From Page to PlayStation: Shadow of Mordor

Middle-Earth-Shadow-of-Mordor-724x334-1

These days, media products are rarely released in one medium. Instead, they see releases across different media, traveling from stage to page to PlayStation and back again. There are many interesting questions to ask about these media franchises and their adaptations: what aspects of those media remain the same across different platforms? What changes? What is the original format and how is it adapted in subsequent media? As a case in point, I’ll be examining Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor and how it compares to the Lord of the Rings film trilogy and J.R.R. Tolkien’s original writings. I’ll be focusing mostly on Tolkien’s writings as opposed to the movies. For those of you who have played the game and watched the movies, this emphasis on the written material might seem counterintuitive: the game clearly takes its audio-visual style from Peter Jackson’s films. While I could enumerate the various ways the game borrows the imagery and sounds of the movie, I’m more interested in how Tolkien’s broader themes, found in his writing, are maintained or discarded by the game. I’m focused on the textual adaptions of Middle-Earth for two reasons: the first is that the writings are the basis of all subsequent adaptations and the second is that I’m a bigger fan of the books than the movies and so I know the books more thoroughly.

What are Tolkien’s broader themes? What big ideas was he trying to convey in his huge output of fantasy writings? I think that Tolkien was primarily concerned with the themes of loss and nostalgia for an irretrievable idyllic past. You only have to skim the Lord of the Rings trilogy to find numerous references to kingdoms long gone, ancient languages half-forgotten, ruins built by glorious kings of old and names of heroes of eras long past. Instead of culling examples from the novels, I instead want to focus on some of Tolkien’s short poetry which expresses his larger themes much more concisely than his approximately 480,000-word novel. Here are two examples:

The Town of Dreams

“Here many days once gently past me crept
In this dear town of old forgetfulness;
Here all entwined in dreams once long I slept
And heard no echo of the world’s distress…

For here the castle and the mighty tower,
More lofty than the tiered elms,
More grey than long November rain,
Sleep, and nor sunlit moment nor triumphal hour,
Nor passing of the seasons or the Sun
Wakes their old lords too long in slumber lain…

The Elm robe[s] and disrobe[s] her of a million leaves
Like moments clustered in a crowded year,
Still their old heart unmoved nor weeps nor grieves,
Uncomprehending of this evil tide,
Today’s great sadness, or Tomorrow’s fear:
Faint echoes fade within their drowsy halls
Like ghosts; the daylight creeps across their walls.”

The Cottage of Lost Play

“You and me–we know that land
And often have been there
In the long old days, old nursery days,
A dark child and a fair.
Was it down the paths of firelight dreams
In winter cold and white,
Or in the blue-spun twilit hours
Of little early tucked-up beds
In drowsy summer night,
That You and I got lost in Sleep
And met each other there…
The air was neither night nor day,
But faintly dark with softest light,
When first there glimmered into sight: The Cottage of Lost Play…
But why it was there came a time
When we could take the road no more,
Though long we looked, and high would climb,
Or gaze from many a seaward shore
To find the path between sea and sky
To those old gardens of delight?”

We can see in both these poems a longing for an idyllic past: in the second example, the narrator laments his inability to visit an enchanted land from his childhood while in the first, the narrator worries that his time spent in pleasant drowsiness has left him unprepared for the world’s current distress, implying that the past and present are far better than what is to come. The imagery from both poems, the “old garden of delight,” “the Cottage of Lost Play,” the “old lords too long in slumber lain,” all signal to the reader that the narrator is looking back at a better, but irreparably lost, past. Tolkien’s shorter poems express his desire to recall a better, younger age of the world free from the troubles of the present. These same concerns structure The Lord of the Rings which constantly reminisces about the First and Second Ages of the world, the time of the Elves, before their magic began to wane.

Now that we’ve become familiar with Tolkien’s writings, we can trace how his larger themes either appear or are lost when they made the long transition into a video game. Peter Jackson’s films capture this sense of nostalgia quite well, including many scenes of Gandalf or Aragorn explaining some nearly-lost piece of lore to the hobbits. The films also focus heavily on the plight of the elves (like Elrond and Galadriel) as they consider leaving Middle-Earth, weighing what they stand to lose or gain by the decision. Shadow of Mordor retains these same themes. The game centers on Talion, a ranger who loses his family and his own life to the servants of Sauron. Resurrected by the spirit of an elven smith named Celebrimbor, the two set off on a quest of revenge against the Dark Lord. Talion and Celebrimbor constantly reminisce about the past, Talion reliving domestic scenes with his lost family and Celebrimbor finding old silver items he made long ago by which he relives his own past. The game also features many artifacts that the player finds scattered around Mordor from which they can extract the memories of people who lived in the area in earlier ages of the world. Talion’s weapons have inscriptions in Elvish, a language steeped in the traditions of a distant past. The game always glances backward, both in its main storyline in which two dead men seek revenge beyond the grave or in its finer details which provide information on how Mordor came to be what it is now and what the world was like when it was still young.

Even though Tolkien’s writings have moved across so many different media, from movies to a video game, they have retained in each of their adaptations the original concerns of their author. This retention points not only to the attentiveness of Tolkien’s adaptors to his overarching themes but also to the wide appeal and staying power of those themes themselves. Although, as Tolkien warns us, we might lose much to the passing of time, we will not lose Tolkien’s vision as filmmakers and video game developers remake and reshape his works.

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1 Comment

  1. Jarno Lång Jarno Lång
    June 25, 2016    

    Pretty far fetched. I bet the “relics” were there just to create an arbitrary “depth” and connection to the lore. Like trying to push every little detail they got rights to use in the game.

    “Although, as Tolkien warns us, we might lose much to the passing of time, we will not lose Tolkien’s vision as filmmakers and video game developers remake and reshape his works.”

    Hrrr..

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