It's not hyperbolic to say that when J.R.R. Tolkien created The Hobbit as a story for his children, he didn’t just change his own life, but the lives of millions of future readers and devoted fans of his Middle-earth books.
Certainly, fantasy literature existed before The Hobbit's initial publication in 1937, with genre authors such as Lord Dunsany and James Cabell. But it was Tolkien’s Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, published in 1954-55, that “set the standard for fantasy literature as we now know it,” said Tolkien expert Esther Clinton, visiting assistant professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University.
“I think maybe we would have some kind of literature based on folklore without Tolkien, but it would be quite different than what we have now,” Clinton said.
Tolkien’s influence and inspiration extends far beyond the literary realm with, say, Game of Thrones and Harry Potter. It’s a major force in popular culture, including games (Dungeons & Dragons and World of Warcraft), music (Led Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore” and Rush’s “The Necromancer”) art (Brothers Hildebrandt), and even counter-culture (“Frodo Lives”).
Of course, there are Peter Jackson’s two wildly successful film trilogies, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, which combined to earn nearly $6 billion worldwide.
And that is likely just the beginning ...
In November, Amazon announced an agreement with Warner Bros. and Tolkien’s Estate for the rights to adapt The Lord of the Rings for its Prime streaming service for TV. As reported in the New York Times, “The multiseason adaptation will feature ‘new story lines preceding J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring,’ which is the first Rings book ... and also includes the opportunity to pursue spin-off series."
The announcement follows the August resignation of Christopher Tolkien, 93, from the Tolkien Estate, itself a month after Warner Bros., the parent company of New Line Cinema, the studio behind the Jackson films, settled an $80 million lawsuit with Tolkien Estate over the digital merchandising of products.
Christopher, J.R.R.'s third son, served as director of the Tolkien Estate after his father’s death in 1973, and posthumously edited and published his dad’s work including The Silmarillion in 1977. A college professor like his father, Christopher strongly resented and resisted the mass marketing of his Tolkien’s work, including Jackson’s films.
“Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time,” Christopher told French newspaper Le Monde in 2012, his only interview in decades. “The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away.”
But many devoted readers of Tolkien’s books — Clinton included — enjoyed Jackson’s films, particularly Lord of the Rings, and, if nothing else, appreciated the filmmaker for soliciting their opinions on casting and even what could be left out in the books-to-films adaptations.
“Was Christopher Tolkien too proprietary about his father’s work? I think so,” she said. “But I'm not sure how fair it is to be critical of his desire to keep adaptations of his father's writing true to the originals.”
But with Christopher no longer serving as Middle-earth's gatekeeper, the path forward for more adventures in Tolkien’s world is now open — if not open for business.
That’s not necessarily bad, as Clinton noted with the public domain life of Sherlock Holmes decades after the death of creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
“We have many silly or trivial representations of Holmes,” she said, “but in general people who tell stories in that universe try to maintain respect for the original.”
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