Tolkien and the Future of Epic Fantasy

by Andrew G Lockhart

The past is but the beginning of a beginning, and all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn.’ [HG Wells]

The movie industry occasionally trivialises and mangles great works of literature in order to bring them to the screen. We might cite, for example, various adaptations of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, countless attempts at handling Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo and one very dubious rendering of Pullman’s Northern Lights (The Golden Compass). Dozens of books are made into films every year, the result varying from excellent to pretty awful. Sci-fi and fantasy are genres that suffer.

Movies can and do fail because the writing and directing is inferior or the actors miscast. However, more often, I think failures occur for two other reasons: the book is too long to conveniently fit into a two to three hour slot at the cinema; and/or the characters are too complex or too cerebral to be portrayed effectively on the screen, even by exceptionally talented actors. Movies need to translate character into plot, sometimes invented plot, and that takes time and money as well as insight.

TV producers overcome the problems by turning long and complex works into serials for the small screen. Science fiction and fantasy can make great visual impact and the television companies have turned this to their advantage by commissioning their own new TV series, using writers who are already known for their novels or new talent whose métier is screenwriting. Arthur C Clarke, Ray Bradbury and Michael Crichton are examples of the first category. Of the latter, Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek and Andromeda), David Benioff (Game of Thrones), Russell T Davies (Dr Who), Ronald D Moore (Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica) and Chris Carter (The X Files).

The development of computers and the upgrading of special effects by the use of CGI have had a major impact on the movie industry. Film makers began using the technique in the 1970s in movies such as the original Star Wars episodes, in Richard Donner’s Superman and in Ridley Scott’s Alien. By the end of the century, digital imaging was being used widely in film, television and games, not only for special effects but to create complete backgrounds against which the real actors played.

In 1997, director Peter Jackson embarked on one of the most ambitious projects of all time, to adapt JRR Tolkien’s novel The Lord of the Rings for the screen. Originally planned as two movies, the production became three, one for each part of the novel and each totalling over three hours of screen time. Filmed in New Zealand from October 1999 to December 2000, the movies were released over three years, beginning in 2001.

Until 1978, no one had attempted turning The Lord of the Rings into a feature film, thus sparing the novel the fate of many others. In 1955, BBC Radio had dramatised the work in twelve episodes, the first six broadcast between November and December of that year, the remainder a year later. Tolkien did not think his work suited to dramatisation and criticised the production despite the fact that its popularity gave the novel extra publicity.

Fantasy Films’ animated version of The Lord of the Rings in 1978, though a commercial success taking over $30 million at the box office, covered only the first half of the story. Further radio versions followed in 1979 and 1981, the latter – again by the BBC – giving the part of Frodo Baggins to Ian Holm, who would later play Bilbo on screen.

Only two significant omissions were made in preparing the story for its latest screen production. The section of The Fellowship of the Ring relating to Tom Bombadil is missing in its entirety as is the chapter entitled The Scouring of the Shire from The Return of the King. The latter tells of Saruman’s attempt to conquer and control the villages of the Shire in revenge for the hobbits’ meddling in his affairs. Although Tolkien would probably not agree, neither is absolutely essential to the plot.

The Jackson production set new standards in the use of CGI to create whole characters, notably Gollum, and all three movies received an academy award for special effects – not forgetting the other fourteen Oscars and the three BAFTAs won by the series. The films also saw the beginning of a trend towards bigger, high budget and more spectacular series productions for the cinema, with fantasy as the predominant genre.

Between 2001 and 2011, Warner Brothers released eight movies based on the Harry Potter novels of JK Rowling. The four Twilight novels of Stephanie Meyer made the transition to the big screen between 2008 and 2012. In 2009, James Cameron’s Avatar broke all records at the box office not only for sci-fi but for any single movie of any genre.

Avatar employed new computer-based technologies to combine live acting with digital animation. Special equipment was used to record actors’ facial expressions and movements for later use by the animation teams. The technicians were even able to combine human actors with digital images in the same scene. There are rumours of at least one sequel to be screened from December 2022.

