Saturday, 18 November 2017

The Lord of the Rings Series: Wild Extrapolations

Three Rings for the Elfin-kings unner the sky,
Seiven for the Droich-lairds in thair haws of stane,
Nine for Mortal Men duimit tae dee,
Ane for the Daurk Laird oan his daurk throne
In the Laund of Mordor whaur the Shadaes lig.
Ane Ring tae rowl thaim aw, Ane Ring tae find thaim,
Ane Ring tae bring thaim aw an' in the mirkness bind thaim
In the Laund of Mordor whaur the Shadaes lie. 
 - The Laird of the Rings (in Scots) - I can dream, eh?

I think I got most of my emotional reaction to any new Tolkien adaptation news out of my system a while ago, especially given how franchises operate nowadays. Rather than being excited or dismayed, I feel a strange sense of confidence - that "ah, I've been here before" sensation. It could be good. Or, it might not. We will see.

What do we know about the series? We know next to nothing.

This is literally all we know about it, from an Amazon Corporate Press Release :
"...previously unexplored stories based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s original writings..."
Set in Middle Earth, the television adaptation will explore new storylines preceding J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. The deal includes a potential additional spin-off series. 

So, "previously unexplored stories based on J.R.R. Tolkien's original writings," and "new storylines preceding J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring."

The internet is aflame with speculation as to what this series could be. Is it simply a new adaptation of The Lord of the Rings itself, which - given my belief that Tolkien's work is just as worthy of multiple interpretations as that of Austen, Christie, Conan Doyle, Dickens, Dumas, Poe, Shelley, Wells, or Verne - I would welcome heartily? Is it perhaps an expansion of the many appendices, which opens up the possibility of some crossover with The Silmarillion? Or is it more fan-fiction, like far too much of the recent Hobbit films?

I don't know. But let's not let a wee thing like that stop me from guessing!

The Silmarillion?

Given the announcement that Christopher Tolkien has resigned as director of the Tolkien Estate, many have immediately leapt on the ZOMG ITS THE SILMARILLION bandwagon. Colour me - still - unconvinced. If this new series translates to The Silmarillion, I'll eat my proverbial hat. (Not my good Texan hat, of course, I don't gamble with that!) As long as Christopher Tolkien - aka the co-author of The Silmarillion - is alive, I sincerely doubt it'll happen.

While it would be lovely to see the many stories adapted simply to see what people make of it, I've found that my perspective of The Silmarillion is very different from that of most other Tolkien fans (my fellow REH fans excepted) - full of blood and thunder, more Angus McBride or, yes, Frank Frazetta than John Howe or Hildebrandt Brothers (though I do like Alan Lee and some of Ted Nasmith's pieces). Google illustrations of any elf character on Deviantart, you'll see what I mean.

I've always felt The Silmarillion lent itself to a much more abstract adaptation than a traditional cinematic narrative: an opera, experimental film, or even an animation in the style of Laloux or Languionie's strange but beautiful tales. There's something appealing in taking a dense, complex text like The Silmarillion, & transposing it into the abstract.

Alas, that was always going to be a long shot. An adaptation of Ainulindalë may well implement some of that approach, as Willow Productions' animation above depicts, but a whole series like that? Probably not.

A New Interpretation?

The New Line Middle-Earth films have made a preposterous amount of money, as the press release breathlessly points out. It's easily in the company of other titanofranchises like Star Wars & the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with nearly every release adhering to the established Weta/Wingnut production style. While critical reception of the Hobbit films was certainly disappointing, financially it did gangbusters: most notably, the Shadow of Mordor gaming franchise is phenomenally popular despite only tenuous links to Tolkien's work, but fairly steeped in the New Line visual aesthetic.

As such, I don't think we can expect a bold new direction as with Star Trek or the DC Cinematic Universe, which have both rebooted & refreshed the style & tone of their properties over the years. I can understand why they did so - don't fix what ain't broke, & from their perspective, if it makes money, it ain't broke - but I do confess to lamenting the opportunity for new interpretations. After all, we have many different visual interpretations of other classic worlds and characters, why shouldn't we see them for The Lord of the Rings? Heck, it'd be worth it simply to give uncommon but still textually supportable illustrations: dark-haired Legolas, wingless balrogs, Sauron not being a floating eyeball, Gothmog as a man/Nazgul/Boldog/something other than an Orc, and so forth.

It's a real shame, because there are a wealth of bold, interesting visual styles out there - not least the author's own.

