I love the Lord of the Rings as much as the next fantasy nerd, especially Peter Jackson’s epic film trilogy. Nobody will ever be able to top his achievement in capturing the essence of Tolkien’s novels on the big screen again. Even Jackson himself can’t seem to make lightning strike twice the second time around with these lame Hobbit movies.
Epic burn aside, the downside of these films being so successful is that Jackson’s look and feel of Middle Earth will continue to dominate every single Tolkien product from now until the end of time. Book covers, toys and action figures, and of course video games. There are plenty of other artists who view Middle Earth in a different and definitely more fascinating light, but publishers are going to stick to the one that sells the best for the sake of numbers.
Well, not if Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor can help it!
Now that Warner Bros. has wrestled control of Tolkien’s video game adaptations from EA, it has taken the opportunity to move away from Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth and focus on seeing the fantasy realm in an all new way. I’d never thought we’d see the day, but Monolith Productions’ Middle-Earth is quite a bit far removed from what we’ve come to expect. Not 100%, mind you, but far enough to be considered something new.
Unfortunately, Monolith Productions’ creative process has made a Middle Earth that it a little too “video gamey” for my tastes. Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor obviously nabs a few pages from Skyrim, The Witcher, and Dragon Age‘s art direction book, but we’ll give it the benefit of the doubt by understanding that building a brand new look for a fantasy game and expecting today’s cynical world to take it seriously is downright impossible.
The result is one of silly bloom effects from weapons and spells, epic slow-motion decapitations, and introduction of lore and abilities that have never been available in the canon to this point.
We appear to have come full circle in fantasy video games these days. Franchises inspired by Tolkien and his works are now the ones who are inspiring those interpreting Tolkien and his works into products. Middle-Earth: Shadows of Mordor looks like a solid if generic action game along the lines of Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham blended to the scale of Skyrim, but all these unnecessary action game tropes seem a bit below the reverence the source material deserves.
With that in mind, what are some other great interpretations of Lord of the Rings? The original collectible card game was home to some fascinating art, let alone the countless artists who existed before film and games had caught on to Tolkien’s works. The 1980 BBC audio drama is the Lord of the Rings I grew up with, and even without a visual aid to go alongside it, it paints Middle-Earth onto your brain in powerful ways that no film could ever achieve.
I would say that the creators should lock themselves in a dark room for a week and draw whatever their brains tell them too. A personal touch can bring a lot to a project. Just look how many different Gandalfs I grew up with as a kid! The same character was imagined in so many different ways!
Ralph Bakshi brought his animation style to Middle-Earth in his haunting Lord of the Rings film in the late 1970s. The Rankin Bass films weren’t great, but at least had their own personality. Even Interplay managed to crank out two Lord of the Rings games in the 1990s, one for the PC and one for the Super Nintendo, and neither of which looked like the other.
Fantasy is proving harder and harder to be original these days, but it really says something about the genre when its main founder needs to turn to cliches from other franchises to fill in its gaps. I kind of prefer Jackson’s to this.
We’ll see how Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor turns out when it launches for the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC on October 7th.
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