Tolkien MeMes #5. My first ever talk at Oxonmoot in 2001..
In preparation for my move to Jena I am going through a lot of old papers, some of which have suffered from mould in cellars my landlords did not quite take care of. I am following Marie Kondo in all decisions – if it gives me joy I will keep it – and for the rest it is a quick scan for documentation sake and then it all goes into the dustbin.
Thanks to going through all of the papers I am stumbling over a few gems and I need to share this first talk given at an Oxonmoot of the Tolkien Society in Oxford. I had been going there since 1994, starting out at University College, then moving to Exeter College, and this time, September 21st-23rd, 2001, we were at St. Antony’s College for the second time.
Worst Case Scenario or great expectations?
Ladies and Gentlemen,
this is the first time that I give a talk at Oxonmoot and to be honest, I am a bit nervous. If I had chosen an important, interesting, a worthy subject I probably would have been happy to talk to you about Tolkien’s hobbies, Gandalf’s walking boots or Sam’s favourite dish.
However, I have chosen a topic that is all-encompassing, very, very, present and something that can easily get on your nerves: ‘The Lord of the Rings’ film trilogy. The world has witnessed several trailers up to now, millions of hits on the trilogy’s internet site, thousands of other sites have sprung up literally in the blink of an eye and we see the pictures basically everyday in the media. And that’s three months before the first of three parts has actually hit the screens!
Now, we all know The Lord of the Rings. If we do not know it by heart, we do know that Arwen is not at the Ford of Bruinen, in Moria a stone is dropped into the dark, not a soldier’s skull and yes, Frodo and Sam are not homosexual – that’s one of the old rumours for you!
Rumours have started to spread the moment it was clear that there was to be a second attempt to squeeze modern fantasy’s most successful book into a Hollywood-style, high budget production. And this is what we are talking about, even if there is a New Zealand director, the thing’s shot in New Zealand and most actors and extras are from New Zealand. The money comes from the West Coast and that’s where the decisions have been and will be taken.
What I would like to talk to you about are actually three things: first of all, who is responsible for the ‘Lord of the Rings’ to come into the cinemas, secondly, who is going to see this trilogy, and thirdly, what consequences will these films have for Tolkien’s works and organised Tolkien fandom.
I suppose we all know the name of the director. Peter Jackson, well-known for such diverse films as Bad Taste, Braindead, Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners, is the driving force behind the Tolkien film trilogy. He is known to be a Middle-earth fan, having read The Lord of the Rings in his youth. His unconventional way of working and living has made him a source of sympathy for the trilogy. He has won the hearts of many when he wrote the following words in August 1998 at Harry Knowle’s Aint-it-cool-news.com:
Imagine this: 7000 years has gone by. We take a filmcrew to Helm’s Deep … it’s now looking a little older, but still impresses as a mighty fortress. The Art Dept set to work, patching up holes and removing tourist signs. The current owner strikes a hard bargain, but New Line money finally gets us permission to film there for 6 weeks. Rohan heraldry is studied and faithfully reproduced. Theoden’s original saddle is in a museum – far too valuable to use in the movie, but an exact copy is made. Archeological expeditions have unearthed an incredibly preserved mummified Uruk-hai carcass. We make exact prothestic copies of these viscous killers … use CG to give us a 10,000 strong army. We have cast actors who look like Aragorn and Theoden. In an amazing casting coup, Legolas has agreed to return from Valinor with Gimli to recreate their part in this cinematic retelling of the events at the end of the Third Age. They stand on the battlements of the Deeping Wall, wind blowing in their hair, leading a group of extras proudly portraying the brave garrison of Rohan soldiers … Uruk drums roll up the valley … huge lighting rigs flash simulated lightening … rain towers send gallons of water into the air … on an assistant director’s signal, twenty 35mm cameras start rolling simultaneously … the battle of Helm’s Deep is about to be captured on film.
If it were only for Peter Jackson this would be a tremendous film. Well, at least many people believe this. But as with any $300 million production he is calling the shots on the scene in New Zealand, but not when it comes to marketing and merchandising. That’s another interesting subject, but I’ll talk about that later.
An unnamed Hollywood executive once said: I wonder whether there are going to be more than 15,000 people watching these movies – that’s the amount of people visiting the internet site 136 times a day. Some people seem to be really nervous about these films: even the boss of New Line Cinema has been replaced this year. Everyone is expecting this trilogy to be a major success but the executives at New Line are desperately hoping it’s going to be a subbess. Otherwise their company will simply go bankrupt. And that’s a huge responsibility. This makes clear that every decision of importance will be made in California, not in New Zealand. And that is one of the main problems of this trilogy.
As this Hollywood executive asked I would like to ask you who is going to see these films? People wo know The Lord of the Rings by heart? People who have known the film for a long time? Families? Young people? Twelve year olds or more the sixteen year old type? Men or women? This is a question that is extremely hard to answer. And it quickly leads us to the third issue I would like to talk about: the trilogy’s consequences.
Before the film trilogy there was sort of a typical way to get to Tolkien: you liked fantasy and science fiction literature and at one time in your life you would stumble over the genre’s most influential book. You could not escape it. As the Professor put it himself, The Lord of the Rings “is one of those things. If you like them you do, if you don’t, then you boo.” And that’s where people come from who are now members of Tolkien societies all over the world.
After getting hooked on Middle-earth via The Lord of the Rings -for quite a few it could have been The Hobbit, too- you start reading all the other books. You wonder at the magnitude of this universe, at the sheer mass of material that is in front of you. I remember the moment when I first heard about The History of Middle-earth and was taken aback by the thousands of pages before me – and at the same time enthralled. I read and read and read – I simply couldn’t stop.
