J.R.R. Tolkien, the creator of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, torched a film treatment for an adaptation of The Lord of the Rings back in June 1958.
In letter 210 to Forrest J. Ackerman, Tolkien did not hold back his criticism of the film treatment and it gives us an idea of what he might have thought about Amazon Studios’ upcoming adaptation in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.
Towards the beginning of the letter, Tolkien preemptively apologizes for his tone used in his commentary on the film treatment.
He wrote, “If [Mr. Zimmerman] and/or others do so, they may be irritated or aggrieved by the tone of many of my criticisms. If so, I am sorry (though not surprised).”
Tolkien went on to explain the apology, “But I would ask them to make an effort of imagination sufficient to understand the irritation (and on occasion the resentment) of an author, who finds, increasingly as he proceeds, his work treated as it would seem carelessly in general, in places recklessly, and with no evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about.”
Next, Tolkien makes it very clear that canon should be respected no matter what the medium is, “The canons of narrative in any medium cannot be wholly different; and the failure of poor
films is often precisely in exaggeration, and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies.”
He also took issue with Zimmerman reducing the story to a series of fights, “He has cut the parts of the story upon which its characteristic and peculiar tone principally depends, showing a preference for fights; and he has made no serious attempt to represent the heart of the tale adequately: the journey of the Ringbearers.”
Tolkien went on to claim that Zimmerman murdered the story writing, “The last and most important pan of this has, and it is not too strong a word, simply been murdered.”
One of Tolkien’s criticism of the treatment was also the contraction of time, something Amazon Studios is doing in their show.
Showrunner JD Payne explained the decision to contract the timeline in The Rings of Power, “If you are true to the exact letter of the law, you are going to be telling a story in which your human characters are dying off every season because you’re jumping 200 years in time, and then you’re not meeting really big, important canon characters until season four.”
“Look, there might be some fans who want us to do a documentary of Middle-earth, but we’re going to tell one story that unites all these things,” he added.
Tolkien criticized the contraction of time in the treatment writing, “Here I may say that I fail to see why the time-scheme should be deliberately contracted. It is already rather packed in the original, the main action occurring between Sept. 22 and March 25 of the following year.”
“The many impossibilities and absurdities which further hurrying produces might, I suppose, be unobserved by an uncritical viewer; but I do not see why they should be unnecessarily introduced. Time must naturally be left vaguer in a picture than in a book; but I cannot see why definite time-statements, contrary to the book and to probability, should be made,” he added.
While discussing the use of Lembas in the script, Tolkien expresses that he would resent perversions of his characters, “I do earnestly hope that in the assignment of actual speeches to the characters they will be represented as I have presented them: in style and sentiment. I should resent perversion of the characters (and do resent it, so far as it appears in this sketch) even more than the spoiling of the plot and scenery.”
The Rings of Power has made it clear they do intend to pervert Tolkien’s characters. In a puff piece to promote the show for Vanity Fair, Prime Video revealed they are radically altering Galadriel’s role as well as her personality. She is described as the commander of the Northern Armies as well as being “angry and brash as she is clever.”
The justification for this new personality as opposed to the one in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Silmarillion is that she’s “thousands of years younger.”
The problem with that is that Galadriel was actually born before the First Age, so by the time The Rings of Power is to take place, the Second Age, she has lives of experience in comparison to humans.
Tolkien also appeared to be a stickler when it came to details. For example, he criticized the way the treatment depicted the staircase leading to Orthanc, the tower controlled by Saruman the White.
He wrote, “The spiral staircase ‘weaving’ round the Tower [Orthanc] comes from Z’s fancy not my tale. I prefer the latter. The tower was 500 feet high. There was a flight of 27 steps leading to the great door; above which was a window and a balcony.”
On the other hand, Tolkien was also in favor of completely cutting out portions of the book that did not align with his writings. While discussing the Defense of the Hornburg, he noted he was in favor of cutting out the entire battle in favor of the Ents.
He explained, “I am afraid that I do not find the glimpse of the ‘defence of the Hornburg’ – this would be a better title, since Helm’s Deep, the ravine behind, is not shown – entirely satisfactory. It would, I guess, be a fairly meaningless scene in a picture, stuck in in this way.”
“Actually I myself should be inclined to cut it right out, if it cannot be made more coherent and a more significant part of the story,” Tolkien boldly declared.
He further elaborated, “If both the Ents and the Hornburg cannot be treated at sufficient length to make sense, then one should go.”
Tolkien explained his choice, “It should be the Hornburg, which is incidental to the main story; and there would be this additional gain that we are going to have a big battle (of which as much should be made as possible), but battles tend to be too similar: the big one would gain by having no competitor.”
Tolkien’s arguably largest criticism comes at the end of the letter. He writes, “Pan III…. is totally unacceptable to me, as a whole and in detail. If it is meant as notes only for a section of something like the pictorial length of I and II, then in the filling out it must be brought into relation with the book, and its gross alterations of that corrected.”
“If it is meant to represent only a kind of short finale, then all I can say is : The Lord of the Rings cannot be garbled like that,” he concluded.
What do you make of Tolkien’s criticism of this film treatment for The Lord of the Rings? How do you think he would react to what Amazon is doing in The Rings of Power?