Christopher Tolkien’s Amazonian Requests

An interesting piece of news out of Fellowship of Fans today. Not one that we were realistically expecting (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kmc3sY0GQ0g)

The news is that prior to his death in January 2020, Christopher Tolkien made some requests of Amazon, with regards to their impending Second Age adaptation, now called The Rings of Power. The requests in question?

My first thought was to note what isn’t in that list, rather than what is. In light of Christopher’s well-known distaste for the Jackson adaptation – he famously derided them as action movies for 15-25 year-olds – I would have expected a far greater protest against possible ‘sillification’, or gratuitous fight scenes. Or the presence of characters like Jackson’s Legolas. But no. Instead, we get a focus on characters dying (or living!) at appropriate times, and a comment against the repurposing of Tolkien’s original dialogue.

(No mention of sex, nudity, actor ethnicity, or contemporary politics either, for the people hyperventilating about such things).

The character death/survival thing is actually very minor, in that it is really only a requirement that:

  • Celebrimbor dies during the War of the Elves and Sauron.
  • Pharazon and Miriel die during the Downfall.
  • Anarion, Gil-galad and Elendil die during the War of the Last Alliance.
  • No killing off Elrond, Galadriel, Celeborn, and Cirdan. Ditto Glorfindel if he’s in there.
  • No killing off Isildur prior to the Gladden Fields.

That is pretty much it. Such is the paucity of named Second Age characters, there’s even a case that this can be summarised as:

  • Pharazon cannot become a Nazgûl.
  • Miriel can’t have a happy ending.
  • Anarion has to help establish Gondor.
  • The War of the Elves and Sauron, the Downfall, and the Last Alliance need to happen.

That is a really, really low bar, and, of course, says nothing about how characters die (c.f. Celebrimbor as a banner, or Anarion getting crushed via stone), much less Amazon’s horde of Original Characters. If anything, it mildly strengthens the case for Isildur’s invented sister, Carine, dying as a human sacrifice or in the Downfall, since they can’t use Anarion for that purpose. But that is really it. I am honestly quite surprised that the Fellowship of Fans commentators express such relief about something that Amazon would have probably done anyway.

The repurposed dialogue issue is more significant.

Jackson did not introduce this into Tolkien adaptations, of course. It has been a staple of the area for at least half a century – Boorman’s infamous 1970 script does it, as does the 1993 Finnish version. But Jackson’s example is the one that stands out, and is something that audiences have tended to appreciate about those films. After all, better something written by Tolkien than by someone else, right? The Willow Tree scene in the extended Two Towers can be seen as a tribute to the (cut) Tom Bombadil sequence, a small and welcome Easter egg for book-readers.

But repurposing dialogue can be a dangerous thing – you might be keeping Tolkien’s words, but you are changing their context, and through that, you are changing their original meaning, and even potentially making a mockery of them. The YouTube commentator, GirlNextGondor has a fascinating (albeit currently unavailable) video on Jackson’s Faramir, where she pointed out how this out-of-context use of Tolkienian dialogue can really do a number on Tolkien’s actual characterisation. One suspects that Christopher Tolkien saw things similarly – hence his expressed objection to Amazon doing it.

(Of course, there is so little Tolkienian dialogue from the Second Age, that one might suggest the showrunners here are dealing with a quite different situation from Jackson. Jackson had lines and characters for source-material – the creators of The Rings of Power have lists, summaries, and names, plus whatever they can get out of the Estate on a case-by-case basis. Assuming they can actually use the Akallabêth, I would argue that shifting Amandil’s lines to Elendil, and Elendil to Isildur, would not fundamentally alter characters, since those characters are so vaguely described anyway).

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