How do you film a book that has been read by 50 million people, has 400 websites dedicated to it, and whose fans have not only taken on the names of the characters, but are capable of conversing in the book’s invented languages? The answer, says Kathy Marks, is very carefully indeed.
The 12-page email arrived in my mailbox at 5am New York time, a lucid, passionately argued polemic against the forthcoming trilogy based on JRR Tolkien’s cult novel, Lord of the Rings. It was written by a Manhattan law student who goes by the Elvish nickname of Kelannar, and the main target of his vitriol was Peter Jackson, the New Zealand director currently putting the final touches to the first film in an editing suite in Wellington. “Peter Jackson is an arrogant director who is raping the text,” he thundered.
In the arcane world of internet chatrooms, Kelannar is notorious. Banned from one leading Tolkien website after his inflammatory remarks caused online riots, he is now stirring up trouble at another. A devout Catholic, he prays that Jackson will see the error of his ways. He insists that his real name not be published; he fears he would be lynched.
Kelannar may be an extreme case, but countless hardcore fans share his obsession. Fifty million people around the globe have read Lord of the Rings, the 20th century’s most popular book, and many have re-read it dozens of times. They have dissected it chapter by chapter, recited it at costumed gatherings and waited half a century to see it transformed to the screen. Now, with the first film to be released just before Christmas, they are swooning with excitement and trepidation in equal degrees.
Will the films faithfully depict Middle Earth, Tolkien’s fantastical universe peopled by elves, hobbits, orcs and dwarves? Will they preserve his inimitable dialogue, capture the essence of his epic masterpiece, convey his towering moral concerns? Will they reflect the Oxford philologist’s unique vision, or will they be a Hollywood travesty that will warp the perceptions of movie-goers who have never opened the book?
These are the questions that have consumed Tolkien devotees since Jackson and New Line Cinema, the Los Angeles-based production company, announced the ambitious £180m project three years ago.
Readers flocked online to articulate their angst, discovering 400 websites where “Ringers” congregated to converse in Quenya – one of Tolkien’s fictional languages – and discuss such burning issues as whether elves have pointy ears. The sites became a clearing-house for rumours about the films. Fans argued about the impact of changes to the plot and salivated over photographs snatched by intrepid New Zealanders who snooped around the film sets during Jackson’s 15-month shoot in his own backyard.
Was it true that Sean Connery would play the ancient wizard Gandalf, they demanded as they swarmed around the myriad messageboards. (The answer was no. The role went to Ian McKellen.) Had Sam, companion of the hobbit Frodo, been turned into a girl? (Again, no.) Should the Balrog, a demonic monster described only sketchily by Tolkien, be given wings?
But it was not only their unslakeable thirst for information that kept Tolkienheads up all night, debating topics such as “Decent portrayal of elves: perfectly impossible?” and “The wimpification of Frodo: true or false?” They suspected that New Line executives, perhaps even Jackson himself, were monitoring the online frenzy – and they hoped to influence the final outcome of the films.
Studio insiders have confirmed that Jackson’s team did indeed surf the sites, which seems astonishing and yet makes perfect sense. For it was there that were found the legions of readers who are destined to become the trilogy’s core audience and have the capacity to make Lord of the Rings a bigger-grossing blockbuster even than Star Wars.
New Line has not just paid lip-service to these internet fans; in an unprecedented interaction between Hollywood and movie-goers, it has shamelessly courted them.
The first trailer was released exclusively online, where it received 1.7 million hits in the first 24 hours – breaking the 1.1 million record set by The Phantom Menace – and was breathlessly analysed frame by frame. Several webmasters were invited to a preview of footage at Cannes last year, while the names of founder members of a new fan club are to be included in the films’ DVD credits. Jackson, meanwhile, has taken part in three lengthy question-and-answer sessions online.
The official Lord of the Rings website, which was launched – absurdly early – in May 1999, drips a steady diet of pictures, interviews and information to its favourite 40 fan-generated sites. The Official Site offers such insights as the methods used by make-up artists to glue hair to hobbits’ prosthetic feet.
