Well: With the appearance of the Extended Edition of Return of the King, the Jackson Trilogy is complete in its fullest form. Now what? Is the "Lord of the Rings" franchise dead? Or will the silver screen become a window into Tolkien's universe in future films as well?
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.
On the other hand, Hollywood directors would probably be all too happy to bring back Saurie Boy for "The Lord of the Rings Episode IV: Mordor Strikes Back". So let us all be glad that as things appear now, Hollywood just doesn't have the right to do this. Frodo and Sam worked really, really hard to destroy the Ring and take out Sauron, so we mustn't cheapen Sauron's demise in any way. Jason, Freddie and Frankenstein's monster will always be back for another movie no matter how thoroughly they were killed in the previous installment -- but Sauron is for all intents and purposes DEAD! True, Tolkien did suggest that a shrunken residue of Sauron's spirit remained even after the destruction of the Ring, but then he also implied that it was so maimed and reduced that it could never return to haunt the world yet again. In other words: useless for sequel purposes. Sauron is GONE, folks! Deal with it!
No. If we don't want to insult Tolkien's memory completely, there cannot ever be any sequels to the Jackson movies. But there is another option, namely the by now well-established genre of the prequel -- a story set before the LotR saga, with Sauron still around and all. Any reader of Tolkien's books will know that the War of the Ring is just the final climax of a long, long history, stretching into a past almost unimaginably remote. The compelling sense of history is often cited as one of the chief qualities of LotR the Book, and while this quality could not be fully represented in the movies, it is far from absent either: Jackson does show us glimpses of the vast battles of the past, and we are taken through a landscape full of strange ruins.
To some, the obvious "prequel movie" is a Hobbit film. Set about sixty years before the Jackson Trilogy, we would follow a younger version of Bilbo on an adventure, where Gandalf would also participate (I understand Ian McKellen is amenable to such a project). Bilbo would encounter Gollum and find the Ring; later there would be a tremendous fight against the dragon Smaug. I guess I would like to watch such a movie, especially if Ian Holm could return as Bilbo. However, The Hobbit is what Tolkien intended it to be: a children's book. The story only hints at the deeper and darker themes in Tolkien's authorship. Sauron is briefly mentioned as "the Necromancer", and we learn that Gandalf (when he returns after a long absence from the main story) has been involved in some kind of fight with this "Necromancer" guy. An audience knowing that the final outcome of the conflict with Sauron will decide the destiny of the world could well cry out in outrage: "So why didn't you show us THAT instead of following the 'adventures' of a %&#& fat Hobbit who doesn't even understand the importance of the ring he stumbled upon?!" The story of The Hobbit might appear somewhat simplistic after the world-changing events recorded in the LotR saga.
But, if a LotR Prequel is ever to be made, there is another option than The Hobbit (not that one excludes the other...long live the franchise!) For many reasons it would require far greater courage on the part on whatever studio that dared to produce it. Yet the end result, if well done, could be one of the most heart-wrenching epics ever brought to the silver screen.This other option is to dive far deeper into the past of Tolkien's world, and record the events leading up to the huge battle we glimpse at the beginning of Jackson's Fellowship -- when the Last Alliance of Elves and Men marched on Mordor, and Isildur managed to cut the Ring from Sauron's hand. For as readers of Tolkien's books know, ignorant moviegoers still do not have the faintest idea of the drama and tragedy and unspeakable loss that went before this: In effect, an entire civilization had to be destroyed to buy the Last Alliance the tiny window of opportunity where Sauron was so weak that he could be conquered even though he still wielded the Ring of Power!
Of course, the audience would have to get used to a rather different setting. For one thing, most of the movie would not even be set in Middle-earth (though that is where the surviving characters end up). The story of this movie would be the catastrophic climax of the history of Westernesse, the great island kingdom in the western ocean -- a realm also known by the Elvish name of Númenor. Ignoring Sauron, no LotR character would also appear in a Westernesse movie, except for Elrond if we end the movie with the battle of the Last Alliance against the hordes of Mordor (and this is the end we definitely should have – or the average audience would be quite unable to figure out how this movie relates to the Jackson trilogy!)
There are no hobbits; this would be a movie about Aragorn's ancestors, and the protagonists are Mortal Men (except for Sauron, of course, but even he would appear in a humanoid shape in most of this movie). The Hobbits entered the scene in a far later historical period, and there is simply no way they could be included here. (I shudder at the thought of some Hollywood director trying to insert them because "we gotta have Hobbits in this franchise!" – they just don't have anything to do in this story!) We would meet some Orcs and other monsters of Sauron in the scenes from Middle-earth, there could be some flash-back scenes to earlier times where dragons are glimpsed, and maybe even some hapless cave trolls would be imported to Númenor as slave labor (notice how Sauron uses them to open and close the Black Gate, according to Mr. Jackson!) But when all is said and done, this would not primarily be a story about fantastic creatures. Rather the main part of the movie would be a psychological drama.
