The problems with making Lord of the Rings into a cinematic universe

The Lord of the Rings is one of the most successful movie trilogies ever made, but turning into a cinematic universe will be difficult because of its unique worldbuilding.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power /

Making sequels to a popular movie is nothing new, but in recent years Hollywood has really expanded and now tries to make everything into a cinematic universe that can provide a stream of new content, potentially for decades. As more franchises have received this treatment, it was only a matter of time before it happened to The Lord of the Rings, and that time has come with the announcement of new movies set in Middle-earth. One of them, The Hunt for Gollum, will be directed by and star Andy Serkis, who will reprise his role as Gollum from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy.

This might just be one franchise too far for Warner Bros. Discovery, who've set themselves up for a challenge few could overcome, because The Lord of the Rings isn't like other franchises. It can't be used in the same way, and history has shown that adapting any part of Middle-earth lore is always going to be difficult.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe really changed the way studios approached building franchises and creating sequels. Rather than just making a movie for a quick buck, they tried to build out an interconnected web of movies, linking every film together in a way no one in Hollywood had tried before. It worked for Marvel because they took the time to build everything upwards from a small base, expanding the story with each new entry and getting the fans invested. It's really a unique occurrence that no other studio has been able to replicate since, though not for lack of trying.

The problem is, The Lord of the Rings isn't Marvel. It isn't even Star Wars. The world created by author J.R.R. Tolkien is already fully formed, and in the early 2000s, its most important story was told when Peter Jackson made his epic movie trilogy with New Line Cinema. It's not easy to spring off of that. It's rather like starting the MCU with Infinity War and Endgame. The best story has been told, and as was shown with The Hobbit movies, anything that comes after will be a step down in terms of storytelling.

Andy Serkis
"The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies" Los Angeles Premiere - Arrivals / Jeffrey Mayer/GettyImages

How much Middle-earth is too much?

That's not the only problem. Unlike many other franchises, The Lord of the Rings has a complexity and subtlety we don't often see. When something happens in Middle-earth, it has far-reaching consequences. When a character walks past a ruin, it has history and significance. The "that would look cool" aspect doesn't exist here, so every action, no matter how small, has huge significance, and even a small change to the lore can upset the balance of the fictional universe.

Tolkien created Middle-earth as a vehicle for fictional languages like Sindarin and Quenya. He laid out a detailed history for these languges, and the people that speak them, before he started working on his stories. He spent decades after they were published filling in the gaps, and it can't be messed with without causing damage to every other part of the world.

Take the way that The Hobbit movie trilogy, which Jackson directed years after his Lord of the Rings movies bowed, ripped itself apart when it tried to insert a storyline involving Gandalf and Galadriel, keeping Azog the Defiler alive, and creating new characters like Tauriel. It didn't work, and fans soon turned away. Lovers of Middle-earth know a lot more of the lore than other fandoms, and that lore is very detailed.

Compare Middle-earth to a galaxy far, far away, and this becomes clear. Why are there so many plot holes in Star Wars? Because the world was built up by George Lucas as and when he needed it, with new stuff being added for the prequels, The Clone Wars, and most recently, for the sequels and Disney+ shows. All of this makes it a much shakier universe where you can't ask too many questions. Tolkien, on the other hand, agonized over worldbuilding, which is why it took him over a decade just to write one story.

This comprehensive nature of Middle-earth lore does have one downside. Most of the tales were created as histories, not stories, so they don't have a traditional narrative structure. They came from The Silmarillion, Tolkien's notes and unfinished drafts which were collected and edited by his son Christopher after his death to create a kind of encyclopedia for Middle-earth. Any adaptation would need to fill in these narrative gaps, and trying to replicate Tolkien's style is a tough ask for any writer.

Even if the creators of the new movies can overcome all of these problems, there's still one question that needs to be answered: How much Middle-earth content do fans want? The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power TV show is still ongoing at Prime Video, and later this year, the animated movie The War of the Rohirrim will be released. Will so many movies and shows dilute the experience of visiting Middle-earth? Will it make it into just another franchise that's constantly releasing new projects to the point where audiences get bored, as happened with Star Wars? Perhaps most importantly, what will it do to the legacy of Middle-earth? It's heartening to see that Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Andy Serkis — all of whom worked on the original trilogy — are returning, but as their work on The Hobbit trilogy showed, they can still make mistakes.

Hollywood won't ever stop making sequels or trying to turn even the smallest IPs into huge franchises, not as long as it remains a profitable to do so. But there are some things that just can't be treated like a cash cow. Studios need to be careful about which franchises they choose to mess with, and Middle-earth is one they need to be extra careful around.

Next. The Hunt for Gollum filmmakers explain why another Lord of the Rings movie is a good idea. The Hunt for Gollum filmmakers explain why another Lord of the Rings movie is a good idea. dark

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