And Now It's Time to Say Good-bye...
From that point forward Tolkien fans around the world will wait with bated breath for the result of Peter Jackson's editing skills. Of course, a great amount of CGI work remains to be done, and perhaps a few favored Web sites will be given glimpses of behind-the-scenes works and some advance snippets of what is yet to come.
LOTRmania has gotten some mention in the press this year, but we all know in our hearts that we ain't seen nothing yet. In about six more months, give or take, the advance publicity will begin to hit the magazines, the television shows, the newspapers. Everyone knows the movies are coming. The first trailer is almost upon us. People are already looking forward to the DvD (hoping, probably hopelessly, that Bombadil will appear on it).
You know kiddies, we aren't even halfway through this deal yet. It's been only about three years since the rumors first started circulating that Peter Jackson might be doing a LOTR movie. We've got more than three years left before the last movie is released (December 2003), and it will be at least another six to twelve months before the last DvD comes out after that.
The last year has been the most compelling year, however. We've seen the commercial Tolkien world turned on its ear. Iron Crown Enterprises announced that it had lost its license to distribute Tolkien-related products on September 22, 1999 (great timing, someone). On that same day Sierra On-line announced the same day that they were not bringing Orcs: Revenge of the Ancient to computer desktops after all, and they fired the entire development team so they could start over.
Since then, Toy Vault has been pressured to discontinue its marvelous line of Middle-earth Action Figures so that Toy Biz could license someone else to do it (no doubt with less attention to detail, and definitely based on the movies rather than the books). Sierra has gone to court to try and convince the world that it really does have a Middle-earth Online game waiting in the wings, and that it should be able to bring it out. Iron Crown Enterprises has changed its bankruptcy to Chapter 7 and will close its doors on December 1. They aren't taking orders any more.
On the up side...well, where is the up side of all this commercial wrangling? Who benefits? Certainly not the stockholders of Havas Interactive, unless their attorneys can pull a huge rabbit out of their hat. The former development team members opened bottles of champagne when they were subpoenaed to give depositions. Word is that not one of them said anything which will support Sierra's case (Havas owns Sierra, so I use the names interchangeably).
The customers of Toy Vault aren't going to benefit from this. The hard-core collectors may have found a few things to complain about with Toy Vault's long lead times and the production problems that occurred with the Lord of the Nazgul figure (heck, even my liner comments were truncated). Toy Vault's owners can't be thrilled with having been forced to wag the lawyers at their competition.
Toy Biz might come out smelling like a rose, but then, they haven't made much noise about insisting on faithfulness to anything. Their stockholders may breathe a sigh of relief as the money starts rolling in but Toy Biz is a division of the financially troubled Marvel Enterprises. Marvel hasn't come out of the woods yet, last I heard.
And then there are the movies themselves. We've been intimately analyzing every spy report, news report, report analysis, and photograph to emerge from New Zealand. A few eager beavers even tried to capitalize on the interest by stealing stuff from the production, in some cases offering it for sale on the Internet (but did anyone actually get to buy the stuff?). So far everyone seems to have been caught. Even an occasional Web site or two has been embarrassed by posting stuff it shouldn't have, and the material was quickly taken down (and I'm not referring to just one Web site -- there have been quite a few of these incidents, over different materials).
So far, the curious fans have been forgiven their curiosity-driven enthusiasm. No real harm done, and the super-hardened criminals have all been sentenced to gruelling punishments like revealing their names, 250 hours of community service, and never working in the New Zealand film industry again (anyone remember the extra who talked and was promptly fired? -- notice they aren't firing extras now when they talk about how well-treated they are).
Let's face it, folks. The Mickey Mouse Club (from whose farewell song I took the title of this article) never told stories like this one. And it's a sure bet "The Making of the Lord of the Rings" won't get into all these nasty, gory little details. We'll be treated to scenes of Peter Jackson directing a crew of hundreds with the assistance of four television sets and a radio network (actually, that will be worth seeing once).
Even George Lucas will be hard-pressed to generate all the news reports and scandals that "Lord of the Rings" has produced for us. There have been weeks where I felt more like a tabloid reporter than just a fan trying to help keep other fans informed. While people send me requests for articles about the Dunlendings, the other two wizards, the Forodwaith, the real history of Umbar, I look at the news stories and ask why anyone should care that Sir Ian McKellen enjoys a night life. Or why it matters if all the LOTR actors ordered salads at a particular restaurant in the Spring.
This isn't exactly the stuff of legends, folks. McKellen has done his bit to keep the magic alive by revealing tidbits on his own Web site. Given the hassle that other people have endured, and that E! Online's inexpert Insider John Forde has exclusive Internet coverage (fans often ask in the forums if the guy has even read the book), it's simply miraculous that McKellen reveals as much as he does. At Dragoncon this year, Brad Dourif and Karl Urban -- two really great guys to talk and listen to -- were almost terrified of saying anything. They knew whatever they said would probably be on Peter's desk within 24 hours (believe it or not, there are several people whose jobs are to monitor the Tolkien Web sites -- hi, guys!).
