Cover Photo: Ted Nasmith‘s “Tuor Reaches the Hidden City of Gondolin.” Nasmith is the official Tolkien illustrator. © Ted Nasmith, all rights reserved.
When the last installment of “The Hobbit,” Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s novel hit the theaters in December, fans of the Middle Earth movies turned their eyes toward the third most popular material from the Tolkien canon: “The Silmarillion.”
And for good reason. Though little known to the masses, “The Silmarillion” is considered by many Tolkien scholars as the father of high fantasy’s best work, easily topping “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.” If Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy however, is any indication of Silmarillion’s treatment in film, a movie adaptation could be a very bad idea indeed.
One reason is the book’s complexity. Tolkien’s son, Christopher, in the foreword of the 2001 Houghton Mifflin edition, described the book as “a large narrative structure” that became “so complex, so pervasive, and many layered that a final and definitive version seemed unattainable.”
Jackson, therefore, cannot simply split the “Silmarillion” into sections, a technique that somewhat worked with “The Hobbit” because there was a clear set of protagonists (i.e. Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf and the dwarves of Erebor) and a clear goal: reclaim the Lonely Mountain. All around these elements are a scattering of clearly supporting characters shored up by often-altered backstories. The plot line is reasonably straight, and fairly segment-able.
The style of “The Silmarillion,” is ages away from the Rings or Hobbit books. In almost biblical fashion, the entire narrative is the rich unfolding of a culture, the story of the world, Ëa, told from creation and spanning the ages to the Third Age when Frodo Baggins‘ fleeting quest began and ended. The Lord of the Rings timeline is but a footnote, a few pages at the very end.
The book’s sweeping timeline also poses a problem. Reading “The Silmarillion” feels like whizzing through history, the images alternating rapidly in your mind’s eye because of the almost matter-of-fact yet elevated telling of events seamlessly melding from one to the next.
The book itself consists of several sections, from the Ainulindalë, which recounts the creation of the steward gods Ainur, to the descent of the Ainur to earth in the Valaquenta, to the Silmarillion proper that contains several chapters on the entire history of elves and men, and finally, to the Third Age, in which Frodo Baggins’ travails, toward Mount Doom, detailed in three long films, were featured in a single paragraph.
To further complicate things, the stories sometimes fold back on themselves, as if reminding the reader of the significance of a particular event by recounting a previously told incident, sometimes to the point of digressing.
Thus, short of a film consisting largely of fast cut montages all throughout, there’s no way of faithfully telling the “Silmarillion” story without taking out large tracts of the Middle Earth history, an option unpopular among at least the more conservative subset of Tolkien fans.
Finally, there’s the Silmarillion’s plethora of characters. From cover to cover, there are at least 225 notable names, each with individual backstories, and majority of whom have two or three other names actively used in later references.
There are characters who do stand out. The love story of Beren One-Hand of Men and the elven princess Luthién Tinuviel is central to the entire Middle Earth legendarium. Fire-spirited Fëanor of the Noldorin elves and his quest to possess the Silmarils would also be great material for a film about a tragic hero whose obsession — the Silmarils, the prized jewels containing the last light from the trees of Valinor — is a centerpiece of the narrative. Then there’s Turin Turambar, who lived in strife and, by deceit of Glaurung the dragon, ended up marrying his own sister and taking his own life.
But these individual stories are like threads woven inextricably into the fabric of the Middle earth legend. And while it’s tempting to extract specific story lines — say, focus on just Beren and Luthien, or Turin Turambar — much of these stories will lose their depth, if not lack sense altogether, without the rest of the epic.
“The Silmarillion” is not meant for film. The timeline spans ages, there are too many central characters making it impossible to pin down a few to spin the movie around. There is no simple goal, no throne to fight over, only a consistently complicated and pervasive battle between light and darkness.
And while for many people, a “Silmarillion” movie could be their only portal to Tolkien’s epic saga, any such attempt would surely mean altering the very nature of Tolkien’s seminal work, and as much as many Tolkien fans, including this writer, want to see Middle Earth again in visual form, some things are too beautifully made, they’re better left alone.
Below is a fan-made “Silmarillion” trailer.