NewsWire: Lord of the Webrings - Kansas City Star - Monday, February 26, 2001

LORD OF THE WEBRINGS
By JOHN MARK EBERHART and ROBERT W. BUTLER - The Kansas City Star
Date: 02/25/01 22:15

Just call it "The Lord of the Web."

The first of the three long-awaited "Lord of the Rings" films doesn't even open until Dec. 19, but the Internet buzz has already reached heights unheard of, even in the bloated world of Hollywood hype.

Part of the ballyhoo, of course, is due to New Line Cinema's official movie site, www.lordoftherings.net, but this isn't just a case of Tinseltown tub-thumping.

Freaks for J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy trilogy have created dozens of sites that feature daily debates about the film versions' expected merits and flaws, juicy info-nuggets allegedly based on scuttlebutt from production insiders, and even photographs pirated (or purposely leaked) from the sets in New Zealand, where the three movies are being filmed.

It's not uncommon for movies to have Web sites these days, but it is unusual for grass-roots sites to sprout as fast as -- well, as fast as a hobbit can scurry into a hobbit hole. Only the "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" films seem to have generated this kind of fanaticism.

New Line officials realized they had a tiger by the tail last April when the then-fledgling Web site offered a few seconds of teaser footage from the film.

"We had more than 1.7 million downloads in the first 24 hours," said Gordon Paddison, New Line's senior vice president for interactive marketing and business development. "I won't say we've been stunned because we always knew how popular the books are; there have been 90 million copies sold in 50 languages. But we're grateful that the fan base has remained so involved."

But then, these films by director Peter Jackson have been a half-century in coming. Tolkien published the three Lord of the Rings volumes in the 1950s, and yet these are the first live-action versions of "The Fellowship of the Ring" (opening Dec. 19), "The Two Towers" (holiday season 2002) and "The Return of the King" (holiday season 2003).

Thus, several generations of Tolkien fans are waiting to see how Jackson will bring to the screen the author's imaginative Middle-earth, populated by diminutive hobbits, sturdy dwarves, magical elves and humans whose hearts range from noble to nasty.

"I don't find this surprising at all," said Kansas City fantasy and science fiction writer Robin Wayne Bailey. "Gosh, The Lord of the Rings has been the cornerstone of modern fantasy since it appeared (in the 1950s). Almost no work of modern fantasy has been published that wasn't in some way a dialogue with The Lord of the Rings. It's a template for the genre."

And now it's a target for Webmania.

The official movie site does depend more on flash than on substance, but there is still lots of fun to be had at www.lordoftherings.net.

Personal-computer users (sorry, there's no Mac version) can download a "Lord of the Rings" Web browser to replace their humdrum Internet Explorer or Netscape versions. The LOTR Browser can be color-customized -- one version features lush greens to remind users of the hobbits' pastoral homeland, the Shire.

Fans can also download "video-streaming" files that provide film-clip interviews with Jackson and other crew members. One entertaining segment features a makeup man discussing the challenge of making loads of realistic hobbit ears (they're pointy, among other things).

There are also photographs, including an awesome aerial shot of the emerald-green New Zealand countryside taken when the production team was scouting the location for the hobbit hamlet, Hobbiton.

The site's maps of Middle-Earth reflect Tolkien's fascination with constructing a detailed geography for his world, from the beautiful Shire to the dreaded home of the Dark Lord, the wasted, grayish land of Mordor.

And this is just the beginning, according to New Line's Paddison.

"For the Web site alone we have a four-year editorial calendar we'll follow to introduce new material," Paddison said in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles. "This calendar covers all three release cycles of the film, and beyond. During this period we'll be adding something new to the site virtually every weekday, so there will always be a reason for the fans to check in. You just can't believe the bells and whistles that will be coming."

The site will remain in progress for the foreseeable future. Many of the maps, for example, still lack points of interest that visitors can click on to learn more.

But the official site represents just a fraction of what's on the Web, and some of the unofficial sites top it easily in terms of content.


At www.ringfaq.com, Tolkien zealots can view a gallery of pictures supposedly appropriated from the production, including a sneak peak at Elijah Wood, the young actor who plays hobbit Frodo Baggins, in full hobbit regalia, complete with a mane of dark hair, cherubic cheeks and oversized ears.

At www.tolkienmovies.com fans can feast on a still photo of Gollum, the slimy, bug-eyed anti-hobbit being portrayed not by an actor but generated completely by computer graphics.

The best rumors can be found at www.theonering.net, which features sometimes daily updates on the massive movie project. One of the latest "spy reports" enthuses over an especially massive, nasty-looking character named Lurtz, an Orc (sort of a perversion of an elf) who menaces Boromir, one of Frodo's friends.
New Line's Paddison said his company sees these other "Ring" sites as "friends, not foes. We've embraced the fan sites. They're our brothers. At the end of the day we're all fans of the books and Tolkien's world."

In fact, Paddison said, the official site was built with the understanding that it would include links to other sites, from fan-based operations to scholarly examinations of Tolkien's life and writings. That way, he said, New Line's site could concentrate on the films themselves.

Jonathan Watson, principal developer of Tolkien Online, the One Ring site, said the Web just provides a new forum for a longstanding fan obsession.

"Tolkien's always been sort of a grass-roots thing," he said. "Even in the '60s, it sort of exploded because of word of mouth. There are a lot of people that it has touched somehow."

Watson, of Arcadia, Calif., said only "Star Wars" rivals Tolkien for fan interest, and of course the Tolkien movies are getting ready to crest now. That means he works daily to keep it fresh and interesting.

"A Web site is almost like a biological creature; it's always changing, always growing." And it must be working. The site is logging 10,000 visitors a day.

Fans are also reveling in their arguments over every rumored facet of the films. One touchy subject that has some of them bristling is the expanded role for Arwen Evenstar, an elvish lady betrothed to the heroic human Aragorn. In the books, Arwen is mostly a passive observer, but the filmmakers apparently wanted more screen time for the lovely Liv Tyler, who plays the role.

Bailey thinks the botched attempts at filming Tolkien have contributed to the current mania. Years ago there was a disappointing animated version of The Hobbit, Tolkien's prelude to the trilogy itself. And Ralph Bakshi tried the cartoon approach for his version of The Lord of the Rings, but it was not a hit with Tolkien fans.

"They weren't well-received at all, and I think that has whetted the appetite for what people hope will be a better version," Bailey said.

Plus, the Tolkien cult is just a natural for a big presence on the Web, Bailey said. Like many fans, he used to read the entire trilogy every year.

"I can understand how fans have taken to the Web. In the old days, they used to publish little fanzines and mail them back and forth. That died out, but now the Web has brought back the communication between fans."


To reach John Mark Eberhart, books editor, call (816) 234-4772 or send e-mail to jeberhart@kcstar.com.

To reach Robert W. Butler, movie editor for The Star, call (816) 234-4760 or send e-mail to bbutler@kcstar.com.


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All content © 2001 The Kansas City Star

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