As for the Elves, even they would be absent from the screen for much of the time. I believe, however, that there is a way of providing this movie with a "Legolas" character and keep him onscreen for a reasonable amount of time. The character I would use is Tolkienian enough. Though Tolkien never mentioned him in connection with the Westernesse story, his presence in Middle-earth at this time, and the role he could be assigned in the events, is (I hope) relatively plausible within the framework of Tolkien's general scenario.
The audience would also have to get used to the idea that the plot of this movie is quite different from the LotR story. I think this is a good thing, since we have seen far too many prequels/sequels that mechanically rehash the plot of the earlier movies. (Surely I can't be the only one to have noticed that the principal sections of Home Alone II reproduce the original movie almost scene by scene? Sheesh...) This time, we would not insult the audience with any recycled plot. Indeed this would not be a "quest" movie at all.
But neither would it be a romantic movie. There can be no prominent romance; quite on the contrary, one of the protagonists would be a young woman forced to marry a man she doesn't love at all. Possibly we could develop a minor subplot having to do a girlfriend of Isildur's, who eventually becomes his wife and the mother of his children (since it is important to establish that Isildur had children: the beginning of the bloodline that leads to Aragorn thousands of years later). But this would have little to do with the plot proper.
All right: Few fantastic creatures. No hobbits. Few elves. Mostly only Men onscreen. No quest. No prominent romance. Not even Middle-earth itself, for most of the movie. So what do we have left, really?
We have a whole lot. The potential of the story is immense. If well done, a Westernesse movie would not only tell a complete and absorbing tale in itself, but also add a completely new dimension of depth to the Jackson trilogy. You could watch Westernesse and then watch the Jackson trilogy again in a quite new light, with a much deeper understanding of What It Is All About. Consider some of the questions the Jackson movies do NOT answer:
All of these questions would be answered in a movie adaptation of the story of Númenor. It would demonstrate that certain things which some reviewers believe to be quite mysterious, are not really loose ends after all. For instance, I read a review by one Sam Leith who wrote: "Tolkien tends to mystify, to leave irreducible the origins of Sauron's evil, and mysterious the nature and purpose of the place beyond the Grey Havens, to which Frodo finally travels to rest." Likewise, one reviewer at Imdb complains: "No one ever explains WHY Sauron is evil. He's just this eyeball floating on a rook... [The Elves are] running away to the mythical land across the sea (totally unexplained and pulled out of a hat like we are supposed to somehow understand)".
As these reviewers evidently do not know, issues like the question of Sauron's origins and the nature of the "place beyond the Grey Havens" are dealt with in Tolkien's writings. A Westernesse movie would be the right place to present this information. It would reveal more of Tolkien's vast legendarium, as well as its complex interconnected consistency, to people who just can't be bothered to read the books. And even those who have read the books should be able to appreciate such a movie, for the more one meditates on this story, the clearer it becomes that Tolkien never realized its full potential. His attempted novels and longer stories set in the realm of Númenor proved abortive. The more complete accounts of the Downfall of Westernesse are told in Tolkien's "Ancient Legend" format, not fleshed out in full novel length. Maybe Tolkien felt it was too grim, and the horrors involved too terrible, for him to relate them in graphic detail.
This would indeed be one of the greatest challenges facing a person trying to flesh out this story for cinematic purposes: On the one hand one has to be relatively explicit about how low the Númenoreans really sank when they let themselves be seduced by Sauron -- or the final outcome will make no sense. This inevitably means that the second half of a Westernesse movie would have an atmosphere best described as "The Omen meets Schindler's List", darker than even the darkest portions of the Jackson trilogy. On the other hand, if one has even the least respect for what Tolkien stood for, no moviemaker purporting to present one of his stories should wallow in grotesqueries. This would be a delicate balance; probably one would have to be relatively explicit in a very few scenes and leave the rest horribly understood (black smoke constantly rising from the Temple...!) There is no getting away from the fact that this would be a dark movie, as should be expected when Sauron is one of the main characters and not just a remote threat. As Tolkien himself wrote about the "older legends" (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien p. 333):
Nearly all are grim and tragic: a long account of the disasters that destroyed the beauty of the Ancient World, from the darkening of Valinor to the Downfall of Númenor and the flight of Elendil. And there are no hobbits. Nor does Gandalf appear.