I love Dragonslayer as much as the next '80s kid, but Smaug is clearly a quadrupedal winged linnormr, not Vermithrax pejorative.
As it is, I adore many aspects of the New Line visual interpretation of Middle-earth, even the parts I disagree with, or which aren't true to Tolkien's descriptions: every link of mail and centimetre of miniature was crafted by artists who loved and believed in what they were creating. I just hope there could be room for many more interpretations, beyond the brash, rough colours of Bakshi, the intricate detail of Rankin Bass, even - especially - the appealingly bonkers charm of Deitch.

Deitch's 1966 film shows that even a cynical studio ploy to extend a license can produce something strangely compelling (if you can bear the heinous script), & I'd argue conveys "the Northern Thing" quite interestingly. Look at Gandalf, then look at the Lewis Chessmen, those quintessential icons of Medieval Norse Art.

That's "the Nordic thing."

Bold Diversity?

One of the most frequent criticisms of The Lord of the Rings is the lack of diversity in the cast. I get it. If one of the things you look for in your fantasy fiction is ethnic diversity, then you're going to be disappointed when it isn't much there. As a narrative, The Lord of the Rings isn't a place to find many different ethnic groups analogous to 21st Century Earth, for the simple fact that Tolkien wrote it the way he did - the diversity is primarily between different sapient species (men, elves, dwarfs, hobbits, orcs, etc). None of that is to say, however, that there can be no diversity in Middle-earth.

I already wrote a story of Far Harad, inspired by Charles R. Saunders' Dossouye & the historical Dahomey Amazons, as a direct challenge to the notion of black people being absent or entirely under Evil's thrall in Middle-earth. Tolkien did not go to Harad, or Rhun, or Khand, or any of the lost lands beyond the borders of the story he wanted to tell - that does not mean those lands had no stories of their own.

Furthermore, there are plenty of other places in Middle-earth proper - Dol Amroth, Dorwinion, Tharbad, Umbar - and while Middle-earth international politics are complicated by roving warbands of orcs and other horrors, we know that there has been some admixture. The populations of Pelargir, Harondor, and Belfalas are darker-complected than the rest of Gondor due to intergenerational mixture with the Haradrim: similarly, the people of Dorwinion & Rhovanion are intermingled with the Easterlings. Then you bring in the Drúedain, the Lossoth, and other neglected peoples of Middle-earth adaptations, and the men of Arda start to have a bit more variety.

Diversity is great, and I think we could do with a lot more of it. I'm personally getting a little sick of the interminable King Arthur adaptations, so any property that derives from elsewhere is absolutely great. However, I hold a dim view of lazy diversity - the type that casts Sinqua Walls as Lancelot or Angel Coulby as Guinevere - or, indeed, Idris Elba as Heimdall. This is not, as you might suspect, because of some aversion to seeing non-Europeans in a traditionally European context - absolutely not. On the contrary, I relish seeing that! It's interesting, it's refreshing, and best of all, it's historically and narratively supportable: there's the remains of someone who could only have been born in the Nile Delta in a 12th-13th Century grave in Whithorn; the Magus Balthazar is regularly depicted as dark skinned; Arthurian tradition itself has Moriaen, a Moor, the son of one of the Knights of the Round Table who travelled to Moorish lands, is even depicted as black. So there are absolutely plenty of opportunities to depict people from many non-European backgrounds in a European setting if filmmakers actually wanted to.

But the fact is that minorities are still highly underrepresented in mainstream fantasy fiction. Instead of meaningful roles, for the most part, mere token gestures like the One Black Dude in All Asgard - with Thor: Ragnarok, now at least joined with the One Black Chick in All Asgard - is all the representation people get. This would not be nearly as bad were it not for the European tokenisation rampant in films set outside European fantasy, exemplified by the casting of Billy Magnussen in Disney's live-action Aladdin:

Aladdin’s not the only prince coming for Jasmine in Agrabah. The new Disney live-action remake of the classic 1992 film will also feature another royal blue blood, played by Billy Magnussen. Everybody, this is Prince Anders. Prince Anders, this is everybody.

He’s “a suitor from Skanland and potential husband for Princess Jasmine,” according to an official statement from Disney—which means that Agrabah has a new fake Scandinavian counterpart. Disney also shared a handful of new details about the rest of the cast, which includes Will Smith as the Genie, newcomer Mena Massoud as Aladdin, and Naomi Scott as Jasmine. Smith tweeted out a quick cast selfie on Wednesday, announcing that filming had just begun.

The initial news of Magnussen’s casting, which broke late Tuesday, was met with a mixed response on social media. Some viewers wondered why a white actor is being brought into this film, set in a made-up Middle Eastern nation—especially when the original movie didn’t include any white main characters.
(Skånland is a place in Troms, one of the northernmost areas in modern Norway, which makes me wonder if this is meant to be a nod to Arendelle, & the prospect of a Disney Princess Avengers down the line - wouldn't surprise me, frankly.) Including a cod-Scandinavian character in a Middle-eastern setting is tokenism of the worst kind, because no-one can say that Scandinavian people or mythology has been marginalised in popular culture. Likewise for nonsense like The Great Wall and the sad, sorry mess that was The Last Airbender.