Gordon Pattison, New Line’s senior vice-president of worldwide interactive marketing, says that while the main motive for fostering a close association with fans was to whet their appetite for the films, there were also less mercenary reasons. “In the universe of Tolkien, we consider ourselves part of a larger community,” he says. “The fans are our brothers.”
While cynics may scoff at such assertions, it does seem that the trilogy is not merely a project made in box-office heaven – which it surely is – but also one in which the participants have a personal stake. Jackson calls himself Tolkien’s biggest admirer, while numerous members of the film crew and production team claim to be ardent disciples too.
Whether the website debates affected what audiences will see on the big screen can only be guessed at, but many Tolkien junkies are convinced of it. Duane Guingrich, a fan in Indiana, believes that the character of Arwen – an Elvish maiden played by Liv Tyler and feared to have metamorphosed into a warrior princess in the films – was toned down after a storm of protest.
“They won’t pay much attention to an individual, but when there’s a large backlash, as there was against the Arwen changes, they can’t help but take notice,” says Guingrich.
Kelannar instigated a petition on the Tolkien Online website that gathered 16,000 signatures and implored Jackson not to violate the integrity of Tolkien’s work. He says: “I have satisfaction in knowing that two years of righteous indignation over his changes may have produced some results. Instead of a train wreck, we may only get a highway pile-up.” (He is, nevertheless, expecting “a watered-down, politically correct, girl-power garbage version of the story”.)
There is a widely-held assumption that it was pressure by fans that led Jackson to declare last year that, as filming progressed, “we’ve gone further and further back to the books … a lot of our so-called clever ideas at the beginning we’ve long since abandoned.”
But there will still be a perceptible gap between text and screen; an indefatigable Tolkienite who calls himself Ancalagon the Black has documented a 74-page list of minute changes including a film sequence where Gandalf bumps his head on a door frame as he enters Bilbo’s hobbit hole, Bag End. The incident is absent from the book.
Some fans remain deeply unhappy about liberties being taken with Tolkien’s work; others are more relaxed and the internet bristles with heated arguments between the “purist” and “revisionist” camps. “Hobbits don’t have high cheekbones, for goodness sake,” says one exasperated purist, referring to Elijah Wood, the young actor who plays Frodo.
Michael Regina, a Canadian computer networking technician who runs a revisionist site, The One Ring, is certain that the film will live up to expectations. “The last trailer I saw, my eyes watered at the end of it,” says Regina, 23. “My contribution has been minuscule, but I felt so happy and so brilliantly proud of those two-and-a-half minutes.”
Regina’s co-editor is Erica Challis, a 37-year-old New Zealander who says that Tolkien aficionados have been “making the film in their own minds for years, imagining the perfect actors and locations”. She is diplomatic about the hardline purists. “This is delicate territory … this is where I get my house firebombed. But in a minority, the book inspires the fundamentalist belief that this is the best possible book and it can’t be altered. They approach it in the way that religious sects approach their texts.”
New Line’s willingness to engage with online fans is in marked contrast to the paranoid secrecy that surrounded the filming itself. Challis, a musician with the Auckland Philharmonia, spent weeks tracking the production as it moved around New Zealand. She scaled mountain peaks in an attempt to reach remote South Island locations and became a cause célèbre after being served with a trespass notice. The studio later relented and invited her to the Hobbiton set, south of Auckland, where she met Jackson and members of the cast.
For Tolkien’s family, who have declined any involvement in the trilogy, the idiosyncratic behaviour of fans is nothing new. Before he died, the author was occasionally woken at 2am by Americans demanding to know obscure details of Middle Earth geography. His descendants fear that they will be forced to go into hiding when the films are released.
To Jackson has fallen the impossible task of trying to please everyone, including those early fans of the book who wore “Gandalf for president” badges on university campuses in the 1960s. He has repeatedly pointed out that the films can only ever embody one interpretation of Lord of the Rings. “Everyone just relax and stay calm!” he pleaded during one Q and A session.
One fan asked him: “You realise, don’t you, that whatever you do, some percentage of rabid Tolkien fans are always going to attack you for butchering their Bible?” Jackson replied: “I’m in no doubt about that.”