For the past month my local Barnes & Noble has been promoting a Tolkien discussion session: “Read, reread and discuss the books inspiring the upcoming Lord of the Rings films.”
My eight-year-old son, Benjamin, learned about the event while visiting the bookstore, and he was very interested in attending, having gotten hooked on the story by listening to the BBC radio production as well as Ralph Bakshi’s animated film. Being an unquenchable Tolkien fan myself, I agreed to take him. Besides, I thought the discussion might be a good introduction to the books, since Benjamin was not yet ready to read them for himself.
After several weeks of anticipation, the Big Event arrived last night. The discussion was hosted by an enthusiastic young man named Carlos, who told us he arrived on the U.S. mainland only four years ago from Puerto Rico – an island quite different from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Great Britain. He was a teacher and pastor who had learned about Tolkien’s works only quite recently – within the past year, in fact.
What had turned Carlos on to Tolkien? It was the movie trailer for Peter Jackson’s films.
Seeing the trailer reminded Carlos of a Tolkien poster he had once seen in a teacher’s office. And with a big-budget based upon the books coming out, he was curious to find out more about them.
Well, after cracking open the books, he became a fan – just like we all did – and he had to share his discovery with the rest of the world. Oh, Carlos knew the books had been in existence for fifty years and had sold over 100 million copies world-wide, but that still meant there were plenty of people who had not yet discovered these wonderful books. So, Carlos wrote up a syllabus for a discussion series, presented it to the Barnes & Noble staff, and here we all were Wednesday night.
All six of us.
Besides Carlos, Benjamin and myself – there were two friends from the UK who, like me, first read LOTR when it gained popularity in the 1970’s and had gone on to read The Silmarillion several times, and a teenager who was reading the trilogy for the first time.
But Carlos’ enthusiasm was enough for a room filled with a thousand people. He told us what he had learned of Tolkien’s life, about the Inklings, and the insights he gleamed from reading Letters and a Tolkien biography. It was all stuff that I already well knew – but that’s all right. I experienced that same vicarious sense of discovery I get from reading The Tolkien Virgin.
Carlos’ plan was for us to meet monthly, reading one of the six “books” of the trilogy before each meeting and discuss the contents. However, we all soon agreed that what we’d rather do is have a reading session rather than a discussion session — reading a chapter aloud during each meeting. Carlos wanted to cover as much of the trilogy as we could before the first film, which he was very excited about seeing, and so we decided to meet weekly instead of monthly.
I never have the heart to interrupt the presentation with the news about all the differences between the films and the books. Not that such news would have mattered, for Carlos, without knowing anything about the controversy surrounding the films, had told us that he realized the films will become a distant memory in only a few years, but the books will remain alive forever.
Now that’s a Tolkien fan!
My son, Benjamin, was enthralled with the whole experience and looking forward to participating in a reading session. I left the meeting thinking how wonderful it was to watch someone discover The Lord of the Rings for the first time and feeling grateful to Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema for launching a chain of events that provided me with a new way of discovering the books all over again.
Of course, this is an anecdotal incident, signifying nothing about the films’ impact on a large scale. As a long-time observer of our Movie Forum, I know that many Purists believe that these films will do a disservice to Tolkien and wish that they weren’t being made, while many Revisionists believe that the films will be responsible for making Tolkien’s works more popular than ever before.
What do YOU think the films’ impact will be? Will they benefit Tolkien fandom, or harm it? Submit your comments below or on our Messageboard.