Bilbo the Billionaire: A Short History of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Greed Wars

Speaking of letting loose, even The Beatles got caught up in the Tolkien wars. The reclusive author’s works stormed the global imagination concurrent with Beatlemania, another geek orgy of explosive media and merchandising. George Harrison argued that The Beatles were always getting screwed in business, but his sentiment probably stands equally for Tolkienmania, which also went viral with “unauthorized” product which would give today’s intellectual property trolls mythic fantasies.

It’s no anachronism that BBC Omnibus’ excellent documentary J.R.R Tolkien: Master of Middle-Earth samples The Beatles’ time-warping masterpiece “Tomorrow Never Knows” — which recently scored $250,000 large for a single spin on Mad Men — to soundtrack Tolkienmania’s cultural explosion.

In fact, The Beatles were pop’s first major players to plan a reboot of Lord of the Rings. Picture yourself in a chair in a theater, watching John, Paul, George and Ringo play Gollum, Frodo, Sam and Gandalf.

But The Beatles’ capitalization was not to be, likely thanks to the professor himself. Tolkien’s own Hobbit-hole in an Oxford cul-de-sac — which, geeks will tell you, translates into “Bag End” from French — was bought to take care of his ailing wife, Edith, the childhood sweetheart who inspired Tolkien’s (few) Middle-earth females. Today, they are buried together under their Elvish names, Beren and Luthien, the foundational lovers of Tolkien’s legendarium. But by the ’60s, with Edith’s health failing, Tolkien’s real-time Bag End in Oxford was bisected to allow through traffic, development and deafening pop taste.

“In a house three doors away dwells a member of a group of young men who are evidently aiming to turn themselves into a Beatle Group,” Tolkien complained in a 1964 letter to Christopher Bretherton. “On days when it falls to his turn to have a practice session the noise is indescribable.”


In short, The Beatles didn’t get the Middle-earth gig.

The mind reels at what the mythic collision between Tolkien and The Beatles would have produced, but pop capitalizations on Middle-earth rebooted in stranger ways. In a brilliant moment of anti-typecasting, Leonard Nimoy — Mr. Spock, himself — legendarily sang a swinging 1967 paean to “the bravest hobbit of them all” in “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.” Despite his Bilbo fandom, Nimoy’s respective fans spent years on a letter-writing campaign aimed at launching a Lord of the Rings film, but with their Vulcan idol instead inhabiting Aragorn’s kingly boots. Like The Beatles’ ambitious adaptation, that campaign also came to nothing.

Not that Tolkien wasn’t buying what pop was selling. “I should welcome the idea of an animated motion picture, with all the risk of vulgarization,” he wrote in 1957, when American interest in adapting his work to screen was in its formative stages. “And that quite apart from the glint of money,” he added, “though on the brink of retirement that is not an unpleasant possibility.”

But two short years after denying The Beatles, Tolkien sold his film and merchandising rights to United Artists for about $150,000 dollars. That’s Lake Town cram compared to the billions that Jackson and company’s explosively successful adaptations of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit have since swallowed. So as the ’60s came to a close, Tolkien found himself, like Bilbo, “back home…a-sitting on a treasure of silver and gold” and “a-puffing on his pipe.”

But not for long.

Dragons may not have much real use for all their wealth, but they know it to an ounce as a rule. — The Hobbit

It wasn’t until the ’70s that Tolkien’s authorized animations arrived, starting with Rankin-Bass’ The Hobbit in 1977. In 1978, indie animation pioneer Ralph Bakshi unleashed his truncated but transformative The Lord of the Rings, a darker vision which sequenced the genes for Jackson’s blockbuster style. After Bakshi’s rotoscoped epic, which never got the funding it needed to more loyally conclude, Rankin-Bass’ middling 19980 adaptation of Return of the King lamely tried to square The One Ring‘s circle.

