The war of the Rings

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.

Cyberspace above, Middle-Earth below

The cult of Tolkien never died online; it was a major geek-culture shibboleth throughout the 1970s and '80s and continues online in thousands of Web pages and Usenet discussions every year. MUDs (multiuser chat areas) simulate life in the Shire, adventurers skirmish against Orcs (or, as Orcs, against elves and dwarves and men), academics dissect, artists sketch, fiction writers revisit the characters again and again. Serious Usenet participants take on the text with the gravitas of Talmud scholars, dissecting both the books as books (that is, three books created and written by a particular person in the first half of the twentieth century) and as . . . something more.

For many online fans, Tolkien's books are a frustratingly small window into another world—a world that exists, in a sense, just beyond the veil, a world that must be teased out of the hints and intimations in the trilogy and its attendant materials, which (from The Hobbit on through the 13-volume collection of drafts and notes known as the History of Middle Earth) exist in a hierarchy of canonical veracity, which is itself debated. The debates mean nothing to the outsider, but to Peter Jackson, they mean elaborate deliberations over whether a particular character (with no lines and one and a half pages of play) has wings or not. These are not people likely to be content with six hours' worth of movies, though they are, in fact, likely to voice their discontent as they stand in line at the box office again and again and again.

Lights, camera, Internet

A good case can be made that Peter Jackson—known best for the 1994 kind-of-surreal, kind-of-brilliant, kind-of-historical drama Heavenly Creatures—is the ideal captain for the first fantasy epic to run aground in cyberspace. His movies, which also include The Frighteners and Meet the Feebles, have a wonderful otherness; even when they're grounded in actual events, they teeter on the edge of going completely weird—like Terry Gilliam (a director long wishfully mentioned online in the dark days when no studio would touch the books) but without the sense that the world is coming down around your ears at any minute. (Others have attempted to film the trilogy, true—most notably animation master Ralph Bakshi in the late '70s. Let us never speak of it again.)

Certainly Jackson's no fool. As the oldest established permanent floating Tolkien clan in the world, the Net community can't be ignored. The Blair Witch Project ensured that. Before Blair, there was Titanic itself—a Hollywood joke, until Ain't-It-Cool-News.com (Harry Knowles, proprietor) spread the word that stoic Japanese movie execs were leaving the theater in tears. These days, if you have a movie on the way that is in some way not instantly clear to the most brain-dead member of your studio's marketing team, it pays to go online.

And if it seems they're starting early for a trilogy that won't reach theaters until 2001, either you didn't have to step over the Phantom Menace fans lined up outside the Cinerama this spring or you're not clear on just how high the stakes are. The three movies are jointly budgeted at $360 million, second only to Titanic, and principal filming doesn't begin until later this month. (The good news for New Line's accounting department is that there's no big boat in this movie; the bad news is that an estimated 1,200 digital shots are planned, with an eventual 50 terabytes of data involved. You're damn skippy it's time to get people excited.)

The Tolkien crowd has been waiting a long time for this. Even without Blair or the big boat, they would, in the way of the Net, expect to be consulted on how best to accomplish this. Usenet denizens have been playing moviemaker for years online, casting and recasting the epic with everyone from Sean Connery to Beavis and Butthead. Each of Jackson's casting decisions—and they're being leaked to the public in a routine slightly less elaborate than a Las Vegas fan dance—is scrutinized relentlessly, with most drawing obligatory screams of rage (this is the Net, after all) followed by "Well, could be interesting, let's wait and see. . . ."

The casting—the very fact of the casting—seems to have the online Tolkien community on edge. After all, fans have been doing sketches and fanfic (fan-written fiction using characters from the stories) and even dream cast lists for years. But to have real actors (and actors you've heard of; players announced thus far include Liv Tyler, Ian McKellan, and Elijah Wood) in these parts means Hollywood has suddenly staked a real-estate claim in the consensual hallucination.

With that in mind, turf war seems natural. Still, Jackson (for all his fan dancing) is doing most everything right so far—talking to Ain't-It-Cool-News even when New Line, the studio, is under a partial press blackout, and answering fannish questions forwarded by Knowles. (Some press blackout; Michael De Luca, president of New Line, has been throwing commentary Harry's way too. Rule #1 of getting the fan community on your side: Make them feel like they're more inside than the insiders.)

It's all in the game (and that's the problem)

Jackson could take some pointers from the gaming world, though it's hard to say whether they'd be good lessons or bad examples. About a year ago, Bellevue-based Sierra Studios, the gaming house, announced the development of Middle-Earth, an adventure game to be set in you-know-where. There have been plenty of Tolkien-derived games over the years, most mangling the highly complex text (I mentioned the thousands-of-pages thing, right?) into your basic Dungeons and Dragons-style mish-mosh. Sierra was going to be different, though. This time someone was aiming to do right by the books and by even the most exacting of fans.

They certainly kicked it off right: The initial announcement appeared on September 22, recognizable to the faithful as Frodo Baggins' birthday (yes, this is important to the story). That's the kind of thing that makes a fangirl's heart beat just a little faster—by god, someone read the book! And the universe they were describing sounded just too wonderful for words—set in a period several years after the close of events in the books, it would be possible to enter Middle-Earth without watching others mess with the original: no Frodo Bagginses turned into sword-wielding superheroes, no surprise plots twists that weren't in the books, everything where you remember Tolkien leaving it without anything being disturbed. Best of all, the game was to be the biggest, most involved, most complex RPG (role-playing game) ever.

Well, that's still the plan, but these things have a way of expanding. Somewhere in Bellevue programmers, writers, and designers, all of whom were required to know the books before admittance to the Middle-Earth team, are shooting for a mid-2000 release — a full year behind the original mid-1999 target date announced in early 1998. The game grows ever on; developers and would-be player spend time wrestling with Big Issues like permanent death (that is, making a character stay dead if it gets that way in the course of events — normal in real life, unusual in gaming) and facial-feature customizability (important when you've got four distinct races of beings to keep sorted). Random checks of the developers' discussion board find debates over how one might own a farm in the game, or become an elf, or start a war. These people aren't just queuing up for some two-hour movie: They're queuing up to sign away months of their life, a la Everquest and Ultima, to an illustrated, dynamic, Net-style shared hallucination.

The delay won't hurt the fans; we are a patient people. However, we are not Peter Jackson, we do not have to explain to New Line Cinema what the heck happened to their $360 million, and we don't have tens of thousands of people stalking us as we lay hands on the Internet's most beloved text. Peter Jackson's a smart man to befriend the faithful now; he's going to need all the faithful companions he can get.

 
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