Oct. 20 marks the 60th anniversary of J.R.R. Tolkien's 'Return of the King,' the book that marked the end of the Lord of the Rings series. While Tolkien's Middle-earth saga has been the subject of six feature films since 2001, 'The Silmarillion' has yet to be touched by Hollywood. While it's inevitable that it will be, we're looking at why it shouldn't be.
It was often said that J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings was "unfilmable." The argument went that Tolkien's book trilogy was simply too dense, the scale too large, for it to ever be brought to film in any way.
As we all know, that turned out not to be the case. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy has not only gone on to become one of the most popular film franchises of all time, but it was critically well received as well, with The Return of the King taking home the Oscar for Best Picture in 2003. The success of Lord of the Rings paved the way for the more recent adaptation of Tolkien's The Hobbit.
Despite being a much shorter and more straightforward story than Lord of the Rings, transforming the adventures of Bilbo Baggins into a movie (or three of them) turned out to be more of a challenge than the original trilogy ever was. Jackson added and removed (but mostly added) additional characters and plot lines to the story to justify its newfound trilogy status, and the result was a story that felt thin, like butter scraped over too much bread.
While the Hobbit films weren't nearly as well received critically as the Lord of the Rings films, they made every bit as much money. Hollywood loves money, and they love established franchises because they make lots of it. With the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings brought to film, studio executives are no doubt looking at what other Tolkien stories they can adapt for the big screen.
The most obvious choice, of course, is The Silmarillion. It's the only major work from the father of fantasy literature that has yet to be translated into film, only because the Tolkien estate doesn't seem interesting in having the work chopped up for the big screen. But even if a movie studio did own the rights, there is a good reason for the book to never be adapted. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion truly is unfilmable.
Tolkien began work on what would become The Silmarillion long before he ever wrote about the adventures of Bilbo or Frodo, though the complete story would not be published until many years after his death. To call The Silmarillion a story, however, isn't entirely accurate. It is more a history, a collection of various mythological events and characters that doesn't so much tell a story itself as it does set up the boundaries within which Tolkien's other Middle-earth tales exist.
It's opening two sections, Ainulindalë and Valaquenta, tell how Middle-earth came to be and the gods that gave it shape, with the Valaquenta specifically going into great detail about each individual god.
From there the book takes on a more familiar form, as Tolkien introduces elves, men, dwarves and the mythic heroes who lead them. It tells of the Silmarils, gems of great power that glowed with the light of the Two Trees crafted by the gods to illuminate the world. It tells of Melkor, later known of Morgoth, a god twisted by evil who steals the Silmarils in his quest for world domination. It tells of the high-elf Faenor and his quest for revenge against Morgoth. And it tells of men, who as we all know, are so easily corrupted.
The Silmarillion is more like a text book than an adventure tale. These are not characters so much as they are archetypes and stereotypes, mythic figures who we only get to see from a distance. We never truly learn what is going on in their heads. We learn of Middle-earth's creation, of the mythical First Age and the wars that were waged during it, but it all reads as a historical supplement to the Lord of the Rings.
None of that—that The Silmarillion is more creation myth than story, that it lacks complete characters or even an overarching narrative—will stop Hollywood from adapting it. At this point it is inevitable. There is money to be made, so somebody is going to one day have the unenviable task of figuring out how to take J.R.R. Tolkien's least popular, least entertaining work and making it worth seeing in IMAX 3D for $14 a ticket.
There are similarities in The Silmarillion with The Lord of the Rings that could translate well to a film. Both involve precious, all-powerful jewelry that, once possessed, brings more sorrow than joy to the owner. Faenor and his son's tragic quest to reclaim the Silmarils, the atrocities they commit against their own kind and the wars they wage against Morgoth, could certainly be brought to the silver screen in stunning fashion. A more coherent story could without question be crafted from just this portion of the book. In the same fashion as the Hobbit films, characters from The Silmarillion could be given more depth, love interests could be added and side plots inserted.
But the version that appears on theater screens won't be The Silmarillion, not truly. It will be The Silmarillion Lite, a movie crafted for the sole purpose of mass consumption, meant to capitalize on the droves of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit lovers who are only vaguely aware of what The Silmarillion is. Robert Adams in his scathing review of the book for The New York Review of Books predicted more people would buy The Silmarillion than would actually read it, and he was right on point. It may have Tolkien's name on it (which is why we've all bought it), but it is nothing like the two rightfully more popular works set in Middle-earth.
The Silmarillion simply isn't meant for mass consumption. It's supplemental. It's extra. Tolkien's editors knew it way back in 1930 when they refused to publish it and told Tolkien to work on a true sequel to The Hobbit instead, and anybody who has ever tried to read it can see why. The Silmarillion has, and always will be, for the Middle-earth die-hards who are every bit as interested in how Tolkien crafted his fantasy universe as they are in the actual stories that take place there. While a movie could, and likely will, be made, it will be nothing like the original writings from which the film will draw its name. To read The Silmarillion and enjoy it is to appreciate Tolkien's near-limitless imagination and scope of vision. It is not his finest or most entertaining work, but it is his most fascinating.
Fascinating, however, doesn't sell movie tickets. So when you find yourself in a cushioned movie theater seat in 2020, preparing to return to Middle-earth for "one last time" once again, just know that what you're watching isn't The Silmarillion, it's the Cliff Notes version with a huge dose of CGI. It might be entertaining. It might even be good. But if it's entertaining, it's not truly The Silmarillion.