The Reading Room

An Overweening Purpose: Tolkien on Adapting Middle-Earth

Much can and has already been said regarding Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: the Rings of Power’s merits and flaws, both in the show’s relation to Tolkien’s universally acclaimed world The Tolkien Societybuilding and established lore, and in its quality as a story in its own right. I would like to focus, therefore, not on dissecting the show, but on a theme which I have returned to again and again in my reviews: the theme of adaptation.
Tolkien wrote in one of his letters that as a young man just beginning to create his Legendarium, he had dreamed of creating a vast “body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story…I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama” (Letters 131).
He immediately refers to this whole notion as “absurd”, but his tone and the following line, calling the whole thing an “overweening purpose” (131) show it is not so much the idea of sharing his world with others that is absurd, but the very idea that he as an author could create such a vast and attractive world that other artists would want to contribute to it. The absurdity for Tolkien lay not in the concept but in the hubris and ambition of the young man who had conceived it. There is, then, for Tolkien, certainly room for his materials to be treated by other artists (poets, musicians, etc.) and therefore for adaptations of his work. The point of contention among Tolkien fans should not thus be about whether his works can be adopted at all, but whether they can be adopted rightly.
As Tolkien makes clear in a later letter, poor adaptations of his works, wherein the adapter attempts to supersede the original author’s work to impose his own grand poetic vision, are simply unacceptable. In response to a script for a potential film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien writes “I would ask [the script writers] to make an effort of imagination sufficient to understand the irritation (and on occasion the resentment) of an author, who finds, increasingly as he proceeds, his work treated as it would seem carelessly in general, in places recklessly, and with no evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about” (Letter 210). It is not simply that the script writers are making changes to what he wrote that irks him, although that is perhaps part of it. What really bothers Tolkien here is that all the changes they make are not for the better or for the sake of adapting the story, but are merely unnecessary addendums. He goes on in great detail to cite many examples of this in the script, such as a constant use of cheap narrative ‘machines’ like the Eagles, an indulgence in Victorian pixie-fairy imagery completely inappropriate to his world and tone, a condensing of time to a ridiculous degree, and the unwarranted use of spectacle in adding extra fight scenes, magical incantations, and the like (210). 
Though many may take these as simply the complaints of a curmudgeon of an author who has grown possessive of his work, there is an additional, remarkable element to this letter: he constantly suggests alternative methods of changing the story to make it appropriate for the screen. He proposes cutting out entire sections of the story (such as Tom Bombadil, the battle of Helm’s Deep, the Scourging of the Shire, and much of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli’s “heroic adventures”) for the sake of the film’s plot, rather than have the narrative be actually changed or “garbled” or the focus shift away from the “heart of the tale: the journey of the Ringbearers” (Ibid).
These are not the actions of a man possessive of his art who expects the film to be a word-for-word adaptation of what he wrote. They are the criticisms of one artist who, though he recognizes the difficulty in adaptation, yet expects a higher level of faithfulness and artistic quality than he was being offered. For “the canons of narrative art in any medium cannot be wholly different; and the failure of poor films is often precisely in exaggeration, and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter” (Ibid).
Adaptation, then, is permissible, even desirable, for Tolkien, but it must truly understand and faithfully represent the material which it is adapting, and it must do so as best it can with the tools and strictures necessary to its particular form of art. Whether or not Amazon’s show has met these criteria I leave to others to judge.