Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Downfall Meme

Tolkien didn't like pantomimes. He thought that A.A Milne had completely missed the point of Wind in the Willows; he thought that Macbeth was better on the page than on the stage. Fairies and witches and talking toads should, he thought, be left to the imagination.

That said, he sold the film rights to Lord of the Rings in 1968 for the princely sum of £10,000. Cash or kudos, he is reported as saying: if you are going to make a rotten film of my masterpiece, I expect to be well paid; but if it's going to be a good film, you can have it cheap. £10,000 was quite a lot of money in those days.



Game of Thrones has established that we are all prepared to watch seventy-hour TV adaptations of  big-long books, so many big-long books are inevitably going to be adapted. Dune and Earthsea and Watchmen and a new Hitchhiker loom on the horizon. How quaint, how retro, how six-months-ago it now looks of the BBC to have rattled through twelve hundred pages of Les Miserables in hardly more than six hours.

The Lord of the Rings is unquestionably very big and very long. It has dragons and battle scenes and wizards. People who are not specially interested in fantasy have heard of it. Christopher Tolkien has withdrawn from the fray. Tolkien Estate: The Next Generation is less unamenable than he was to enormous cheques  respectful dramatizations of Grandpa's works. A seventy hour TV series is an inevitability.

Speaking for myself, I think some Dragon Fatigue may be kicking in. I watched Game of Thrones: I watched most of it twice and I stayed awake through nearly all of it. I thought it was fabulous; I didn't even specially object to the ending. But, you know, there was a hell of a lot of it. Maybe I'm ready to go away and read Chekov for bit?

Same goes for superheroes. The Eternals and the Fourth World were the two best things Jack Kirby ever did, which is to say, the two best things which have ever been done, but I greet the news that they are both being turned into movie-films with a certain ennui. Darkseid is not DCs version of Thanos; Thanos was Marvel's version of Darksied. So many Tweets.

But there is no avoiding it. Amazon have to make a Lord of the Rings TV series, and I will have to watch it. 


When I heard that Amazon were going to make a Lord of the Rings TV series, I naturally assumed that this meant that Amazon were going to make a Lord of the Rings TV series. But nothing could be further from the truth. What Amazon are actually going to make is a TV series called The Lord of the Rings, in which they will be contractually prohibited from including any scenes or characters from Tolkien's novel.

It's not as mad as it sounds. In fact, the more I think about it, the better I like the idea. 

It is very nearly 20 years since Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring. (Some of the perpetrators are still at large.) It's 5 years since I sat in the back row of the Bristol Odeon whimpering "please, please, make it stop" at Jackson's infinitely prolonged Battle of the Five Armies.

Twenty years is no longer a very long time in popular culture. When Star Wars came out, Forbidden Planet (1956) looked quaintly dated and antediluvian. But the Fellowship of the Ring does not remotely feel like an Old Movie. I suppose it is because of DVDs and Netflix: everyone who is interested in that kind of thing has seen Lord of the Rings, even if they weren't born when it first hit the multiplex.

Jackson has defined what Middle-earth looks like for the foreseeable future. Any new version of Lord of the Rings would be in competition with his imagery. No actor wants to spend seven seasons being not quite as good as dear, dear, Sir Ian, and no special effects guy wants his Balrog to be unfavourably compared with Weta's.

If you are one of the sixteen or seventeen people who still read books, then of course, you would like
to see the Lord of the Rings adapted by someone who isn't Peter Jackson, which is to say, properly. That was my main reaction to Game of Thrones. Every time there was a ten-minute council scene or fifteen minutes of character development or a battle that mostly took place off screen but still felt dirty-nasty-scary-brutal I asked myself why the Lord of the Rings couldn't have been done in that style.

Leisurely pace. Multiple plot lines. Slow burn character development. Naked ladies.

But with the Jackson thing fresh in our minds it makes perfect sense not to rewind and start the whole long slow trek to Morrrrdor all over again.


At the end of the First Age the humans who helped the elves defeat Sauron's boss Morgoth were given a wondrous and improbably star-shaped island called Numenor to live on. But Sauron infiltrated the kingdom in the form of Santa Claus Annatar the Gift-Giver and corrupted the Kings. He eventually persuaded one of them to launch a military invasion of the Undying Lands -- with the intention of stealing immortality from the gods.

