The Hobbit is all wrapped up, but for Tolkien fans looking ahead, prospects are not good.
If you have even a mild interest in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogies, you will have heard mention of a mysterious book called The Silmarillion. Mostly, these conversations revolve around the possibility of a film adaptation of this book. Unfortunately, it isn’t looking good.
The Silmarillion was published in 1977 after the death of J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien’s son, Christopher (take note – we’ll come back to him), compiled, edited and, in some cases, filled in the gaps in his father’s writing in order to publish the work posthumously.
Unlike The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion does not follow a linear narrative structure. Rather, the book forms a sort-of history book for Tolkien aficionados. Through five separate sections comprised of many smaller stories, the book gives interested readers the history of Tolkien’s world, prior to where The Hobbit began.
As such, The Silmarillion does not offer a single cohesive narrative, and is not an easy candidate for film adaptation.
But that doesn’t mean the man who has built a career on Middle Earth adaptations is not interested. At a press conference earlier this month, director Peter Jackson answered the burning The Silmarillion question.
“It’s a legal thing. The Tolkien estate owns the writings of Professor Tolkien – The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were sold by Professor Tolkien [in] the late 60s … the film rights,” said Jackson. “But they are the only two works of his that been sold. So without the cooperation of the Tolkien estate there can’t be more films.”
Interestingly, Jackson’s only hesitation appears to be the legal details, rather than a lack of interest. If recent hints from The Hobbit cast are anything to go by, he may have been mentioning this interest to his Middle Earth companions. One such cast member is Ian McKellen who hinted, “I’ll never say it’s the end of anything,” at The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies London premiere.
But why doesn’t the Tolkien Estate simply sell the film rights to The Silmarillion, especially considering the huge financial success of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films?
To answer that, we come back to Christopher Tolkien. Remember, he was the one who edited and published The Silmarillion following his father’s death. Tolkien Jr. is two things that are critical in this debate: he is the sole literary executor of the Tolkien Estate (meaning it is his decision whether to sell the film rights to the works the Tolkien Estate owns the copyrights of), and he is possibly the world’s biggest opponent of Jacksons’s Tolkien films.
In 2013, Tolkien said of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, “They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25, and it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film.” As for his method of dealing with this disappointment? “There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away.”
This was not the first time the Tolkien Estate and Jackson’s films had come into conflict. In 2008 (back when Guillermo del Toro was still attached to direct), the Estate blocked production on The Hobbit films. It sued New Line Cinema for a reported $220m, claiming that the company had failed to pay the Estate royalties on The Lord of the Rings films. Only after a settlement was reached could The Hobbit films go ahead.
They were back at it again in 2012 when the Estate sued Warner Bros. and New Line, claiming that the studio was in violation of their merchandising agreement by creating an online casino game. The studio was quick to countersue, with claims the Estate had cost the studio millions of dollars.
In 2012, Peter Jackson said of The Lord of the Rings, “I don’t think the Tolkien Estate liked those films.” He is well aware of Christopher Tolkien’s opinions, no doubt because the studio must have approached the Estate to request the rights. With such a huge franchise on their hands, they would have been foolish not to.
Given Christopher Tolkien’s strong opinions on the treatment of his father’s books, it is unlikely that he would let Jackson try his hand at The Silmarillion – especially given his own involvement in posthumously publishing it.
This stalemate will disappoint many Tolkien fans, especially those who (understandably) hold up The Silmarillion as the best of Tolkien’s writing. The book is certainly a masterclass in world building, and it allowed Tolkien to develop a detailed, unrivalled mythology. Warner Bros. would be understandably eager to get their hands on the rights because, due to the unique structure of the book, they could certainly make more than one film out of it.
For now, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies looks like it will be the last Middle Earth film for a long time – or at the very least, Peter Jackson’s last. Christopher Tolkien’s issue seems to be specifically with Jackson’s treatment of the source material, so who knows – perhaps if the studio offered up a different direction, he would consider it.
That said, we can’t imagine Warner Bros. hasn’t offered the Estate such an arrangement, and Christopher Tolkien appears to be standing firm. While he remains the sole executor, there is nothing Peter Jackson or Warner Bros. can do.