“Being Middle Earth: How fantasy shapes the living world” was the subject of one of the latest in The Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Adult Learning Distinguished Lecture series with the support of KUHF, 88.7 FM, Houston Public Radio. The lecture was timed to tie in with the visit of the Lord of The Rings Exhibit from The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, this lecture was one of a series of events including a costume contest and a two night’s only performance of The Lord of The Rings Symphony by the Houston Symphony.
Amy Featherston Potts is Director of Adult Education at the HMNS and is responsible for bringing the Distinguished Lecture series and The Lord of the Rings together, I asked her to explain a little more about the Lectures; “The Houston Museum of Natural Science is committed to the education of all ages. The Department of Adult Education plans lectures, hands-on classes, exhibition tours, day excursions and travel programs for adults to compliment our permanent and travelling exhibitions. We enjoy bringing experts to the Museum to discuss their research. We were lucky that Michael Martinez, author of Visualizing Middle-earth was available to speak at the Museum as we host The Lord of the Rings Motion Picture Trilogy: The Exhibition.”
The lecture allowed Michael to share some inside knowledge with us Joe public concerning how the industry, economy and everyday peoples lives have changed not only from the movies but from the books, a black and white photo of a spray painted sign reading “Bilbo Baggins Lives in Vietnam” reminding us that long before Peter Jackson was a director, Tolkien’s works were having a profound effect on society.
We kicked off the night with a ten minute DVD compiled by Michael that featured excerpts from J.R.R.T: A Film Portrait of J.R.R. Tolkien, a film that is hard to come by, but contains some thought provoking and in-depth interviews with members of Tolkien’s family and well worth a look if you can find it. Intercut with the interviews were some excellent images, many of which are not all that well known, but all reminding us of Tolkien’s wide reaching effect.
He then discussed some of the things the average reader of LOTR might not realise, such as the history of the Silmarillion and how LOTR’s publishing affected and changed his earliest and never finished work.
It was interesting to hear some of the figures for repeat viewing of the movies and industry changes that have occurred since the movies release–the expansion and development of Weta Workshop is one great example.
The hour being late and having a four hour drive ahead of me I asked Michael if he would be willing to give me a short interview about the lecture, he agreed–and for safety’s sake we completed it via email…
How did you become to be involved in the Adult Education lecture series at HMNS?
When I learned the Lord of the Rings Exhibit was coming to Houston, I asked the museum if they would be inviting any of the local Tolkien authors to speak. They asked for a proposal and I sent them the abstract for “Being Middle-earth: How Fantasy Shapes The Living World.”
Why did you pick Being Middle Earth as your topic?
The museum explained that they needed to keep guest lectures relevant to the movies. Since I had been involved with both fan activities and movie-related projects, it seemed like a natural match.
What did you hope the attendees would take away from the lecture?
I want people to see that the cinematic experience is evolving. In the 1950s when a fantasy movie was released, it might be promoted with special events in a few cities, maybe a 3-D Vision release would generate some hype, but there wasn’t much else going on for people to latch on to.
Today, the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings movies benefit from active fan involvement. People create Web sites, write books, stage re-enactments, create derivative works, arrange conventions, make costumes, learn whole languages, and just immerse themselves in the worlds associated with these movies. And the fans do this stuff too. That’s the really neat thing. As I listed out all those activities, the natural reaction anyone would have is, “Hey, this is fan stuff.” But it’s also part of the movie experience. The studios sanctioned a lot of secondary projects which were really produced by fans.
When I was approached for consulting contracts, the people who were involved in the marketing programs often mentioned how they were fans of the books and really hoped the movies turned out to be a great success. A huge fan base already existed in the technical and industrial sectors which produced the toys, books, games, gizmos, and things that were sold to the movie audiences. Everybody who had read Tolkien’s literature, and who was involved in some professional field that might have a tie-in to the movies attempted to get involved.
My email exploded years before the first movie came out, and I have heard that other Webmasters’ email went through similar transformations. Thousands upon thousands of people around the world actively sought out connections that would help them bring their businesses into the Lord of the Rings experience. The purpose of the lecture was to give people a sense of just how much the world moved The Lord of the Rings after New Line Cinema sanctioned the movies.
You mentioned that you would like to expand the DVD and lecture into a power point type presentation, could you explain a bit about what you would do with that?
I think a lot of people would be interested in learning more about the scope of the whole experience. In fact, when the next movie sensation comes along, people will undoubtedly compare it to the Lord of the Rings experience. For a couple of years I thought the Harry Potter books and movies might be included in that category (of fantasy worlds like Star Wars and Middle-earth which generate staggering amounts of marketing), but marketers have scaled down their enthusiasm for Harry Potter. People don’t immerse themselves in the Harry Potter world the way they do in Star Wars and Middle-earth.
