seems well on the way toward marrying an Elf maid of his own when it all goes horribly wrong. An Elf insults him, there’s an accidental death, and Turin, rather than submit to trial by King Thingol who has treated him so well, flees. This is the first of several terrible decisions that Turin will make, motivated mostly by pride and disdain for others. Throughout his story we see him rise to positions of prominence wherever he goes- an outlaw band, a hidden kingdom of Elves, a desperate tribe of Men still resisting Morgoth. But his pride always, always overreaches him- and perhaps the curse of Morgoth. He is desperately convinced that he can defeat fate itself but his every attempt to flee or change his doom only brings death and destruction more firmly down on his head.There is a lot of action in Turin’s story, but none of without greater meaning. He slays Orcs by the dozens- often with a treacherous, bloodthirsty, half-sentient sword- and also his own friends. There are a couple encounters with the First dragon- Glaurung the Gold, one of which sets up what may be Turin’s defining low point. Constantly his pride and the renown he earns through skill at arms overrule wiser counsel, always to tremendous loss. The second Elf King to take him in pays the price for Turin’s arrogance by seeing his entire kingdom destroyed by dragon-fire and his people scattered. The Men who take him in very nearly suffer the same fate but are spared because of an act of Turin’s bravery. But even that seeming good deed does not go unpunished as it sets up what is, for Turin, a far more devastating loss than seeing one more band of companions killed. There is no happy ending here for Turin or anyone whose life he touches. I am firmly convinced that if you put a Turin Turambar (by the way, Turambar means “Master of Fate” and it is a name that Turin gives himself… which kind of sums up Turin to a nicety) script into the hands of a director like Darren Aronofsky, you would come out with a darkly beautiful and tragic film. It would not be an easy sell for a summer popcorn adventure or a Christmas-season family adventure, but it would be one engaging piece of cinema. Guillermo Del Toro, playing off his ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ credentials would also be a solid choice.
Again we have to address the question of context for the movie. Turin’s tale is, in some ways, bigger than that of Beren and Luthien. It spans the entire life of the eponymous character instead of a just a few months or years and it roams across Middle Earth’s First Age kingdoms. Perhaps some narrative work would need to be done to explain these kingdoms and how they fit together, but surely no more than was done in service of explaining Rohan and Gondor in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies, or Rivendell and Lothlorien for that matter. A Turin Turambar movie could even build on the Beren and Luthien movie, carrying over some characters from King Thingol’s court perhaps. The two films would not fit together like parts of a trilogy, but just as Marvel introduced characters in one movie and carried them over in others, each of these two films could help flesh out the others. Together they help build the background of a world nearly enslaved by Morgoth and his minions and the desperate, sorrowful struggles against him.
On the Fall of Gondolin, the Voyage of Earendill, and All the RestThe two stories above account for only two of the twenty-four chapters that make up the bulk of The Silmarillion. Not every chapter in the book would make for a good movie- the chapter where King Thingol first meets his wife Melian and stands holding her hand like a statue in the woods for unnumbered years would make for a particularly dull affair on screen- but there are several others that could work very well. And each one could serve as another piece of the larger franchise, pushing us toward the various bigger, grander chapters that tell chunks of the great war between the Dark Lord and the Free People. Anyone who has read The Silmarillion wants to see the Battle of Sudden Flame or the Fall of Gondolin on screen; these are battles that dwarf (no pun intended) everything seen in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ by several orders of magnitude. Just as each solo Marvel movie whets the thirst for the epic throwdown of another Avengers movie, each ‘Silmarillion’ movie should make the audience hunger for a piece of the War writ large. So where to begin? Does the first film inspired by The Silmarillion need to be the first story chronologically? Should it begin with Morgoth and the Silmarils? With the prideful Feanor, creator of the gems, rebelling against the angelic Valar and leading the Elves out of the Blessed Realm in pursuit of the Dark Lord? That would be an epic movie no doubt, but I don’t believe it is best served by being the first. Take a risk and let the audience be thrown into the midst of the world with the story of Beren and Luthien. All the darkness and sorrow of the The Silmarillion is there but also a lot of fun and beauty and victory, and it would be all the more engrossing for being unknown. We had no idea what the rules and history of the Star Wars universe was when we started, but that didn’t prevent us from falling in love with it. The other advantage, from a business sense, is that the Beren and Luthien story has a distinct ending; you can make that movie without committing yourself to any other films. It is great for testing the waters, whereas if you started with the War, you become obligated to continue that story. A failed stand-alone movie does little to hurt the overall franchise- The Incredible Hulk did nothing to stop The Avengers from raking in buckets of cash- but a failure of the first movie in a trilogy can have nasty repercussions- just look at the Golden Compass which so clearly did not lead to a His Dark Materials trilogy that it promised.
The studios involved with the Tolkien property are not likely to give up the cash machine they’ve developed. Once they’ve finished mining The Hobbit, they’ll need a new place to turn to. That should be the epic span of stories contained within The Silmarillion. There are at least a dozen movies that could be spun out of it, each with its own challenges and rewards for bringing to the big screen. Done correctly, New Line and Warner Bros. could find themselves with a mega-franchise that rivals Marvel and Star Wars in money-making potential and creative breadth. As a fan of cinema I would love to see these stories told and as a fan of Tolkien I want even more to see them treated in the way they deserve. Now, does anyone have Del Toro’s phone number?