A commentary on “Concerning Christopher”

The vision of books and films
The vision of books and films

On January 7th, 2013, TheOneRing.Net author JPB published an essay titled Concerning Christopher – An Essay on Tolkien’s Son’s Decision to Not Allow Further Cinematic Licensing of His Work. I was amazed at the assumptions, went quickly through denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance and decided to write about it for a very simple reason – the aforesaid, to me very wrong assumptions. While I tried to post on some of the comments first I quickly realised that I had to write down my own position on this as a large number of comments displayed a lack of knowledge on some of the issues involved I would like to clarify.

I have rewritten this text seven times. It started out as a rant, then turned into something with a more reasoned approach. I considered alliterative verse but never got past “Alas, although the writers’ word all stunned/ The answer sounded just a little punned.” I put together a rather simple link list with articles, essays and forums discussing this very topic in recent years but stopped after about sixty links. I had thought about asking several fellow Tolkienists for their position on this but as with many other things on the internet an answer nowadays is more about the speed than the essence of the question at hand (unfortunately.) I tried simply going through the comments, quoting and writing on them in a pastiche-style. I also thought about doing a podcast, an idea which stayed with me the longest and I might still do one on this issue in the future. However, in the end I opted for a simple commentary, probably for the simplest of all reasons on the web: Don’t make it too long (that didn’t really work out but what can you do on such complex issues?)

  1. Casting a doubt on Christopher Tolkien.

  2. The logical fallacies. J.R.R. Tolkien, Peter Jackson and success.

  3. The legal situation, as seen from a layman’s view.

  4. The Silmarillion and the wrong medium to do it in.

  5. The Le Monde interview and its misappropriation.

  6. What next? What can fans do? What should you do?


Casting a doubt on Christopher Tolkien

The essay starts with the assumption that we, as fans, should be able to determine whether Christopher Tolkien is the right person to make a decision when it comes to future film rights.

But as fans, we don’t stop there! We want to know if Christopher is making the correct decision; we want know if it one we can or should support as the best decision; and we want to even voice an opinion as to whether we think Christopher has the ethical right to make the call (even though he, again, has full legal right.)

Let’s first ask: Is Christopher fit to be deciding the fate of his father’s work? Did his father make the right choice in naming him the executor?

In these few lines there are to me so many wrong things that even now I am trying to get a grip on the immensity of it. Let us forget for the time being that “Tolkien fans” and the “Tolkien community” have seen cataclysmic changes in the last fifteen years due to the films. Up until 2000 the easiest, quickest and likeliest approach to Tolkien would have been the books and the worldwide Tolkien societes – this has changed substantially. Huge websites such as TheOneRing.net sprang up, serving the needs of many who love the films (and nowadays being voted for as a community, Ringers, at the People’s Choice Awards.) There is no clear-cut ‘fan’ anymore, probably except for those who either say ‘I’m all for PJ’ or ‘I’m all in for Tolkien’ – and ignoring the other side of the coin. And a coin it has become, particularly with such discussions. Although I personally appreciate the films and many of the effects they have had very much I don’t see the films as adaptations – they are interpretations. To me there is only source to go to every day and this is the books.

The incredible thing is that someone who is asking questions about J.R.R. Tolkien’s life and works can actually call Christopher Tolkien’s efforts into question. Even though the answer in the essay is:

Absolutely, the answer is yes. With the possible exception of Rayner Unwin, who enabled the publication of The Hobbit, and supported Tolkien’s work and maintained a friendship with him from the age of ten until his death, there has been no bigger fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work than his son Christopher.

there still remains the blemish of the question asked in the first place. If you take an interest in The Lord of the RingsThe Hobbit and other stories by his father and this interest goes a longer way than just having read them when you were a kid you cannot but end up knowing that the most influential and most important person on this issue is Christopher himself. And to make it clear fairly early on: No, I am not being paid by the Tolkien Estate (TE – see below for explanations.) I am not related to them in any way. I know of many stories from people I truly appreciate and consider true Tolkienists who have had their issues with TE. Their restrictiveness in all matters Tolkienian is an obstacle to many who would love to write about J.R.R. Tolkien and I am not in agreement with all of their decisions. However, connecting their restrictiveness with the question of Tolkien’s choice of naming his son his literary executor is outrageous.

Just take a seat (c) Marcel R. Aubron-Bülles

What will be left after the films?

