The Troublesome Task of Translating Tolkien's Tome

Traveller’s Tales talks tricky task of adapting English author's iconic and mature fantasy fiction into a Lego form full of whimsy and humor.

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Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s iconic Lord of the Rings fantasy series have long had numerous reasons to question the upcoming Lego adaptation, Lego: Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's timeless and hugely popular fiction is replete with allegory, dark situations, and many scenes of emotional and physical trauma. In short, it is not a fiction most parents would read to their children at night (unless of course they wished their offspring would dream of wretched Ringwraiths or legions of vicious Orcs). All the same, family friendly game developer Traveller's Tales is bringing this violent and wrenching fiction to children across the world through its new game. But can the development team adapt such mature material and keep its themes and messages intact? And if it can, will Tolkien purists be able to stomach the result?

Be warned, this feature is full of Lord of the Rings spoilers.

The Quest

This was the journey--the quest, if you will--that Traveller's Tales embarked upon with Lego: Lord of the Rings. Executive producer Nick Ricks talked to GameSpot over the phone recently about the balancing act between respecting the source material and bringing humor to a dark place.

"In order to tell an effective story, and have excitement…there has to be dark for the light. We don't shy away from that, and I think it's important that we don't because if we did that's speaking down to younger gamers," Ricks explained. "And it's far more appropriate for us to keep that material intact by just delivering it in an age-appropriate fashion. The same is true for Batman and the Harry Potter games; it really is a question of just lightening the tone…which we've gotten really good at. And Lord of the Ring is no exception."

"In order to tell an effective story, and have excitement…there has to be dark for the light. We don't shy away from that."

Lego: Lord of the Rings is, as Ricks was clear to point out, an adaptation of Peter Jackson's award-winning films, and not Tolkien's original source material. There are, of course, numerous instances of overlap between Tolkien's work and Jackson's adaptation, but principally the game is based on the films. And according to Ricks, it will leave nothing out.

"I can confidently say that there's nothing left [out]…we do cover all the key points from the three films. Nothing is skipped over. Nothing is missed out upon," he said.

Fans may be happy to learn Lego: Lord of the Rings will leave nothing out from Jackson's films, but they might be even more pleased to know the game may add something, or someone. Ricks teased that the game may include a character that many were upset was scratched from Jackson's movies.

"[Fans] really appreciate nodding the cap or seeing characters in the fiction that may have not necessarily made it through into the films," he said. "So while it is an adaptation of the films, it certainly does contain what a Tolkien fan would recognize as a famous character that didn't fit into the movies that can be reimagined for Lego: Lord of the Rings."

The announcement trailer for Lego: Lord of the Rings showed off the pivotal scene within the Mines of Moria, during which Gandalf faces the fiery Balrog. Instead of emitting a devastating stream of fire, the creature belches and Gandalf waves his hand in front of his face to demonstrate his disgust at what must have been a foul odor. This did not happen in the films or in the book. Ultimately, Ricks does not believe this scene, nor other scenes from that game that did not appear in Tolkien's work or Jackson's adaptations, will upset purists.

"No, I don't think so. Certainly what motivates me is making these stories applicable and interesting to younger gamers," he said. "If a purist is concerned that this adaptation is going to go a bit too far, I'd hasten to say 'No, just play it and find out.'"

Part of how Traveller's Tales was able to find a happy medium between respecting the original fiction and infusing it with humor was because the developer employs numerous self-admitted "Tolkien nerds." Among them is Ricks himself. He explained that it was an "enormous privilege" to work on the Lord of the Rings property, and assures that the company has "brushed up" and "done its homework" with regards to the fiction.

True Horror in Brick Form

But what of scenes of true horror from Lord of the Rings? The fiction is stuffed with scenes of death and despair, both physically and emotionally. In the first film, Fellowship fighter Boromir is attacked by Uruk-Hai in the wooded hill near the mighty Anduin. As he attempts to save the lives of hobbits Merry and Pippin, he is viciously slain, and his dying words are of his own personal failure to avoid the allure of the Ring. Ricks made clear this violent and important scene, and other pivotal moments from the fiction, will appear in Lego: Lord of the Rings. He did not, however, explain how the game goes about demonstrating these moments.

