The Unfounded Fears of “The Next Game of Thrones”

If Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series is a little (or a lot) like Game of Thrones, we’re going to be okay.

A professional culture blogger would be writing about yesterdays’ Star Wars news. But I’m not a professional, so let’s talk about Lord of the Rings news from, uh, earlier.

In a since-deleted tweet, TheOneRing.net, one of the internet’s OG fan communities, interpreted the departure of Bryan Cogman (key creator on Game of Thrones) from Amazon Studios as an indication that “our worst fears” had been realized – that Cogman’s work was done, and the forthcoming Lord of the Rings project will, indeed, be Game of Thrones in Middle-Earth.

This comes not long after TheOneRing.net led the lament in reaction to the news that there would be “nudity” in the forthcoming series – again, a sure indication that we were going to get more G.R.R. than J.R.R. in Amazon’s adaptation of the legendarium.

This hand-wringing, and, if we’re being uncharitable, pearl-clutching (is that a sexist expression btw?), is misguided, and it reveals both an interesting wrinkle in the Tolkien fan community, a misunderstanding of the nature of adaptation, and a lack of appreciation for what it means to be “the next Game of Thrones.”

Almost all the details about the LOTR show have been met with positive reactions. It sounds like Amazon has hired the right people and approached Tolkien’s work with the right spirit. I’ve been pleased and intrigued, and I’m happy to see that the Tolkien fan community largely feels the same way. However, based on my highly-scientific anecdotal observations, the anxieties about the project being violent and sexy are coming not from Tolkien oldheads and book loyalists, but from fans of Peter Jackson’s films. There are millions of people who love the Jackson films more than the written works of Tolkien, and they are fiercely protective of the object of their fandom, which is why it is one of the most unassailable pieces of popular culture from this century. So, while book-readers are ready to pounce on little details about genealogies, etymologies, and cosmologies, fans of the films – the fans who make TheOneRing.net an internet icon – see the Amazon series as the legacy of Jackson – not Tolkien. Any offense given will be against the films – not the books.

This is another clear indication of how Lord of the Rings fandom is nuanced and complicated – as is the case for any massive fan community (Marvel, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Thrones, etc.). The relative lack of concern makes sense, because they (and I use “they” instead of “we” because, even though I’m primarily a book fan, because of my age I was a film fan first) have been here before. They’ve been through this with the Jackson films, and no matter how they felt about those films their love of Tolkien’s legendarium has lasted. Sure, it helps that those films were an excellent adaptation that did not sully the legendarium’s reputation, and actually helped to bring millions more people to the books, but they are also flawed, with some absolutely galling omissions and changes. The point stands – fans of the books have seen their beloved material adapted and come through on the other side.

But I don’t understand why the fans of the films are so fearful. For one, they have gone through this before with Jackson’s Hobbit films, which were…well, not even close to the quality of the first trilogy. But, again, through my highly-scientific anecdotal observation, it seems film fans have been happy to include the Hobbit films under their umbrella, even if they’re a clear second-best. So what are they worried about? The Amazon show couldn’t possibly be worse than the Hobbit films, could they? (For the record, I don’t mind the first one. The second is bad. The third is bad and I love it). If the Amazon series is offensive, it will probably be offensive in ways that are different from the Hobbit transgressions, but even so, it can’t on balance be enough to cause a cataclysmic event in the fandom à la the Star Wars sequel trilogy, right?

The film fan fears also ask questions of the nature of adaptation, because it suggests these fans see the Amazon as a successor to Jackson’s work. But…why? Peter Jackson isn’t directing. There are different writers, producers, and actors. John Howe and Tom Shippey (the gawd) are two of the only confirmed holdovers. There will be very, very few characters from the first two trilogies. This is an adaptation of Tolkien’s legendarium, not a sequel to the Jackson films. It’s even more separated from the Jackson films than the sequel Star Wars films are from George Lucas’ trilogies. But fans of the films appear to be treating it like a successor Jackson, and will likely judge it as such.

I’m not really mad about fans who care more about protecting the work of Jackson than the word of the Professor – in part because I appreciate the differences between the fandoms. But I am just a little annoyed by the insistence on making Game of Thrones the bogeyman, because it shows a startling lack of respect for the greatness of Thrones, as well as a misunderstanding of that particular adaptation as well as the Tolkien legendarium.

For starters, of all the people who worked on Game of Thrones, Bryan Cogman should be one of the last to be worried about. He wrote 11 of the 73 episodes, most notably A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, which was, amidst the dumpster fire that was Season 8, the one beacon of light, a stunning, absorbing love letter to the series’ characters. He understood the story and its characters, and he pulled together the hot mess Dave and Dan gave him into a beautiful episode of television. I trust that Cogman will have brought something valuable to Amazon in helping the showrunners build out characters we are only just barely acquainted with.

Martin wrote A Song of Ice and Fire in a way he believed would be unadaptable, and yet, the first five seasons of the series are remarkably faithful to the books. There is a ton left out, and much is changed, but the changes and omissions largely make sense (and, in some cases, are an improvement!), while preserving the spirit of the source material. Cogman was part of a team that understood how to adapt immense works of fantasy. And while the seams started to show when the series moved beyond the completed books, some of that storytelling was masterful, including the aforementioned Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, which is especially applicable to the LOTR show as this is going to be a largely heretofore untold story.

And as for the violence and sex, it must be said again: A Song of Ice and Fire is much more violent and sexual than the television series. Thrones could have been less violent and depicted less sex and nudity, but it wasn’t like the showrunners introduced something that wasn’t there. Being the next Game of Thrones does not necessitate excessive sex and violence. However…guys…Tolkien’s legendarium is really violent. While not lingering on the details in the way Martin and other authors do, Tolkien’s Arda is a violent world. Just go read about what happens to Celebrimbor (who definitely might be in the show!), Gelmir, and Finduilas. Oh, and sex? Yeah, there’s that too. Again, Tolkien doesn’t use graphic descriptions of sex acts, but it’s a part of the stories, as is nudity. So, like it or not, the inclusion of a lot of violence and at least a little sex is not some gross departure from the source content – especially when it’s a visual adaptation. Worth noting on nudity though – the nudity that is rumored to be included doesn’t necessarily have to be sexual. People are naked sometimes.

And, finally, the fears of Thrones‘ influence are bemusing because, well, the first six seasons of Game of Thrones are as good as anything that has ever been on television, and in many of the ways that one would hope the Amazon series will be excellent. Intricate storytelling, compelling themes, fascinating characters, enchanting magic and lore, thrilling action sequences, scary villains, palace intrigue, rousing speeches, immersive set design, beautiful musical scores…do I need to go on? These are all things that one would want – need – in an epic fantasy series like the one Amazon is producing. If the Second Age of Middle-Earth is depicted by Amazon as well as Westeros was by HBO, it will be a stunning work of television. If the LOTR series is a successor to Game of Thrones, then we’re going to get an all-time great work of fantasy entertainment, only there will be elves and all the other stuff we absolutely love about Tolkien.

In short, I would borrow my response to the fears of becoming “the next Game of Thrones” from the final words of that great philosopher Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny.

So, relax, everybody. I want this series to be good, and I want it to be a faithful adaptation. I really, really do. Even in the worst case scenario, we still have three life-changing films and some world-changing literature. Best case scenario, we get to watch the downfall of Númenor in all of its cinematic glory and we can get #MakeArpharazônGreatAgain trending on Twitter.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

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