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San Antonio Express-News
Sitting in a San Antonio theater just before some soon-to-be-forgotten summer movie, 13-year-old Joanna Hawkins gasped when the trailer for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” popped up on the screen.
Her excitement withered a bit when the quick glimpses of Harry and his Hogwarts School companions gave way to “Coming Nov. 16.”
“That was at the beginning of the summer,” she said last week. “I’ve been waiting a long time.”
J.R.R. Tolkien’s fans might quibble with her definition of “a long time.”
Take Paul Lara, a product manager for a local softwear company. He was a high school freshman when he first read The Hobbit, then devoured the subsequent Lord of the Rings trilogy as quickly as he could. Back then, he decided that if he ever had children, The Hobbit was one of the books he wanted to read to them. More than 20 years and three kids later, he’ll finally see The Fellowship of the Ring, the first in the trilogy, come to life Dec. 19.
Lara is optimistic about how close the book [I think she means “film” — David] will come to capturing Tolkien’s sprawling world. He is especially heartened that director Peter Jackson didn’t try to boil the behemoth trilogy into a single film. Instead, each of the books — The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King — will get its individual due.
“This is not ‘let’s make a two-hour movie out of it.’ It’s so sweeping, such a large-scale, continental tale that can’t be told that way,” he said.
And so he joins millions of other fans in counting the days ’til Dec. 19, just as Harry Potter fans are ticking off the days ’til Sorcerer’s Stone hits big screens on Friday. Each film comes to the silver screen with a built-in audience — an enviable thing for any movie to have, though there is a dark side to it. The fans who have been planning for months to catch the movies on opening weekend are also likely to be deeply displeased should they feel the filmmakers tinkered too much with the source material. That could have a disastrous impact, considering that the sequels are already in the works.
“The stakes are very high, since both are beloved by so many people,” said James D. Keeline, a San Diego-based writer and former book-store manager who studies children’s literature. “So far, the production trailers look very good, and fans have every hope that the films will meet 80 percent of their expectations and vision of the characters and plots.
“Of course, similar anticipation existed for Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, a well-attended film but disappointing to many fans. … If the production companies for Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings can come through on their promise, interest in the books will skyrocket. If they don’t and the fans give up, the book sales will drop significantly, particularly for Harry Potter, where the seven-volume series is not yet complete.”
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and Tolkien’s trilogy have a few things in common. Both are built around characters who discover early in the tales that they have a larger destiny they never suspected. Both series fall into the fantasy realm, though some might argue they are at opposite ends of the genre. The Tolkien books are seen as having literary value beyond solid storytelling; Rowling’s books are seen by some as more of a fad.
The series attract slightly different audiences. While The Hobbit, Tolkien’s first Middle-earth story, is often described as a children’s book, those that followed are for a decidedly older audience. The intricate mythology underpinning the tales may be hard for younger readers to follow but is the key to understanding the action. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, as involving as they are, are generally easier reads. And they are written largely for children, though they aren’t written down to children, which explains their devoted adult following.
“What makes these (Harry Potter) books very appealing to kids is that it’s sort of like a day in the life or a year in the life of someone like you,” said Peter Goldstein, who teaches English at Juniata College in Pennsylvania and has long studied science fiction and fantasy. “You don’t have to have in your mind the big story of good vs. evil, you don’t have to worry about how things are working out in the big picture. You can simply enjoy the story.”
Author Rowling also gives very few details that lock the books into a particular time and place, which should keep her books from feeling too dated for future generations to enjoy, Goldstein said.
Fans of both series tend to return to the books over and over, giving the filmmakers much to live up to. Sorcerer’s Stone director Christopher Columbus has said in interviews that from the moment he won the plum gig, he has had to answer to his eldest daughter, Eleanor, a die-hard fan, on every detail. If he were less than faithful to Rowling’s vision, he told Vanity Fair, Eleanor “would have killed me.”
It looks as though Ring director Jackson, a longtime fan of Tolkien’s books, has placed similar importance on getting the details right. Jackson and company went to Professor Thomas Shippey, who has frequently written about the books and who knew Tolkien in the last years of his life, to make sure they got the pronunciation of names and places right. It was no small matter: The races Tolkien created have different spelling conventions, Shippey said, and the pronunciation in one book may differ from that in another.
