Fancy a prequel? The best Tolkien movie idea I’ve ever read (so far)

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No, it’s not The Hobbit. This film, if it ever gets made, is about as child friendly as that horror film Yuuichi saw with Ms. Uguu.

But as far as epic proportions go this one will blow Peter Jackson’s puny trilogy clear out of the water.

About a couple of years ago, noted Tolkienian linguist Helge Fauskanger first published his ideas on what would be “THE OPTIMAL LotR PREQUEL MOVIE”. He began by explaining why sequels to the Jackson trilogy are out of the question.

Obviously there cannot be, or at least should not be, any sequels. This is simply because chronologically, the saga of the War of the Ring is the last part of Tolkien’s vast mythos. Tolkien did start writing a story that was to be set in Gondor after the death of King Elessar (Aragorn), but he didn’t even complete the first chapter. It wasn’t worth doing, he decided. And indeed a world drama like the LotR saga would be a tough act to follow. If the downfall of Sauron was really the decisive victory over Evil Incarnated, stories of the same epic Good-vs-Evil proportions could not be set after the LotR. Of course, we have seen many supposedly dead villains return in a sequel, complete with some suitably lame explanation of how they cheated their apparent death in the previous installment. But Tolkien would never insult his readers with some ridiculous “Sauron wasn’t really destroyed after all” scenario.

So is the LotR film franchise dead and buried? No – or at least, it doesn’t have to be. Prequels are, in Fauskanger’s words, now a “well-established genre” and there is enough pre-LotR material in J. R. R. Tolkien’s literary corpus to spawn a dozen other films (and perhaps some big-budget TV series to boot). The recent publication of The Children of Húrin – carefully stitched together by Tolkien’s son Christopher from his father’s original drafts – is a powerful hint of just how much ante-Third Age material remains hidden away in the Professor’s manuscripts. Indeed, such is the depth and intricacy of Tolkien’s vast legendarium that even the tiniest snippet should be enough to provide a firm foundation for an aspiring film maker. The question is which part of this untapped treasure would make the best LotR prequel.

The Hobbit is a clear candidate. (In fact, there have been whispers of a Jackson adaptation in the air for quite some time, but the project can’t seem to get off the ground; check the Wikipedia article for details.) It was published in Tolkien’s lifetime, well before the first volume of LotR even made it off the presses, and is therefore an undisputed part of the author’s canon (unlike posthumous publications such as The Silmarillion and The History of Middle-earth). It is a complete story, which means that anyone tasked with turning it into cinema fodder doesn’t have to do much thinking and speculating to hammer out a decent screenplay. It is directly linked to the LotR saga and, in a way, may even be considered a true part of it (in spite of its markedly different style). There’s also the added advantage of several key LotR characters taking centre stage here – most notably Bilbo and Gandalf – which further strengthens the perceived continuity between the two works and makes casting easier (bring in Ian Holm and Sir Ian McKellen to reprise their roles, but don’t forget to “youthen” them a bit; they’ll have aged quite considerably by the time the cameras start rolling). So yes, The Hobbit would make a natural prequel, and with the right treatment perhaps even a good one. But probably not the best one.

There are other candidates as well. There’s The Silmarillion of course, but there are many reasonable grounds for excluding it from the race; too many, in fact, for me to discuss them here. (Helge Fauskanger discusses a couple of them in his essay.) The Children of Húrin is another possibility. There are many LotR-compatible stories in the later volumes of The History of Middle-earth that can be fleshed out for the movies. Indeed, there are so many options that the problem here is a surfeit of choice, not a lack of it. Of course, I’m not suggesting that these choices are mutually exclusive; The Hobbit can fruitfully coexist with one or more other prequels. But which one should have priority over the rest? Extensive reading and painstaking analysis are required in order to single out the best possible candidate.

Fauskanger has done both, and the contents of his lengthy essay are a testament to his efforts. He makes a compelling case for one pre-LotR story in particular: the catastrophic downfall of Númenor, the greatest civilisation of Men that has ever existed on Middle-earth. In the introduction to his essay, Fauskanger sets out in detail the justifications for such a gargantuan undertaking and discusses the practicalities (as well as the many impracticalities) of the project.

Part I and Part II set out his “treatment” for the film; essentially, the story that forms the foundation of the proposed film. (There will be a Part III, but it’s been delayed for about a year or so now. I don’t blame the author though; from his guestbook messages it’s clear that he’s had a lot on his plate in the past months so I shall continue to wait patiently.) This section of the essay is a masterpiece of scholarly deduction, written with a creative flair that turns what might have been a boring treatise about a nonexistent film into a ripping yarn in its own right. Here, Fauskanger takes the Akallabêth (a rather sketchy account of Númenor’s downfall published as part of The Silmarillion) and fleshes it out with material from Tolkien’s seemingly limitless store of Middle-earth stories, many of which are completely unknown to casual fans of the Jackson trilogy.

The essay is very long, and as I wrote earlier it’s still incomplete, but it’s definitely worth the effort. Helge Fauskanger’s vision may never see the light of day (much less the light of a film projector), but after reading his magnificent treatment you may well find yourself dashing off angry e-mails to every studio executive in Hollywood asking why no-one’s taken notice of this grand idea.

(Incidentally, after reading the essay do come back and tell me about your casting choices. I’ve never really given the matter some thought, but many others have done so and it looks like an entertaining exercise; I’ll probably do a list or something after I ponder on it a bit.)

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