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‘We’re going in circles’: The never-ending IP nightmare of ‘The Lord of the Rings’

With "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" back to theaters, Editor-in-Chief Sean Scott has some thoughts about the franchise's history - and it's annoyingly cyclical future.
With "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" back to theaters, Editor-in-Chief Sean Scott has some thoughts about the franchise's history - and it's annoyingly cyclical future.

This week, “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” is making its triumphant return to theaters to celebrate its 20-year anniversary.

Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, like the books (or book, depending on how you choose to read the series), was monumental when it was released. It’s defined the fantasy genre of films, and each film has held up remarkably well to the test of time.

Unfortunately, some people can’t leave well enough alone.

Last year, we saw the premiere of “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” an Amazon Prime spinoff confusingly based on the appendices of the Lord of the Rings books but NOT “The Silmarillion,” a separate book that details the history of Middle Earth. Film rights are funky.

The first season was breathtaking in its lifelessness and lack of ambition, determined to recapture the magic of Jackson’s trilogy and falling flat in every aspect from costumes to narrative to visual effects. And at $50 million an episode, the series looks embarrassingly cheap.

Amazon’s spinoff came less than a decade after “The Hobbit” trilogy, a brutal attempt to spin a 200-page children’s story into three movies’ worth of hardcore fantasy action and intrigue. Like “The Rings of Power,” “The Hobbit” aimed not to be creative and innovative in its own right, but to remind people of how they felt when watching “The Lord of the Rings” for the first time.

And now, we have yet another cash-grab to look forward to.

David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery and cash-grab extraordinaire, announced in February that the studio would be adapting “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” once again for the big screen. They notably do not have the rights to develop J.R.R. Tolkien’s other works set in Middle Earth and would therefore be stuck either remaking the existing films or going off the appendices as Amazon is doing for TV.

Do we really need this?

I’m not a believer in the idea that Lord of the Rings or any series is sacred or unadaptable. I do, however, believe that fantasy as a genre deserves better than endlessly rehashing the same story over and over in the hopes that people will keep showing up for a kick of nostalgia.

Fantasy is by its nature limitless. Tolkien created one of the most fully realized fantasy worlds we may ever get in literature, and Lord of the Rings will likely continue to be my favorite fantasy story in both book and movie form for decades to come. Doubtless this is true for thousands of other people.

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But that doesn’t mean Hollywood should latch itself to the vision of a man who’s been dead for 50 years. There’s an endless supply of fresh talent today in both film and literature with stories of their own to tell.

I refuse to believe that no one in Hollywood is capable of having a creative idea and seeing it realized. There is no excuse for every other movie today to resurrect the past instead of charting a more interesting future for film.

When Warner Bros. gets its remakes off the ground and they each make less than the last, it should serve as a wake-up call that Hollywood needs change.

Sadly, it won’t.

We saw the exact same thing happen with “Fantastic Beasts.” The first film of that failed-pentalogy, now-trilogy, made more than $800 million, and the third made less than $450 million.

Harry Potter, like it or not, was an iconic film and book series that defined decades of young adult fantasy. That’s all it needed to be. Nothing but the studio’s wallet benefited from going back to that well so soon.

It will be the same with “Lord of the Rings.” No one is going to fall more deeply in love with any remake than the books or Jackson’s original trilogy, and the cultural impact a decade from now will be negligible at best.

Viewers deserve better. Filmmakers deserve better. Tolkien deserves better.

As Bilbo Baggins once said “I thought up an ending for my book: ‘And he lived happily ever after, unto the end of his days.’” Let Bilbo and the rest of the characters die happy and at peace, and stop exploiting franchises that have run their course for a quick buck.