It’s no secret; J.R.R Tolkien is arguably the best author to ever live. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are two of the most influential pieces of our time. Stories of hope, triumph, sadness, and defeat; all of the beauty of literature wrapped up with a bow on top. I’m a daft man so I say daft things. I one hundred and ten percent believe that Middle Earth is the best fantasy setting ever created, with The Lord of the Rings being humanity’s magnum opus. However, I won’t be so naïve to believe that this was all accomplished by Tolkien himself, Peter Jackson’s film adaptations have a very large role to play in this. I mean, for crying out loud, there are scholars devoted to understanding his world! Let’s begin, shall we?
1). They Defined a Genre
Fantasy has been around since the dawn of time. Since humankind was given the gift of speech, we have created fantastical stories, righteous beings of good, malevolent forces of evil. Generations copied generations, some changed small details, some details were scrapped completely. Tolkien’s particular brand of fantasy is no different. Everybody involved with the fantasy genre is familiar with the four pillars: Elves, Dwarves, Orcs and Hobbits (or Halflings). We know that this wasn’t created by Tolkien. Many of his ideas come from previous world mythologies.
That said, he did define them in a way that has become the bedrock of the genre. Nearly all the tropes we know and love come from Tolkien’s Middle Earth. He took mythologies which didn’t agree and shaped the clay of each into a detailed masterpiece. He even gave each race its own language and writing, also somewhat akin to real languages and texts. (Editor note, Tolkein was a scholar of languages first and foremost) It’s mind boggling how detailed he made each race and divine being that lived within this world. Surprising still, is how things elements are still found in modern fantasy. Most of it goes untouched. The visage of dwarves is (more oft than not) so ridiculously similar to Tolkien’s dwarves that you can’t help but tip your hat to the man.
Moreover, my favorite trope that comes from The Lord of the Rings and Middle Earth itself is the idea of Sauron. The shadow of a dark lord, no more than a whisper of a forgotten age, coming back to torment and destroy the world. That book is so well used and worn that it’s almost irresistible to use that idea in a fantasy game or novel. It’s just so good and gives everything more depth. It brings the world alive and makes you feel like there’s a history that has been lost to the erosion of time.
2). Rich History Built Over a Lifetime
As I alluded to in my previous point, it’s not unknown that Tolkien’s world is revered for being incredibly detailed. With about 10,000 years of history to back up, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, one can’t help but feel wonder and amazement while reading these stories. Tolkien’s passion and devotion to his work shines brightly from the very pages of the text. From the defeat of Morgoth to the fall of Numenor, Middle Earth is littered with epic and heroic stories.
The Silmarillion is the book that outlines all of this history. What a dense piece of work. Difficult to read, too. However, the one thing that many people agree on, is that in order to read it without wanting to die, you almost have to approach it like you would The Bible. Which is surely an impressive feat to achieve. What makes this piece of work even more beautiful is the fact that it wasn’t published in his lifetime. Though all thoughts and musings were his, the time it was published pays homage to Tolkien in a moving way. Messing up the order of things further adds wonder and depth to Middle Earth. Many, many times throughout The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, history is referenced without much explanation. It constantly hints at a bigger world outside of the tomes, it makes the reader hunger for more.
Better yet, Christopher Tolkien honored his father and the fans by delivering that history. Almost needless to say, it didn’t disappoint. That sly bastard took us for one last ride too, leaving immense holes in history. Much the way that real history functions, we have to use what we know as fact to construct our own picture of what may have happened during undocumented times. Too bad there’s no archaeology to dig up on the subject, because I’m still starving for Middle Earth. Within this torture, there is an even further spark of brilliance. Plot/history holes were intentionally left in Middle Earth’s history by its creator, for brave and skilled minds to continue his work; to continue to write the story of Middle Earth, to bring it that much closer to our own reality.
3). Allegories by Accident
The ongoing debate: Was The Lord of the Rings an allegory for World War II? According to Tolkien himself, absolutely not. What baffles me further is that he said it wasn’t an allegory for anything at all. Yet here we are, able to pull elements of The Bible, World War II and many different aspects of the real world from this piece.
To me, that is how you know the man was a master of pen and ink. He was able to hit so close to reality with a fantasy setting that people thought that he was trying to send out a parallel message to two major events in our actual history. The Lord of the Rings has many instances of theme exposure that have resonated with generations of people and still hold extreme relevance. The character of Tom Bombadil is the embodiment of neutrality. He’s the only person that isn’t affected by the corruption of the One Ring. Yet, he just doesn’t have a care in the world. If he was given the Ring to keep it from the Dark Lord, Sauron, he would simply lose it out of sheer obliviousness. Seemingly trivial at first, when you dig it up and pull it apart, it says a lot about Tolkien’s view on how the world works and the nature of humanity. To be perfectly honest, I don’t believe he’s wrong.
