by Susan Wloszczyna
One is a Harry while the other is merely hairy-footed.
But both are the brainchildren of teachers-turned-authors who prefer to go by initials, J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien. These unlikely heroes of British fantasy fiction share a common mission: to cast an unbreakable spell at the box office and spark what are hoped to be flourishing franchises, both with sequels and merchandising tie-ins.
On the surface, Harry Potter the boy wizard and Frodo Baggins the wee hobbit aren’t so very different.
Yet the hordes of Harry-ites and the flocks of Frodo-ians, along with those meddlesome Muggles and gadfly Gollums in the media, can’t resist pitting the two movie releases against each other, even though they open more than a month apart. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone arrives Friday; The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring is unveiled Dec. 19.
Those behind the movies disagree.
Says Harry Potter producer David Heyman: “I don’t see it as being a competition at all.”
Peter Jackson, the director of the Rings movies based on Tolkien’s three-part epic, has labeled the supposed competition “crazy.”
Still, an online USA TODAY write-in shows that many devotees of each book series profess to have a personal stake in the on-screen success of their favorite reading material.
Most Potterheads, who are more likely to be of grade-school age or older and female, cite Harry’s hipper approach and its youth appeal for why it will rule the holiday season. Typical responses:
* “I’m looking forward to Harry Potter more than Lord of the Rings because I’m 11 and Harry is 11 in the movie. More people will want to see the movie because he is so easy to relate to, and the characters in Lord of the Rings are interesting but not as real.” — Robert Watson, Vernon Hills, Ill.
* “Harry Potter will win — he’s more fun and mischievous than the Rings. (I’ve read all of both.) And Harry appeals to children and adults alike, while the Rings is more for adults since the books are not as easy to read.” — Barbara Errickson, 57, Plano, Texas.
* “I like the characters — I’d like them to be my friends — and the problems they solve. I want to see if, through the movie, if I can tell if the author J.K. Rowling imagines the people and places the way I did. I think a lot of kids want to know that.” — Shannon Murphy, 9, Oneida, N.Y.
The Ringers, a concentration of older teen boys as well as adults who first read the books years ago and delight in making an annual ritual out of revisiting the trilogy, sniff at the thought of putting trendy Harry in the same category as a nearly 50-year-old classic.
Take your pick of putdowns conjured by the Frodo fellowship. It’s like comparing “Pokémon 3 and Traffic,” “The Cat in the Hat and Hamlet,” “Judy Blume and Shakespeare” and “a Big Mac and a seven-course menu.” In all cases, the more substantial second choice is The Rings. Further thoughts:
* “There is no doubt in my mind that Tolkien’s epic will overshadow just about every other movie event of the season. It has proven its staying power time and again, whereas Harry Potter has yet to achieve the level above ‘fad.’ FOTR will break boundaries for the fantasy genre as did Star Wars for the sci-fi genre.” — Midshipman Fourth Class Matthew Cruse, U.S. Navy, 18, Annapolis, Md.
* “While I expect Harry Potter to be great fun, I’ve wanted to see Rings as a movie for 35 years. I plan on taking off work on Dec. 19, seeing the first showing of the day and probably seeing it a second time that day.” — Patsy McGrady, 55, Alexandria, Va.
* “If Fellowship of the Ring does not out-do, out-pace and out-dazzle Harry Potter, I will eat Gandalf’s sky-blue hat.” — T. Vincent Smith, 39, Houston.
The creative teams behind each film are not too concerned about overshadowing each other.
“Both films are complementary,” says Rings executive producer Mark Ordesky. “Harry Potter will put you in mind to see another great movie. It’s in everyone’s best interest for both to be successful.”
Jackson, in fact, is an avowed Potter fan and wishes the other film “all the best.”
And Potter‘s Heyman says he can’t wait to see Lord of the Rings. “I hear it’s great,” he says. “I’m confident both Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings will do OK. The better both films do, the better for the film business.”
Fan loyalty speaks loudest at the box office, and experts are leaning toward Harry to claim the heftiest pot of gold.
Says Adam Farasati of Reel Source Inc.: “The Lord of the Rings will track better with teen males. But Harry Potter has a bigger crossover appeal. People who are eating up the books range from 6 to 60.”
With competition from the still-mighty family hit Monsters, Inc., and a 2-hour running time, he doesn’t expect Harry Potter to break the three-day opening record held by 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park with $72.1 million. But it will come close. Says Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc., “If any film can do it, it’s Harry.”
Farasati predicts that Harry will eventually bump Shrek at $267 million as the highest-grossing hit of the year with a $300 million total.
The Lord of the Rings, meanwhile, faces more competition against a barrage of adult-oriented Oscar hopefuls such as Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky (Dec. 14), Jim Carrey in The Majestic (Dec. 21) and Will Smith in Ali (Dec. 25). Farasati says it will likely pull in a nonetheless impressive $200 million.
Whatever the final tally, though, both movies and their sequels (two already shot for Rings, six planned for Harry) are likely to revive the fantasy genre that has struggled to attract large crowds. Ron Howard’s Willow, which collected a respectable $57 million in 1988, is considered one of the more popular entries.
Besides, there is a likely chance that in a movie year low on high points, many will shell out to see both films, especially when current events have put a premium on escapist entertainment.
Many might agree with respondent Jeff Starr, 46, of Frisco, Texas, as he observes: “Rather than compare the two, even before we experience them, we should be thankful that both will be here for us in this season of diminished cheer.”