The History of Lord of the Rings Games Shows How to Make a Good Adaptation—And How Not To

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The History of <i>Lord of the Rings</i> Games Shows How to Make a Good Adaptation&#8212;And How <i>Not</i> To

Adaptations can be difficult. Even outside of the expectations of an audience that might be familiar with the source material, giving an adaptation purpose outside of “[thing] is also now [a different thing]” isn’t easy. It might be difficult to remember in a post-Peter Jackson film trilogy world, but adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, for the longest time, were rarely crowd pleasers. Putting one of the best-selling books in history into non-book form was tried and tried again, with varying results in the fields of cinema and videogames: it wasn’t until Jackson’s trilogy that we started to see sustained success in either medium.

Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 edition of The Lord of the Rings was meant to be the first of two films made on a shoestring budget, but ended up as just the one. Topcraft (an animation studio predecessor to Studio Ghibli, also responsible for the classic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind), in partnership with Rankin/Bass, adapted The Return of the King as a TV movie in 1980—director Arthur Rankin Jr. admitted decades later that shoving it all into one film wasn’t a good idea. The Soviet Union collapsed before we could get all of the television play adaptation of The Lord of the Rings known as Khraniteli, though, at least that’s not the fault of anyone in the miniseries’ production. We’re lucky things worked with Jackson’s films, even: he wanted to make two, and Harvey Weinstein countered with one. New Line told Jackson to make three, letting him escape both Weinstein’s condensed plan and the incompleteness that had been the bane of previous adaptations. The rest is pretty well-trod history.

Videogame adaptations of The Lord of the Rings didn’t fare much better in pre-Jackson times. There was no project that truly broke through to a larger audience like the books had, and these games would also often fail to finish telling the entire tale just like their cinematic cousins. In fact, it was even still going on while Jackson’s film trilogy was releasing in theaters.

In September of 2002, publisher Black Label Games (a subsidiary of Vivendi) released The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring on Xbox, Playstation 2, and PC. Despite releasing roughly a year after a movie of the same name hit theaters, it wasn’t related in any way: Vivendi’s rights to The Lord of the Rings were entirely book-based, and The Fellowship of the Ring was meant to be a videogame retelling of that same book, not its popular film adaptation. It ended up being the only one of three planned games to be completed and released, despite selling over one million copies—it just wasn’t a very good game, and was an even worse adaptation.

The problem was one of understanding. Plenty from Fellowship, the book, is within Fellowship, the game—names, places, lines of dialogue. The developers and publisher didn’t quite seem to know what it was they liked about the book, however, or at least, how to adapt that. There’s a richness to Tolkien’s text, themes and meaning and purpose, and it was all basically lost in translation to the game. It turned the book-specific universe into a checklist for a very boring videogame that only plays well in comparison to its historically bad Game Boy Advance counterpart, and in the process lost what made the text rich and fulfilling. That’s basically the worst of all worlds, adaptation-wise.

Vivendi’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2002)

The game opens with Frodo looking around his home for the deed to Bag End, so he can sell it to Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. While you’re out and about in Hobbiton, Frodo has to help town asshole Ted Sandyman get his windmill working, which is not in character—Frodo is a pacifist, not a sap who does everyone’s chores. Frodo has to kill a bunch of wolves with a walking stick before he can get out of Hobbiton at night, escape and/or kill more wolves later on while searching for Merry, Pippin, and Samwise in the forest, throw dozens and dozens of rocks at Old Man Willow once he’s captured the other hobbits while being careful to only hit the tree’s “arms” lest he crush his prisoners to death in retaliation, and when the foursome is finally saved by Tom Bombadil, you’re immediately sent out on a a fetch quest for Goldberry. Someone has to collect those water lilies, for some reason, and that someone is you. With a chance to deviate from the Bombadil-less film, this is what was chosen.

It’s all very videogame checklist-y—generic and unnatural, to boot. Finding your deed helps you learn to move around, and helping Sandyman with his windmill lets you practice throwing rocks, but it mostly exposes that the game plays about as well as it understands the material it’s adapting. Even when there is a good adaptation decision for an in-book moment to a videogame one—when the first Black Riders, the Nazgûl, arrive in the Shire—the poor controls and questionable gameplay elements rear their head. An early stealth-based game centered around Frodo’s quest to find allies who don’t need to always be running and hiding could have been fun, but instead, we got beating wolves to death with sticks in the most mediocre action game from 2002 way possible, and “stealth” segments that mostly require saving often in order to avoid losing progress once a Black Rider spies you from a mile away. Rather than figuring out where to make changes and what made sense to keep from the book, as Jackson’s films did, this game adaptation of Fellowship ended up just shoving a bunch of characters and scenarios into a world where they could not exist as is. If this didn’t have the Tolkien license attached, it certainly wouldn’t have found what success it did.

