Is The Lord of the Rings now a never-ending franchise like Marvel and Star Wars?

‘The road goes ever on”, wrote Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. But the esteemed Oxford don and creator of the high fantasy genre probably wasn’t expecting it to lead to a billion dollar multimedia franchise to rival Marvel and Star Wars.

But that, it seems, is what Tolkien’s Middle-earth tales are slowly morphing into, almost 70 years after he completed work on The Lord of the Rings, which was originally published in 1954 and 1955. This week, Deadline reports that a new anime movie, The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Rohirrim, is moving into production – and it all looks surprisingly legit. Brian Cox will play Helm Hammerhand, legendary defender of the Rohirrim, with Miranda Otto returning from Peter Jackson’s turn-of-the-century Lord of the Rings trilogy as Eowyn (now the story’s narrator). That triptych’s producer and screenwriter, Philippa Boyens, is executive producing, along with conceptual designer Alan Lee and visual effects expert Richard Taylor of Weta Digital.

Altogether this makes up a decent portion of the dream team that gave us Jackson’s multiple Oscar-winning trilogy. But of course, this isn’t the only Tolkien project heading to screens. On TV, Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is also imminent. Where will this all lead, one has to ask? And do we really need all these tales of Middle-earth?

The answer of course, is yes. In this post-Covid age, we are all ever-expanding content jelly bellies, determined to feast on everything good that is given us. Our nightly banquets are a veritable La Grande Bouffe of streaming: we may eventually expire from gorging ourselves on too much Netflix, Now TV, Apple TV and Amazon (to name but a few) but it’s going to be the most joyous demise since Gandalf nearly decapitated the Goblin King.

Do we want to watch Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth time? Or would we rather watch something new? The answer is clearly BOTH. So the next question becomes whether Middle-earth is really ready to be transformed into its very own film and TV universe?

There are fundamental differences between Marvel and Star Wars and Tolkien’s fantasy world, and not just the fact that the Oxford professor backed up his world-building with entirely new fantasy languages and mythic pre-histories, wonderfully imagining himself as creating an entire missing mythology for the English people. The two Disney-owned franchises boast mythologies that have grown gradually over the decades: hundreds of different creators have built on the work of Stan Lee since the 1960s, while dozens of directors have now taken on George Lucas’ space fantasy saga and begun to build it into something new with TV shows such as The Mandalorian. Middle-earth on the other hand, despite Jackson’s clumsy tinkerings during the middling Hobbit trilogy – elf/dwarf romances anyone? – remains resolutely Tolkien’s creation.

The War of the Rohirrim will expand on stories told in the original Lord of the Rings about a time centuries before, when Helm saved his people. The idea of filming a fantasy battle as an anime is particularly appealing, but otherwise this isn’t the most obvious LOTR subplot that Warner and New Line might have plucked. It does have the benefit of a positive ending, however, whereas many of Tolkien’s other tales of Middle-earth (as the producers of The Rings of Power may be about to find out) are ultimately tragic and bleak in nature. I imagine few people would want to view a movie all about the early life of Gollum, or sit up until 3am binge-streaming the latest series of Saruman’s Fall.

Let’s face it though: the inevitable place that this is all going, provided there are no contractual disputes with the Tolkien estate, is new stories set in Middle-earth not based on Tolkien’s writings. Perhaps producers can learn something from Marvel and Star Wars here: the former has gone so far beyond its source material that it now represents the definitive media form for the superhero saga, while suits for the latter have only recently worked out that continuing to regurgitate Lucas-era stories in only vaguely new forms is probably not the way forward when you have a proposition as masterfully fresh and new as The Mandalorian up your Jedi robe.

Surely we’ll get there in time with Lord of the Rings, too. It just might take a decade or two before we get a show about the two blue Istari (wizards) who travelled south and east into parts of Middle-earth we’ve never even heard of – now that would be a story. And in the meantime, most of us will be perfectly happy chowing down as Hollywood and Amazon microwave every last ounce of content out of Tolkien’s remaining writings. I’m especially looking forward to the episode of The Rings of Power in which Sauron falls on his arse after being kicked out of Lindon by Elrond and Gil-galad. Secretly, you probably are too.

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