Taken together, the toons were rewarding but uneven homages to Tolkien’s twin masterpieces. But the technology and technique needed to more brilliantly bring Tolkien’s textual vision to cinema didn’t really come into its own until the end of his war-torn century. And when the astounding CGI of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy finally arrived, its cultural impact was topically compounded, like its source texts, by political and economic horrors. Jackson’s finest adaptation Fellowship of the Ring arrived two months after 9/11 (whose primary target was the World Trade Center’s financial towers), while his Oscar-hoarding finale Return of the King, the last Tolkien adaptation to score a billion worldwide, touched down during the invasion of Iraq. Like The Hobbit, it was a mineral-rich resource war longer and perhaps even more pointless than Tolkien’s existentially exhausting WWI.

Yet despite six billion in overall riches, Jackson’s films arrived bearing suspiciously little loot for Tolkien, despite their obvious devotion to his foundational fantasy classics.

“These hugely popular films apparently did not make any profit!” the Tolkien Estate’s Oxford-based lawyer Cathleen Blackburn told Le Monde. “We were receiving statements saying that the producers did not owe the Tolkien Estate a dime.”

And so, like Jackson before them, the Tolkien Estate sued to recover $220 million of New Line and WB’s Lord of the Rings hoard. That put a full stop to The Hobbit‘s expected journey to film and games, until the Tolkien Estate settled out of court, reportedly scoring a comparatively paltry $35 million.

With two more films on the way, The Hobbit‘s metafictional economics and internecine war promises to further drown in money. And we have yet to meet its dragon occupier, a signifier of menace and greed who ignites the next film The Desolation of Smaug, due in December. After that arrives There And Back Again in 2014, anchored by The Battle of The Five Armies’ aforementioned throwdown between 13 cash-mad dwarves, thousands of pissed-off Men and opprtunistic Elves.

Now the real-time armies scrambling for slices of Smaug’s pie have another billion to carve, with further expected riches on the way. Which is why Zaentz’s countersuit reads like an endgame straight outta Smaug’s enraged brain.

But like The Hobbit‘s “calculating” dwarves, Zaentz is no stranger to calculators. He’s been immortalized as “Mr. Greed” by John Fogerty, who had to give up his rights to Creedence Clearwater Revival‘s notable catalogue to leave Zaentz’s defunct label Fantasy Records. Fogerty nailed another jab in the song “Zanz Can’t Dance” (but he’ll steal your money, the song needled), as the two parties traded suits — Fantasy, Inc. v. Fogerty, Fogerty vs. Fantasy — whose titles sound like they could have been written by Tolkien.

In the final analysis, however, both The Hobbit and An Unexpected Journey are instructive for both plaintiffs and defendants intractably locked in greed war over Tolkien’s exquisite corpus. It, as Jackson’s film argues, is a “sickness of the mind” that dreams up divine short-term rights but instead results in more valuable long-term losses. Given Tolkien’s spiritual and environmental concerns, it’s more than ironic that Zaentz has lodged a “prayer for relief” from a California district court thousands of miles away from England. It’s inevitable.

Because the greed wars that rage within and without its proliferating multimedia are not limited to The Hobbit. They kick in whenever a intertwined work of art and commerce is rebooted, remixed or recombined into another system of loaded signifiers, it can’t help but overwrite its original programming. Which as Tolkien’s devoted son Christopher laments is eventually lost in a commercialized soup of code and cash.

That desperation somewhat mirrors Tolkien’s own fears of runaway mechanization, which alternately terrorized him during World War I and infuriated him during Beatlemania. Because the ongoing capitalization on his legendarium is a minting machine clearcutting everything from its source texts to its court battles in its wake.

Which is to say, quite far from The Hobbit‘s ostensible lullabye about a comfy, cozy suburbanite whisked into adventure. Unless, of course, adventure means an existentially transformative but nevertheless senseless tug of war between rich people and richer people arguing over mountains of money. Through Mirkwood’s elven king, Tolkien said it best in The Hobbit‘s philosophical pages:

“Long will I tarry, ere I begin this war for gold. Let us hope still for something that will bring reconciliation.”