And calling him a ‘fan’ is proof again that JPB is missing the mark on some issues. Both personally and professionally, Christopher Tolkien’s connection with his father is clear. For more than thirty years he has taken care of publishing material related to Middle-earth and beyond; has passed on material to many others to have it published and is again releasing a new book in 2013, The Fall of Arthur. He is no ‘fanatic’ – he is an academic, a son steeped in the literature and the literary and professional background of his father who has taken on a task which by all means has to be considered a major challenge at least if not a burden. There is no fan fiction, no hysteria, no interest in public displays of affection or interest in fame and fortune – to him this has to be work. A most creative and challenging piece of work and a tremendous responsibility as he very well knows the inspiration and entertainment many people have drawn from his father’s writings. But let me make it sufficiently clear: Without Christopher Tolkien and the efforts of the Tolkien Estate we would not be where we are right now in Tolkien research and appreciation.

The logical fallacies. J.R.R. Tolkien, Peter Jackson and success

Now, if there is one statement in recent years which has become the most annoying (as it is quite obviously wrong) then it’s this:

what the hell? at least tolkiens work are getting 99 billion more fans from the movies and stuff. stop being sourpuss’s about the film adaptation. wheres your films chris tolkien???? at least peter jackson has enough love for the works to make 6 films so far on it. bring the other stuff to the big screen you pompous jerk. like a snotnose kid holding his cookie jar not wanting to share. pathetic (link to comment.)

Now, although I have been able to witness myself how much influence the films have had on the community (being a co-founder of Ring*Con which has morphed into MagicCon) I have looked forward to this) there is one tiny little fact loads of people seem to forget and because most of them seem to be rather harsh in their stances I will write it down in bold letters, three times:

J.R.R. Tolkien is the most successful author of the 20th century.

J.R.R. Tolkien is the most successful author of the 20th century.

J.R.R. Tolkien is the most successful author of the 20th century.

Well, there is even a book called J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. A very good one. So, to make it absolutely clear: Tolkien had sold more than 100 million copies of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit before Peter Jackson ever started working on his projects. New books on Tolkien were coming out regularly (like Roverandom and The Children of Húrin) and with modern fantasy literature becoming a success (which to quite a degree is based on Tolkien’s success) there was no way in hell he would have been forgotten. And if I wanted to write an article about the accolades The Lord of the Rings won in several surveys before the films it would be just as long as this one.

Right – more people have come to know Tolkien because of the films. I would say so, yes. And yes, there have been many new Tolkien societies founded and many more people are taking an interest in him. However, he did not in any way need the attention. He is a bestseller and will remain so. And don’t forget one thing: Peter Jackson did this project building on the success of its inspiration. What director would not jump at the possibility of telling the most popular tale ever published (yes, I know what hyperbole means)? Who would not work for this kind of success? So, to sum up: PJ has to thank J.R.R. Tolkien and not the other way around. To be fair, of course: The success of the film trilogies has promoted interest in Tolkien, as I have mentioned before, so both have had their benefits from their respective success stories.

There is another logical fallacy to the question of future films being made. There are many people who obviously consider Peter Jackson to be the most enlightened, creative and outstanding director there ever was, is and ever will be. To again make it clear to you: I fully agree on Peter Jackson being one of the most creative, unusual and passionate creative minds in the film business. I would rank him higher on the ‘advances in technology’ scale and ‘change how film production are done on the go’ but then there is no doubt it that he and his team are professionals loving their job. Hell, I was part of a pyjama party on the Oscar(c) night when The Return of the King (The Lord of the Rings film trilogy) won eleven Oscars. We high-fived, we cheered them on, we had copious amounts of drinks which weren’t always non-alcoholic. Loved it.

However, that doesn’t mean that these film trilogies are the best adaptations. In fact, I wouldn’t consider them adaptations at all but fan fiction put onto the big screen. Incredibly entertaining, fascinating, moving (not sure about The Hobbit yet but we have two more to go), well done indeed – but the best? Not at all.

Consider the Sherlock Holmes versions there are right now: action films with R. Downey Jr/ Jude Law; BBC series with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman; and the upcoming CBS Elementary. Would you consider all of them proper literary adapations? I would not. The BBC series Sherlock is arguably one of the best literary adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mastermind character; the films are action-packed flicks. And the same could be said about the film trilogies by Peter Jackson: fun, entertaining, great imagery, hot actors. Nothing wrong about it but definitely not literary adaptations as such (I have written at length about the film and book ‘purists’ in this article.)