Less than a month after that game’s release came EA’s first of two videogame adaptations of the films. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is actually portions of both The Fellowship of the Ring film as well as its sequel, and while you might not love the action-oriented mission statement of it or its sequel, The Return of the King, at least they have one. The films were more action-oriented than the books they were based on, so EA’s games took that action forward another step. Whereas Vivendi’s Fellowship of the Ring had a difficult time adapting the book into videogame form due to issues with understanding what makes an adaptation work, EA’s The Two Towers understood the assignment.

Stormfront Studios, the developer behind EA’s duology of LOTR film games, didn’t try to make the movies into games so much as further adapt the action-oriented films into a form that would make sense, game-wise. The seams that were all over Vivendi’s Fellowship adaptation aren’t there: the game doesn’t open with you performing some mundane task that is a glimpse into your unfortunate future, but instead opens in the past with you controlling Isildur as part of the Last Alliance of Elves and Men. The views switch from you as Isildur learning how to take out the various classes of orc with your sword, to footage from the films of his cutting the One Ring off Sauron’s finger. That knowledge is then immediately put to use as you switch to controlling Aragorn, fighting off the Nazgûl on Weathertop, defending Frodo from them with a torch and sword in hand. And all without Aragorn helping the Witch-King to cross the street or whatever.

Everything is more action-oriented than it was in the film(s), yet it makes sense within the world that’s been created here, with a consistent logic present that’s missing from Vivendi’s outing. You play as one of Aragorn, Gimli, or Legolas in each of the game’s stages, each with their own skill trees to grow and styles to play, and move through what is basically an alternate telling of the tale of the first two of Jackson’s films from their points of view. After the Fellowship forms in Rivendell, rather than having the weather or turncoat wizard Saruman force the Fellowship into the mines of Moria, EA’s game instead focuses on having you waylaid by a band of orcs—you now enter Moria to escape them after battling through the mountain passes. No longer do the Three Hunters and Gandalf head straight to Edoras and the halls of Theoden, king of Rohan, to warn them of impending doom, but instead, you help save villagers of that land from marauding orcs, a mission that eventually brings you to Theoden and his soldiers, en route to Helm’s Deep for the final confrontations of the game with Saruman’s army of elite orcs, the Uruk-hai. It’s not a 1:1 adaptation of the films, but instead, makes sense for the kind of game EA was making: one that had the names and places and characters, but with everything slanted toward action.

EA’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

The Return of the King adaptation is this, but better: the controls are tighter, there are various paths to take with different characters that now include Gandalf and a sword-swinging Samwise, and since they aren’t shoving two films together, there is more room for everything (stage design, incorporation of film dialogue with some specific to the game, more noteworthy setpieces) to breathe, too. There’s a coherence to this version of The Lord of the Rings that is lacking from Vivendi’s Fellowship attempt, and it’s one of the reasons why Sam taking down orcs in Osgiliath to clear a path for Frodo and Gollum works in a way that Frodo beating wolves to death to progress did not. Neither makes much sense within the context of the source material, no, but in the case of EA’s outings, the adaptation changes were made with the new medium in mind, and the game benefitted. You still have to hide as Sam, protector of Frodo—he’s not about to take down the Nazgûl flying overhead in Osgiliath, for instance, and many of the orcs he beats are at least partially distracted by men of Gondor—but it basically just hastens the moment where he gains the courage to slay orcs in the movies for the purposes of the chosen medium, which is a hack-and-slash action videogame. Fellowship, on the other hand, has you kill wolves and throw rocks at Old Man Willow for the same reason you perform a fetch quest for Goldberry: because that’s a thing you could do in a videogame, and no one came up with a better or more unifying idea.

EA’s adaptations bring to mind the Super Star Wars trilogy of videogames released on the Super Nintendo in the early ‘90s. Those games are not going to be confused for their source material, not with Luke Skywalker gunning down Jawas outside their Sandcrawler in order to find a captured R2-D2, or Chewbacca taking down an entire cantina’s worth of ruffians on his way to the Millenium Falcon. They were sensible adaptations for the medium, though, which in that case were run-and-gun videogames based on the original trilogy of Star Wars films. The Super Star Wars games incorporated film dialogue and cutscenes where possible, to further pull you into the version of the universe they were playing in, and EA’s games also did that to great cinematic effect: Viggo Mortensen, who plays Aragorn in the movies, has actual original lines in the games, as does Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, and plenty of others. The view shifts from clips from the movie to in-game recreations of that same footage, to the actual stages you’re playing. Music from Howard Shore’s soundtrack is everywhere, and while battling orcs as “The Fighting Uruk-hai” plays, you realize how great of a debt BioWare and Dragon Age: Origins owe to his momentous stage-setting and evocative work in these films, and why they went that route in the first place. In the end, though, the games are their own thing: companions to, not recreations of, the films they’re based on.