I was struck by Chadwick Boseman's comments on T'Challa's accent in the Marvel cinematic universe, and particularly its importance to Wakanda:

People think about how race has affected the world. It's not just in the States. Colonialism is the cousin of slavery. Colonialism in Africa would have it that, in order to be a ruler, his education comes from Europe.
I wanted to be completely sure that we didn't convey that idea because that would be counter to everything that Wakanda is about. It's supposed to be the most technologically advanced nation on the planet.
If it's supposed to not have been conquered – which means that advancement has happened without colonialism tainting it, poisoning the well of it, without stopping it or disrupting it – then there's no way he would speak with a European accent.
If I did that, I would be conveying a white supremacist idea of what being educated is and what being royal or presidential is. Because it's not just about him running around fighting.

This is the sort of thoughtfulness, detail, and consideration that good speculative fiction needs, and is a great leap forward to on of my personal bugbears, colloquially termed The Queen's Latin. How many films, television shows, theatrical productions, radio plays, cartoons, anything with a human voice, depict - for example - Ancient Romans or Greeks with impeccable Received Pronunciation? How many adaptations of Les Miserables have Frenchmen speaking with Cockney, West Country, and just about every accent that isn't French? The end result is that Received Pronunciation continues to run roughshod over other, legitimate accents as surely as the old British Empire trampled indigenous languages and culture.*

If the series is to be an adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, The History of Middle-Earth, or any of Tolkien's other narratives, then it's difficult to see how to include a diverse cast of characters without significant changes to the story - which, again, is fine, as long as you don't pretend you're being faithful to the source material. However, if the series is an original story set in Middle-Earth, as Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is, then there are plenty of opportunities to explore the realms beyond.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor - and its sequel, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War - features only a few characters created by Tolkien, and many are already vastly divergent from his writings. The games are set mostly in Núrn, the only fertile area of Mordor, nominally set sometime between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The developers, Monolith, had plenty of scope to introduce new characters, peoples, ideas, and stories without necessarily mucking about with the source material too much. As such, they introduce several female characters, and the sequel includes a Harad-born main character - Baranor.

Depending on the compounds, Baranor could mean "fierce fire," "ruddy mountain," or "House of the Sun" in Sindarin

Baranor will be the protagonist for an upcoming mini-campaign, Desolation of Mordor. According to the Shadow of War wiki, Baranor was born in Harad, but adopted by a wealthy Minas Ithil family - hence his Gondorian name - and is raised as a Gondorian; he joins the army, and becomes Captain of the Guard at Minas Ithil. Having grown up in Minas Ithil, he considers it to be his "true home," rather than Harad.

Baranor could present a great opportunity for the Shadow games to explore Harad, & refute once and for all one of the more insidious interpretations of Middle-Earth - that the Haradrim are irredeemably evil. I'm thoroughly unconvinced of such a simplistic interpretation, as there is much in Tolkien's own words to suggest otherwise. Tolkien refers to "the few tribes of Men that had rebelled from Melkor-worship": it's entirely probable that there are resistance movements, saboteurs, rebels, even independent tribes & kingdoms fighting against Sauron's acolytes. Once Minas Ithil is overrun by the Witch-King's forces, could Baranor take flight not west to Minas Anor, but south - to aid the southron rebels against Sauron, and help the oppressed tribes regain their freedom? That'd be a lot more satisfying & interesting than just another Gondorian soldier.

“But the other two Istari were sent for a different purpose. Morinethar and Rómestámo (Darkness-slayer and East-helper) Their task was to circumvent Sauron: to bring help to the few tribes of Men that had rebelled from Melkor-worship, to stir up rebellion… and after his first fall to search out his hiding ( in which they failed ) and to cause ( ? dissension and disarray ) among the dark East… They must have had very great influence on the history of the Second age and Third age in weakening and disarraying the forces of East… who would both in the Second age and Third age otherwise have… outnumbered the West.”
The Peoples of Middle-earth
What's more, it also offers a great opportunity to show some of the complexities of Good and Evil in Middle-Earth, by noting the often brutal history of the Númenoreans and other men:

The Númenoreans had now become great mariners, exploring all the seas eastward, and they began to yearn for the West and the forbidden waters; and the more joyful was their life, the more they began to long for the immortality of the Eldar.
Moreover, after Minastir the Kings became greedy of wealth and power. At first the Númenoreans had come to Middle-earth as teachers and friends of lesser Men afflicted by Sauron; but now their havens became fortresses, holding wide coastlands in subjection. Atanamir and his successors levied heavy tribute, and the ships of the Númenoreans returned laden with spoil.
 - The Lord of the Rings Appendix A, Annals of the Kings and Rulers: Númenor
As it is in our world's history, so the endless cycle of invasion and exploitation, disputed lands, and ancient wrongs shaped the politics of Middle-earth. As Gondor is the successor of Númenor, of course the Haradrim would distrust them, that distrust being manipulated by the Great Enemy, & exacerbated by a nation crumbling to pieces after civil wars and plagues and invasions and decadent rulers. It would be very simple to expand on those themes Tolkien touched upon: so refreshing to those used to the meme of The Lord of the Rings being a simplistic "battle of Good versus Evil" fairytale, some might even think of it as a subversion, when it's actually a lot truer to Tolkien than popular culture would suggest.

Of course, that's Shadow of War: whether this means Amazon's new series will be a similar piece of fan fiction is yet to be seen. If so, I'd love to believe that they would look beyond Eriador, Gondor, Rohan, and the rest of Middle-Earth, & imagine the rest of Arda's story.

A Faithful Adaptation?

"This bit is so stupid." - Gandalf

Aye, I'm beating that old drum again. Still, as I've said multiple times: judge an adaptation's fidelity only on what the adaptor says. If they say it's a loose adaptation taking bits and bobs, then that's fine, at least they're being honest & frank about what they're doing. Us fans can grouch and moan, but there's no real reason an adaptation should necessarily be faithful beyond respect for the source material. But if they say this is a faithful & true adaptation, then they should be prepared to justify every change they make.

Thus far, we have no idea how faithful Amazon's new project will be, save that they are "previously unexplored stories based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s original writings." That could mean anything from books or events Tolkien wrote which have not yet been adapted, or new adventures spun from a line or two of Tolkien's dialogue (or even less than that, like the Amazons of Far Harad). Nonetheless, we might be able to glean a direction from other recent Lord of the Rings properties.

Again, I stress: Amazon, or any adaptor, is under no obligation to respect the source material, no matter how much fans would want it. I just think they should be consistent with what they say and do. If it's a reimagining for a modern audience, come out and say it. It's the dancing between the two extremes of adaptation while trying to court both newcomers and stalwarts that I cannot abide.

But let's just suppose that the intention is to fully adapt The Lord of the Rings itself. It wouldn't be the shortest turnaround in new adaptations: think of all the new Batman, Spider-Man, King Arthur, Robin Hood, and other character-based films who've had new cinematic origin stories this millennium alone. Frightening as it is to countenance, the first entry in the New Line film trilogy came out in 2001 - 16 years ago. In that same 16-year period, there have been...

And so on. Compared to other books, The Lord of the Rings looks practically anaemic in terms of adaptations.

While cinema's epic scope cannot be replicated in most homes, television has one distinct advantage - time. Television's flexibility for episode and season length means that a book like The Lord of the Rings could be much more completely adapted than even the New Line extended editions. That much-mocked "ending fatigue" that plagued the 3rd film would be completely eliminated when the story is divided neatly into 30-50 minute episodes. Entire chapters left out of the films - "A Short Cut to Mushrooms," "A Conspiracy Unmasked," "The Old Forest," "In the House of Tom Bombadil," "Fog on the Barrow-downs," "Lothlórien," "The Great River," "The Road to Isengard," "The Field of Cormallen," "Homeward Bound," and especially "The Scouring of the Shire" - could be adapted, free from the tyranny of time constraints.

Run, run! It's just begun! Burn ocotillo!
Time's nigh! Prepare to die! Skulls by the kilo!
You apes'll never escape the high pecadillo
of Tom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!
I realise Ol' Bombadil has his detractors, but what of Gildor and Glorfindel, Elladan and Elrohir, Farmer Maggot & Fatty Bolger, Erkenbrand, Halbarad, Beregond? What about female characters like Mrs Maggot, Goldberry, and Ioreth, and characters like Prince Imrahil, Ghân-buri-Ghân? To say nothing of the awesome moments from the books that never made it to film: Gandalf battling the Nazgul on Weathertop, Aragorn's Conan-like challenge to the Dunlendings at Helm's Deep, Forlong the Old's heroic demise, the Swan Knights' charge, the last stand of the proud Easterlings, Pippin slaying a freakin' Troll...

Well. You never know.

We'll see soon enough.

*This is, incidentally, a major reason I'm such an advocate for the Scots Language, or indeed any minority language denigrated as "slang" or "bastardised" English.

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