One could well imagine that some reviewers, if they knew Tolkien's work primarily from the LotR and the Hobbit and were less acquainted with the darker themes of the Silmarillion, would reject as "un-Tolkienian" the grimmer mood that large parts of Westernesse movie would have.
Despite these problems, despite the absence of beloved characters, despite even Tolkien's own apparent reluctance to flesh out this story in full detail, I do think it would be worth trying to realize its potential as a full-length movie. Indeed the central theme of LotR, as identified by Tolkien himself, is much more explicitly present in the story of Westernesse than in the LotR itself! So what is the real theme of the LotR saga? Tolkien-linguists like myself are fond of the quotes where Tolkien says he had to develop his stories to have a setting for his invented languages, but that is not the only answer he provided to this question. In The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, the author denies that the story is really about a war (or about fictitious languages, for that matter). The war and the Quest are incidental, giving the characters something to do. Well, what is the real theme, if it is not a war? Here is what Tolkien himself wrote (Letters, p. 246):
The real theme for me is about something much more permanent and difficult: Death and Immortality: the mystery of the love of the world in a race [Men] 'doomed' to leave and seemingly lose it; the anguish in the hearts of a race [Elves] 'doomed' not to leave it, until its whole evil-aroused story is complete.
I remember reading one LotR review on Imdb.com where a slightly confused reviewer asked: "So what is the deal with Elvish immortality, anyway?" We may add: "What is the deal with Mannish mortality?" So far, the immortality of the Elves and the mortality of Men have been presented to us as mere facts of life (and death!) in Middle-earth. Is there nothing more to say about this seeming injustice – that of the sibling races of Elves and Men, only the Elves have the gift of immortality? There is indeed more to say. In a Westernesse movie, both the main characters and the audience watching them would find themselves struggling with one of the deepest and most profound ideas of Tolkien's mythology: the notion, so hard to accept, that the mortality of Men is just as much a gift as the immortal life of the Elves.
Yes, this would have to be a rather more "deep" movie than the Jackson trilogy is, or a "Hobbit" movie could ever be. This time around, religion would be an important plot element; it could not be toned down or edited out. In the Jackson trilogy (as in the novel it is based on), there are only a few scattered references to the Valar, the angelic Guardians of the World. There is but one, extremely obscure, reference to Eru Himself, the Creator God who is ultimately behind everything: When Aragorn speaks to the Elvish company before the battle of Helm's Deep, telling them not to show mercy because they will receive none, he can be heard addressing them as Eruchín, Children of Eru -- God! But this unique reference to Eru is not even reflected in the subtitles.
In a Westernesse movie, we should have to deal with Tolkien's "theology" head on. The Valar and Eru Himself could not appear onscreen, of course. Yet the characters would have to relate to them, in compliance with their will or in ruinous rebellion, throughout the movie. And the disastrous climax, which would be of truly Biblical proportions, is the one moment in all the long ages covered by Tolkien's legendarium when Eru Himself directly intervenes in the history of the world He has created.
The Jackson trilogy is based on a 1000-page novel. The scriptwriters had the (often ungrateful) task of condensing, abbreviating and simplifying this story before it could be told even as three very long movies. Of course, much had to be cut, from Tom Bombadil to the Scouring of the Shire.
However, a scriptwriter trying to come up with a script for a Westernesse movie would be faced with exactly the opposite problem. We don't have a long novel to start from. Our task would not involve abbreviating and condensing anything; on the contrary, the story would have to be fleshed out from the basic narrative skeleton provided by the Professor. The principal source would be a text published in the same volume as the Silmarillion: The Akallabêth - The Downfall of Númenor. About forty pages in all, it summarizes the entire 3000-year history of the Númenorean civilization.
A Westernesse movie would be about the events in the very last generation, relating the story of the arrogant Usurper King, Ar-Pharazôn the Golden, who in his folly brought Sauron to Númenor. This corresponds to the last twenty-or-so pages of the Akallabêth. Though Tolkien elsewhere implied that the Akallabêth was written by Elendil, one of the few people to survive the Númenorean apocalypse, this supposed "first hand account" reads rather like an ancient legend. Not a single one of the characters emerges as a real personality. We never get to know Elendil and his son Isildur anything as well as we get to know their remote descendant Aragorn in the LotR. There is very little dialogue; only a handful of lines are provided.