Lending his assistance doesn’t seem to have gotten him any closer than other fans to a sneak peek at the flick, though: “They’re keeping it awfully tight; I don’t even know how I’m going to get to see it. I suppose I’ll be waiting in line in a sleeping bag.”
Shippey was a big fan of the books long before his path crossed with the author at Oxford University, where he was teaching and Tolkien had retired.
“I should think I was 13 or 14 when somebody lent me a copy of The Hobbit,” he said. “I couldn’t afford Lord of the Rings, and the library copy was missing Vol. 1. I had to wait until I won a school prize to buy it, and it had been a sore trial up until then not to start reading in the middle.”
He, like many others, was captivated right away by the detailed universe Tolkien created.
“Like many people, I appreciated the fairy-tale setting,” he said. “Fairy tales are so short, and there’s never any sort of background to them. This was not only a novel length, but three times novel length. It leaves everybody with a feeling that there’s a lot more to be said or glimpsed, and then the story goes on just off the edge of the page.”
Some academic types scoff at the very notion that Rowling’s books might have a staying power similar to those of Tolkien. Rowling’s work, they argue, is more of a popular culture phenomenon. Tolkien, they note, revived the fantasy genre, which had died out a good century before “The Hobbit” was published in 1937. As a result, his work has inspired reams of scholarly discourse. He also had academic credentials of his own, and wrote about literary theory.
The Tolkien trilogy “takes itself extremely seriously and it’s got an underlying mythic meaning,” said English Professor Harry Eiss, who teaches children’s literature at Eastern Michigan University. “It really is the spiri- tual forces of good against the forces of evil. It’s the exact same thing that happened with the ‘Star Wars’ story. It has a mythical map underneath it, and it’s got very serious values. The Harry Potter stuff doesn’t have that, I don’t think.”
Eiss includes Tolkien’s theories of fantasy in his classes, he said, because “he offers a really strong argument to defend fantasy, which is kind of on the edges of the scholarship world. He defends it as the highest form of literature because it expresses a spiritual world view.”
Eiss has read the Potter books and doesn’t think they’ll have the longevity of Tolkien’s work.
“It’s fun writing,” he said. “I have nothing against it. I can understand why people enjoy it, but in terms of it being literature or having a lasting, enduring effect, in 25 years, they aren’t going to be teaching it in classes, which is ultimately what preserves it in the end.
“Rowling’s (work) is a post-modern, humorous fantasy which is very popular, but it’s almost more of a popular or social event. It’s not going to spawn a whole new category of writing. It’s more of a fad. Tolkien is an established part of the literary canon in a sense; he kind of reinvented a very important genre of literature.”
Whatever happens in the next 25 years, next weekend, Harry Potter is likely to figure heavily in many families’ plans. Tolkien fan Paul Lara and his wife, Margaret Anne, are taking their family to Los Angeles; their boys — 16-year-old Van, 12-year-old Matthew and 9-year-old Alec — are plotting to catch Sorcerer’s Stone at the famous Mann’s Chinese Theater while they’re there.
Joanna Hawkins and her mom will see the movie here in San Antonio. Her mom isn’t sure she wants to brave the crowds opening weekend; Joanna is hoping to talk her into it.
“I really want it to be close to the book so I can say, ‘Oh, I remember that,'” Joanna said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how everyone looks because I’ve only seen them in my head; I don’t really have a clear picture of how they all look. And I can’t wait until I see all the special effects — how they create a giant and flying.”
Joanna’s sister, Sara, 9, hasn’t read any of the books, though she did listen to Sorcerer’s Stone on tape. She doesn’t care whether she sees the movie opening weekend or in a few weeks: “It doesn’t really matter, as long as I see it because I think it’s going to be very good.”
As much as Goldstein enjoyed reading and re-reading the Tolkien books, he’s not going to rush out to see the movie. (Needless to say, he won’t be waiting in line to catch Sorcerer’s Stone, either.)
“I’m so much more of a bookish person; I tend to think of movies based on books as totally separate entities,” he said. “The best movie of any book is the movie you create in your mind when you read it.”