"I'd love to tell you, but then I'd give it away (laughs)," he said. "There's a number of scenes like that are extremely meaningful. We have to deliver that and obviously as he's shot full of arrows…we have to deliver that moment of excitement. We are really trying to match that cinematic quality which Peter Jackson delivered. We're very very keen to make sure we maintain that cinematic feel. But how we actually go about taking that material…we obviously need to keep it similar [so] parents and older gamers will recognize [what's happening] and young kids are just going to see it lighthearted."

"I think part of the success of all Lego games is that teams are able to deliver material which is delivered straight; it's not toned down. So kids don't feel like they're having content spoken down to them."

Jackson's trio of lauded films The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King were each rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America, but Lego: Lord of the Rings will be rated E 10+ by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. There is no direct comparison of the two ratings scales, but if PG-13 roughly equals T, then surely the game had to be watered down some. Not so, says Ricks.

"It comes naturally to us. It's part of our DNA," he explained. "I think part of the success of all Lego games is that teams are able to deliver material which is delivered straight; it's not toned down. So kids don't feel like they're having content spoken down to them. We always cover darker material and have the ability to lighten the tone."

Asked if there was ever any talk of Lego: Lord of the Rings receiving a T or even an M rating, Ricks laughed and said "no."

Using Actor Voices

Another new game element for Lego: Lord of the Rings is its use of the films' actors, specifically, their voices. The characters in all Lego games prior to Lego Batman 2 did not speak, instead relying on players' imaginations to relate what was happening on screen. What is so uniquely intriguing about Lego games and Lego toys themselves, to many, is that they inspire imagination. When you are building something, your imagination is your only limit.

Ricks, however, does not believe using the voices of sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Elijah Wood (Frodo), Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), and the rest of the cast in Lego: Lord of the Rings limits imagination in any significant way. In fact, he believes it adds to the cinematic feel of the game.

"We did spend quite a long time deliberating over this," he said. "But no, it does not limit imagination. Because what it allows us to do is bring something new to the game and it tells the story in such an effective way that really has a narrative that is quite mature. Having the dialogue in there does add more than it detracts I feel because you're able to deliver the story, which is so important, in a more meaningful way."

Gamers will recognize the voices in Lego: Lord of the Rings.

An example that Ricks pointed to concerning how voice actors benefit the game was in regards to the difficulty of demonstrating the inner monologue that runs through Gollum/Smeagol's mind throughout the course of the narrative. He explained that the studio could have used photographs or other illustrative devices to get the creature's painful internal duality across, but ultimately decided against it.

"We really felt it's an opportunity now to take another step forward," he said. "And it adds to the game to the cinematic feel. There is a degree of charm and humor that miming would provide, but I think what we have potentially lost, we more than made up for with what else we can convey. And there's also further opportunities for humor [with voice acting]. We can put a lighthearted twist on dialogue that is perhaps meant for a different meaning."

One of these additional instances of added humor, Ricks revealed, comes during the scene fans know to be the end of the Fellowship of the Ring. In the movie, Frodo and Sam are overlooking the doom and gloom of Mordor when Frodo delivers a heartfelt line to his homely hobbit friend.

"Sam, I'm glad you're with me," Frodo says in the movie. In the game, this same line is delivered, but as Frodo's minifigure says it, he removes his massive pack, piles it on Sam, and just strolls on. Ricks anticipates players will laugh at this point.

Tolkien's True Meaning May Not Make it Through

Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Jackson's film adaptations are stuffed with parables and metaphor, as well as complex themes. Some of these include the temptation of the One Ring, the struggle of the journey, the friction between the preservation of nature and the rise of industry, and the Shire as an illusion of paradise. These ideas are not simple concepts, and Ricks admits many of these will not be present in Lego: Lord of the Rings.

