Middle-earth at the Movies (2011)
I wrote this piece for SFX 219, where I picked out four stories by JRR Tolkien that could make good films. Do you agree or disagree with my selection? Let me know!
With the Hobbit on the way, it’s high time to look at other tales from Tolkien’s legendarium that might make top filmic fun.
Within the broader sweep of Middle-earth there are dozens of stories, and there’s some cracking potential films in there. The juicy stuff comes from The Silmarillion, released posthumously by JRR’s son Christopher, with a little bit of help from Guy Gavriel Kay. This mythic cycle covers the first Dark Lord Morgoth’s endless attempts to seize control of creation, his eventual downfall, and Sauron taking up his reins. It might seem like a good idea to film the lot, but The Silmarillion covers thousands of years, has hundreds of characters, and the movie would be like, well, decades long. Better to be picky, eh?
Beren and Luthien
The pitch: Middle-earth’s greatest love story
Time: The First Age
Location: Doriath and Angband
Hooks: Love! Big dogs! Fatherly disapproval! Amputation by wolf bite!
The plot: Remember that bit in The Fellowship of the Ring, where sad-eyed Aragorn sings a song in the marshes? This is that ballad. Beren the man falls in love with elf Lúthien. Her father Thingol is having none of this and says they can only marry if Beren accomplishes the impossible and steals back one of the Silmarils, holy jewels taken by the Dark Lord.
What’s in it for Weta: Beren and Lúthien’s journey to Angband has echoes of Frodo and Sam creeping into Mordor, only Angband is scarier. Morgoth himself puts in an appearance, while the hunt for Carcharoth the giant wolf at the climax would be thrilling.
What’s in it for us: A big dose of lurve, and there’s a happy ending as Beren and Lúthien are resurrected to live together. Aww.
The Children of Húrin
The pitch: Romeo and Juliet, with dragons. And incest.
Time: The First Age
Location: All over Beleriand
Hooks: Amnesia! Curses! Brotherly loving! Dragons! Petty Dwarves!
The plot: Morgoth catches the human hero Hurin. The Dark Lord curses his children, Túrin and Níniel, and forces Húrin to watch them suffer.
What’s in it for Weta: Battles with hordes of Orcs, before Túrin meets Glaurung the dragon in single combat, besting the beastie with cunning and trickery.
What’s in it for us: As this fragmentary story was finessed into a brilliant novel by Christopher Tolkien in 2007, it’s probably the most screen-ready. It’s truly tragic, with Túrin’s curse dooming all who aid him, and him unknowingly marrying his amnesiac sister. Then it’s suicides all round. Sad.
The War of Wrath
The pitch: The greatest war of all time
Time: The very end of the First Age
Hooks: Demons! Gods! War! Apocalypse!
The plot: Elves and men band up to finish off the evil Morgoth once and for all.
What’s in it for Weta: This apocalyptic smackdown at the climax of the First Age makes that spat over the One Ring look like a children’s squabble. Think Smaug will be cool? What about Ancalagon the Black, the father of all winged dragons, who is so huge that when he’s downed he flattens a mountain? He leads an entire squadron of winged fire drakes into battle with hero Eärendil’s magical flying ship. The land battles dwarf anything in The Lord of the Rings, as the Valar (Tolkien’s angels) themselves stride the land and fight dozens of Balrogs.
What’s in it for us: An awesome spectacle, and a bittersweet victory. All of Beleriand is laid waste and sunk under the sea. Look at the map in The Lord of The Rings. See those mountains by the coast past The Shire? There used to be a whole lot more west of that. Then there’s Morgoth’s defeat. His feet are cut off, his iron crown hammered into a collar, he’s bound by a magical chain and shut out of creation for all time. Satisfying.
The Fall of Numenor
The pitch: The drowning of Atlantis, plus Elves
Time: The Second Age
Hooks: Envy! Betrayal! Human Sacrifice! The world remade! God gets angry!
The plot: The greatest human civilisation of all is brought low by the lies of Sauron.
What’s in it for Weta: There’s a titanic struggle at the beginning, where the lords of Numenor sail to Middle-earth to capture Sauron. Later, there’s evil king Ar-pharazon’s massive invasion fleet, and the biggest tsunami in fiction.
What’s in it for us: A fantastic tale as the island nation of Númenor descends into evil, all because they envy the immortality of the Elves. Watch as a noble people turn their back on creator god Ilúvatar and his Valar to worship the outcast Morgoth. Sauron in this is Grima Wormtongue on divine steroids, while the anger of Ilúvatar when Ar-pharazôn attempts to invade the holy Undying Lands is cinematic wrath-of-god at its most terrifying. It also sets us up for the The Lord of The Rings, with survivors like Isildur and Elendil establishing the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor. They play their part in the first downfall of Sauron, bits of which we’ve already seen on the screen. Neat.