January 13, 2015

What's Next For The Middle-earth Franchise?

After a decade of seeing Peter Jackson's cinematic Middle-earth come to the silver screen it seems as if we've come to the end of the road.  But is it really?  Ever since December rumours have been swirling about a continuation of the Middle-earth Saga.  While these current rumours are probably all false (most of them have spread from people misquoting actors and crew) I can't imagine Warner Brothers will just leave their billion-dollar franchise alone for long.  So where could it all go from here?










Film is an art, yes, but it is also a business.  Producing movies is a very risky thing.  It costs an enormous amount of money to produce, distribute, and market a film and studios don't always get a return on their investment.  That's why we see so many sequels come out of Hollywood each year.  Sequels or films based on a pre-existing IPs have a better chance of succeeding at the box office than original productions.  Fans of the original movie, book, comics, etc. will help generate excitement well before the film hits theaters.  That positive buzz generated before a movie is released goes a long way to ensure a film's financial success.  With that in mind we can understand why studios are so intent on finding popular franchises, they guarantee at least moderate earnings at the box office in years to come (compared to entirely original films that have a much higher chance of "flopping").  Once the gold is found and a successful franchise begins studios will keep producing sequels or spin-offs until audiences get bored of the same material.  So where will Warner Brothers go with the Middle-earth franchise?  While the reception of The Hobbit films has been divided, they are still financially one of the most successful trilogies of all time.  As of January 12, 2015, the Hobbit films have earned over 2.759 billion dollars internationally.  That number will continue to rise as The Battle of the Five Armies finishes its domestic run and opens in China later this month.  While marketing for the last chapter has made it clear that this is the final journey to Middle-earth (#OneLastTime), part of me refuses to believe that one of Hollywood's biggest studios will just let the whole franchise drop.  Many fans are more than eager to see the story(ies) continue and a sequel would be nearly guaranteed high earnings, but there is one slight problem.  WB does not own the legal rights to any of Tolkien's other works.  They may only produce material based on The Lord of the Rings and/or The Hobbit.  However, there is plenty of material in those books that has not yet been committed to film and new adaptations aren't the studio's only cards either.  In the rest of this post I'm going to take a look at where the studios could go with the franchise in the near future and in the long-term.


The Soundtracks

One of my favorite aspects of these six Middle-earth films is undoubtedly the music.  Now, after seeing and hearing The Battle of the Five Armies, we finally have the complete picture and we can follow the journey each of these themes were sent on in AUJ and DOS and see more clearly where they go into LotR.  Hopefully in the near future we'll be able to see the Complete Recordings of The Lord of the Rings make a return as well as some of that music from The Hobbit that never ended up on the albums.  The Special Edition albums Water Tower Music has released the past 3 years are nearly complete, but there are still some passages that can only be heard in the films.  Perhaps, instead of releasing a whole new album, these bits of score could be included in "The Music of The Hobbit Films" book Doug Adams (author of The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films) has been teasing lately.

I would also love to see more live concerts given internationally of Howard Shore's work.  A concert arrangement of his Hobbit score would be a great companion to his LotR Symphony.  Many orchestras around the world have performed the entire soundtrack to a LotR film while the movie is projected above the stage.  Perhaps we could see more of these and even similar Hobbit concerts.    


Ultimate Extended Edition

Ultra Extended Edition, Super Extended Edition,  Extended Extended Edition, whatever.  For years it has been known that there were many, many scenes shot for LotR and the Hobbit that never made it into the final film (just watch some of the old trailers and see for yourself).  Peter Jackson made further references to such scenes (and the vaults in which the actual film is kept) during last year's San Diego Comic Con and openly entertained the idea of a super extended cut of sorts.  Fans have come to know each extended edition by heart and I'm afraid tampering with them again could tarnish their legacy in some way (remember when George Lucas messed with Star Wars?).  However, I would really enjoy a collection of these unused scenes as an additional chapter of the Appendices (the behind the scenes material).  Such a collection (along with a proper gag reel) could make an appearance on the inevitable 6-film box set.


