Sometimes it’s best to just leave a good thing alone.
Amazon reportedly has closed a massive, $250 million deal to produce a new “Lord of the Rings” TV series to be based on events that take place before J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous trilogy of novels, other than those recounted in “The Hobbit,” anyway. So far, details remain murky.
However, one narrative has been constant since the deal was announced Monday: Amazon is looking to create its own version of “Game of Thrones,” the massively popular HBO fantasy series based on novels by George R.R. Martin.
While the “Game of Thrones” connection may mostly allude to the rare mass acceptance of a series in the fantasy genre, an attempt to create similarities between the series beyond the superficial would be a betrayal of Tolkien’s work.
The ethos of “The Lord of the Rings,” as conceived by Tolkien, a Catholic traditionalist who wrote the books in the 1950s, is far removed from “Game of Thrones” on a deeper level.
Yes, dragons figure in both, and both take place in medieval-style fantasy worlds. The similarities end there.
Replacing the romanticism of “The Lord of the Rings” with the Machiavellian and raunchy world of “Game of Thrones” would be a gut punch to long-term Tolkien fans and submerge the ultimate appeal of the world he created.
The temptation to please a modern audience may be too much for Amazon, which already has poured incredible amounts of money into the project.
Tolkien’s novels pit almost literal beasts against angels, while flawed men must navigate the waters of good and evil. The trilogy maintains an underlying theme focused on the corruption of the world and the original sin of man.
Man, in Tolkien’s work, is easily and often corrupted, but behind that corruption, Middle Earth holds things that are truly good and beautiful.
“Games of Thrones,” however, is a tale of beast versus beast. In the sordid world of back-door politicking there are no heroes, just less bad and more likable villains pitted against the truly monstrous. It’s a postmodern take within the backdrop of a premodern world.
The difference in philosophy couldn’t be more clear, and Martin certainly acknowledged it.
“’Lord of the Rings’ had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple,” Martin said in a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone magazine.
This sells Tolkien short. He was a veteran of World War I who experienced the inhumanity of trench warfare, and certainly was no stranger to the ugliness of mankind.
One might expect Tolkien’s writing to be nihilistic or cynical, but it wasn’t. As Joseph Loconte wrote for The Weekly Standard, Tolkien’s aim for his literary works was “profoundly countercultural, even subversive.”
Tolkien rebelled against the idea that “heroism, valor, and virtue” could no longer exist in the modern world.
“In ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ Tolkien recovers the mythic concept of the heroic struggle against evil—and reinvents it for the modern mind,” Loconte, a history professor and author of a book on Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, wrote.
Good and evil were defined and fixed in the trilogy, even as good characters and not-so-good characters sometimes exhibited both qualities.
To the postmodern mind, these concepts are often lost or even laughable. Is Amazon likely going to bank on hitting what are now deeply countercultural themes in a TV series it’s invested an unsightly amount of money in?
Word that the new series apparently will take place before the events of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the first book in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, means that the show’s writers will have to rely even further on material that may not originally have been crafted by Tolkien.
Some “Lord of the Rings” purists grumbled about the blockbuster movie versions of the early 2000s as departing from some of the essential qualities of the books.
In 2013, Tolkien’s son, Christopher Tolkien, complained in an interview that director Peter Jackson’s movies “eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25.”
This may be a little too harsh.
Those movies clearly enjoyed a huge amount of national and international success and, if anything, opened up the franchise to a new generation. They didn’t quite capture all of the nuance of the books, which were not written for the purpose of being adapted to cinema, but they were at least somewhat faithful to the original storyline.
Now the TV series risks departing further from the literary works, and the temptation to create narratives that fulfill modern expectations for characters similar to those in “Game of Thrones” would strip “The Lord of the Rings” of its most essential qualities.
Christopher Tolkien’s sudden departure as director of the Tolkien estate is perhaps another tip-off that the franchise will abandon its roots.
This is not to say that the new series cannot achieve financial and critical success.
After all, other prominent franchises, such as “Star Wars,” have continued to draw in viewers despite their deepening flaws. Nevertheless, it would be unfortunate to lose the worthy elements that made “The Lord of the Rings” distinct and appealing to generations of fans.