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The history of The Lord of the Rings isn’t one of dwarves, orcs, elves, balrogs, wizards or hobbits. It’s one of legal disputes, troubled adaptations and multimillion-dollar acquisitions. Its leading players are lawyers, vociferous fans, video-game designers, novelists, tabletop role players and film producers.
Since the publication of The Return of the King — the final volume in the trilogy — in 1955, the series has, in one form or another, been at various stages of development for radio, stage, television, film or gaming. Although the BBC’s first radio version the same year was, by the standards of future efforts, a relatively placid affair, adapting The Lord of the Rings for other media has long been a fraught undertaking.
So many attempts have been made to bring a story director Stanley Kubrick regarded as “unfilmable” to the screen that the question of who exactly owns the rights to do so has been fiercely contested in court. Just as in the fictional universe of The Lord of the Rings, where every other character who comes into contact with the “One Ring” pays a terrible price, those who aspire to adapt the novels for cinema risk hefty legal bills. The 2001-03 film series alone has been the subject of lawsuits from the producer Saul Zaentz, the Weinstein brothers, the films’ director Peter Jackson and the estate of Tolkien himself.
Adapting Tolkien’s vision has defeated, variously, George Lucas, Walt Disney and The Beatles, who approached Tolkien shortly after playing themselves in A Hard Day’s Night but were rebuffed. Yet neither studios nor filmmakers seem able to resist the franchise. The latest to have a go is Amazon, whose TV series The Rings of Power — an adaptation of the books’ appendices, detailing Sauron’s rise in Middle-earth — begins airing on September 2. Amazon paid $250mn for its TV rights — almost as much, before a single scene had been scripted or shot, as Jackson spent bringing the trilogy to cinemas.
Why has so much money been spent and so much been fought over? What is it about The Lord of the Rings?
Tolkien rests against a tree
JRR Tolkien in Oxford in 1972. He created a world with its own detailed geography, histories and languages © Bill Potter/Camera Press
For those few who have managed to get their adaptation to air, success has been all but guaranteed. As the entertainment magazine Variety observed in 1969, when United Artists began work on what would become Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated adaptation, “with the possible exception of JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, the writer who has captivated the most college and even high-school students in the past decade apparently is JRR Tolkien”.
Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings while working as an academic at the University of Oxford: his students included Philip Larkin, one of the great English poets of the 20th century. At least as far as Larkin was concerned, Tolkien was not a great teacher or academic: the poet complained bitterly about Tolkien’s lessons in his correspondence with the novelist Kingsley Amis, also an unimpressed Tolkien pupil.
Variety’s use of the word “apparently”, whether by accident or design, reflects a broader cultural snobbery about Tolkien’s output that would surely have delighted Larkin and Amis. His success is often treated as some kind of unhappy accident, as much something to be mourned as something to celebrate.
The critic Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker, describes the “Tolkien formula” rather dismissively as “a vaguely medieval world populated by dwarfs, elves, trolls; an evil lord out to enslave the good creatures; and, almost always, a weird magic thing that will let him do it, if the hero doesn’t find or destroy it first”, adding despairingly that “of all the unexpected things in contemporary literature, this is among the oddest: that kids have an inordinate appetite for very long, very tricky, very strange books about places that don’t exist, fights that never happened, all set against the sort of medieval background that Mark Twain thought he had discredited with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”
It is certainly true to say that any court seeking to convict Tolkien of great literature would struggle. Unlike other fantasy authors, such as Michael Moorcock or Ursula Le Guin, his work provides little in the way of historical and political commentary. Nor will readers find characters in whom they see themselves or their own experiences, such as the schoolchildren in the Harry Potter books. Or, indeed, much in the way of deep character work at all: for the most part, existential doubt, moral complexity, sexual desire and ambiguous interpersonal relationships are in short supply in The Lord of the Rings.
A fantasy scene in the forest with a group of people around the top of two waterfalls
A scene from Amazon’s upcoming ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’
But that same court would also struggle to convict Tolkien for devising the formula that Gopnik imputes to him. The concept of a chosen one travelling through a “vaguely medieval” world, aided and abetted by fantastical creatures, in search of some cosmic doodad (or, as the screenwriter and frequent Hitchcock collaborator Angus MacPhail dubbed it, “a MacGuffin”) predates Tolkien. The “Tolkien formula” can be found in various retellings of the story of the Holy Grail. To the extent that Tolkien deviates from that story, it is in the introduction of the dark lord Sauron. But, given that in The Lord of the Rings we never hear Sauron speak, he never engages the heroes directly and his motivations are, in essence, that he does evil things because he’s evil, Sauron alone can hardly be seen as a great innovation on the old story of the Holy Grail.
What, then, is Tolkien’s achievement? The important thing to understand is that Tolkien wasn’t aiming to write literature. As JA Bayona, the director of the opening two episodes of The Rings of Power, puts it, Tolkien “wanted to create something that the British didn’t have”, a mythology “like the Greeks”. Tolkien’s great achievement is as a world-builder and mythmaker. He even went so far as to create not only a detailed history for Middle-earth but also a complete language for his elves and a set of shared histories and archetypes for a whole range of fantastical creatures