This does not go well. The entire island is destroyed. Numenor sinks to the bottom of the sea. They don't even have time for a second referendum. Tolkien tells us that in the Numenorian language, The Downfallen comes out as Atalante, and he swears he didn't do it deliberately.

A few survivors come to Middle-earth ("with seven stars and seven stones and one white tree"). They found Minas Tirith, and defeat Sauron all over again. It turns out that this era -- known as the Second Age -- is going to be the setting for the new TV series. 

And why not? The lord of the rings was a title given to Sauron: the full title of Frodo's book is "the History of the Downfall of the Lord of the Rings". The Second Age is the era when Sauron rose to power and suffered his first defeat. The story of the Second age has much more right to be called the Lord of the Rings than the Lord of the Rings does. 


The Second Age takes about 4,000 years of chronological time. The story takes up about 40 pages of Christopher Tolkien's synthetic Silmarillion; but Tolkien left many other notes and adventure seeds and hints which Chris has spent half a century decoding. The Unfinished Tales contains a few lines about each of the reigning kings of Numenor. [**] 

"Tar-Ciryatan...scorned the yearnings of his father and eased the restlessness of his heart by voyaging east and north and south until he took the scepter. It is said that he constrained his father to yield it to him ere of his free will he would, in this way (it is held) might the first Coming of the Shadow upon the bliss of Numenor be seen."

Cecil B Demille said that he could get a movie out of any two pages of the Bible: it wouldn't be hard to spin a 45 minute TV episode out of that one paragraph. Tolkien left us reams and reams of this stuff. 

No-one thinks that there is anything odd or funny about historical fiction. If they weren't allowed to make long, dull T.V shows about Thomas Moore and Anne Lister BBC 2 would pretty much go out of business. At one level, historical fiction is all about making stuff up: we don't know what Thomas Moore said to Henry VIII on the fifth Tuesday of 1531, so someone who is a good historian and a good storyteller has to imagine it. But we do know lots of facts about Harry and Tom and lots of facts about the world they lived in; and a decent historical novelist sticks to those very closely indeed. So the instructions "make a TV series about an era which Tolkien only sketched out; without deviating from the historical notes he left behind" seems entirely comprehensible. Pseudo-historical fiction; historical pseudo-fiction.

(Yes, there is some historical fiction which pretty much dispenses with the facts and just spins a yarn about that time Queen Elizabeth I dressed up as a boy and traveled along the Spanish Main with her lover Francis Drake. That's the kind of historical fiction which the Tolkien estate has not commissioned.)

Apparently, Amazon have strict instructions to keep their hands of the First and Third Ages. This also makes a great deal of sense. Doubtless the rights to make pseudo-historical drama about other sections of the Legendarium are going to be separately parceled out. An epic movie about the doomed love of Beren and Luthien is entirely feasible, although I still think it would go better into an opera. Who wouldn't want to see Turin Turanbur do his dragon-slayings-sister-screwing routine on the big screen? I am less convinced that the story of Feanor and the holy gems -- the backbone of the Silmarillion -- is adaptable. The early First Age material is too much about gods and immortals and millennia flying past between paragraphs. A big special effects scene in which Satan and the Cosmic Spider drink the light from the Two Trees before the Creation of the Sun and the Moon risks turning into mere spectacle with UltraMagnus and Godzilla riding in at the last minute to save the day. Its the difference between Mr Demille making a movie out of Judges chapters six and seven and thinking he can film the book of Revelation. 


Once a scene has been visualized, it can't be unvisualized.

When a film gets it disastrously wrong, not much harm is done. Probably no-one finds Peter Jackson's winged Balrog interposing itself between them and a re-reading of Tolkien's text: Jackson's creature had pretty much nothing to do with Tolkien's description. But when a film-maker gets it right, or, worse, nearly right, then film and book are entangled for all time. Jackson's visualizations of Hobbiton and Minas Tirith and maybe even Lothlorian are very good; so that's what Hobbiton and Minas Tirith and Lothlorian look like from now on. Gollum is Andy Serkis and will always be Andy Serkis even though Peter Woodthorp did it better.

