The Middle-earth Cinematic Universe
Following the conclusion of The Hobbit trilogy, Peter Jackson acknowledged the possibility of more films set in Middle-earth, indicating within a few years he may be willing to direct — or produce, as he originally intended with The Hobbit — more films based on Tolkien’s mythology. Exploring Middle-earth beyond the events of The Lord of the Rings has already proven fertile ground for video games, and in the wake of Star Wars and Game of Thrones developing spin-offs exploring events outside their main narratives, Warner Bros. should give serious consideration to allowing other filmmakers to explore the history of Middle-earth.
First, some legal history. The Tolkien copyright is split between the Tolkien Estate, which owns his essays, The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales and other derived works, and Middle-earth Enterprises (formerly Tolkien Enterprises), owned by the late Saul Zaentz who bought the film, stage and merchandising rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in 1976 from United Artists, who had been sold them by Tolkien in 1969.
Despite the films’ success, the Tolkien Estate has a negative attitude towards them, and are unlikely to sell the rights to more of Tolkien’s stories. Tolkien gave an extremely basic overview of The Silmarillion’s stories in LOTR’s Appendices, but it would be prudent to not step on the Estate’s territory and focus on other stories told in the book:
The Second Age
I feel most people would find Sauron’s activities during the Second Age far more interesting than the First Age chronicled in Quenta Silmarillion (the primary portion of The Silmarillion). The prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring narrated by Cate Blanchett as Galadriel has become iconic, and I imagine people would love to learn the full story. Consider a prequel trilogy exploring the Elves’ relationship with Sauron and the forging of the Rings, the fall of Númenor and the War of the Last Alliance, with Isildur’s father Elendil and Elrond’s king Gil-galad as fully fleshed-out protagonists.
After summarising what happened in Middle-earth three thousand years before LOTR, Tolkien delves into the history of Arnor, Gondor’s northern sister kingdom ruled by Aragorn’s ancestors. He chronicles how the kingdom fractured and was preyed on by none other than the leader of the Ringwraiths himself, the Witch-king of Angmar. Tolkien tells of the tragic Arvedui Last-king, how Gondor arrived too late to save him but nevertheless ousted the Witch-king, the origins of the prophecy that no man could kill him, and the role the Hobbits played in the conflict.
Tolkien also places the origin of the Barrow-wights — a spooky creature absent from the films — into context here. Should anyone want to make a horror film set in Middle-earth, they’d make a great starting point.
Tolkien then delves into the rise and fall of the Gondorian empire, a decline begun by the Kin-strife, a civil war that erupted when King Eldacar is deposed because his mother was one of the Northmen, rather than one of the Dúnedain. Eldacar regains the throne after much bloodshed, but the traitors maintain control of the port city of Umbar and remain a constant thorn in Gondor’s side.
Yes, it’s the origin story of the Corsairs, and it’s far more interesting than it sounds. It’s not a battle between good and evil, but a tale about racism and dynastic resentment, providing a gritty new dimension to Middle-earth the way Rogue One lifted the lid on the human side of the Star Wars galaxy.
The Long Winter
Tolkien delves into the history of the Rohirrim, Northmen led by King Eorl who rode south to Gondor’s aid and were rewarded with the land of Rohan. King Eorl’s story is captivating, but “most is said of” King Helm Hammerhand, who ruled two centuries before the events of The Hobbit, and for whom Helm’s Deep is named after. He made his last stand there against the Wild Men of Dunland during the Long Winter, steathily dispatching his enemies in the snow.
The Long Winter also exacerbated attacks on Gondor from its enemies and led to loss of life in the Shire, which Gandalf witnessed and tried to reduce. (Dramatising that would provide a moving insight into his affection for Hobbits.) The story also reveals that the subsequently weak state of Rohan caused Gondor to give Saruman possession of Isengard, a key step in the Wizard’s rise to power.
Although one of the main characters in LOTR, Aragorn was only mentioned but not seen in The Hobbit trilogy. As a Dúnadan, Aragorn was already 87 when he joined the Fellowship, and Tolkien describes his adventures across Middle-earth, including his time posing as “Thorongil”, a soldier for King Thengel of Rohan, and Steward Ecthelion II of Gondor. (Those are respectively the fathers of Théoden and Denethor: yes, Aragorn knew Boromir’s grandfather.) The fan films Born of Hope and The Hunt for Gollum explored Aragorn’s earlier life, so there’s clearly demand for it. We could actually see Aragorn in action against the Corsairs instead of projectile vomiting the Army of the Dead at them.
War in the North
The final part of Appendix A in LOTR tells the history of Durin’s Folk — the Dwarves of Moria who resettled in Erebor after awakening the Balrog, only to be exiled by Smaug. Much of what is told here, such as the War of the Dwarves and the Orcs, and Gandalf and Thorin’s first meeting, was cannibalised by The Hobbit films. Tolkien goes on to elaborate here and in Appendix B on the northern theatre of the War of the Ring: Sauron sent armies from Dol Guldur to attack Lórien, Thranduil’s kingdom and Dale.
If you haven’t read The Hobbit you may be scratching your head and asking “Didn’t that already happen?” The writers’ decision to dramatise the Dol Guldur subplot and add an Orc band attacking the Wood Elves and Lake-town in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug means many audiences would be unenthusiastic about seeing Elves and Orcs duking it out beneath the trees, or a heroic last stand of Men and Dwarves at the Gates of Erebor. A shame, as it could be a superior, tighter film. If only Jackson had thought about spin-offs when writing The Hobbit, perhaps the two-part film would not have bloated into three chapters loaded with unnecessary subplots and flashbacks, and audiences would instead be clamoring for prequels about Prince Thorin and his ancestors, or a spin-off about Balin’s doomed attempt to reclaim Moria.
There’s the possibility of a Hobbit remake: Peter Jackson basically completed the infamous 1960 revision, an attempt to bring The Hobbit closer to the the tone and complexity of LOTR that Tolkien wisely abandoned. Remaking The Hobbit in live-action is different to remaking LOTR where the only people you’re making the film for are the unappeasable types who will simply have three more films to nitpick and complain about. If LOTR were ever to be remade, it could only stand up to the film trilogy’s depth as a TV series.
Lastly, the possibility of a film set after LOTR must be acknowledged. We are not proposing adapting The New Shadow — another abandoned Tolkien project — far from it. Consider the following passage from the Appendices though:
“Éomer took again the Oath of Eorl. Often he fulfilled it. For though Sauron had passed, the hatreds and evils he bred had not died, and the King of the West had many enemies to subdue before the White Tree could grow in peace. And whenever King [Aragorn] Elessar went to war King Éomer went with him; and beyond the Sea of Rhûn and on the far fields of the South the thunder of the cavalry of the Mark was heard.”
Drama is about conflict, and wherever there is conflict in Middle-earth, there is great drama to be mined.