Ring Rage - Jeffrey Wells apologizes for calling Tolkien fans "geeks"
Hundreds of angry J.R.R. Tolkien fans stormed my e-mail inbox yesterday, throwing knives, spears, hatchets and epithets. It was all more or less over my having used the word "geeks" in Wednesday's lead article to describe the "faithful" who will presumably be supporting New Line's first Lord of the Rings movie when it opens in December.
I've never read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, but I appreciate and respect the fact that the books are generally regarded as serious literature. When I used the word "geeks" I was using what I considered to be a respectful description of those who usually turn out for films of this sort.
And I respect Tolkien and the millions of fans who've been stirred by his writings. Tolkien's rep is generally that of an author of fantasy literature, although he was in fact a distinguished and spiritual-minded scholar with impeccable literary cred.
The notion that brainier, hipper, edgier types are into Tolkien goes way back. I realize the three books were initially published between '54 and '56, but I'm sure those who wrote in yesterday also know that the Rings cult really ignited when '60s counter-culture types began embracing the myth and metaphor of it all ("Frodo lives!").
Just to be clear: Though I never mentioned Tolkien or his books in the piece, I'm sorry for characterizing Tolkien fans as "geeks." I guess I learned something from this.
Even though (Wait a minute! He's saying it again!) geek love will obviously be a crucial factor behind the expected triumph of New Line's first installment, which is being called (and I really hate nine-word titles with colons in the middle) Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. This despite what Harry Knowles told me yesterday afternoon (which I'm not challenging), which is that Lord of the Rings "goes back 50 years and has a whole different range of people than [what] your typical geek crowd [includes] ... the audience is quite wide."
Why did the word "geek" stir so much anger? Because there's an antiquated notion that it means people who live in their neurotic-fringe heads and have no lives. People who frequent Star Trek and Star Wars conventions and obsess over comic books and wear flannel shirts and T-shirts and tend to be flabby and don't get laid very often.
I'm really surprised to find myself actually feeling the need to explain this, but from where I'm sitting "geek" is primarily a term of respect. They're a bona fide, economically vibrant, cutting-edge culture. They are generally thought of as being brighter, hipper and more passionate about the movies and books (and yes, comic books) they consume than average, everyday Joes.
After attending last July's Comicon convention in San Diego, I called it "a convention for hard-core fans of the mythical and fantastical in pop entertainment. Anything wondrous, gory, gothy, or geeky. Scary movies, superhero movies, futuristic plots, heavy special effects, state-of-the-art makeup. Anything vaguely fan-boy. I've always felt like a mutant of sorts, but never that close to the geeks. But they're a good bunch. I like their die-hard passions and devotions."
Knowles has spoken proudly many times about being a geek, and he repeated these sentiments at the Comicon gathering. Kevin Smith has spoken about geek culture in similar, highly respectful terms.
Some of you out there can get as angry as you want and call me this and that, but you know and I know that however popular New Line's Rings trilogy turns out to be, they wouldn't have given the green light to spend close to $300 million to make these films if they didn't respect the culture described in the previous graph, and if they weren't counting on the money the loyalists are expected to spend.
And yes, the core audience will also include pre-teens. These are not going to be David Mamet films. They're going to be epic and magical and deal with a vaguely medieval, fantastical other-world, and so on. Far be it from me to sum up the parts, given my ignorance, but the online trailer makes it clear what's up.
Is there anyone out there who would seriously debate the notion that pre-teens (and their parents) aren't going to support the Rings movies in droves? C'mon.
One guy said I was foolish to describe the appeal of the forthcoming Rings movies as "unproven." I obviously didn't mean unknown or unpopular or without a literary following. I meant that committing $300 million to a fantastical trilogy based on a property that feels very, very familiar seems like a dicey thing. Not the making of one movie for $90 or $100 million, but three for roughly three times that amount.
I'd like to ask everyone who wrote in and called me an a**hole or worse a simple question: How different or distinct do you expect the Rings trilogy to be compared to the Star Wars films? Or any of the other special-effects-laden, mystical-flavored movies of the last 10 to 15 years?
I expect some differences, of course, and some leaps of imagination. But do any of you expect the Rings films to blow the world away with an original vision? Remember, also, that this is New Line Cinema we're speaking of here. Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures was deeply felt and sometimes magical, but do you honestly think ... ? No. Let's stop this. My suspicions aren't worth spit.
I only meant it's one thing for George Lucas to financially commit to shooting three Star Wars prequels, but Rings has no cinematic track record, and that any producer-gambler would have to consider that the kind of material it seems to be promising has apparently been seen and digested before. The success of the first one seems assured, but the whole trio kicking box-office butt is another proposition.
But the vitriol in some of those letters ... man! Half were smart, articulate and well-composed, but the other half felt like wild punches and gobs of spit. E-mails trashing my looks or my haircut are pretty far afield. I understand the anger, to some extent. Devoted Tolkien-ites see the Rings novels as sacred scrolls. It was the same deal with the Star Wars fans. There were some who wanted me dead after I slammed The Phantom Menace in May of '99.
Re-read Wednesday's piece and look at what I said about the film itself. It's almost all positive. The cost is said to be higher than the acknowledged budget of $270 million. The interest levels are high and profit for the first installment seems assured. And unless the first film ignites a Star Wars-like mass appeal the second and third film may not do as well, but that I personally admire New Line's chutzpah. What's so terrible about that?