So. If Amazon's visualization of the Second Age is silly and dull and camp then we can ignore it and the Akallabeth will be the same as it always was. But if it is very good indeed then the lives and the histories of the Kings of Numenor, which Tolkien only hinted at ,will be fixed and crystallized in the form Amazon Prime gives them. When we re-read the Unfinished Tales we will always be thinking "oh, that was the one played by Sean Bean; that was the Kenneth Brannagh cameo; that was the really cool special effects sequence..." The better and more faithful it is, the more likely we are to end up with a secondary canon, consistent with, but distinct from, the words which Tolkien actually wrote.

Does the Legendarium weave its spell because it is so fragmentary? Is the point of the Second Age that it is four thousand years which Tolkien gallops over in a few pages? Are those kings and queens with strange names fascinating just because we know so little about them? Is Atalante a powerful idea just because it isn't embodied in a proper narrative?

We have asked the same question about the Phantom Menace and Before Watchmen and Doomsday Clock and Christopher Tolkien asked the same question about the Silmarillion itself.

And yet: the Silmarillion is very condensed; very dense; very inaccessible; a book which is often said to be unreadable, especially by those who haven't read it. 

And it is full of this kind of thing.

And Isildur said no word, but went out by night and did a deed for which he was afterwards renowned.

For he passed alone in disguise to Armenelos and to the courts of the King, which were now forbidden to the Faithful; and he came to the place of the Tree, which was forbidden to all by the orders of Sauron, and the Tree was watched day and night by guards in his service.

At that time Nimloth was dark and bore no bloom, for it was late in the autumn, and its winter was nigh;

And Isildur passed through the guards and took from the Tree a fruit that hung upon it, and turned to go.

But the guard was aroused, and he was assailed, and fought his way out, receiving many wounds; and he escaped, and because he was disguised it was not discovered who had laid hands on the Tree.

But Isildur came at last hardly back to RĂ³menna and delivered the fruit to the hands of Amandil, ere his strength failed him. Then the fruit was planted in secret, and it was blessed by Amandil; and a shoot arose from it and sprouted in the spring.

But when its first leaf opened then Isildur, who had lain long and come near to death, arose and was troubled no more by his wounds.

It may be a disaster of Hobbit trilogy proportions. But surely no ageing fan-boy can fail to be excited by the thought of a 45 minute end-of-season cliffhanger based on that paragraph?

[*] Jackson's Lord of the Rings was a moderately unsuccessful attempt to film Tolkien's unfilmable novel but, if you ignore some lapses of taste, it was a very good fantasy movie. I place it roughly in the same category as the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, speaking as someone who really, really likes the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. The Hobbit, on the other hand, was a bad adaption, a bad movie, a bad computer game, a bad theme part ride, bad, bad, bad. It makes Jackson's sacrificial butchering of King Kong look like a masterpiece. I have not yet seen the one in which world war one soldiers are chased across the landscape by sentient cities.

[**] And also linear measurements. 5000 ranguar make 1 lar, apparently.



I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

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10 comments:

  1. I was horrified by the threat of a Lord of the Rings TV series.

    But I am curious, and even mildly optimistic, about the prospect of a Second Age series.

    I don't share your sense that any damage is done by Jackson's superb realisations of Rivendell and Minas Tirith, and I am not completely sure that you do either.

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  2. I don't know if it is "damage" exactly, but it is true that I can't visualize them in any other way. So that's changed how I read the books. So if someone does a good job in "making up" additional history of Numenor it will be very hard not to think of that as the "real" history of Numenor, which will change Middle-earth. Which isn't damage exactly. But it is a change.

    One actor playing one pirate in one film made an "arrr" sound to represent a Weskuntry accent, and from then on the only thing anyone knows about pirates is that they go "arrr". Not a bad thing, but certainly a thing.

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  3. I can't deny that it's a thing.

    I didn't know that about pirates: what actor in what film?

    My approach to all this is a bit different from yours in that I approached the Jackson films as a not particularly keen Tolkien fan, and it was really his films that made me go back to and appreciate the books. I'd read LotR a couple of times, but (to pick on example) I'd never been particularly moved by the Argonath. Jackson's film changed that, and started me on the path of grasping the depth and richness of the fictional history that stood behind them.

