The Fellowship of the Rings and Harry Potter compete for an audience starved for fantasy.
by Chris Bergeron
News Staff Writer
It won’t be long before furry-footed Frodo challenges goggle-eyed Harry Potter for the hearts and wallets of film-goers around the world.
Get ready for Hobbit-mania.
In the grandest effort ever to translate a literary classic into a movie blockbuster, Director Peter Jackson will release the first installment of author J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy on Wednesday, Dec. 19, amid totally unexpected circumstances.
Folklorists and aficionados of Middle Earth [sic] are already frenzied over Hollywood’s latest and most expensive effort to bring Tolkien’s 1954 classic of underground wizardry to the silver screen.
As the books begin, Tolkien’s hero Frodo Baggins inherits a ring that turns out the be The One Ring, an instrument of total power coveted by Dark Forces that want to enslave Middle Earth.
A scholar of Medieval and Icelandic languages, Tolkien wrote novels with mythic themes that appealed to ordinary readers yet evoked the solemnity of an epic.
But will a nation reeling from the deadliest terrorist attacks on American soil seek solace in the fantasy world of Middle Earth?
Brian Callaghan, General Cinema’s director of film marketing, expects the Lord of the Rings trilogy will revolutionize popular movies as Star Wars did a generation ago.
Three years and $260 million in the making, The Fellowship of the Ring will face stiff competition from Chris Columbus’ Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Monsters Inc., an animated monster mash.
“With the events of (Sept. 11), people will be looking for a break from the televised news,” he said.
Callaghan hopes to win rights to show Fellowship in General Cinema’s Premier Theater.
After talking with a selected audience that watched a 25-minute segment of Fellowship in a tightly-controlled New York screening, he said, “They said it was utterly spectacular. They said the footage they saw was unlike anything else they’d ever seen.”
Sounds good, especially for a film by a not-so-widely known New Zealander going toe-to-toe with Chris Columbus’ boy wizard (scheduled for a Dec. 16 release) and Monsters, Inc., a Pixar/Disney production cruising on the unexpected summer success of Shrek.
Callaghan pointed out both Potter and Fellowship will likely draw viewers from the profitable youth market as well as adult readers of sci-fi and fantasy fiction.
And he suspects Jackson’s Rings will receive an unexpected boost from movie-goers seeking relief from the televised horrors of the World Trade Center in “the clear-cut, good versus evil heroics” of Tolkien’s Hobbits.
Even the release of a romantic comedy titled Sidewalks of New York has been postponed to avoid offending viewers still trying to cope with the attacks’ horrors.
“I think audiences will be looking for fantasies where good triumphs over evil,” Callaghan said. “They’ll obviously have a harder time dealing with realistically-theme movies.”
With the World Trade Center still smoldering, will Frodo Baggins’ struggles against evil sorcerers resonate with a public bracing for Osama bin Laden’s next treachery?
Professor Eugene Green, who teaches literature at Boston College, suspects people will be drawn to the feisty Hobbit because of a deep psychic need to “see heroes triumph in their quest.”
He considers Tolkien’s trilogy “a classic example of high fantasy that transports readers to another world while making that world very believable.”
While Harry Potter’s creator, J.K. Rowling, leaves her characters straddling a world, half-real, half-fantastic, Green pointed out part of Tolkien’s enduring fascination is his creation of Middle Earth, a mythic realm that seems to reflect many earthly concerns.
For John Savage, professor of children’s literature at Boston College, children’s literature, folklore and even popular entertainment share many of the same themes, such as a hero’s solitary quest to battle evil.
And he believes both Tolkien and Rowling have struck a timeless chord with a public hungry for heroes — whether Frodo Baggins or Bruce Willis — battling great odds to defeat evil.
“Each generation is hungry for fantasy,” said Savage. “I’m always amazed at the appeal and popularity of a good children’s story.”
The bumbling little Hobbit with a taste for honey cakes — and a warrior’s heart — will appear on thousands of movie screens simultaneously across the nation.
But movie executives, critics and fans are wondering whether Tolkien’s fantasy, which has inspired the dreams of millions of readers, can soothe the nightmares of a nation still traumatized by terrorism’s shadowy tentacles.
Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a dark and labyrinthine fable about a band of happy-go-lucky Hobbits who live in a long-ago mythical Middle Earth, forced to conquer evil or lose their way of life.
Including its predecessor, The Hobbit, the trilogy has enthralled many types of readers who consider it an allegory of World War II and the later conflict between democracy and totalitarianism or just a rollicking sci-fi adventure.
Teased to super-high expectations over the coming film, Hobbit-mania has already made itself felt in MetroWest theaters, book stores and specialty shops.
Louise Mutterperl, Borders Book Shops public relations coordinator, reported a “pretty significant increase” in Tolkien book sales, calendars and related products, including new editions and boxed sets.
At Barnes & Nobles Booksellers Walpole store, Margaret Moorer said a “broad audience,” comprising first-time readers and older folks who grew up on fantasy literature has been scooping up Tolkien’s works.
Professor Evelyn Perry, who teaches English at Framingham State College, credits Tolkien’s long lasting appeal to his “relevance” as an explorer of the bonds of loyalty and courage that hold society together.
She notes Tolkien created a fantasy world in Middle Earth “that parallels contemporary reality,” trying to face its own unexpected horrors.
Perry said Tolkien had suffered a deep moral shock from the brutality of World War I and “had a real desire to create a fantasy world.”
And her FSC colleague, Mark Cote, an art professor who teaches a course on folklore and fairy tales, attributes the trilogy’s appeal to the heroism of Hobbits defending their homes against intrusive evil.
After viewing previews for Harry Potter and Fellowship, he said Rowling’s work appeared a “bit cartoonish” while Tolkien’s work resembled “a sweeping drama that displays a lot of kinship with our current situation.”
“When evil entered the Hobbits’ village, they reacted with a lot of humanity,” Cote said. “That’s similar to what’s happening here, where people are hoping the outside world won’t intrude of us anymore than it has already.”