"Are the allegorical parts of the book, are they being conveyed in our adaptation? That’s not something that’s necessarily on the top of our list."

"Some of the more metaphorical aspects of Tolkien’s fiction will probably not necessarily make the cross into Lego form," he said. "Those kinds of elements are not what we’re aiming for. Are the allegorical parts of the book, are they being conveyed in our adaptation? That’s not something that’s necessarily on the top of our list. It naturally occurs insofar as Peter Jackson did a fantastic adaptation himself."

How some of these scenes will "naturally occur," Ricks said, is simply through players taking in the visuals on screen. An example Ricks pointed to was Saruman's defilement of the Isengard valley. Ricks anticipates players will come to see Saruman as a traitorous, nature-hating war-monger because they will see the evil wizard cut down the valley's trees and build deep pits for the creation of Orcs.

Ricks said he believes Lego: Lord of the Rings is capable of standing on its own as a faithful adaptation and recreation of Middle-earth. But at the same time, he conceded that it would not hurt for younger gamers to pick up the books or watch the films, too, in order to better understand the broader fiction.

"We do our very best to convey the story, but yeah, I would certainly expect kids to [watch the movies and read the books afterwards]. And not just that, but explore the broader Tolkien fiction at some point," he said. "I think for children, it starts in their imagination. It starts them on their own particular journey--who knows where it will lead?".

All in One Game…Really?

It took Tolkien thousands of pages (about 1,200, depending on the volume) and Jackson three already-lengthy feature films (about 9.3 hours in total for the standard-length versions) to convey the Lord of the Rings trilogy.* And yet Traveller's Tales is building out the entire narrative in just one game.

"We’re making a very, very big game," Ricks said, laughing. "We’re just finishing up now. And when we looked back at what we wanted to do for this game and then look at what we actually did…it’s an amazing achievement. The scope of it was never called into question. Do we do a Lego Fellowship, Two Towers…? For Lord of the Rings, it certainly fits the quest. And to encompass that, to tell the core story in the game…it had to be there and back again, if you will."

Ricks added that the story of Lego: Lord of the Rings will play out about 9 hours, which makes sense, given it follows Jackson's films. He said it is certainly one of the biggest undertakings the studio has ever tackled and quality assurance playthroughs are taking 24 hours to complete.

"We have not compromised on the scope or scale and now it’s really done," he said.

*Of note: Tolkien did not actually write Lord of the Rings as a trilogy. His publisher required it be trifurcated.

Working with the license-holders

Before Lego: Lord of the Rings could get underway at Traveller's Tales, a number of parties had to sign off, including the top-line property holder Middle-earth Enterprises. And according to Ricks, though there was some "education" that had to go on with certain parties, it has largely been smooth sailing from the onset.

"It's been nothing but a real pleasure," he said. "Everyone had something different to bring to the game and it’s that collaboration that makes our job really interesting. There’s Middle-earth Enterprises, and sometimes, I won’t mention any names, but sometimes there’s a degree of education that goes on. The guardians of the property…don’t want to see it abused in any way. And there’s a naturally comical nature to what we do and the combinations of those don’t necessarily sit together evenly when people initially view it. [But] the end result is a game that is as playable as it is authentic."

What Would Tolkien Think?

An impossible question, for sure, but interesting all the same. If Tolkien was alive today, what would he think of this undertaking? Tolkien served in World War I, and he wrote Lord of the Rings during World War II. He advocated for the preservation of nature and could have done without the proliferation of mass-scale industry. For these reasons, Ricks thinks Tolkien would need some convincing about Lego: Lord of the Rings, but would ultimately understand it.

"I think he would come around to the idea," Ricks said. "The horrors of war obviously made him quite reactionary to industrialization. I imagine the first time he saw a plasma TV or an Xbox or PlayStation he would probably balk at it. But I would really hope that he would understand that it’s being crafted by fans of his fiction with a genuine desire to see this adaptation…be [as] authentic as we can make it."