In parallel with these developments in cinema, TV companies have not been idle in pushing their own vision of big budget sci-fi and fantasy series and in taking advantage of new technological developments. David Benioff’s Game of Thrones won several awards for drama, special effects and several other categories.

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Does the spectacular visual impact of modern cinema and television mean the future of science fiction and fantasy lies in these media rather than on the printed page? Perhaps. But while special effects have been getting better and better, another revolution has been taking place in the world of publishing.

The development of electronic books has brought independent publishing, previously an expensive option, within the reach of authors with the most limited budgets. On-line opportunities have resulted in a huge increase in the numbers of books being published. Unfortunately, with this increase has come a lowering of the median literary standard, dragged down by writers who can neither spell nor punctuate, and for whom syntax (like other taxes) is something to be avoided.

Poor standards are not entirely the fault of independent authors. Regrettably, some mainstream publishers are not helping by encouraging the publication of novels written in poor grammar and text-speak. Until schools get to grips (again) with the proper teaching of grammar, I fear the trend will continue. That said, the majority of writers wish to be taken seriously and have their books read. Thus there are many outstanding novels still being produced, by both traditional publishing houses and individuals.

A hundred years ago, people were making predictions about the demise of theatre. Yet theatre has survived; it has changed. Fifty years ago, many predicted that television would ultimately mean the death of cinema. It hasn’t happened; instead, cinema transformed, with smaller theatres and more spectacular movies. Television has transformed to compete, with huge TV sets, surround sound and 3D.

Literature has co-existed for centuries with theatre, and for decades with all three. Now, people have been asking if printed books can survive the onslaught of the digital age.  And the answer, just as for those earlier questions, is yes! Despite the convenience of e-books, people seem to like pages they can touch and feel.

That may change in the future of course. If we continue destroying our natural resources, paper may become scarce. Quantum computers may give a whole new meaning to the activities we call ‘reading’ and ‘viewing’. What we know as literature may even take unexpected or totally unimagined forms. Even so, I believe books of one sort or another will survive.

But what of the future for sci-fi and fantasy? What do the next two millennia hold for those most versatile and absorbing genres of literature and film? Predictions are notoriously difficult. We can already see how well – and how badly – authors like Wells, Heinlein, Asimov and Orwell managed to predict only fifty or a hundred years ahead. Thirty years on, we can judge how much the producers of Back to the Future II got right – or wrong. But suppose we had a time machine – like Wells’s fictional timetraveller – and were able to transport ourselves forward 2000 years or more into the future. What would we find then?

We might discover the impossibilities of today have become commonplace in the new age, and that the new fantasies are things beyond the wildest imagination of any writer in this. Perhaps the human species will have regressed; perhaps most of humanity will have been wiped by some natural catastrophe and the survivors forced to live their lives in a world free of technology of any kind.

I don’t think that will matter. Stories, recited, written down or conveyed as pictures on a screen are fantasies of the mind. As long as we imagine, we will continue telling tales to our children.

As long as we dream, fantasy will endure.

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(The above article is adapted from the penultimate chapter of my book It’s a Fantasy World, published in 2015 and 2017)

2 thoughts on “Tolkien and the Future of Epic Fantasy

  1. I liked watching the Lord of the Rings series, my children grew up watching them. I think it depends if you have read the book. I know from experience, having read the Harry Potter books, there are certain films that never did them justice. The only film which really showed the book in a good light was The Prisoner of Azkaban.

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    1. The LOTR movies definitely brought people to the book, while readers of the book were probably motivated to watch the movies. This latter motivation is always there, I feel, which may be one reason why there is so much disappointment with SOME books turned to film. Of course, it’s subjective, but I find that really great books rarely make the transition well. LOTR was an exception. On the other hand, I am rarely drawn to read a book after seeing a movie of it. I can enjoy a movie if I don’t know the story. Strange, isn’t it?

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