With the release of Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, I have no doubt that the major game outlets have all reflected on the best and worst games based on Tolkien’s fairytale megalith. I’m going to do something different. If you’ve read Tolkien, you may know this already, but I’ll say it for those who haven’t: this isn’t what The Lord of the Rings is like.
Games based on the property always seem to be adaptations of the films (in the case of The Return of the King, they’re even competent ones). The Peter Jackson films translate brilliantly to game design because they are chock full of action set-pieces, playable characters, and gorgeous skyboxes. They’re basically non-interactive video games already. But the games based on them are a step further away from Tolkien even than the movies. They do not capture the literary Middle-earth.
Shadow of War is no different. It does not feel, or strive to feel, like The Lord of the Rings books, any more than the films to which it hopes to be a fan-fiction.
Fairytales like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings tell imposing stories through amiable simplicity. I’ve not heard anyone come to the defense of Tommy Wirkola’s Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, which stars Gemma Arterton and Jeremy Renner as middle-aged, shotgun-wielding transcriptions of the two famously hungry German children. That film consciously avoided the material’s simple naivete, its sweetness, its grand everydayness. It replaced these with heavy-handed action grinds, hero clichés, effects sequences, and off-beat one-liners. The Lord of the Rings films are better films but these statements apply just as well to how they treat Tolkien.
“They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25,” Christopher Tolkien said in an interview for the French newspaper Le Monde in 2012. Jackson took a warmly mundane story, with a huge multi-climactic war happening on its outskirts, and reversed the order of importance to suit the needs of marketability. He moved the spastic action rigmarole and romantic heroes to center frame and made the cozy insecurities, the little mannerisms and quaint fears and orange scones and elbow patches, a side-quest. He put Tolkien on the sidelines of his own universe.
It’s easy to see why Jackson did so, since it’s the same reason so many people aged 15 to 25 adored those films. When he, as Chris Tolkien relates, “reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing,” he also turned a story picturesque and charming into something incredibly commercial. The idea of a team-up between a stoic romantic hero, a crowd-favorite action-monger, a clumsy comic relief warrior, and a couple of small tagalongs, fits great into the profitable Star Wars movie mold. But there’s very little that seems to be told by fireside in Jackson’s films, or that taps into the buttery British countryside or creamy civility of Tolkien’s deceptively small story about a huge quest perpetrated by well-meaning normal people. Jackson only adapts the deception, forcing the story to become monolithic and marketable when its true nature was more meaningful for being more humane. He thought Tolkien was epic, when he really should have thought that he was grand.
Maybe The Hobbit films are lower quality films. But they are scarcely different in their understanding and adaptation of Tolkien’s universe. Any subsequent video game is another step in the same direction that Jackson took the property: louder and less sincere.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor shared much in common with the Rocksteady studios Batman: Arkham games in their freeform combat systems, grumpy, vengeful protagonists, and affinity for black cloaks and monologues. Shadow of War is no different. Do any of Tolkien’s works have anything in common with Batman? If this comparison can be drawn to the Monolith Productions LOTR games, then Tolkien has been the singular casualty in the war to commercialize Middle-earth.
Like the films but more so, the games are obsessed with battles. While the portly little Hobbits might exist, some miles into obscurity over some hill and dale in some corner of the world, the protagonists are as grumpy and bloodthirsty as Sauron. Just look at Talion on the box-art for Shadow of Mordor, as he ambles towards the camera like a war-beaten soldier on a Call of Duty box. His mission is to avenge his dead family by instilling fear into his enemies and manipulating himself into a position where he can work his fearsome combo parries against their clavicles. He’s only missing the cowl.
Meanwhile, in 1957, J.R.R. Tolkien suggested in the planning stages of a movie adaptation for The Lord of the Rings that if necessary they could cut out the Battle for Helm’s Deep. Not only did he consider it mostly unimportant, but it also might take the starch out of the final battle in the last book. If I can find this information, I only assume Jackson knew as well. With this knowledge, he stretched out that battle in The Two Towers into a multi-tiered climax, and stuffed it to bursting with over-draught and manipulative buildup, Wilhelm screams, cheesy action clichés, and over-dramatic deaths. Based on what the films prioritized, the games just followed suit: pretty much every mission in the Middle-Earth games is like a smaller Helm’s Deep.
To truly adapt Tolkien into a cinematic or interactive form would require a simpler touch, which has less in common with Gladiator and more with The Wizard of Oz. By missing what is essential in Tolkien, Jackson set a trend for adaptations of his work that through sheer commercial viability will probably never be altered. Games like Fable are closer to the aesthetic mark, but like Jackson they think the little stuff is laughable rather than serious and grand. The LEGO games are funny, but they are really just an action game for young people aged 5 to 15.
If The Battle of the Five Armies was where Jackson’s philosophy ultimately led, I shudder to think what game will become of it in time. It is merciful that an artist as great as Tolkien should not have to witness it.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org