The War of the Rings

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' (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 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 theaters this spring or you're not clear on just how high the stakes are. The three Tolkien movies are jointly budgeted at $360 million-second only to Titanic, and principal filming doesn't even 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 there are an estimated 1,200 digital shots planned, with an eventual 50 terabytes of data involved. 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 re-casting 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...suddenly Hollywood has 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, the gaming house Sierra Online 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 Sept. 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 promised to be the biggest, most involved, most complex RPG (role-playing game) ever.

The game's been delayed, and still the fans rage on: A visit to the developers' discussion board finds debates over how one might become a farmer in the game, or become an elf, or start a war.

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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