Heavy references to industrialism are also strewn throughout the piece. Tolkien hated industry and it very much reflected in the books. Specifically, with Saruman being a villain, Treebeard being heavily neutral to the lot of it, and then acting when he had realized his forest had been ruined. At first this seems like simply a plot point to make things twist and turn, but many quotes from Treebeard and Saruman help reinforce Tolkien’s idea of anti-industrialism. This whole point is part of the reason why people think that Sauron is an allegory for Adolf Hitler. Saruman was in league with Sauron and was the main industrial force behind his plot to take over Middle Earth. Nazi Germany was very much an industrialist nation and Tolkien’s overall disdain for such ideals led people to believe this was a statement about the second great war.
4). We Were All Duped
The Lord of the Rings was about Samwise Gamgee. There, I said it. You weren’t the only one tricked into thinking it was about Frodo or the destruction of The One Ring and its dark master. Now let’s break this idea down a bit.
The first hint we see for this idea is that Samwise was “punished” for eavesdropping on Gandalf and Frodo’s conversation about The One Ring. At first this looks like a plot device to give Frodo a companion. Let’s be honest, it wasn’t going to be Gandalf, as he so expertly demonstrated in The Hobbit. Lazy bastard. Anyway, this was how Sam became directly involved in the events of the books. Later on, at the battle of Amon Hen, we see Sam get sucked back into the fray when Frodo leaves the Fellowship of the Ring at the Falls of Rauros. It’s the second time we see Sam being drawn in, directly influencing the fate of the Ring, expertly disguised as an act of friendship. As the story progresses, Sam is clearly unaffected by the lure of the Ring. But wait, I thought Tom Bombadil was the only one?! Part of my point exactly. When Frodo and Sam are following Gollum and talk about the journey home, Frodo tells him that he wouldn’t have gotten far without him. That scene was only in the films, if I’m not mistaken, but it’s still oddly suspicious.
Samwise sees the end of the adventure and the destruction of the ring before going back home. This is where I believe it’s cemented that Sam was the main character. Frodo is given the opportunity to head to the Undying Lands with Lord Elrond and Bilbo. HE FREAKING TAKES IT! And then we never hear of him again! The book is given to Sam, “The last pages are for you,” and the Frodo just hops on his boat and leaves. Before that even happens, we see Sam get married and then we find out Sam is happy with his wife and kids. He’s the one that gets the happy ending, whereas Frodo completely disappears from the picture.
Samwise the Brave, we love you buddy.
5). Gave Birth to the Best Book to Film Adaptation. Ever.
And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for; the discussion about the films. To start, I need to accentuate the fact that even after all this time, these films hold up incredibly well. Some of the special effects are seen to be sub-par when watching the Blu-ray versions of the movies but because they didn’t cut any corners and used as little CGI as they could get away with, these films look incredible.
The incredible work of Peter Jackson in weeding out what needed to go into the films and what simply couldn’t was done with a grace that I doubt will ever be matched again. Casting was incredible, special effects and props were lifelike in a way that can’t easily be explained. No doubt, these are points that color the fact, that by film standards, they are epic. In the sense of adaptation, why were they so great?
What I instantly think of as great is the music score composed by Howard Shore. A soundtrack can sometimes be so disgustingly underestimated, but, in The Lord of the Rings it was as important a point as the characters, props and shots. Simply listening to this soundtrack can bring one into a daydream, transport them into Middle Earth and all its wonders. I honestly believe that if Tolkien were alive to hear these pieces, he’d shed a tear at how perfect they are. They reinforce the overall tone and nature of the story in a way that words don’t do a shred of justice.
Peter Jackson’s overall direction of the films is no small feat to be accomplished. Shooting the film in New Zealand was an expert decision, mainly because it looks like Middle Earth was plopped down into the real world. Each scene in the films is picked so perfectly that the music that accompanies it makes the shots so atmospheric that there could be no dialogue and I would still be brought to amazement and wonder.
Adaptation-wise, the awesome direction behind this trilogy is not the only shining star on the field. Many people are angry about Jackson cutting out Tom Bombadil and taking away the character of Farmer Maggot besides his angry sickle above the corn stalks, but they were done away with for just reason. It gave us scenes that we didn’t have in the books, to help characterize the main cast in the time window that film is restricted. Frodo and Sam in Osgiliath, Gollum and Smeagol having an argument (thanks Andy Sirkis), the immense battle scenes at the Pelennor Fields, the Black Gate, Amon Hen, the list goes on. The cuts that were made weren’t made for no reason, they were made to keep it film friendly and it didn’t disrupt the story, even slightly. It brings the pages to life in an epic and fantastical way.
The length of the films is daunting as it is, can you imagine what they had been like if the books were transcribed to film verbatim? Only crazy people like me would have seen it! Thank you Tolkien and Peter Jackson for creating the best works of our existence.
Sean is a BMW technician by day, the Heavy Metal GM by night, and loves everything about 13th Age. If the game interests you and you want to learn more, check out his 13th Age blog here.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.