Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Beren and Luthien Raided the Fortress of Angband, and No One Will Get This Lousy T-Shirt
When we finally reached “The Tale of Beren and Luthien,” my Intro to Myth students forgave me for dragging them through the drier, more mythographic early stretches of The Silmarillion. (“It’s as bad as the begats!” the most biblically literate one in the class said of “The Valaquenta,” and then she had to explain the begats to her classmates.) There was a lot to forgive, including a pop quiz on the names of the Valar.
But then: True love! Shapeshifting! Sauron defeated in sorcerous song battle! Fate, doom, oaths upheld at ultimate cost! “The Tale of Beren and Luthien” is cinematic, iconic, perfect for Hollywood at its best and worst. My disgruntled undergrads adored it.
They’re not the only ones who’ve ever wished it could be a movie.
Shake Google, and at least one fan film falls out, along with intermittent fan forum discussions of ideal directors, casting, and adaptation decisions. I gather the Tolkien estate is unlikely to authorize films of stories that made their first published appearances after Tolkien’s death. Fair enough. If I were looking back from the afterlife of my imagining and saw my rough drafts, cobbled together by my long-suffering literary executor, adapted by strangers into Hollywood films, I too might… no, actually, I wouldn’t object at all. Now that I think of it, I’d feel immensely honored by the effort, amused by its inevitable shortcomings, and relieved that my family might finally see some benefit from my years of toiling in proverbial obscurity. But hey, that’s just me. If Tolkien’s son thinks the professor would be displeased, he’s in a better position to know than any of the rest of us.
So, no movie.
What’s interesting to me about the forum discussions I’ve skimmed over today is which things the fans focus on when they list the story’s virtues as a potential film, and the things they don’t mention that nonetheless seem to me the story’s chief virtues for purposes of adaptation. Yes, it does have battles that cry out for big-screen CGI in 3D, the most beautiful woman in the world, and a mostly happy ending, plus bonus giant werewolves defeated by a giant hunting hound whose fate it is to speak three times in his life. (Perhaps Huan the Hound could be voice-acted by Kevin Smith–every time he got a speaking line, I couldn’t help thinking of Silent Bob.) Lots of things landed on the page that we would all love to see. Then again, that was true of The Hobbit, which seems to have left the purists upset at everything that sped the story up to a multiplex-worthy pace, and seems to have enraged the critics with a pace they thought was too slow.
The main reason I think “Beren and Luthien” could someday prove to be the the most film-friendly of all Tolkien’s creations is simply that it is already the right length. Its scope is just as vast as that of anything else he wrote–the fan forums are full of debates about how much of The Silmarillion‘s backstory a “Beren and Luthien” film would have to include, and honestly, if I were writing or directing it, I’d start with the creation of the universe. Seriously. The Valar singing the cosmos into existence, untold ages before the first sentient created beings awoke in Middle Earth. If you want Luthien’s singing sorcery to feel at all plausible as a weapon against Sauron and Morgoth, that’s how far back the film’s prologue would have to go. And yet, everything Tolkien needed to tell us specifically about these two characters and their struggles fits in thirty pages. A director of “Beren and Luthien” would not be saddled with hours of beloved material the fans could not bear to see cut, nor would s/he be stuck with memorable dialogue to condense, because there’s hardly any dialogue at all. No one would say of this story, as we all said of LoTR for decades, that it is in itself unfilmable.
Meanwhile, the main classroom use I envision for The Silmarillion is for an imaginary screenwriting seminar I wish I could take as a student, because goodness knows I don’t have the chops to teach that form. On the model of John Gardner’s wacky assignments in The Art of Fiction, anytime I wanted to take a newly-acquired skill like writing a treatment and then challenge it to the point of absurdity, I’d throw The Silmarillion into the assignment. Adapting “The Tale Beren and Luthien” would certainly work, but try adapting the whole volume of myths, legends, and fragments into a mini-series. I dare you.