First things first — a belated happy Tolkien Day to everyone! Here's hoping that on this past January 3rd, you all raised your beverage of choice and toasted J.R.R. Tolkien's birthday. I certainly did, and while doing the toast, I couldn't help but think about the man, his legacy, and what projects based on his work are coming down the path.
The biggest by far is obviously Amazon's giant Tolkien-based show — they've said that it will take place before The Lord of the Rings, and that it is based on Tolkien's writing. Peter Jackson, the High King of all things cinematic Middle-earth, may or may not be involved. Supposedly the show is built to last five seasons, and will be one of the most expensive television shows ever produced — if not the most expensive.
I can definitely see Amazon's interest in bringing Tolkien to the small screen — Game of Thrones is a phenomenon on HBO, and has proved that a show set in a fully self-contained fantasy world (one with no connection to ours) can flourish if done with love and care. Game of Thrones is ending this year, however — winter has come, and soon it's gonna be gone. Though HBO is prepping spin-off shows, there will be a large void left in the world of big-budget television fantasy. When it comes to fully-established fantasy realms that are true marvels of world-building, only one writer tops George R.R. Martin, and of course, that writer is J.R.R. Tolkien.
I should be excited about Amazon's grand Tolkien venture, but I'm wary. It's a great thing that they aren't going to tell the Rings story again, because… there's no point. If they want to go pre-Rings, as they've said, there's little point in covering The Hobbit either — people were pretty harsh about three (excellent) Hobbit films, so I don't know if anyone is clamoring for five seasons of Laketown politics.
Where/when in Middle-earth do they set the show, then? There have been rumors of focusing it on a young Aragorn, and I don't hate the idea. Tolkien did fill out the broad details of what his early life was, so a show based on it could still be somewhat rooted in his work, as Amazon has promised. Still, The Young Aragorn Chronicles doesn't feel completely right, and it's also a smaller-scale story. If Amazon really wants to capture the attention of Tolkien and Thrones fans alike (and not step on the toes of Jackson's films, which would be bad), then there is one very logical time period for the show to take place.
It's time to cinematically venture into the First Age.
That does not mean conquering The Silmarillion, though there's a lot of story material in that tome that would be great to see. Christopher Tolkien recently completed a trilogy of "new" Middle-earth books based on a mountain of notes and unfinished drafts left behind by his father, and reading through these, it's clear that they contain all of the lore and legend that Amazon (and the fans) could ever want.
In The Children of Hurin, Beren and Luthien, and The Fall of Gondolin, the Son of Tolkien rearranges some tales from The Silmarillion and adds in a lot more detail. The Children of Hurin is my personal favorite of the three, as it is more of a straightforward story and less of an analysis of various story drafts. If you're curious about this book, the best way to experience it is the audiobook narrated by the late, great Christopher Lee. Lee was one of the biggest Tolkien fans to ever exist, and hearing him read the story for you is better than an all-expenses-paid trip to Rivendell.
The stories encompassing the War of the Ring (LOTR and The Hobbit) in the Third Age are built around hope in the face of all-consuming doom. There are (mostly) clear lines between heroes and villains, and both tales are based on a quest where good triumphs in the end. The Children of Hurin, and other tales of the First Age, are nothing like that. They do have an almost unbeatable villain (Melkor/Morgoth, Sauron's boss), and there are plenty of heroes... there is also a huge amount of betrayal, heartbreak, murder, and misery.
Though the elves in the Third Age play everything cool as could be, the elves of the First Age do not. Look no further than the character of Feanor, an elvish craftsman who created the Silmarils, god-like McGuffins that contain the light of the world. He is a raging egomaniac, he constantly makes bad decisions, and he almost leads his entire elvish family into ruin. His is one of the Noldor, a "high-born" elvish line, and at one point they participate in an event known as the "Kinslaying," where they murder a great number of their own brethren. Is this sounding Thrones-y yet?
If you think that Ned Stark had it bad, wait until you get a load of Hurin. He went up against Morgoth in an event called "The Battle of Unnumbered Tears," and even when it was clear that he was doomed, he bought time for King Turgon of Gondolin to escape back to his secret city by making a last stand with his brother, Huor. He fought off wave upon wave of orcs until their cleaved hands covered his body and his battle ax smoked black with blood, and all the while screamed the elvish phrase which means, "day will come again."
It takes the Lord of the Balrogs (one of the fiery death-devils that Gandalf faces in Moria) to bring Hurin down, and he is then tortured by Morgoth to give up the location of the hidden Gondolin. Hurin refuses, so he's forced him to sit in a stone chair and watch as Morgoth destroys the rest of his family and friends for twenty-eight years. He is finally released, but only after almost everyone he loved and cared about is dead.
The most notable of Hurin's children is Turin, whose epic story could easily fill at least two seasons. You also get the equally epic story of Beren and Luthien in this time period, a mortal man and an elf maiden who fall in love — Aragorn sings about them in The Lord of the Rings (see below), because he understandably identifies. I'm throwing no shade to Arwen here, but Luthien is one of the best female characters Tolkien ever created — she faces off with Morgoth personally after that smug POS captured all three Silmarils and put them in his foul iron crown. Luthien Tinuviel and Beren One-Hand are two more reasons to go to the First Age.
Do you want battles on the scale of Thrones' Battle of the Bastards? I've already mentioned The Battle of Unnumbered Tears, but that's not all there is — the First Age has battles that make the Siege of Gondor look cute. The fair city of Gondolin that I've already mentioned gets sacked, just in case the title The Fall of Gondolin didn't already clue you in. It is devastating, brutal, and insanely fantastical.
Just because these events happen countless years before the events of the LOTR films doesn't mean that they have to be separated completely — the Jackson/Philippa Boyens/Fran Walsh writing approach of making it an "alternate history" would be most welcome. Galadriel is the only character that would likely carry over (and then Elrond, if they go a bit further down the line), and it would be weird if she was played by anyone other than Cate Blanchett. Even the smallest detail could make an interesting connection — the sword of carried by King Turgon of Gondolin is none other than Glamdring the Foe Hammer, wielded by Gandalf in both The Hobbit and LOTR. If Turgon was featured and the sword looked the same, I wouldn't complain. Who am I kidding, I would shout with joy.
There are other non-Thrones paths the show could take too, if they really wanted to go off the deep end. The First Age stories heavily feature the Ainur, the "gods" of Middle-earth. They could appear, or potentially just be referred to. If they actually appeared, well, then things would get pretty surreal pretty fast. For all the talk about The Silmarillion being an unfilmable book (a truly unfilmable book), I could definitely see the very beginning (Eru's creation of the world through music) done as a cross between the first section of Fantasia and the history of the Deathly Hallows animated sequence from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1. Take some risks along with your elvish bloodbaths and make it stand out — people will pay attention.
There are so many grand, inspiring, and incredible tales contained in the First Age of Tolkien's world, and all of it comes before things get even worse with Numenor and the horrible deeds of men in the Second Age. (That, too, could easily provide several seasons.) These stories are so overlooked, and so very often dismissed as "not accessible." I don't think that's true — with great writers and excellent actors, these stories would sing like Peregrin Took in a bathtub.
With such a dragon's hoard of material, why stay focused on the corners of the story that we already know so well? First Age tales would be a risk, no question about it, so I understand the urge to play it safe. Still, all of that money is already on the table. Just go for it! Du Bekar!
We'll probably still end up with something like The Young Aragorn Chronicles, but my beacons are lit. My hope remains that Amazon might give the First Age a chance. It's just a fool's hope, but day could potentially come again.