There is now a ‘new type’ of Tolkien fan: the one that comes to Middle-earth via a film that is the biggest marketing and merchandising feat ever in Hollywood’s history. And finds out that Tolkien was an Oxford academic with an interest in language who invented a whole mythology. But:
Before I actually come to talk to you about this I would like to show you some nonsense that gave me the idea of doing this. Last year at a very nice evening down at our local pub some friends of mine and myself – all of us are Tolkien fans – came up with the idea of writing down some of the worst things we could possibly imagine about this trilogy. We wrote two “worst case scenarios” – the first is titled: we know the film’s a big mistake if or when and the second one’s titled: the worst merchandising items. We wanted to do a third one: the worst quotes but never got round to that one… Perhaps there will be some suggestions afterwards?!
[At this point in the talk someone yelled: Frodo, I am your father!]
- We know the film’s a big mistake the moment there is a language school offering “Elvish in 7 Days!”
- We know the film’s a big mistake when Frodo loses the ring. That makes a fourth part of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ more probable in case it’s a success
- We know the film’s a big mistake when people have stickers on their cars saying: I brake for Elves
- We know the film’s a big mistake when people start digging for mithril in their gardens
- We know the film’s a big mistake when loads of people have the books at the moment but prefer watching the films – doesn’t take that much time after all
- We know the film’s a big mistake – when Arnol Schwarzenegger plays the role of Túrin Turambar in 2005
- We know the film’s a big mistake – when there are at least three dwarves who start singing : “hi ho, hi ho …”
- We know the film’s a big mistake – when George Lucas plans to do a trilogy to tell us what happened before the ‘Lord of the Rings’
- We know the film’s a big mistake – when loads of kids born after the trilogy are called Frodo, Gandalf, Arwen or even worse, Sméagol, Grishnákh or Sauron
- We know the film’s a big mistake – when there’s a television series called: Frodo’s New Adventures in Valinor
With the second Worst Case Scenario a lot of things have turned out to be true. Some of our expectations from last year were so hilarious that we didn’t think of them as probable but here they are:
The worst merchandising item: a Galadriel chicken burger. Burger King is the official fast food partner for the film trilogy.
Do you know Kinder Surprise? We call them Kinder Überraschung and we have this little chocolate egg in a television add that sings: in every seventh egg you’ll find someone from the Fellowship…
You can buy Aragorn’s sword (I would expect two halves you can stick together with super glue), you have One Rings – loads of them, actually; you have all kinds of games; clothing. Whatever you want to have – it’s there.
I would like to give you some ideas that may not turn out to be true – but are interesting nevertheless:
Sauron’s boxer shorts – with the evil eye on it
Gimli Gilette – for the best shave you will ever get
Shelob’s fly screen – keep those nasty buggers out
Boromir’s Boots – shoes that will keep you walking – forever
Be wise – Use Samwise. The words on a condom package
Now, these ideas lead me directly to the most obvious and to my mind most distracting fact. There are no longer just the books to be bought. I know, there were the roleplayers and we always had some musicians writing songs about Middle-earth. And there were same games to buy.
But now I will probably be able to buy Valinor toilet paper, I will find collectable cards in Kellogg’s packages, shake a Misty Mountain snow dome or buy a live size stand up of Frodo. And that to me at least is the truly horrible thing about this trilogy – it’s merchandising and not The Lord of the Rings.
You see, the films amount to only six or seven hours. But the amount of different things to buy or use or give away is already now almost uncountable. I will probably buy three cinema tickets but others will buy a hundred different things that do not have anything to do with the most exciting modern fantasy book. A book I really appreciate and like, just in case I didn’t make myself absolutely clear on that one 😉
There will be conventions just as the big cons on Star Trek or Star Wars with Liv Tyler, Sir Ian McKellen and Sean Bean. You will be able to get your autograph, buy some more, become a member of the Rings film fanclub and get your glossy magazine about Arwen’s love life, Aragorn’s ways of healing and probably some architecture guide from a guy called George Imli.
Well, I think you may get the idea that I am not fond of this trilogy. I have to admit that I think Liv Tyler to be a complete and utter mistake, I think Christopher Lee should have been Gandalf, and I think that Tom Bombadil should have been in the film.
But, and this is a big BUT, things aren’t always as easy as this.
Just to give you an idea how a lot of people feel about this film I would like to tell you a story. Actually, it was just an evening in January on the biggest Tolkien event in Germany yet. We had a festival in a medieval fortress, now partially in ruins, and turned into a youth hostel. 150 odd people were there, mostly clad in costumes. We had a very large group of Nazgûl and a lot of Elves with pointy ears, but then you can’t get all of these things right.
The fortress is on the top of a hill, commanding a valley that all in snow. Outside of the stable we were waiting for a surprise that two people of Kinowelt, the German film distributors, had brought to this event. We were all checked, no cameras were allowed. And on that night we had the European premiere of the second trailer of this film trilogy and we sat and watched in awe. Strange to say, but a lof of people started crying as this second trailer seemed to wipe away all sorrows, all fears that these films could not be true to the spirit of Middle-earth.
I could say so much on this talk, looking back those twenty years, and I may do so in the future. But for now I simply wanted to share with you a glimpse of how some people felt at the time.
How did you experience the run-up to the first film?
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Nota bene II: I have just published a blog post on the first Tolkien Fest where I participated in the European premiere of the first Fellowship trailer.