A rumored “Young Aragorn” story flies directly in the face of what made Tolkien’s work so special.
In our new, content-saturated environment, it takes a special kind of property to break through the noise and truly become a cultural phenomenon. Amazon has been looking for that property for some time now, something to push their media library from pleasantly diverting to absolutely must-have entertainment. They’re looking for a Game of Thrones, and they seem to have found it with their adaptation of the work that influenced Thrones to begin with: J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”
Amazon’s show initially appeared to be a re-adaptation of the novels already brought to the screen by Peter Jackson, a tenuous proposition if there ever was one. Jackson’s films aren’t perfect adaptations, but outside of the polarizing Hobbit trilogy, his work remains widely beloved. Acquiring the rights to a cult property with an already popular adaptation seemed like a fool’s errand. Why not just adapt something fresh and new, with an untapped fanbase? Why blow a billion dollars and a guaranteed five seasons on something that will foster nothing but comparisons to an Oscar-winning masterwork?
But in modern Hollywood, IP is king, and so the show’s production has trucked on. In May, we got the news that Jackson’s involvement would be minimal. This week, Amazon announced two showrunners, JD Payne and Patrick McKay. Also back in May, venerable Tolkien fansite TheOneRing.net reported that the show would be centered on Aragorn, dashing ranger and heir to the throne of Gondor, in the years before the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In the annals of Tolkien mythology, there’s plenty of material to be mined from Aragorn’s past. And he’s a character that fans love, a natural choice to ground Amazon’s new showcase program.
But Aragorn was never the lead of The Lord of the Rings, and any push to ground him at its center constitutes a massive misinterpretation of what makes the material work to begin with. Make no mistake: Aragorn is a central character in Tolkien’s epic. He’s an integral part of what makes the books and films work, but his appeal as a character requires that he be kept on the sidelines, not at the center of the story.
This isn’t just another Jack Sparrow/Han Solo situation where a supporting character pops more in small doses and collapses when forced to bear the weight of his own story; Aragorn could hypothetically sustain several seasons of a big-budget TV series. He has the angst, he has the charm, and, as a ranger of the North, he has the action-packed backstory. But at the end of the day, an Aragorn-centered story will fail, because his story has already been told, over and over and over throughout history, in infinite configurations that will continue to be reshuffled until the end of time.
The story of Aragorn is the story of the Chosen One. He is the heir to the throne of Gondor, the wandering warrior who rejects his heritage and ultimately returns home to claim the crown and fight back against the forces of evil. The only truly unique thing about Aragorn’s narrative is the very thing that this hypothetical television show will entirely remove: The fact that it unfolds in the background of another character’s story. Aragorn is not the protagonist of The Lord of the Rings; he isn’t even really the second lead. Everything he does functions in support of the Hobbits, the least likely heroes in Middle-earth. He protects Frodo and Sam for as long as he possibly can and then lets them follow their own path, instead choosing to chase down the kidnapped Merry and Pippin. When he finally does assume the kingship of Gondor, he uses his power to make a final charge at the foot of the gates of Mordor, allowing Frodo and Sam the opportunity to sneak past the Eye of Sauron and complete their quest once and for all.
Every conventionally heroic duty performed by Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings is performed in service of a greater act of heroism by Hobbits, characters who choose their own destiny instead of following the path their bloodline lays out for them. Without Hobbits, Middle-earth is just another cliched fantasy tapestry, painting with the same old tired strokes. What makes Aragorn special is not his heritage or his backstory; it is that he recognizes that he is not the hero of this story. Aragorn is the king who bows to the Hobbits. Stripped of that identity, he is indistinguishable from any other gruff sword-wielding badass.
On top of all this, we’ve already seen the type of story that results from a Tolkien adaptation that loses sight of true heroism in favor of grand tales of redeemed sons and doomed kings. The great failing of the Hobbit trilogy is that it abandons its titular character all too often in favor of the gloomy angst of Richard Armitage’s Thorin Oakenshield. Armitage does a fine job projecting gloomy wounded pride, and whoever assumes the lead role in Amazon’s series will doubtless give just as effective a performance. But all of that is ultimately wasted when the real appeal of a Middle-earth story comes from the Shire, not the Lonely Mountain. A Hobbit story that isn’t about Bilbo Baggins is a failure, and it’s a failure that should be learned from.
There’s a certain willful immaturity to the idea that Aragorn or Thorin is the character most deserving of a story all to himself, one that disregards the central beauty of Tolkien’s work. Growing up, it seems obvious that the heroes of The Lord of the Rings are the warriors, the elves that slide down staircases on shields and the kings who raise armies of the dead. But growing up means recognizing that the most inspiring character in Tolkien’s work is not Legolas or Gimli, or Théoden or Elrond, or even Gandalf. No, the most inspiring, important, and heroic character in The Lord of the Rings is Samwise Gamgee, the selfless, unflagging Hobbit who carries the One Ring on the last stretch of Mount Doom.
An Aragorn television series would probably look a lot like Game of Thrones: Gritty and cinematic, with big action and plenty of political maneuvering. But Tolkien didn’t write Game of Thrones, and he didn’t write a story about Aragorn: He wrote one about Samwise Gamgee. Any project based on his work should remember that fact before all others.