The Lord of the Rings is overrated, sexist, racist, and has been milked by the capitalists at Warner Brothers until the resultant franchise has come to barely resemble J.R.R. Tolkien’s books.
Somehow, though, it continues to be good as hell in spite of all that. And with a Tolkien biopic coming on May 10th of this year, we can probably expect renewed popular interest in his world, perhaps even a new video game set in Middle-Earth to take advantage of the film’s hype. We can also expect, with equal certainty, that this game will simply use the aesthetics of The Lord of the Rings’ setting without exploring any of the things that actually make the books good.
Because here’s the thing: good adaptation is not about how precisely you can replicate your source material — it’s about translating that source material through a unique perspective to continue the conversation started by the original piece. This is where I find video games set in Middle-Earth so bankrupt. But to contextualize my beef, we really need to talk about the themes and values at the heart of The Lord of the Rings.
Please don’t think I’m a purist because I’m about to dunk on every single Lord of the Rings game ever made. The Peter Jackson movies fucking rule, and they handle some things — Boromir’s entire character, for example — in more compelling ways than the books. Also, that song in the animated Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings, the one about Frodo having nine fingers? That’s a bop. Anyway.
Frodo and Sam are the center of The Lord of the Rings. They are small, fat, hairy middle-aged men, neither of whom has any special powers or combat training. They love to eat, drink, and smoke weed. And they are not the perspective characters through which we see heroes like Aragorn or Legolas — they are the heroes. Obviously and crucially to The Lord of the Rings, the world is saved not by the mighty swords of legendary warrior-kings, but by the tenacity and moral decency of simple, peace-loving folk. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo Baggins is gifted with the most powerful weapon in Middle-Earth — the One Ring — and his path to defeating darkness lies in not wielding it.
These messages run jarringly contrary to the kinds of hyper-violent action games that WB has been churning out since the licensed The Two Towers game for the Playstation 2, the most recent and gratuitous of which is Middle-earth: Shadow of War.
In this game about how much fun it is to do slavery, players take the role of Talion, a revenge-obsessed warrior who cannot die because of his bond with the ghost of a powerful elf from the ancient world. Talion murders and brainwashes his way to having his own personal orcish army and ultimately forges another ring of power in a bid to challenge the dark lord Sauron.
Shadow of War gives Talion a bunch of cool weapons and powers to play with, and has a really fun one-man-army gameplay loop. It’s a well-made action game, and I don’t begrudge any of its lore differences from its source material.
But what I can’t get over is how anti-Tolkien this game feels. It’s not about any of the same things that The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit is about. It doesn’t add anything meaningful to the conversation about the nature of heroism and humility. And it certainly doesn’t address the existentially destructive nature of industrialization that’s central to the series. Actually, I haven’t addressed that yet, either.
A Mind of Metal
The Lord of the Rings gets a lot of shit for pitting unambiguously good protagonists against unambiguously evil villains. Lots of that is fair, and the racialized depictions of Tolkien’s orcs say some pretty damning things about both his personal racism and the society that he participated in. In any good-versus-evil story, it’s piss-easy to see the creator’s values by just examining who is good and who is evil.
Who is good in The Lord of the Rings? I’ve already mentioned the hobbits, who are unanimous in their love of the land and the things that grow from it. Who else is good? The elves, who are immortal extensions of the world itself rather than independent souls. Elves live as long as they can bear, and once they have fruitlessly watched people destroy nature for hundreds of years, they get really fucking sad and sail across the sea to heaven.
The good humans are the ones who are the most elf-like — Aragorn is descended from elves and is one of like three humans in all of history to hook up with one. The most heroic dwarf in Middle Earth, Gimli, has an elf boyfriend with whom he lives happily ever after. The heroes are united by their love of the natural world, or at least their love for those who are a part of it.
Who is evil in Middle-Earth? Sauron, Saruman, and their servants. They are not only obsessed with power, but they accumulate that power largely through building terrible, smoke-belching machines. Saruman’s turn to evil is clearly demarcated by his destruction of Fangorn forest to fuel the forges of Isengard. Back when everyone lived in heaven, Sauron and Saruman were both disciples of Aulë, the smith god and the father of all crafts.
Tolkien’s distrust of technology and industrialization drips off the pages of his books. Following this theme, Final Fantasy VII might be a better Lord of the Rings game than The Two Towers.
So, just looking at its two most obvious themes, what would a good Lord of the Rings video game even look like? A game that examined small acts of heroism, their relationship to pride and power? A game that equates industry and annihilation? While I would love to see a Tolkien-based game about the struggle to remain kind and gentle in the face of existential evil and the temptation of world-changing power, that game doesn’t sound very accessible or fun. It sounds like trying to do Undertale with the stakes and scope of Dragon Age. At best, that game would still be niche enough that you wouldn’t be able to afford the Lord of the Rings license.
And that’s what makes a thoughtful game based on Tolkien’s work impossible. The Lord of the Rings is a lucrative and zealously-guarded intellectual property, and any video game that could possibly use that property needs to be profitable before it can worry about being interesting.
And so, we’re likely going to be seeing highly polished orc kill-a-thons until Tolkien’s work hits the public domain. I’ll be an old lady by then, and our own dark lords may have destroyed the world with their machines. But the prospect of a lot of weird Lord of the Rings games is something to look forward to, at least. Only twenty-five more years!