Meditations on Middle-earth: Douglas A. Anderson
[ Extract from "Tolkien After All These Years", to be published in Meditations on Middle-earth, edited by Karen Haber (St. Martins Press, ISBN 0-312-27536-6, $24.95, November 2001). All rights reserved. Used by permission of Karen Haber. Watch for more previews from this fascinating book! ]
As Tolkien fans, we stand today at a crossroads. Before us looms Peter Jackson's three multi-million dollar films of The Lord of the Rings, the first of which is due for release around Christmas 2001. Beside us stands a worldwide readership of the three-volume novel upon which the films are based. Behind each of us is our personal experience of reading Tolkien, our favorites characters and passages, the scenes and images Tolkien's words have conjured up in our minds, and our joy in sharing these enthusiasms with others.
The future is a question mark. Tolkien's novel has survived one previous attempt at filming, the 1978 Ralph Bakshi "rotoscoped" version, made by intermixing some live action in with what is predominately animation. Even that film was intended as part one of a series of films, but no theatrical follow-ups were made after the box office failure of the first part. Another firm, Rankin/Bass, did make an animated musical television production of The Return of the King (1980), as a follow-up to a similar version of The Hobbit (1977). Of the Bakshi movie itself, and of the truly execrable television programs, the less said, the better.
Now Hollywood has opened its considerable pocketbook for a new live-action version, with all three parts filmed before even the first part is released. The promise of the new films is tempered by experience, and by an entirely proper wariness and skepticism over what Hollywood might do to the novel. There is a modicum of solace: whatever the final judgment may be on Peter Jackson's films, the novel will always be there.
What is probably more alarming than any prospective film is the fact that Hollywood's engines of hype and commerce have been whirring along at full throttle for some years already, long before the release of the first film. The juggernaut of action-figures, toys, puzzles, games, mugs, cards, stickers, figurines, and things like Gollum Happy Meals will soon be upon us. These things are licensed not by the Tolkien Estate, but by Tolkien Enterprises, a Hollywood firm completely unconnected with the Tolkien family set up to exploit the movie, trademark, and merchandising rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which Tolkien himself sold off a few years before he died. And along with the movie-associated hype will come the inevitable rehashing of stale puns (e.g., "J. R. R. Tolkien is hobbit-forming") which we will be forced to endure from the ill-informed, smiling, vacuous faces of the media. In my view, all of this simply cheapens what is special about Tolkien--to the general public, at least, whose opinions of Tolkien are not yet shaped or prejudiced. For myself, I'm nearly prepared to go underground for the next few years. (Notice to the media: I mean that metaphorically, not literally--no hobbit-holes for me, please.)
From this crossroads I wonder how the future will view Tolkien's novel The Lord of the Rings versus Peter Jackson's films of it. Are Tolkien fans in the year 2001, doomed to the same fate as the fans of L. Frank Baum in 1939? The Judy Garland musical, The Wizard of Oz, changed the world's view of the L. Frank Baum novel on which it was based. Judy Garland is forever Dorothy Gale, while Margaret Hamilton has become a cultural icon for her superb performance as the Wicked Witch of the West. How will Peter Jackson's choice of actors and actresses affect future Tolkien readers' perceptions of the various characters? And what about his choice of New Zealand to be the visual back-bone of Middle-earth? Or to put it more generally, will Peter Jackson's vision become the lens through which our society views Tolkien?
Douglas A. Anderson