Lego: Lord of the Rings is due out this fall for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, Wii, 3DS, PlayStation Vita, and DS. For more, check out GameSpot's previous coverage.

Discussion

100 comments
tgwolf
tgwolf

The trouble has more to do with convincing the trustees that your idea is in line with Tolkien's master mind...not hard since he never gave too much flesh to his very very very large and broad Universe. I guess they just have to get people with some snuff to pull it off.

NkoSekirei
NkoSekirei

no body tosses a dwarf  not the beard!!!!

Stardust7
Stardust7

My cousin loves Lego games ,but he is 5 years old lol....teens and adults playing Lego games alone ( no kids )  is creepy  and just plain bizarre...

johnd13
johnd13

I have no problem with them trying to bring an adaptation so epic as the LOTR movies through a humourous-like lego game. It doesn' t mean that the deeper meaning of this fantastic world Tolkien created will be "spoken down". I see it just as another way to introduce this world to the audience.

bmart970
bmart970

I know it may be necessary, but I don't think the LEGO figures should talk. That was kinda part of the experience and humor of the LEGO games.

mhaed
mhaed

I don't understand how Lord of the Rings is any more violent than Star Wars... I mean, all of the Lego games have been spun off of movies, and don't you think this game will take more from the movies than the books? I think so, because the movies are what's popular among younger kids, not the books. From a movie perspective, this should be no more difficult than adapting Star Wars to Lego. Chopping off Orc's heads is no more violent than chopping off people's hands, freezing them in carbonite, and feeding them to Rancors.

jsonaut
jsonaut

looking forward to this game.  lego games can be cool, and aren't just for kids, or maybe I'm just a big kid?!

PlatinumPaladin
PlatinumPaladin

As with every story or franchise ever created, adapting original material to a different form (books to movies, to videogames, to building blocks, to musicals) is usually about reaching a different audience, and ultimately increasing that property's value. If any Tolkien purists take issue with this adaptation then that's fine, they're allowed to. At the end of the day they still have the original material to remind them of what it's really about. // I roll my eyes whenever the question of whether a deceased creator would approve of what someone else is doing to their work. They'd never say a flat-out 'no'- that would be suicide. I don't profess to know anything about Tolkien, but it's my opinion that true artists don't indulge themselves in their chosen medium for monetary gain which, as I said before, is kind of the reason for adaptations like this one. On the face of it, it sounds like Tolkien had a genuine issue with industrialisation. I can't imagine he'd be OK with any of these corporations using his material to further their profits. It's one of these questions we'll never have a concrete answer to, but that's just my view on that issue. : o)

CLOCKWORKIAN
CLOCKWORKIAN

I love how the main image has the main character off to the side. It's like playing a game of "Where's Waldo: Frodo Edition".

Stardust7
Stardust7

I think Lego games are very boring ,but perfect for kids ,because childs loves infinite lives and those stupid lego jokes....but ..Why  LOTR ???  Im a tolkien fan and I cant stress enough how i hated this LEGO LOTR idea... :(  ...fkkkkYOU LEGO and warner .... 

BetaVulgaris
BetaVulgaris

I'm already looking forward to hearing some LEGOlas jokes, lawl..

GianniBR
GianniBR

I think it will be fine, even for me (a huge fan of LOTR).

TheZeroPercent
TheZeroPercent

i want to get this on 3ds

but ill wait for the reviews

cause this has potential to suck on 3ds

jpmuddin
jpmuddin

I liked how the other LEGO games had no voices, it was funny and unique. And after all, if I wanted the Lord of the Rings dialogue or ciematic experience...I'd watch the movies. Nevertheless, I'll definitely check this out when it releases.

benleslie5
benleslie5

I'm quite tempted getting Lego Lord of the Rings at one point

Luizao2779
Luizao2779

Stopped reading when he mentioned Tolkien and allegory in the same sentence. Quote from Tolkien himself: "...I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence... "

Tiesto05
Tiesto05

Anyone ever step on a Lego barefoot? 

adam1808
adam1808

I have no interest in the Lego games, but damn it if a good bit of alliteration doesn't make me click on things.