The epic scale of the events would require a full three-hour movie to do some justice to the monumental theme: one cannot pack the end of an entire civilization into an hour and a half. But when Tolkien seemingly didn't provide enough material to fill three hours, what then? If such a movie could be produced after all, it is obvious that movie-goers who afterwards wanted to read "the novel it was based on" could well be let down to discover that Tolkien's original story reads like a mere synopsis of the movie they saw.
In some ways, the relationship between a Westernesse movie and the original Tolkien text would resemble the relationship between any Jesus movie (including Gibson's Passion of the Christ) and the original gospels. The basic story is the same, but obviously the script-writers had to add a wealth of narrative detail, in particular much new dialogue. Even quite conservative Christians seem willing to forgive this (at least in the case of Passion), but would Tolkien-purists forgive a script-writer who dared to flesh out the Akallabêth with a lot of details that Professor Tolkien never really thought of? And could the end-product still be thought of as Tolkienian, or would it be merely Tolkienesque, a species of fan fiction?
Facing these potential (and valid) criticisms, the script-writer fleshing out the story should as far as possible import the "flesh" from other parts of Tolkien's authorship. Luckily, Tolkien had far more to say about Númenor than the relatively brief Akallabêth account that is appended to the Silmarillion. In particular, much valuable background material on Númenor was published in Unfinished Tales (including a map). Here Christopher Tolkien also published one of his father's abortive novels set in Númenor (Aldarion and Erendis). This story takes place long before the time-frame a possible Westernesse movie would cover, but this material still helps us to appreciate the milieu and culture -- how Tolkien himself saw Númenorean society. Material from another abortive novel set in Númenor appeared in the book The Lost Road. Our hypothetical scriptwriter should consider all Tolkien had to say about Númenor, and salvage as much as possible into his script.
Of course, this material is not always internally consistent. In most respects one should adopt the published Akallabêth as the basic story, but still use details from other versions where possible. For instance: In the published Akallabêth, Ar-Pharazôn himself goes to Middle-earth and (as it seems) conquers Sauron, who surrenders to him and is brought back to Númenor. In an earlier version published in The Lost Road p. 66-67, Ar-Pharazôn merely summoned Sauron to Númenor, and the Dark Lord surprisingly complied, arriving there on a ship. This is clearly the weaker version of the story, and Tolkien himself abandoned it. But even so, a scriptwriter could well make use of Sauron's deceitful line when he first meets the Númenoreans: "Be glad, men of Númenor, for I shall take thy king to be my king, and the world shall be given into his hand!" In a Westernesse movie, Sauron would speak these words when he surrenders to the Númenoreans in Middle-earth, not after arriving in Númenor by his own means (the way Tolkien wrote it in the older version): We could salvage this Genuinely Tolkienian Line (GTL) anyway.
More GTLs could be imported from other parts of Tolkien's authorship, including the LotR itself. There is already precedence for this in the Jackson movies. Above we mentioned how one line of Elrond's from the LotR Appendices suddenly turns up in Galadriel's mouth in Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring (extended version). There are actually quite a few examples of lines being transferred from one character to another (Jackson's Treebeard even speaks some lines Tolkien attributed to Tom Bombadil, who is of course dropped from the movies altogether). When we are dealing with the prehistory of the Rings of Power, many of Gandalf's cinematically unused lines could very well be transferred to Amandil, Isildur's wise grandfather. There are many "unused" lines from LotR that are so good that somebody ought to say them in these movies, even if it is not the character Tolkien originally intended!
As for the story in general, there would be many allusions to the "past" as described in the Silmarillion proper. Thus we would maintain contact with Tolkien's original work throughout. Indeed, just as the Jackson trilogy begins with a flashback to the climaxing events of the Second Age when Sauron lost the Ring, a Westernesse movie would have to begin with some kind of synopsis of the Silmarillion, of course with focus on the elements that are most relevant for the story about to be told: Eru, the Valar and Morgoth; the origin of the races of Immortal Elves and Mortal Men; the voyage of Eärendil to the Blessed Realm of Valinor in the West, leading to the downfall of Morgoth; the Isle of Númenor that was raised from the sea as a reward to those Men who had fought alongside the Elves against Morgoth.
Later in the story, one could bring in elements from Of the Rings and Power and the Third Age, the last of the pieces appended to the Silmarillion. This is particularly relevant for the almost inevitable flashback to the middle part of the Second Age, when Sauron seduced the Elven-smith of Eregion and they made the Rings of Power.