Theme Park or Museum

This and the two items I mentioned above are probably the most likely thing we'll see in the next 5 years or so.  Peter Jackson has expressed his desire to build a Lord of the Rings museum numerous times, especially during this past year.  Many of the sets, props, and costumes from both trilogies have been stored in warehouses in Wellington, NZ for such a purpose.  Now that Peter Jackson has a bit of breathing room after finishing The Hobbit we may get to see that idea come to fruition.  In fact, rumours of a theme-park were first spread in early 2013 when the Saul Zaents Company (which owns Middle-earth Enterprises) registered a goods and services document with the US Patent Office outlining several uses for Middle-earth properties including theme parks (see picture below).  Further rumours speculated that it would be attached to Universal Studios in Florida which seemed to bode well with fans considering how well the Harry Potter park has been received.  I love the idea of park/museum (sign me up for the barrel ride!), but I hope the studio would put a lot of effort into making it feel authentic, not cheap and "plasticy" like many other parks.  The world of Middle-earth is one of the most alluring aspects of the stories and if small parts of that were authentically recreated from the films then it could be incredibly successful.

Click to enlarge

Spin-off Film(s) or TV Series

There is a treasure hoard of material in the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings still left untouched after Peter Jackson's hexology. To take some of that material and turn it into a film would be neat, but the studio would risk alienating even more of the fanbase since actual narrative, character arcs, and dialog is absent or only faintly hinted at in those notes. Such an endeavor could only truly be labelled "inspired by Tolkien" and would only be able to succeed if the project won the approval of most fans. That's why a lower-budget TV series might be less risky that a multi-million dollar feature-length film.

Out of all the material in the Appendices below are the four main elements I think are best suited for potential spin-offs.

  • The Dunedain - The Rangers of the North could provide a great starting point for a writer set to the task of expounding upon Tolkien and Peter Jackson's world. As a group of fans did with a film titled "Born of Hope", the movie or series could document the struggle of Aragorn's parents or ancestors in the wild while building up to the time when the future king becomes an adult or continue with Strider to the point where he meets the Hobbits in Bree.
  • The Realm of Angmar - A movie or show concerned with the realm of Angmar in the North has potential. Perhaps this show/movie could follow the line of Isildur, allowing audiences a glimpse into the Kingdom of Arnor, its rise and division, and lead into a project about the Dunedain.
  • The War of the Ring - During the siege of Minas Tirith in RotK Sauron also launched offensives against Lorien, Mirkwood, Dale, and Erebor. There isn't exactly a pre-existing single narrative arc in Tolkien's notes suitable for film or TV to go with these battles, but it would include locals and characters already established in the LotR and The Hobbit films. The challenge would be to make a story out of them.
  • Elendil and the Fall of Numenor - One of the longer passages in the Appendices deals with the fall of a great Kingdom of the Second Age, Numenor. It's essentially a condensed version of the Akallabeth (one of the final sections or parts of The Silmarillion). A film or short TV series centered around Elendil and his two sons, Isildur and Anarion, during the fall of Numenor and the establishment of Gondor could work really well. The dramatic downfall of the Numenoreans is a tale often overlooked by Tolkien fans and it while it stands on its own it has plenty of potential for interesting connections to the LotR. (e.g. Seeing Sauron appear "fair" and corrupt the kingdom would be really interesting and provide great contrast to his tactics in RotK. The Rings of Power could be brought into play as well.)
Akallabeth: The Downfall of Numenor by Ted Nasmith

The Lord of the Rings and/or The Hobbit Remakes

Peter Jackson's version of Middle-earth is so ingrained in the culture I doubt this would happen anytime soon, if at all.  The Lord of the Rings films are still so popular and are still incredibly well-regarded I doubt a remake could live up to the original or be original.  I think PJ & Co. captured the tone and visual look of Middle-earth beautifully well; a similar remake would feel redundant.  A new LotR adaptation would have to be told in a very different format, perhaps as a TV series (a couple long episodes for each Book?).  A remake of The Hobbit though could be interesting.  I loved the trilogy Peter Jackson produced, but that was the story of The Hobbit set in and told in the style of The Lord of the Rings.  I'd love to see a film adaptation more true to the tone and spirit of the original 1937 children's novel.


