How to Adapt The Silmarillion?
We have all seen Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, and we have all suffered through Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit. There remains, however, the lingering hypothetical question – how would you go about adapting the most monumental of Tolkien’s works, The Silmarillion?
Any answer to this must remain hypothetical, of course. Christopher Tolkien remains adamantly opposed to selling the rights, and he has very likely planned ahead, as far as Estate succession goes. Moreover, while The Lord of the Rings will enter public domain in the United Kingdom on 1st January, 2044, The Silmarillion is trickier. If either Christopher or Guy Gavriel Kay are legally considered co-authors, rather than merely editors, the work only becomes public domain seventy years after they die – and both are still very much alive. So we are unlikely to see any Silmarillion adaptation any time soon.
But The Silmarillion on screen is fun to speculate about, at least if you assume that Peter Jackson will play no part in it whatsoever. So let’s do it.
Option 1: A television series
This option has several advantages.
- Most obviously, Game of Thrones has shown that there is a market for multi-season televised fantasy (rather than BBC-style adaptive mini-series), so we know it can be done. Indeed, several other fantasy adaptations are currently moving in that direction, rather than trying the blockbuster movie model typified by Harry Potter.
- An episodic framework plays to the book’s strengths – The Silmarillion is not a continuous narrative, but rather a history with discrete events (some of which are more overtly fantastical and mythological than others).
- It enables you to spend more time building up the backstory, rather than forcing you to dump everything into an introductory prologue.
The difficulties are twofold:
- The cost. Game of Thrones, itself hardly cheap to make, has characters talking, shagging, eating, or killing (or some combination thereof), in a room, for episode after episode, interspersed with brief shots to remind you that this is fantasy. The big set pieces are rarer, and generally saved for later in the season (The Battle of the Blackwater, Hardhome, et cetera). By contrast, The Silmarillion does not lend itself to such a framework – it is much more ongoingly epic in nature, with much more diversity required in terms of sets. Even something as straightforwardly necessary as Morgoth’s Throne Room would only feature once (Beren and Lúthien) in the entire series, though you could conceivably milk it for other scenes, like the captures of Maedhros and Húrin.
- The lack of central characters to frame the story around. Game of Thrones has three “main” characters – Jon, Daenerys, and Tyrion – and the factions are pretty clear, regardless of who lives and dies, since the narrative revolves around the twin foci of the Iron Throne and the Wall. The closest The Silmarillion has to central unifying characters are Morgoth (the *antagonist*, who also fades into a backdrop figure once the action hits Beleriand) and Fëanor, who dies early on. Even something as ostensibly pivotal as the silmarils plays little immediate role in, say, the tale of Túrin, or the Fall of Gondolin.
The cost issue might conceivably be mitigated by animation – which would not be cheap either, but in this case would come out ahead of live action. That involves making some interesting stylistic choices though, perhaps giving the resulting work an anime feel. This in turn might affect public reception (would an animated Game of Thrones enjoy the same popularity as the live action version? I honestly don’t know).
An interesting solution to the “lack of central characters” problem is provided here – with the envisaged outline being provided in some detail. Essentially the framing narrative involves a surviving Maglor passing on lore to Elrond, which would have the advantage of using an existing “known” character (Elrond) as audience surrogate. It also ties-in very well with how Tolkien originally intended his mythos to be communicated, harking back to Eriol/Aelfwine from The Book of Lost Tales.
(Speaking of Maglor being used in this way, I’d just like to cite this as my favourite piece of Tolkien fanfiction).
Option 2: A five part movie series
There is no obligation to make any Silmarillion movie series into five parts – it is simply the way I would do it. What you lose in screen-time and breadth relative to television, you (presumably) gain in terms of budget and focus, and in the case of The Silmarillion, I think you can identify five stories worth focusing on:
- The Revolt of the Noldor. – This one would have to feature the Ainulindalë, et cetera, as prologue: you want the chief conflict of this story to be Fëanor vs Morgoth, with the thrust of narrative being the former’s slide into darkness (a character-driven story that stands apart from previous Middle-earth adaptations). The movie would end with Fëanor’s death, and his sons pledging to go on.
- Beren and Lúthien. – If you were making a stand-alone movie from Silmarillion material, this would be it. At the risk of Professor Tolkien coming back from the grave just to strangle me, I would even describe it lending itself to a Disney-esque adaptation: a rebellious princess and her True Love overcome all obstacles (including death itself!), with the help of a talking animal sidekick.
- Túrin. – This would be much harder for modern audiences to stomach, due to its extreme darkness. The incest might be fine in the age of Game of Thrones, but a story that ends with the main character impaling himself on a talking sword (a la the Finnish Kullervo) might be a bit much. Personally, I’d emphasise the alien and archaic nature of the culture – make the film black and white, perhaps, or even silent, after the manner of a 1920s Fritz Lang piece. If you’re going for niche art-house cinema, you might as well go the whole hog.
- The Fall of Gondolin. – This and the next one would comprise an obvious two-parter within the wider series. You’ve got the obvious Tuor/Idril/Maeglin love triangle, followed by the resulting Fall of the city itself. It would be the most location-specific of the movies, and I think would create a nice counterpoint to Jackson’s Rings trilogy – we’ve seen Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith hold out under siege from Evil, but sometimes all our protagonists can do is run. There’s also the potential for something weirder if you actually portray the mechanical dragons.
- Eärendil and the War of Wrath. – If Túrin would be problematic for its source material, this would be problematic for its absence of source material – the Voyage is, alas, one of those bits of the mythos that needs more detail. I visualise this one as centred (obviously) around Eärendil, and his family’s trials and tribulations (time to reintroduce the Sons of Fëanor and their destructive ways…), followed up by the Voyage, the Great Battle itself, and the Breaking of Thangorodrim. If the earlier movies have done their work, there will be a good deal of audience catharsis at Morgoth’s final defeat.
These movies would obviously be quite stylistically distinct, but I feel would work as a satisfying adaptation of the text. Not that anyone is going to do any adapting for the foreseeable future.
Attentive readers will notice something I haven’t hypothesised as a movie – the Akallabêth. The reason is threefold:
- It would basically scream “prequel” (Elendil and Sons establish Arnor and Gondor). There was enough of that in The Hobbit movies.
- You can’t very well end the movie with the actual Downfall itself – it may be visually spectacular, with Humans Destroyed By the Wrath of God, but we’re supposed to feel sad about it, not cheer it (the Númenoreans aren’t the Nazis from Raiders of the Lost Ark). Túrin can end on a downbeat note because it’s part of a wider series where Morgoth eventually gets his comeuppance, but doing the same here would be an open admission of prequelism. An Akallabêth adaptation would need to stand on its own, not piggyback off The Lord of the Rings.
- Our protagonists don’t do very much plot-wise beyond survive – evading human sacrifice, stealing a fruit from the White Tree, and trying to seek forgiveness from the Valar doesn’t strike me as fertile adaptation material. Nor does making Ar-Pharazôn a villain protagonist work – if you’re going to portray slow corruption on screen, I feel Fëanor is a much more interesting candidate.