Lord of the Rings at the GI: A Critical Reflection on "The Rings of Power"

Thursday, October 20, 2022
by Sid Heeg

If you have spent more than an hour at the Games Institute, you have probably found yourself drawn into a conversation about Lord of the Rings (LOTR) in some capacity, even if it’s not your cup of tea. Executive Director, Dr. Neil Randall has been writing and teaching about Tolkien since the late 80s as part of his Fantasy Literature classes, and his enthusiasm for LOTR is infectious, leading many students to pursue research in this area and many more LOTRs debates to play out during lunch at the GI. 

Dr. Randall has been especially interested in how these much-loved books have been adapted into other mediums, especially film, TV, and of course, games. Dr. Randall’s studies of LOTR and adaptation have led him to publish reviews of the Peter Jackson films in the Kitchener Record, as well as news media appearances on CBC News and NBC as “people wanted to know, ‘what is this phenomenon? What are we seeing here?’ – You have to remember, at the time, fantasy films were not what they are now – But then LOTR and Harry Potter changed everything.” Dr. Randall comments that it’s strange to think now that it took forty years for “one of the most popular novels of all time” to be adapted into a series of films.  

Dr. Randall started teaching classes about adaptation in 2001 when the first Peter Jackson film, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, came out. At the time, it was just a week in a larger class about literature, film, and adaptation studies, but as the LOTR universe grew eventually, it became a Lord of the Rings-specific class in which students read all the LOTR novels, watched all the films, played the Massive Multiplayer Online Game Lord of the Rings: Online (2007) and studied the many ways LOTR had been adapted.   

One thing that Dr. Randall’s classes have demonstrated is the staying power of Tolkien and his novels, “people are just as interested now as they were 20 years ago. The class is not hugely subscribed, it’s usually 22-28 people, but the people who take the class are fascinated by these texts.” Dr. Randall comments that even though now students have usually watched the movies as their introduction to Tolkien, “there is still something that seems to resonate with students” about the books themselves. 

While adaptations are a huge money-making part of the entertainment industry, with sequels and adaptations being extremely popular in film, TV, games and theme parks, the study of adaptation has yet to make a significant impact in academia. Dr. Randall explains that, unfortunately, much like the study of games, despite being such an important part of contemporary culture, adaptations are still seen by many as frivolous and unserious, “adaptation studies is based on non-original work, it is coming from somewhere else, and our concept of ‘Art’ in the 21st century, we value things we think of as unique and original.” He argues this is problematic in part because “nothing is based on nothing at all, that’s why we have genres, you don’t write into a vacuum” and also, because we continue to “devalue the popular sentiment and popular audience.” Neil has long been interested in studying and writing about what is popular and cutting-edge, even when it isn’t necessarily what will gain him recognition. But suddenly, LOTR is in the limelight again, and Neil’s adaptation studies agenda is ramping up . 

During the fall of 2022, Dr. Randall hosted a weekly discussion group focused on Amazon’s newly released $500 million adaptation, Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (2022). Each week a small group would gather at the GI, watch that week’s episode and then spend an hour unpacking what they had just watched and how it functioned as an adaptation of Tolkien’s work. Dr. Randall would moderate the discussion and answer questions about Tolkien’s texts during debates and discussions, which were composed of Tolkien fans and critics from students, to faculty, to staff—creating a productive space critical thinking of adaptation and how they function differently for different audiences.  

Dr. Randall is currently working on the first in a series of books about Tolkien adaptation, Lord of the Rings Online, and the Rings of Power TV series and plans on continuing the discussion group when the second season of the show is released. The first book in the series, “is all about modes of adaptation that take place in the Lord of the Rings Online. It's a game studies book as well, emergent narrative structures, ideas of simulation, how do you simulate a literary work, similar to simulating a historical work, representation on a worldbuilding level, and what does it mean to play The Lord the Rings compared to experiencing it via another medium.” 

Dr. Randall concludes that an enormous appeal of the game, and any LOTR adaptation, is getting to experience the feeling of being inside Tolkien's world, saying that Lord of the Rings Online keeps drawing him back over and over for 15 years “because there is a new expansion and I say, “oh I get to see another part of the world– a world I have been fascinated with since I was 17 years old.”  

Dr. Randall is also working on several other unannounced LOTR projects and is hoping to bring adaptation studies scholars into the Games institute in the near future, studying LOTR or other media, as the phenomenon continues to grow.