The Silmarillion


This has been the main topic of discussion amongst fan circles.  The Silmarillion is Tolkien's last major work set in Middle-earth* and contains 24 densely packed chapters with enough material for several films and spin-offs.  However, this work is still owned by the Tolkien Estate, meaning Christopher Tolkien.  And, as anyone who's been in Tolkien circles will tell you, Christopher absolutely despises Peter Jackson's film adaptations.  There is no way in the world that he is selling those rights.  Not only that, but whoever makes an adaptation would have the Herculean task of appeasing the Silmarillion fans.  The fans who were actually able to make it through The Silmarillion and still care about it enough to be considered a "fan" are the most extreme Tolkien geeks (including me!) and many of the extreme Tolkien geeks are those considered "purists."  Even the idea of telling the stories of The Silmarillion cinematically immediately turns away many Sil. fans.  For a studio to produce a major film that many people never wanted to see get produced in the first place doesn't bode well for positive press.  However, the number of Silmarillion purist fans are quite small relatively speaking and if the book ever became available I don't think a studio wouldn't hesitate to try and capitalize on the opportunity.  The only question really is when will the rights become available?  Christopher certainly won't sell them, but he's getting quite up there in age and whoever controls the Tolkien Estate next may not be so inclined to hold fast to the rights.  After press from the Hobbit films dies down book sales will also steadily fall and when that happens the Estate might be more willing to negotiate a deal.  If not, the work will go into the public domain eventually (which could be a very long time if Christopher is counted as an author) and a studio would pick it up then.  Either way, The Silmarillion can't remain off the playing field forever.  Check out my following post detailing my thoughts on how I think The Silmarillion should be adapted:

http://musingsofatolkienist.blogspot.com/2015/01/how-should-silmarillion-be-filmed.html

*Well, The Children of Hurin could technically be given that title.     



Where do you think the Middle-earth franchise should go next?  Feel free to leave your thoughts and comments below!

8 comments:

  1. I think the Silmarillion would make a great series. I hope the the Estate comes to their senses, though I can understand why Christopher is so protective. The movies aren't perfect, but they do spark interest in the books and like you mentioned raise sales.

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    1. Thanks for the comment E.J.! Yes, The Silmarillion has a lot of potential, but it would have to be handled with care.

      As to the imperfections in the movies themselves, when I prevent myself from getting worked up over them I find those narrative deviations incredibly fascinating. Such (stark and subtle) contrasts to Tolkien's original works often leads to some great discussions. That's probably the greatest thing the movies have done, they've renewed a popular interest in Tolkien's stories and provided so many new ways to explore and unpack the complex world of Middle-earth. So, even if we don't see any new films for a while we still have a vast amount of material (movies and books) to research, discuss, and enjoy for years to come.

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  2. Inasmuch as the actors in The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings aren't getting any younger, bridge movies between the trilogies should be done soon. Nonwithstanding that, I think Second Age movies could be a hit; there could be a trilogy, the forging of the rings and first interference with Sauron by Numinor, the drowning of Numinor including the capture of and corruption of the island by Sauron (and I think he should be played by Nicolas Cage, or someone like-too many decades in a row of straight dead-serious Sauron may tax the audience), and, of course, the Last Alliance film.

    The First Age will be available one day, and lots of us may live to see that on film, under the premise of extension of lifespan in the Information Singularity. But even if the Silmarillion is not available sooner than later, cinematic advances in the next few decades may make a feasibility of high quality non-profit fan films, like Born of Hope but with massive inexpensive CGI. In fact, fan films of virtually anything will be possible in the next few decades. Perhaps Dragonriders of Pern, or Zelazney's Amber Chronicles.

    Of course, there is the tantilising possibility of First Age material available sooner than later, which would enable PJ put to rest the myth that cinematic treatment couldn't be fair to The Silmarillion. Here is are some inexpert sample scripts:
    The Flight of the Noldor script:
    https://plus.google.com/101482934528046770715/posts/fDRcpuQmcFz
    The Beren and Luthien script:
    https://plus.google.com/101482934528046770715/posts/XFYiG1SLaGX

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    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment Winston! Those sample scripts look quite good! I've only had time to read a bit of the first one, but I'm looking forward to reading the rest of it.

      As much as would love to see hours upon hours of more Middle-earth on the screen, I'm a little bit wary of taking notes from the Appendices and stretching that out into a major trilogy. I think it would involve way too much fan fiction. One film or a short miniseries could be a bit more reasonable I think. But yes, it would be neat to see someone else play Sauron as he appears as Annatar, Lord of Gifts. That would be really fascinating.

      And I really like your idea about fan-made films. With more and more options becoming available for amateur filmmakers we could see some really great Silmarillion movies made by fans for the fans. I'm not sure if it went anywhere, but a year or two ago there was actually a French group that was beginning pre-production on a fan-made film depicting the Fall of Gondolin. Hopefully we'll see more projects like that over the decades.

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  3. Storm over Gondolin was quashed by a letter from the Estate, I'm not sure what was the reason. The moving on of the Estate from Newline miffs in the next decade might see a letup in that sort of happening.

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    1. Ah, thanks for the info. I do hope the Estate loosens their grip a little and assumes more of an open stance towards fan projects.

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  4. A museum or amusement park would be awesome. I hope that they would be in the US.

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    1. ...and hopefully it will be on the East coast. ;-)

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