So why has nobody ever bothered to ask the question: Would the Tolkien Estate let someone else to do these films, particularly if Peter Jackson is not involved? There is a reason why Terry Pratchett has recently founded a production company for his material or why J.K. Rowling has made clear what she would like to have a hand in films on Harry Potter – influence on the outcome. Something which the Tolkien family does not have (see below for the legal complexities involved.) And if Christopher Tolkien’s reasoning is that the film business, particularly how it has dealt with Tolkien’s tales, is not a creative partner to work with – why should he? The only reason right now to have this issue is that the films have been made and will probably not be remade in the next five years – and we are stuck with them.

The legal situation

I would like to stress the fact that I am not a lawyer and yes, I have not seen the contract which this is all about, but on Middle-Earth Enterprise’s official website (the company of Saul Zaentz, the man behind most of the licensing issues right now) the short company statement is:

Middle-earth Enterprises owns exclusive worldwide rights to motion picture, merchandising, stage and other rights in certain literary works of J.R.R. Tolkien including The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. We have produced and licensed films, stage productions and merchandise based on these Tolkien works for more than thirty-five years.

Some of the current lincensees are named on another page including the musical, the Hobbit Stein Collection, Electronic Arts and, of course, Warner Bros. Interactive. So basically ME own the rights to all things LotR/Hobbit except for things where the texts themselves are concerned such as the books. This has been the basis for legal battles which have been going on for years: Middle-earth Network had to proclaim “Save the Shire” when it became clear that hundreds of names and titles like “THE SHIRE” would be trademarked (for a full list see the United Stated Patent and Trademark Office); the Tolkien Estate is suing Warner Bros. on its rights (a very good write-up on the Hollywood ‘make quick bucks then leave the rest to the lawyers’ film company scheme by Eric Wecks at WIRED) and has been doing so for years – and parts of this money will be going to the Tolkien Trust, a charity founded 1977 (the year of the publication of The Silmarillion) helping charitable causes. By the way, judging from its 2009 figures New Line Cinema will have paid some advance money on this. And things didn’t get easier when Gene Deitch of Tom & Jerry fame came clear some time ago that the film rights allegedly could only have been passed on by a scam which was kind of legal in 1966 … well, kind of. Read his delightful article here and don’t forget Czech illustrator Adolf Born.

In the end it boils down to this: Middle-earth Enterprises (formerly known as Tolkien Enterprises) cannot use anything beside LotR/Hobbit. All the rest is either still with the Tolkien Estate and publishing houses like HarperCollins or with Christopher Tolkien directly as he is not only the editor of publications like The History of Middle-earth but also of The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin and the upcoming The Fall of Arthur. End of legal line. Oh – the Tolkien Estate wasn’t lazy either: Shortly before the films came out they started their own trademarks on the name of TOLKIEN including the Professor’s signature. Probably just to be on the safe side for the legal battles in the years to come. A nightmare.

So it’s not all that easy on the legal front. And it’s not the Estate who is fighting ‘evil’ based on an absurd logic: Their aim is to protect the literary heritage of J.R.R. Tolkien and not care about mega-merchandise deals for people who want to make a quick buck out of the most successful writer of the 20th century.

The vision of books and films

The vision of books and films

The Silmarillion and the wrong medium to do it in

Because of the success of the film trilogies many people are hoping for other Tolkiens stories turned into film. This is quite understandable; who would not want to see Morgoth Bauglir on his throne underneath Thangorodrim; who would not want to catch a glimpse of Gondolin or follow the tragic story that is The Children of Húrin? However, as the rights to The Silmarillion rest solely with TE this will in all probability not happen, knowing how the family has handled the film question. But do we have to stick with a film or films? This is just a side issue but by now I am convinved that such complex stories as Tolkien’s (particularly because they don’t pay that much attention to the prevalent story arc concept – and yes, I know – somebody will try to prove me wrong on this ;)) should not be squeezed into a film but into a television series. Sorry, this was just an aside, but I’m completely amazed that loads of people stick with the film idea. Doesn’t have to be. Back to the topic.

The Le Monde interview and its misappropriation

It is extremely difficult to talk about the details in a translation. Modern translation theory does not favour the idea that there are good and bad translations (except, of course, where an error quite obviously has been made) but that translations can be seen from many different perspectives, depending on the source material, the time of translation, cultural background etc. And this is an extremely touchy subject when the source language (in this case French) is used so splendidly by a writer (Raphaëlle Rérolle) who is an accomplished journalist and reviewer in one of France’s leading newspapers, Le Monde. (Just in case you’re wondering: I am a freelance translator.)