Gladestone1
Gladestone1

Im not a kid an love legos heck why not..When all these devs are dumbing down games..So casual players can buy them these guys make games fun..There innovative, the puzzles are interesting when no one is doing puzzle type games any more..The stories are fun..The batman games where cool..Im 40 years old an enjoy these games..There not only for kids..

g1rldraco7
g1rldraco7

Watch this game breaks world record sales when it comes out :P

Gamertag-TFTW
Gamertag-TFTW

I've seen FOTR a dozen times and have it on Blu.  For the last three years in a row a LOTR game has won my GOTY.  They already used the family friendly device in Aragorn's Quest which was a really well done game with the Move controller.  I love the LOTR Slot Machine at the casino and have dropped hundreds of dollars on it.  Last year we got an adult game that was MERPs-esque and check out the three party system in Dragon's Dogma.  This game just doesn't seem serious enough to warrant my attention.

 

LOTR is a major attraction, and LEGO is a major attraction... for kids.  I did not get into LEGO Batman at all.  I think I'm going to pass this year and let Diablo III be my GOTY.  I still have a sealed copy of Max Payne 3 and Forza Horizon pre-ordered for my bro.  I'm just too old for this stuff and would like a little bit more mature Fantasy game like DIII.  I think WB really took a step back but maybe the Hobbit game will be more on point.

naryanrobinson
naryanrobinson

There's still a killer game waiting to be made from Lord of the Rings, and it hasn't happened yet.

 

The story is awesome, the characters are awesome, all they need to do is re-imagine the The Return of the King game in current-next gen and it could be incredible.

Saketume
Saketume

If they're having trouble with a simple task like this they should just stop making games.

It should be extremely easy to ho-hum some politically correct half parodic scenes to yet another identical Lego game.

 

If you want a challenge you should make a new type of Lego games instead.

 

Not that I mind these type of games. But seriously. You're having difficulties with the story? Incredible!

brok
brok

Well gee, here's a thought: Stop making lego games based on everything else, and start making lego games based on all the original lego worlds like you always SHOULD have been doing.

foxrock66
foxrock66

"Adds to the cinematic feel..."

 

Nope. Nothing to see here

CosmicJosh
CosmicJosh

The only way I'm getting this is if they removed that stupid split screen thing. http://media.giantbomb.com/uploads/0/7464/1294275-7678_super.jpg

 

IMO, it took away the fun of working together to solve something. After a while, it was "I'll go do my own thing."

The voice acting doesn't bother me too much, but they have got to try really hard to interest me as much as Lego Star Wars did/does.

gouldjw
gouldjw

 @tgwolf Never gave too much flesh???  Man, you obviously never read The Silmarillion.  That sucker is loaded with it!  Far more than you ever wanted to know about the history of Middle Earth.

 

jsonaut
jsonaut

Your comment is a bit creepy and bizarre, but I'm glad you made it!

wumpscutnut
wumpscutnut

 @mhaed No one's head was chopped off in Star Wars and if it was (in the lame prequels that I didn't watch much) then it wasn't shown and was toned way down. LoTR movies deals with much more mature themes and depicts much more complex stuff that Star Wars ever did. On a terms of violence alone... LoTR also has MUCH more violence and fighting in it that SW.

jsonaut
jsonaut

but printing, publishing, and advertising a book would have to fall under the "industrialisation" blanket, so why publish at all?

RTHKI
RTHKI

 @Stardust7 Kids like Lego. Kids like LOTR. Kids like video games. Makes sense.  And why are you so mad none of this affects you.