But there is a dearth of literature (at least on the Web) about the experience, despite all the fan reports and special articles that were written from 2000 to 2003. No one has yet published anything substantive about the scope of the experience. In the megaproject that this movie experience became, there were three areas of specialization: the movie production itself, the sanctioned commercial projects, and the fan activities. The memories are still fresh. In many cases, the data are still available for study, although some aspects of the experience have probably already been lost to posterity through accidents, deaths, illnesses, etc.
The one thing neither the fan sites nor the media did was create a footprint for researchers to follow. At some point in time, I think people will look back at Peter Jackson’s movies and say, “Well, regardless of what you think about the films or their relationship to the book, this was something unique.” Maybe they will say it was a starting point.
How do you see the influence of Tolkien continuing in the future?
It’s becoming more difficult to find good, standalone fantasy literature. In the 1980s and 1990s, everyone had to write a trilogy. Now the trilogies have evolved into series of books, like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series. There seems no end to the number of volumes an author can add to his world. One of the most prolific writers of serial fantasy novels has been Christopher Stasheff, who once admitted to me in email that he felt burned out (but who has since nonetheless written several more novels, even spinning off series from the main series of his Warlock books).
Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books draw a lot of attention, but other authors such as Marion Zimmer Bradley and Andre Norton created worlds which were opened up to other authors. The Darkover and Witch World stories just became immense creative wells in which author after author dipped their quills for inspiration and in some cases to launch a career.
I think Tolkien’s influence is felt in all these kinds of projects because his books left the readers wanting more. And as people grow up with all the Tolkien studies and secondary literature produced by Christopher Tolkien, they are striving to become more thoughtful about the literature they create. They may never become as good as Tolkien, but Tolkien only set the bar. Eventually, someone will surpass him. I hope so. Tolkien won’t be diminished when that happens; we will be enrichened.
How do you think the success of the LOTR movies has opened up the industry for similar movie, Narnia for example?
Well, movie viewing audiences are hungry for high quality productions. The “Dungeons and Dragons” movie was a bitter failure for many people for a number of reasons. I liked it when it first came out because it at least attempted to project a different aspect of the fantasy literature into cinema. But upon rewatching it, I can easily see how it made the same mistakes that many other movies have.
If you look at movies like Spider-man, Batman Begins, and The Fantastic Four, you’ll see they all have one trait in common with Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings: they don’t talk down to the audience. They don’t pretend that this is kiddie stuff and therefore they don’t have to take the subject matter seriously. The film industry always fails when it makes fantasy movies that look cheap, slovenly, and schlocky.
The Harry Potter movies have been criticized for looking like over glossed kiddie cinema. I don’t agree with that criticism entirely. But the media do tend to misidentify the markets for popular fantasy productions. For example, the television show Hercules: The Legendary Journeys was immensely popular with adults, but somewhere in the 2nd or 3rd season some executive decided it should be marketed to children and the show was dumbed down and a lot of toys were marketed which really didn’t sell well. It wasn’t until the show’s last season, when they killed off Iolaus and sent Hercules on an emotional journey of self-exploration that the show’s main audience returned to it.
Harry Potter has been misidentified in much the same way. The core audience for both the books and the movies is almost the same, and most of those people fall into the age groups starting at 16 and above. Some young people have grown up reading the books, but many adults are totally devoted fans.
So, as long as Narnia, King Kong, and other upcoming fantasy movies treat the subject matter seriously, and treat the audience with respect, they have great chances for success. The Harry Potter movies work because the story is so compelling despite the compromises that have been made for the sake of mistargeted marketing.
And much of that transition began with Tolkien, who took fantasy literature and elevated it to the status of serious literature. He showed people that if you treat the subject matter and the audience with respect, you can produce something truly good. The film industry could have improved the quality of its fantasy movies decades ago simply by following the principle George Lucas set with the first Star Wars movie. He celebrated the schlocky roots of Space Opera Cinema, but nonetheless elevated the drama and to some extent the characterizations to the forefront.
Peter Jackson had to cover so much material he couldn’t do a great deal of character development, but what character development he did focus on (Frodo, Gollum, Sam in particular) resonated with audiences. Narnia and other upcoming movies need to attend to that same kind of detail.
Thanks to Amy Featherston Potts, Michael Martinez, KUHF: Houston Public Radio and the Houston Museum of Natural Science.