Now, a translation into English had surfaced some time after its original publication (July 7th, 2012) and was seemingly passed on later to a new website (Update: Aug 2020: Luckily enough both links are dead). By now, websites supporting the films being made by Peter Jackson have started to dig in into one or two major paragraphs seemingly detailing Christopher Tolkien in saying: “Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time.” (this line has been quoted the world over; Update: Aug 2020.)

Imagine a world-class newspaper, its impressive size and open up a special issue of Le Monde Culture with beautiful pictures (including one of Tolkien’s chairs, yes, indeed ;)) telling a story of how a literary heritage is getting torn apart. How the author and his work is being snowed under by a multi-billion-dollar craze which is leading to an endless repetition of the same pictures, over and over again. Have you noticed how many people have painted Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn in recent years? Before the films painters chose their own Aragorn, now there seems to be only one (sometimes.) When you read the article you felt sympathy with the causes of Christopher Tolkien and would have gladly ignored any Hollywood blockbuster film for people actually reading the books.

Now, this obviously is my individual experience but I am not alone in this. And what many feared had come to pass after the “translation” (I have not been able to determine the translator of this article; until then I will not consider it official) – that in the English-speaking world none of the details, the complexities and the issues behind what the Tolkien family would like to happen and work on seem to have survived. And that is what I call ‘misappropriation.’

For all of you asking me to do a better translation: I did, together with fellow Tolkienists on the night after publication. However, due to financial and legal constraints we weren’t able to publish our version of it. And we will not do so unless asked by the copyright owners in question. If you happen to know someone from France – ask him or her to give you an idea of the differences. There are many.

What next? What can fans do? What should you do?

Well. There really isn’t much to do, legally. It is a minefield, battled over by companies and lawyers handling billions of dollars. Nothing your average Joe could have a go at – even though now we live in the age of social media and media-driven campaigns going viral when fans are unhappy. But there are certainly a few things the new community could think about.

Everyone who has come to appreciate Tolkien because of the films: Welcome, wonderful to have you. Please don’t feel dismissed at all as ‘fans’ when discussions as these arise. There is a lot of passion involved when it comes to stories we all appreciate. Those of you who would want more films, write letters to all companies involved. Use sites like TheOneRing.net or Middle-earth Network to make your cause heard. But be aware that not everyone considers the film trilogies as they are to be the best there is. In fact, there are quite a few people including Tolkien scholars and experts from all over the world who would have wished for a better literary adaptation. If you are only after an entertaining film, why bother? Simply enjoy it. I don’t need a plush Gandalf but would probably go for a plush Smaug.

To me the the most important enjoyment is that I have met thousands of people from all over the world taking an interest in the life and works of the late Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, CBE. They come from all ranges of life, they have come to Middle-earth via the books, the films, the games – there are so many ways now to appreciate these wonderful stories. But in the end there is only one beginning: The books. Read them. They mean the world to me and I know I am not alone in this.

Author biography

Marcel R. Aubron-Bülles has been a Tolkien fan for more than twenty-five years. He is the founding chairman of the German Tolkien Society, co-founder of Ring*Con, Europe’s biggest film fantasy convention and one of the administrators of the International Tolkien Fellowship. He has published in Amon Hen, Mallorn, Mythlore, Der Flammifer von Westernis, Hither Shore and Tolkien Studies. He works as a freelance translator with several Tolkien-related titles to his credit such as Henry Gee’s The Science of Middle-earth and Gregory Bassham’s The Hobbit and Philosophy. His special interests are with the worldwide Tolkien fan community, particularly the Tolkien societies including their smials and special interest groups. He has given more than a hundred talks on Tolkien in the last fifteen years in nine different countries and has recently started his new blog project, TheTolkienist.com, to offer a platform to Tolkienists from all over the world on which to publish all things Tolkienian.

Revision. In an earlier version of the article one line was incorrect. “However, that does mean that these film trilogies (…)

UPDATE: This commentary was translated into French by Jonathan Fruoco and published on Tolkiendil.com on January 14th, 2013. I would like to thank Jonathan and Tolkiendil.com for making this available to the French-speaking Tolkien community.

UPDATE 2: Aug 11, 2020: I have corrected minor mistakes and added links to the Web Archive, if possible. No changes in content were made except for mentioning that the unfortunate English translation is no longer to be found.

Marcel Aubron-Bülles

A Tolkien fan for twenty-five years (and more to come...)Founding chairman of the German Tolkien Society, Co-Founder of Ring*Con, Co-Founder of the ITF, host, presenter and fantasy expert