We may briefly deal with another potential objection. In LotR the Book, and to a lesser extent LotR the Movie, Númenor is part of the remote back-story which Tolkien (/Jackson) uses to give depth and resonance to his tale. This is also true of the references to the even deeper past, the First Age, as when there are several allusions to the story of Beren and Lúthien. Tolkien noted (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien p. 333):
Part of the attraction of The L[ord of the] R[ings] is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed.
If a Westernesse movie were ever produced, we would indeed "go there", delve into the remote past ultimately leading up to the events detailed in the LotR trilogy. We would go to Númenor, so far an "unvisited island" as far as movie audiences are concerned. We would see the golden, gleaming towers of Armenelos, fairest of cities. Would we thereby "destroy the magic"? As noted above, I think the audience would actually appreciate a movie providing information about all the things that are not really explained in the Jackson trilogy. But we should probably make sure that "new unattainable vistas" are indeed revealed. There would be allusions, deliberately not fully explained, to the older world: Fëanor and the rebellion of the Noldor, the first wars against Morgoth the Dark Enemy of the World, the hidden city of Gondolin and the lost realm of Doriath; there would be Beren and Lúthien yet again.
Unattainable vistas indeed: There are those who would like to see the Silmarillion made into a series of movies, but I am not sure this is a good idea. In the case of these tales, the "remote" style is probably an integral part of their quality; they are intentionally written to give the impression that they are legends handed down through many centuries. A movie version would obliterate this quality, since a movie would transport us back in time to relive the events "as they happen"; the legendary format is lost.
Also, there are many elements in the Silmarillion that are difficult to really visualize; things happen in a kind of mythical reality that works well enough in the literary format, but an attempted movie version would easily appear weird or even silly (Huan the Talking Dog, anyone?) But the story of Númenor is different. In my opinion, it could be fleshed out to full narrative length with a good result, if it was done with thought and care and with due consideration of Tolkien's authorship as a whole. (Not that a movie-maker would need to have a totally "fundamentalist" approach; in certain trivial matters we can well afford slight deviations from Tolkien's original work, all the more so when he himself experimented with different ideas and much of the material is not really "canonical" -- it was published only posthumously. There would not, however, be any need for changes even nearly as drastic as the revisionism sometimes displayed by Jackson.)
All right. This is getting too wordy. Time to get down to business.
I will, God help me, attempt to demonstrate what a possible Westernesse movie could be like. I have written out a kind of "treatment" for large parts of such a movie, taking the story to the brink of the Apocalypse. (I do intend to complete the treatment some day, dealing also with the climax/resolution that is still missing here, but I can't promise when this will be ready.) What follows is absolutely not intended as an independent "retelling" of Tolkien's story, though I will try to indicate how an actual (cinematic) retelling might conceivably be structured -- given the possibilities and restraints of the movie format, and the nature of the Tolkienian sources.
The reader should most definitely not expect any elegant narrative flow (that must rather be sought in Tolkien's original work). This is strictly speaking not a "narrative" at all, but rather the results of many brainstorms and meditations on this material: a listing of possibilities that a script-writer could explore if the copyright holders would ever authorize a Westernesse movie project (I am not optimistic). The reader will often encounter qualifications like "maybe we could..." or "here Character X might perhaps...", which are probably quite annoying if one wants a flowing, fully realized expanded retelling of Tolkien's story. But this would likewise require the consent of the copyright holders, and therefore cannot be provided here. (A long Númenor novel could indeed have been a good read, but then we would invade the literary medium Tolkien himself used, and as far as I know, the copyright holders have never authorized any post-Tolkien writer to either write new stories set in Tolkien's world or to flesh out some of Tolkien's own legends as full-length novels.)
I shall often refer, not only to the Akallabêth as appended to the Silmarillion, but also to The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Unfinished Tales and certain volumes of the History of Middle-earth series (Christopher Tolkien's most comprehensive presentation of the writings his father left behind): The Lost Road, Sauron Defeated, Morgoth's Ring, The War of the Jewels and The Peoples of Middle-earth. Indeed part of my intention is to demonstrate that a determined script-writer could readily find much information about Númenor, and Tolkien's world in general, that is not included in the Akallabêth. Fleshing out the story may not be so difficult after all, if one takes into account all the fragments of information scattered throughout Tolkien's writings. To speak for myself, I sometimes have the feeling of piecing together a larger story that is somehow already there, even though Tolkien never tried to tell it as a full-length novel.Ideas for a Westernesse Movie: Part One
Ideas for a Westernesse Movie: Part Two
Ardalambion, my Tolkien-linguistic web-site (of which any movie stuff is not properly a part)