Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was one of the surprise hits of 2014, coming as one of the first substantial games built upon the fantasy of world of JRR Tolkien. In comparison to major franchises like Star Wars and Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings has had comparatively few successes – both in attempts, and substantial adaptations.
One of the most notable aspects of the game’s success came not just from the fact that it provided a companion to The Lord of the Rings, but that it went into uncharted territory. Where the likes of Harry Potter and previous Tolkien-based games often stick to events featured in the novels, Shadow of Mordor chose its own piece of the universe, basing the game on events not specified within Tolkien’s canon.
Much fervor was made by fans of Tolkien a few months back when it was learned that Shadow of War – the sequel to Shadow of Mordor – would see the lead character seeking to craft his own Ring of Power. This officially veers the game itself even further away from the main canon. No longer is this a story that could easily slot in between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings – but instead it’s become something playing so radically with continuity that the events and outcome could very well mean there is no Lord of the Rings whatsoever.
And yet, it’s a fair thing for the developers at Monolith Software to do. After all, this is the nature of things when you start playing around with someone else’s lore.
Adaptation Inevitably Means Change
The nature of adaptation is such that requires the possibility for change. A word that can cause great distress for hardcore fans - an understandable response given the long history of adaptations (book-to-film and comic-book-to-film, among others) that have been made where change was exploited. Where it was put forth so radically with such disregard for the core content that the final product bears little resemblance to the original material, and with poor justification offered by the creators.
At the same time, change is also a necessity, something that must be allowed for when transitioning into new arenas, provided it’s done with the proper care. Peter Jackson and his fellow artists did this to substantial degrees when adapting the beloved novels into a trio of films – and to great success. Film is a different medium than novels, and room for that kind of creative freedom means that the film adaptations stand on their own. In a sense, they became their own canon.
This is true for the transition in video gaming as well – as Shadow of Mordor has already demonstrated. And not just because video gaming is such a different platform for adaptation, but because handing a property over to a new creative voice means allowing them to establish their own canon and work within their own rules – provided they do so with care.
Meaning, it’s better to let Monolith experiment and take risks with the lore if it’s in service of making a great game – and demanding otherwise can become a hindrance, essentially shackling the people making the game to work within somewhat narrow parameters.
It's Important To Allow Creative Freedom
Perhaps the tension also comes from the fact that – when it comes to Middle-earth – playing around with the canon is relatively new. Star Wars has enjoyed so many novels, comic books, video games, and spinoffs that there is longer any kind of established, continuous timeline for everything, and never could be. By comparison, no such spinoff novels have officially been created for Tolkien’s works (aside from those cobbled together from old notes by Christopher Tolkien) and there’s been very little official detailing of Middle-earth outside The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
One of the best parts of Shadow of Mordor was that kind of creative freedom – echoing some of the best parts of The Lord of the Rings film adaptations. Creating an original character, and delving into a pocket of the universe provided a refreshing take on Middle-earth. Instead of re-hashing the very familiar tale of destroying the One Ring of Power, Shadow of Mordor excelled precisely because it devoted itself to such a different concept. And all the while demonstrating an impressive breadth of research into and honoring of Tolkien's lore, well-incorporated into the game at many levels.
By loosening these kinds of restrictions for what Monolith was able to do in Tolkien’s world meant playing around with concepts in a way that Tolkien himself probably never could’ve conceived.
And this is all a good thing – Shadow of Mordor was a better game because it was able to make changes to suit its own purpose; something that which pretty well happened the moment they created a character named Talion and had him possessed by the wraith-spirit of Celebrimbor. Sure, we can consider the details, like Celebrimbor's relationship to Sauron, the timeline of Gollum in Mordor, or the rulership of Núrn. But none of these risk game-breaking, world-shattering alterations. And certainly not done without respect to Tolkien's original works.
So yes, Middle-earth: Shadow of War is officially moving further away from Tolkien’s works, where a Ranger of Gondor possessed by the smith that crafted the original Rings of Power is attempting to create a new Ring. This plays with the lore of what's established elsewhere, but since these video games exist within their own sphere, it has little bearing on the films or books. This is Monolith Software’s playground now – and Lord of the Rings as is still exists in book and film form, untainted by what might occurring in this video game series. It’s the beauty of storytelling and storyworlds – anyone who picks it up has the freedom to do what they want with it.
Do you enjoy these games as an adaptation of Tolkien's works? Shout out in the comments below!