I can almost see the negotiations behind McKellen's revelations. "Peter, I'd like to mention that Gandalf is not facing the Balrog, that the scene is actually going to depend heavily on CGI and considerable acting on my part." "I don't know, Ian. We'd really like to keep the Balrog under wraps as much as possible. The wings thing, you know." "Oh, dear. I think my old Richard III injury is flaring up. Shame about that. I'll have to post-pone production work for another three weeks." "So, would you like pictures of the Balrog with that interview?" "It's by telephone. Won't be necessary, thank you."
There will be more interviews, more revelations, no doubt, with McKellen and many other actors. Of course, the real gravy will come when Peter himself starts getting out and about and talking about his project. This is, more than anyone else's, his baby. He should be immensely proud of what he's accomplished (unless it's determined that all the money spent in New Zealand for these movies is responsible for the current inflation rate, then an "Oops!" might be in order). And what has Jackson accomplished?
That's easy. He's the first director in history to film three movies concurrently (although one must ask what went into the 84-hour "Cure for Insomnia"). He and his collaborators are the first screenplay writers to bring out a three-film script based on the book everyone believes cannot be translated to film (and these movies may yet prove that). Peter Jackson has also broadly expanded the New Zealand film industry. Renaissance Pictures moved into New Zealand years ago to produce Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and subsequently Xena: Warrior Princess (and a couple other shows that didn't make it). They capitalized on the rebirth (or true birth) of New Zealand's film and television industry which had started with the production of the internationally distributed Shortland Street.
But Jackson is the power who made the difference. He's put New Zealand on the map in a way the earlier productions haven't. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that more overseas Net surfers read The New Zealand Herald online than actual New Zealanders.
And as with any big budget movie, Peter Jackson has found ways to do things that have never been done before. These new techniques, barely heard of and understood by the fans, will undoubtedly influence movie making for years to come. The same is true of "Star Wars". Industrial Light & Magic, one of the all-time leading special effects houses, was created by George Lucas because he couldn't find anyone who was capable of doing what he needed doing. "Jurassic Park" all but put the model makers and go-motion animators out of business. People have had to retool and retrain for CGI since that movie proved it could be done.
And what do these films mean to us, the fans? I sense almost total dread and despair in Tolkien fandom even today. Why? Because the movies are not faithful to the books. We knew from the beginning that they couldn't be faithful to the books. But fandom is diverse, and there are many people who feel that holding Peter Jackson or any film-maker to the standard of a literary story is unfair. I agree with that point-of-view, but I still have my regrets about Bombadil, and I don't understand the need to have the Uruk-hai (who were just Orcs) come out of pods or wearing plate-armor.
Does that mean I'm going to squirm in my chair and stamp my feet and say, "These movies stink!"? Of course not. I read every volume of The History of Middle-earth knowing the early texts contained in them would not be as polished as their later, officially published versions. I still found the magic. The art of story-telling doesn't die if someone changes the story. The enjoyment of listening to a story shouldn't die just because someone tells a different version of the beloved tale.
Some day, somewhere, someone is going to stand up in front of an audience and tell the story of The Hobbit without looking at the book and the audience -- adults and children alike -- will listen with rapt devotion, hanging on every word, every scene. And no one will notice that it's not J.R.R. Tolkien's story.
It took twenty years for someone to work up the nerve to attempt Tolkien on film again. The Ralph Bakshi animated film has its admirers but it's generally regarded as a disaster. Bakshi came out this year and claimed that it was all United Artists' fault (and that his film was better than Jackson's will be). I don't hesitate to point out that it probably wasn't United Artists who insisted on rotoscoping the movie into a dreadful mess which is perilous to watch (but the soundtrack is great, and is still selling very well). I took my brother to see that movie when it first came out. He'd never read any fantasy or science fiction. He hasn't read any since then.
I think the chief difference between Peter Jackson's story and Ralph Bakshi's story (besides the fact that Glorfindel got rolled into different characters by the twain) is that Jackson's movies will probably inspire more people to look into the books than Bakshi's movie did. Jackson's portrayal of Middle-earth, no matter what it looks like, will feel so real to so many people, their imaginations will be sparked. I can't help but believe that, because so many Tolkien fans who understand movie making have come back from New Zealand and said, "You will not believe this. What they are doing is incredible!"
You know, if Tolkien can start out with iron dragons that are machines and end up with Smaug, and if Beren can be a man and then an elf and then a man, and if Bingo...er, Frodo is met in Bree by a hobbit ranger named Trotter who emerges as the tall man of Numenorean descent actually named Aragorn....well, if we can accept these changes in the story from Tolkien, then we can accept the changes in the story from ourselves.
The film rights should be available again in about seven years. You know what? No matter how good "The Lord of the Rings" turns out to be, I hope we don't have to wait another twenty years to see the next adaptation.
Hollywood, I'm ready to live the adventure again when you are.
Michael Martinez is the author of Visualizing Middle-earth, which may be purchased directly from Xlibris Corp. or through any online bookstore. You may also special order it from your local bookstore. The ISBN is 0-7388-3408-4.