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TOLKIEN WHO? – How Peter Jackson Became the Godfather of Middle-earth

December 20 2012

By filming J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic works, has Peter Jackson unwittingly taken ownership of them?

By Rachel Hyland

The year was 2001, and the world awaited breathlessly the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the first in a much-anticipated blockbuster trilogy from director Peter Jackson. As far back as 1997, Jackson had been attached to the ambitious project, and was eventually given the nod to direct all three movies—a bold choice, he was considered at the time, given a directorial resumé basically consisting of low-budget horror films (The Frighteners being a slight exception) and the very trippy Heavenly Creatures.

Written by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (why the initials? Something wrong with the name Reuel?), a professor of literature and linguistics at England’s Oxford University, The Lord of the Rings is set in the feudal world of Middle-earth; it’s a legendary story of kings and queens, war and peace, history, the future, love, death and all kinds of magical folk — and that’s pretty much just the Prologue. It is the ultimate Quest, the ultimate Adventure, the now-typical battle of cute versus ugly (considerate of the bad to be always so unattractive) and the triumph of Good over pesky old Evil. Beloved of legions of Fantasy readers everywhere, the reverence in which Tolkien’s works were held was so marked that all three Lord of the Rings movies – The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King – were greenlit before the first was even in preproduction, so enormous was the built-in fanbase upon whom the studio was banking. How maddeningly self-assured, they seemed at the time; wait for first weekend box-office takings before green-lighting the next film? Wait for critical reviews? For representative sample groups? Not likely!

There had been earlier attempts to film Tolkien’s epic, of course. Most notably, in the 1970s – and weren’t they just halcyon days of movie making? – The Lord of the Rings was brought to the screen in (poorly) animated form, in a Ralph Bakshi production that ended right around the Battle of Helms Deep and could never have hoped to capture of the grandeur of the author’s unique vision. The vastness of the tale just could not be encapsulated in any single film, and especially not one produced on a limited budget and in which much of the coloring-in seemed to have been accomplished by pre-schoolers. The money and running time constraints put on the project meant that so many vital pieces of the puzzle had to be hidden under the figurative sofa cushions, never to complete that tricky piece of blue sky up in the top left corner, and for many years Tolkienites despaired of ever seeing Middle-earth brought to the spectacular life they felt it deserved.

Happily, it was only a matter of time until technology caught up with imagination, allowing a more faithful rendition of this wondrous world to be displayed on film. In 2001, New Line’s gamble paid off handsomely – and then some – when Peter Jackson’s version of The Fellowship of the Ring dazzled and amazed even the most diehard of the Tolkien faithful. As we all know, his trilogy went on to receive myriad awards, top box offices and bring High Fantasy into the mainstream. It facilitated comebacks by the likes of former child stars Elijah Wood and Sean Astin, made household names of actors like Orlando Bloom and Miranda Otto, increased the standing of Sean Bean, Hugo Weaving, John Rhys-Davies, Ian McKellen and Cate Blanchett, and made a sex symbol of Viggo Mortensen. It sold a Barrow-full of merchandise, reinvigorated New Zealand tourism, caused more than one smitten soul to study Elvish, and had even the most disinterested of High Fantasy laymen laying a sibilant on the word “precious”. And now, when people think The Lord of the Rings, they often as not think of the film series first – or only – rather than the original, densely-written source material on which it was based.

A state of affairs all the more obvious at the moment, with the long-awaited release of the trilogy’s prequel, The Hobbit, this month. It is hard not to notice that it is Peter Jackson’s name that is attached to it in the popular consciousness; much less so, Tolkien’s. This is… a worrisome trend. Not underserved in this case, exactly – there is no denying that Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a very different animal to that of its originator, and so he has ever right to see his name firmly emblazoned across its every aspect. After all, Tolkien would doubtless find it odd to discover that the much slimmer volume of this earlier work (The Hobbit was released in 1937; Fellowship didn’t follow until 1954) apparently necessitates not one, not even two, but three films – he’d be like, “Okay, movie studio, I know you like money; yes, Mr. Jackson, I understand you wanted to work again with all of those fun cast members whose characters aren’t actually in the book and so you decided to throw them in anyway, but… really? THREE movies? Hey, maybe with a little judicious re-writing in The Hobbit, Part 3, we could see Bilbo in a tawdry affaire with Frodo’s mother, Primula Brandybuck. Then an extra scene could be added to the beginning of Fellowship: ‘Frodo,’ Ian Holm would proclaim to Elijah Wood, before giving him the One Ring. ‘I am your father.’ Y’know, since apparently we’re going all Lucas on this bitch.”

Wow, imaginary Tolkien is snarky.

But you get the point. There are young children out in the world who believe that Tolkien was a New Zealander; why else, they reason, would the movies have been filmed there? How are they to know that the combination of its youthful geological volatility, variety of climate and lush wilderness makes it the perfect setting for the unspoilt early European landscape envisioned by Tolkien? All they know is that director Peter Jackson has a Kiwi accent and in the movies they sometimes recognize someone from Xena, so obviously the guy who wrote the books must be from there as well. And that’s the ones who aren’t astonished to learn that the movies were based on books in the first place—let alone books so venerated that they were collectively honored as the Best of the 20th Century in many lists published at the end of the last millennium. Tell this to anyone raised in the Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy era, and they look at you as though you’re crazy. And then ask why they’d bother reading the books when they can just watch the movies. (Note the poster for The Hobbit to the left; “FROM THE DIRECTOR OF ‘THE LORD OF THE RINGS’ TRILOGY” emblazoned across the top. Tolkien mentioned in tiny font at the very bottom.)

Depressing, isn’t it?

But does it really matter? Perhaps not, unless you’re particularly worried about children’s general literacy. Tolkien himself is long gone, and as Peter Jackson (who is a brilliant filmmaker, and this is not at all his fault, let’s just make that clear) slowly covers more and Middle-earthly ground – next up for him: The Silmarillion Pentalogy? – perhaps it is only fair that his name is as lauded as is that of the man who spent decades agonizing over the placement of every last consonant in the made up languages that make his made up world so very real.

And perhaps, as even more time passes, Tolkien – often imitated, never surpassed – will become a forgotten artist, whose work kids will pick up ten or twenty years hence, read for a bit (until they start wondering who the hell that Tom Bombadil character is), and then decide to go pretend to be Elijah as Frodo in the holodeck, or whatever, instead. Once a book becomes a movie, it is no longer the exclusive domain of the author that created it, and J.R.R. Tolkien – that complex, brilliant, perplexingly circumlocutory genius – could one day be only a name that people see in the opening credits, and then all-too-easily forget.

Which would never have happened if he’d just used the name Reuel.

– Rachel Hyland


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