Review: Middle-earth Envisioned – The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings – On Screen, On Stage and Beyond / Author: Paul Simpson, Brian J. Robb / Publisher: Race Point Publishing / Release Date: Out Now
Countless artists, writers and directors have attempted to capture the rich and varied beauty of Middle-earth and its peoples since J.R.R. Tolkien first introduced them in prose so many years ago. While the work of Peter Jackson has been endlessly explored in lush coffee table books and abundant DVD special features, Middle-earth Envisioned is thankfully not solely in thrall to the work of the Kiwi director on his two epic film trilogies.
It's a huge, heavy book stuffed full of pictures, paintings, sketches, stills, concept art, comic book interpretations and more. The work of old favourites Alan Lee and John Howe sit side by side with previously unreleased art created by English schoolteacher Mary Fairburn, whose work Tolkien praised highly. The pages are positively seething with pictures that Tolkien fans will take great pleasure in pouring over.
Middle-earth Envisioned starts slowly with a prologue about Tolkien's life (nothing you couldn't find on Wikipedia) and then a recap of the stories of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (like you don't know that already). Where it comes to life is in its delving into radio, television and stage adaptations of Tolkien's source novels, from BBC adaptations to Finnish and Russian adaptations to Tolkien's own recitals of his stories. It is a real shame that the book does not come with an audio accompaniment. It will have you reaching for your computer at the end of almost every page, desperately seeking out footage of these (often thought lost) audio recordings or YouTube clips from obscure operatic stage productions.
Given the amount of criticism of Peter Jackson's extension of The Hobbit into three films, it is interesting to hear of a similar approach in early BBC radio adaptations also. What are perhaps harder to swallow are the numerous Tolkien-inspired ballets and operas, and even a Russian television adaptation made with a laughably low budget. The pictures from some of these are occasionally hilarious, but also very often impressive. The work of those responsible for the Finnish stage and television adaptations is justifiably highlighted and is well worth a look.
The text also notes the influence of Tolkien's stories on Babylon 5 and other shows and carefully constructs a history of all the comics and video game adaptations of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It's a fascinating tour from the Sinclair ZX Spectrum right up to the modern MMORPG's that immerse players ever more deeply in the worlds created by Tolkien.
With so much other material to cover, it isn't until chapter 9 that we finally get to early attempts to adapt the books for the silver screen. Here there is a wealth of information that that will probably leave you amazed that film versions ever actually got made. From Tolkien's disillusionment with early adaptors to a thankfully quickly nixed Beatles-starring version of The Lord of the Rings (John Lennon as Gollum?), the book details the long and painful process through countless aborted to attempts to get Tolkien's work up on screen.
That said, there is a good 40 (out of just over 200) pages dedicated to Peter Jackson's work on both trilogies with plenty of lush stills, marketing pictures and behind-the-scenes photos thrown in for good measure. While The Hobbit trilogy is not complete, Middle-earth Envisioned does cover a lot of ground including not only many of the criticisms of An Unexpected Journey and its higher frame rate but also the success it has had at the box office. It all ends with a final chapter on the cultural legacy of Tolkien's books from artwork and music to some fantastic examples of fan-created films and art.
Middle-earth Envisioned is not for readers who are only interested in Peter Jackson's films or casual Tolkien fans. It is an exhaustive illustrated history of all those who have attempted to bring Tolkien's writing to life. Unless you are already a Tolkien know-it-all who speaks Elvish, you are bound to find plenty here that will leave you inspired to search the internet for further evidence of the weird and the wonderful adaptations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.