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.


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?

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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."

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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.

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