Hollywood is determined to ruin Tolkien for future generations

amazon, hollywood is determined to ruin tolkien for future generations

Season 2 of Amazon's The Rings of Power

Ring-a-ding-ding, a new trailer for the world’s favourite small-screen fantasy series, has just hit the internet. It has everything. Glinting swords, roaring monsters, men with lush quiffs pouting in the candlelight. Yes, season two of Game of Thrones spin-off House of the Dragon looks squiffy. And that’s just Matt Smith’s hair extensions catching in the wind.

But it wasn’t the only fantasy saga to stick its head above the parapet this week. A few hours earlier, Prime Video lit the beacon for the return of its $1 billion Lord of the Rings prequel, The Rings of Power, with a promo every bit as full-throated and earth-shaking as that of House of the Dragon.

There was plenty of what you’d expect from a Tolkien spin-off. Elves, volcanos, a man with a staff who looks vaguely like Ian McKellen. But the overall thrust of the trailer was to remind us of the return of Old Big Flamin Eyeball himself, Sauron – Middle-earth’s great deceiver, the Dark Lord and, as viewers of the Peter Jackson movies will recall, topnotch hobbit killer.

There is a LOT of Sauron – largely in his “fair” incarnation of Annatar (sort of his glam-rock/ Ziggy Stardust phase). He has taken on the new guise of a beaming elf and is very much off the shelf and determined to conquer all of Middle Earth.

Sauron, aside, the promo hits like a Marvel movie with better wigs. There’s an Avengers-style shot of the fair queen Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) and some of her elf pals standing in a circle with weapons drawn. A squishy monster burbles in the shadows. Orcs behave orc-ishly. The One Franchise to Rule Them All is back – or it will be when the series returns in August.

As with any huge fanbase, the Lord of the Rings “community” has a diversity of opinions. The response to the trailer has been divided. Some have expressed approval of the sweep and scale of the show’s vision of Middle-earth. They even have nice things to say about Sauron’s elf hair. Others, though, fear that, as with its first series in 2022, The Rings of Power will be a triumph of style over substance.

“This is like a major industrial incident in the making. I am looking forward to the two-hour YouTube documentaries about everything that went wrong in order for it to happen and the minute-by-minute dissection of the event itself,” wrote one fan on Reddit. “Still with the Dwarves having a Scottish accent?’ sighed another. One commentator pointed out that, while the trailer to House of the Dragon received 44,000 YouTube “likes” and just 416 dislikes, The Rings of Power’s “nay” to “yay” score was 70,000 against 32,000. The hate is strong.

Without question, some of the backlash is racist. The show’s diverse casting has drawn the scorn of many on social media – though it feels notable that House of the Dragon has avoided such a backlash despite also having a diverse line-up of stars.

amazon, hollywood is determined to ruin tolkien for future generations

Morfydd Clark in The Rings of Power - Amazon

What’s equally true, however, is that many of those who detested the first season and are underwhelmed by the new trailer are genuine Tolkien fans fed up with the Lord of the Rings being reduced to just another Hollywood franchise. They will have already been dismayed by the news that Peter Jackson is to return to Middle-earth to produce two new Warner Bros. movies, the first chronicling Aragon’s search for Gollum (directed by Gollum himself, Andy Serkis).

The Ranger’s pursuit of the wretched creature takes up a few paragraphs in the Fellowship of the Ring novel. It is part of a long anecdote by Gandalf, who was probably just killing time while Frodo mustered the confidence to address the Council of Elrond. There is, in any case, already a Hunt of Gollum fan movie, made 15 years ago and available for viewing on YouTube (Warner Bros. ordered its takedown this week only to relent amid an outcry).

Serkis’s film will follow an animated feature this Christmas, The War of the Rohirrim, which traces the origins of the Riders of Rohan. You can see why it was green-lit. Who hasn’t sat awake at night thinking: “The riders of Rohan – where did they come from?”

Brace yourself, too, for a new flood of Tolkien video games. The deluge has already started with widely-panned The Lord of the Rings: Gollum, where you play the artist formerly known as Sméagol (it was so bad plans for a Nintendo Switch version were binned). Next up is Tales of the Shire, a “cosy fantasy” game in which the player grows vegetables and ignores the return of ancient evil beyond the High Hay in Buckland.

That the Lord of the Rings has been anointed the new Marvel was more or less confirmed outright by Warner Bros. Discovery boss David Zaslav, who said Middle-earth has been under-monetised. “The vast, complex, and dazzling universe dreamed up by J.R.R. Tolkien remains largely unexplored on film,” he declared last year. He may as well have said, “build me a franchise worthy of Warnerrrrr”.

But you wonder if he, or anyone else green-lighting these projects, has ever taken the time to read the Lord of the Rings. Had they done so, they might have appreciated that Middle-earth is a meticulous love letter to Western European myth-cycles – not a sandbox crying out for plundering.

Besides, many of Tolkien’s most beloved tales remain beyond the reach of Hollywood as the author’s estate hasn’t licenced them. Warner Bros. holds the movie rights to the Lord of the Rings, while Prime Video is permitted to adapt the appendices which provide a brief history of Middle-earth and are bundled with the final volume of the trilogy.

amazon, hollywood is determined to ruin tolkien for future generations

Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Return of the King - Kobal

Yet some of Tolkien’s best stories are under lock-and-key. That’s because they are contained in his vast legend cycle, The Silmarillion, the rights to which the estate has not put up for auction. Unless the Tolkien family has a change of heart or Hollywood whips out its chequebook and lobbies hard, the tales of Beren and Lúthien, the Fall of Gondolin or the dragon Glaurung are destined to remain untold.

Until a few years ago, Tolkien had a steadfast guardian in the writer’s son, Christopher. He was a zealous protector of Middle-earth’s legacy and disapproved of the Hollywoodisation of his father’s work. He even hated Peter Jackson’s excellent original Lord of the Rings trilogy. However, since his death in January 2020, the sluice gates have opened. The LotR TV rights were auctioned, leading to the dreadful Rings of Power. What next? Magic the Gathering cards based on Tolkien? Too late – they came out last year and have generated $200 million in sales.

Depending on your perspective, it is either a golden era for Tolkien fans or the beginning of a dark age. There’s never been so much Middle-earth in our culture. Yet few of these adaptations have the goose-bump-inducing quality of Tolkien’s work (the One Ring role-playing game comes close).

It’s as if we’ve fast-forwarded to the end of the Lord of the Rings when the evil wizard Saruman has imprisoned the hobbits and turned the Shire into a vast capitalist enterprise. Frodo and his pals send him packing. However, David Zaslav and Prime Video will prove more challenging to dispatch. We have entered a new time in Middle-earth – where the great unblinking eye of the corporate balance shoots looms over everything and there is no escaping its withering gaze.

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