Vrygar777
Vrygar777

 @Luizao2779 

Yeah, LotR really isn't allegorical. Its more like a dualistic fantasy piece depicting the struggle between good and evil. Of course there's other things in there too, such as Boromir representing humanity, Tom Bombadil, and other things, but that's where the primary appeal comes from.

starduke
starduke

 @brok They did...it was called Lego Universe. Now, where is it? Shut down for good

Saketume
Saketume

 @brok I don't know about that.

I waited since the 80s for them to come up with the idea to license in characters to the world of LEGO. (Mostly hoping for marvel characters).

 

Getting movie deals and other current pop culture in lego form was and is a brilliant idea imo.

That said. These games are pure cash in.

They could focus more on using imagination to build your own stuff. But meh. They got a good thing going.

 

LEGO should be played with in the real world anyway. It will be hard to adapt it properly to computers.

 

A tip to the LEGO folks though. Make a game engine where you only build stuff. With all the pieces you want from the entire LEGO collection. Release it for cheaps. $10 or so

 

Just look at what people are doing with minecraft at the moment.

Now imagine if they get access to all the LEGO they want. Then lean back and watch them build amazing stuff and post on youtube and see how you increase the sales of real world plastic bricks/pieces. You'll be rich.

Granpire
Granpire

 @brok I think there's still a place for TT's Lego games, but I agree - I miss the old Lego games...

 

Anyone remember Lego Island? Man, that was such a beautiful interactive sandbox sort of game. Such an unknown, underrated game, and ahead of it's time in terms of it's open-world playground approach to game design.

 

Not to mention Lego Racers and Creator, those were also plenty of fun.

Xenomorphus28
Xenomorphus28

 @CosmicJosh The split screen was better than the original layout, as one person who tried to go one way was prevented from doing so while the other goes the other way.

Stardust7
Stardust7

 @jsonaut I don't get what you mean lol.......anyways...About my comment ...must be because im learning english and its not good....i can understand well ,but its still hard to type...

ChevLss
ChevLss

 @wumpscutnut  @mhaed In Empire, Luke lops off Vader's head on swamp planet Dagobah, the mask blows open to reveal Luke's face. Guess you missed that part eh, Star Nerd? None of these franchises were meant for pre-teens but modern marketing/profiteering caters to all you parents who want their kids to love THEIR beloved geekdoms. Hell, better than Spongebut Nobrains!!

 

gouldjw
gouldjw

 @wumpscutnut  @mhaed Jango Fett = head chopped off and rolling to his son, who picks it up and looks at it!  I'm remembering that right, right?

jsonaut
jsonaut

 @wumpscutnut  ROTS had Anakin getting burnt , limbs chopped off, jedi being murdered, young kids massacred, vader  shouting Noooooooooo!!  How is that made for kids?  LOTR is more complex, but no more violent.

Stardust7
Stardust7

 @RTHKI Because I don't think cool to associate a masterpiece as LOTR or Tolkien image with a boring game made for kids ....but Its just my opinion .. it doesnt affect me and im not mad lol ...In the end, it is all about money .

brok
brok

 @deskp  It's a start, yes. Still years and years overdue though.

CosmicJosh
CosmicJosh

 @Xenomorphus28 

It made the co-op part nearly non existent. And I'm a big split screen gamer, monkey ball, Halo, COD, Mario Kart, you name it. I've had lots of experience with split screen, and Lego Indiana Jones 2 and subsequent releases have just been less fun than the others, mostly due to the new split screen mechanic. 

johncreesey
johncreesey

Actually, Tolkien wrote two childrens' books.  One was stories from Tom Bombadil (a character in Fellowship that never made it to the big screen), and the other was also in a fantasy setting (can't remember the name).  Tolkien wrote The Hobbit as an adaptation from the bedtime stories he would tell his daughter.

wumpscutnut
wumpscutnut

 @mlcarter815  @Stardust7 Tolkien didn't write "towards" anyone. His publishers just published the Hobbit as a childrens book. He wrote from himself, for himself.