    So, yes, his Rivendell is different from what I'd imagined — but I'm not ashamed to admit that it's much better than what I'd imagined. And that goes double for Minas Tirith. For all the very real missteps in his films, Jackson opened up the emotional weight of the underlying text for me, and that makes much more ready than you are to forgive him the films' failures — and their successes.

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  4. The Argonath is an interesting one: Tolkien says something like "giants they were", but doesn't really convey any sense of their size. Jackson shows them and conveys their awesomeness; so something which is a quite a small incident in the book becomes a great set-piece. But Jackson makes no attempt to convey the idea that at that moment, for the first time, "Strider" looks like a King: he just leaves everyone gawping at the big statues. I think its a case where he's justifiably and successfully replaced a literary effect with a cinematic effect.

    Minas Tirith is very good creation of what's in the books. Rivendell is, in my opinion, just wrong; although I think Jackson deals as well as could have been expected with a problem in the book -- Rivendell is still "the last Homely House" from the Hobbit; back when Elves said "daffy down dilly the valley is silly" rather than "a elberethh gilthoniel."

    Pretty much our whole image of pirates comes from Robert Newton's Long John Silver in the Disney Treasure Island movie. No-one goes "arrr" in the Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn movies; and Silver doesn't have any of those mannerisms in the book. (Karloff's Frankenstien would be the other obvious example.)


    What is a pirate's favorite letter of the alphabet?

    Most people think it's "R", but actually they're all about the "C".

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  5. As a matter of fact, I was not really at all interested in the LotR movies when I first heard they were making them. Then at the cinema to see something else, I saw a trailer for an unnamed film that showed three small boats gliding between two gigantic statues and I was immediately moved. That was the moment that made me want to see the film. Cinematic, as you say, but more than that: the film (and even that clip out of context) conveyed the weight of years and glory of a long past. They're not just big statues — they mean something, and the film nails that.

    "The last homely house" is indeed the phrase that defined my mental image of Rivendell, in so far as I had one. It's pretty weak sauce. Perhaps had I read LotR before the Hobbot, much of the damage would have been avoided. Still, however you slice it, I don't at all see how you can call Jackson's Rivendell "wrong". Wrong how?

    I now have to see that pirate-defining movie. (I've read the book but not seen the film. I was struck by how different Silver was from what I expected, and particularly put out that for much of the book everyone calls him "barcebue".)

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  6. Amazon have to make a Lord of the Rings TV series, and I will have to watch it.

    Oh, I sympathise. It's like The Television Programme That Currently Bears The Title 'Doctor Who'. I mean what am I going to do, not watch it?

    I have not seen The Hobbit. They conned me into watching one long boring tedious fantasy trilogy with too many endings; they weren't going to get me again. Though I do wonder if sometime one of my friends might lend me the disks, together with a list of the exact timecodes of all the scenes Sylvester McCoy is in (as a character who is not in the Hobbit).

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  7. The word barbecue was a native Carib word. The pirates of Tortuga would cook strips of boucan — wild boar — over wooden frames. That’s how the became known as boucanier — bucanneers. There is a modern novel which suggests that Silve actually got the nick name barbecues because of what he used to do to his enemies....

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  8. Mind you, one reason that Jackson's Minas Tirith, Hobbiton, Rivendell et al are mostly acceptable is that Alan Lee and John Howe had been drawing them for decades already. Sure, it might have been better if Jackson had found an entirely new look; in this case, I think he understood that his ambition exceeded his reach and it made sense to talk to (and use) the closest we have to experts.

    (I don't disagree that a long tv series might have been better; I do think the paradox is that it's only because of the films that a long tv series is at all viable.)

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  9. Attacking the Hobbit movies is fine, obviously, but the computer game? That's going too far.

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  10. You have a curious belief that admirers of a book automatically want to see it made into a movie. I don't. If I like the book, I'm content with reading and re-reading the book. It doesn't occur to me to think, "Wow, what a great movie this would make." Though I watch some movies, I'm not a big fan of movies as an art form. My mind doesn't go that way.

    That's totally apart from the fact that, whenever they do make a book I loved into a movie, I don't like the movie. Usually that's because it's a lousy adaptation, even if it's not also lousy as a movie. But even if the adaptation isn't lousy, it clashes with my own ideas, and that's an uncomfortable experience to have, consequently I don't like it.

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