The War of the Rings
by Angela Gunn
Will the Net make--or break--the fantasy legacy of J.R.R. Tolkien?
Peter Jackson is teasing his Internet stalkers unmercifully. It's probably the only thing to do when you've got tens of thousands of them spying on you, criticizing you, questioning your judgment, and threatening you with dire consequences if you mess around with the elves or the dwarves or the hobbits.
Jackson is directing the new three-movie version of The Lord of the Rings, one of the most beloved books of the century. With a $360 million budget it's the second-largest production ever. Think that's scary? The online fan base is ravening for information and input. With all that's at stake, playing coy with the Net is like sticking a hand in the lion's cage.
You might remember The Lord of the Rings from its late 60s/early 70s vogue--a sweeping epic of heroism and battle and so forth, interspersed with the quest of the hobbit Frodo Baggins to destroy the extraordinarily evil One Ring. (If none of this is ringing a bell, see the sidebar on the next page for a supersynopsis of the 1,100-page book.) On the other hand, you might remember it because you fell in and never came out.
Plenty of folks did. The Lord of the Rings is considered the wellspring from whence most modern fantasy literature derives. The trilogy has a curious way of knocking around inside your head--as adventure, as a religious parable, as a place that should have been and seems like, maybe, was. Or so speak the faithful, who congregated online when the fickle finger of fashion moved on.
Written by J.R.R. Tolkien, an Oxford philologist with a sweeping knowledge of ancient myth and a great distrust of both flower power and soulless mechanization, The Lord of the Rings has been embraced twice since its publication in the mid-50s--first by the hippies who scribbled "Frodo lives!" on campus walls, later by the sci-fi/geek/Society of Creative Anachronism crowd that, yes, built the Internet. When the culture forgot, the Net remembered.
In the absence of pop-culture dilution, the world of Middle-Earth became the premiere shared hallucination of the Net, analyzed like a religious text (and occasionally viewed less as myth than history) and immortalized--even expanded on--everywhere from Web sites to server names. Now Hollywood's back, after wringing the last life out of the Star Trek franchise and revivifying (with mixed results) the Star Wars saga, the other two great Net cultural touchstones. And the natives who have kept the torch burning all these years are feeling empowered--no, entitled--to dictate how the flame will be kept.
Director Peter Jackson has a tough three years ahead. As director and coscreenwriter, Jackson has to accomplish the following: Adapt a beloved tale from thousands of pages of primary and secondary texts, making it comprehensible to the general public, appealing to the faithful, and acceptable to the license-holders; manage a cast of hundreds (some of whom must be shrunk down digitally to half-size and one of whom is entirely computer-generated), convincing his principals to spend two years or more in New Zealand; stay within one of the biggest budgets ever granted for a movie project; and fit the whole thing into three two-hourish movies. Oh--and keep every Tolkien fanatic with a modem happy.