Tolkien fans are storming the Net. Ty Burr tells them: Give the movie folk a chance!
Hell hath no fury like a mass cult scorned.
I'm not talking about the Church of Scientology's reaction to the parodic MindHead religion in Steve Martin's ''Bowfinger'' (or, for that matter, about the Church of Scientology's reaction to anything). I'm talking instead about the armadas of online fans of J.R.R. Tolkien's ''Lord of the Rings'' trilogy as they stomp noisily around the prospect of a filmmaker putting their beloved myth onto celluloid.
Here's the deal: Peter Jackson, the clever and gifted New Zealand director of movies like ''The Frighteners'' and ''Heavenly Creatures'' has signed on with New Line Pictures to film the classic Tolkien trilogy. In three live-action installments. The first of which won't hit theaters until late 2001.
The Internet, of course, is already in an uproar. Webmasters are smiting each other hither and thither to mount the best unofficial site. Ain't It Cool News was the locus of an early fracas over New Line's reluctance to engage with the fans, quelled only when director Jackson submitted to an interview and studio exec Mike DeLuca posted his own e-mail address for ''Ring'' follower use and abuse. Bulletin-board discussion over casting has been particularly testy, with some folks happy with the choices to date (Elijah Wood as Frodo, Ian McKellan as Gandalf, Ian Holm as Bilbo, Pauly Shore as Gollum -- JUST KIDDING) and some trembling with rage.
New Line, for its part, is making extra-special nice, possibly remembering how hammered Paramount was for its heavyhanded tactics against unofficial ''Star Trek'' sites. In addition to Jackson and DeLuca prostrating themselves before Harry Knowles, the studio has already launched an official site and has announced that that site will work with and incorporate the best of the fansites.
Which leaves a doubter like me wondering: Who, when all is said and done, owns a story? Obviously, in this case, Tolkien does, but he's kind of busy being dead. Given that, shouldn't Jackson be trusted to make whatever creative choices he wants without the threat of a million fans excoriating him in fluent Elvish? If nothing else, he probably can't do worse than the awful version of ''LOTR'' (or half of it, anyway) that Ralph Bakshi animated back in 1978.
The Web's ga-ga response to ''The Phantom Menace'' coupled with the still-raw anger over the treatment of the unofficial ''Star Trek'' sites has had the result of empowering fans in ways that were unthinkable a mere two years ago. In many aspects, that's to the good. But where do fans' rights end? At the line separating appreciation from creation? Or beyond? If some Tolkien lovers are so incensed over what New Line may be doing to this story, what prevents them from getting a camera and filming it themselves?
Well, that's easy: They probably don't have $100 million to throw around. But in that case, what prevents them from shutting up and letting Peter Jackson do his job?