Laurie Beckoff | December 4, 2017
The announcement of Amazon purchasing the rights to The Lord of the Rings was met with a resounding groan from many Tolkien fans. While some are certainly excited for more Middle-earth on their screens, a large contingent is more than a little concerned about how their precious story could be ruined.
Worry has replaced excitement among fans when new adaptations or spin-offs are announced, such as Star Wars, Star Trek, and even legends like King Arthur. Expectations have dropped drastically. The first thought to come to mind has become ‘How will they mess this up?’ With Tolkien, the questions have also included ‘Why do we need this now when we had an excellent Lord of the Rings film series so recently?’, ‘Why new material instead of The Silmarillion or any of Tolkien’s other Middle-earth writings?’, and ‘Why mess around again after the corruption of The Hobbit?’ It’s not that fans don’t want to see their favourite stories in a new format, but that we have come to distrust the people making the big decisions, holding complex narratives and beloved characters in their hands.
As studios manufacture one big-budget franchise after another, there is a growing fear that content will be sacrificed as producers prioritise marketability over quality, and directors focus on personal aesthetic rather than honouring source material. Amazon’s announcement is being discussed as a business deal—how much the rights cost, how they can compete with HBO and Netflix, whether this will be a wise investment. Content is inextricably tied to financial considerations, often leading studios to think more about how to appeal to as many people as possible and keep viewers glued to their screens rather than how to celebrate a literary tradition, contribute meaningfully to the cultural imagination, or provide new creative insight into a well-loved story.
It is an unfortunate reality that production studios need to think about making money from an expensive venture. But those pursuing it must also consider their primary audience of devoted fans, as well as the longstanding tradition in which they are partaking, the sensitivity of material at hand, the historical meaning the work already holds, and the new meaning that may now be added to it. I am not advocating for absolute purity in adaptation—every medium requires something different. It is not a matter of maintaining accuracy in every detail but of remaining faithful to the overall theme and tone of the work. Creating an adaptation or expanded universe should not be an exercise in elitism or exclusivity catering only to hardcore fans—it should welcome newcomers to a franchise and engage those with all levels of familiarity or none at all. And this is where experts come in.
Hospital dramas need medical consultants, crime programmes use legal experts, and period pieces employ historians. However, these consultants are not usually a main part of the creative process. They are external, and their advice can be considered on a case-by-case basis. Perhaps that is the most that can be expected with experts in fields outside of the arts, with the hope being that their expertise will be respected and used. But in the humanities, there is no shortage of experts who know their way around storytelling and character development. Imagine the quality of work that can come from experts as an essential component of a creative team—not just consultants to be brought in for a few sessions and ultimately ignored in favour of the director’s vision, but people involved in every step of the process, maybe even as script editors or credited writers. Why not take advantage of scholars who have been studying the critical issues surrounding a text or cultural phenomenon over the last twenty, fifty, one hundred, or even five hundred years?
Studios often make excuses about needing ‘just the right person’ to head a project, yet it seems unlikely that the same few producers, directors, and screenwriters who are given creative control over one large project after another of various genres are that perfect fit for everything. Knowing how to create a movie or television show that will make money is not the same as truly understanding that which should come first in art: the content, its context, and its audience. Tolkien’s oeuvre is just one work that could benefit from expertise—whether professional or amateur, from academia or fandom, or some combination. Enlisting the perspectives of those with a deep comprehension of the material can lead to an adaptation that will delight, inspire, and, yes, rake in the dough.
Laurie Beckoff is pursuing the MSc in Medieval Literatures and Cultures at the University of Edinburgh. Originally from New York, she received her BA in English from the University of Chicago. Her research interests focus on medieval magic and medievalism in modern fantasy literature, particularly Arthurian influence in Harry Potter.
Article edited by Julian Menjivar and Sonia García de Alba.