EA obviously had an advantage with their adaptations of the films, since New Line made sure the actors were available, permitted footage from the films to be used, and, with the more action-oriented adaptation of those movies, provided a structure for EA to build off of. Still, though, it’s possible to adapt the actual The Lord of the Rings into videogame form without the intermediary of film first adapting the book.

Standing Stone’s The Lord of the Rings Online (2007)

We know it can be done thanks to the existence of The Lord of the Rings Online. Emily Robinson is not only an avid LOTRO player to this day, but also the co-host of the excellent My Brother, My Captain, My Podcast, which focuses on extremely detailed breakdowns of the three Peter Jackson films, and, thanks in no small part due to Robinson’s own knowledge of the subject, Tolkien’s legendarium as a whole. Maybe, in Vivendi’s case, a matter of scope was an issue. As Robinson tells it, “There’s a great quote from a production designer working on the original Star Wars that posits that what made Star Wars so incredible is that the sets were built out to 270º degrees instead of only 90º or 180º—while the camera is only ever trained on one point at any given time, we the audience feel as if the camera could pan back and expose a living, breathing world. That’s what makes Tolkien’s writing the phenomenon that it is, and that’s what The Lord of the Rings Online gets right in a way almost no other adaptations do: not only do you have to have a comprehensive and ‘full’ feeling world, you have to leave just enough of it to the audiences’ imagination to keep it tantalizing.”

Vivendi’s Fellowship tried to include so much from the books without careful consideration of why it needed to be included, or what purpose it served other than as another item to check off from the list. Its lack of discretion made its version of Middle-earth feel hollow, weightless, but as The Lord of the Rings Online shows and Robinson explains, it’s possible to use this emptiness to the benefit of all. “The world of the book, by virtue of it being a semi-post-apocalyptic text, is an empty one—that emptiness is how Tolkien expresses so many of the themes of the books. But an empty world isn’t ideal for an MMO with an enormous map, and so, rather than inventing thousands of high-octane civilisations and races to populate the world, the devs added small smatterings of original populations, but made their loneliness and isolation their defining features. We get a whistlestop tour of populations and regions at the very extreme limits of the book’s narrative, and therein are introduced to well-developed and expansive stories encompassing them. But not once do we need to ask ‘well if these guys are so cool, where were they when the Fellowship was trooping around?’ because the answer is, as it so rightly should be, that they are ‘victims’ of the mundane loneliness that undergirds the book.

“Which, in a way, answers this question about what they had to choose to emphasize to successfully turn the book into a game. As far as I’m concerned, their decision to adapt the book into an MMO rather than a point-and-click, 100% textually accurate narrative-driven game shows their key success: they understand that what makes the book epic is its mundanity. Yes, there’s epic fighting and battles and wars—and of course, all of that translated into the game by basically just reskinning World of Warcraft’s mechanics—but that’s not really the core of the game. The core of the game are the humdrum tasks that make the epic peaks feel that much higher: the quests where you deliver pies from one Shire town to another, dodging hungry hobbits; the ones where you help the Rohirrim prepare for war by collecting farmers’ pitchforks to turn into weapons; the ones where you have to sit and listen to Gandalf lecture you for 20 IRL minutes—no, that is not a joke.”

Again, in Fellowship, Frodo kills wolves because wolves exist in Middle-earth and therefore could be killed, and while that adaptation choice might work for Luke Skywalker mowing down Jawas in a 1992 run-and-gun, it’s a poor one for an adventure game whose selling point was that it was based on and would hew to Tolkien’s writing. Super Star Wars, like Two Towers, Return of the King and The Lord of the Rings Online, all delivered on their central promise of adapting their source for a new medium: Vivendi’s Fellowship did not.

There have been other successful adaptations of Tolkien’s work—or Peter Jackson’s work, depending—in the years since besides The Lord of the Rings Online. Monolith Productions’ and Warner Bros.’ Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor, for instance, utilized some names you knew (Gondor! Ranger! Mordor! Gollum!), ones people who hadn’t read the appendices did not (Celeborn), and totally original characters like protagonist Talion to create a completely new adventure set in Middle-earth. While some little bits of canon had to be rearranged—Gollum isn’t supposed to be in Mordor at the time, and Celeborn coming back as an angry spirit hellbent on revenge against Sauron only works in the sense no one said it couldn’t be canon—it’s all the kind of stuff you can handwave away since it doesn’t, as Robinson put it regarding LOTRO, “encroach on the text itself.” The same goes for Shelob being able to shapeshift in the sequel, Shadows of War. Her predecessor, by Tolkien’s own hand, was a primordial being able to do it, so why not Shelob, too? These were adaptation changes made for videogames that could be defended and were in the spirit of the medium they were in, and sometimes, that’s all you need. Well, that and gameplay systems that actually work, but let’s not delve too greedily.

Marc Normandin covers retro videogames at Retro XP, which you can read for free but support through his Patreon, and can be found on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.