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Tracey E.Schelmetic

[December 12, 2001]

Dot Com Commerce

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Managing Editor, CUSTOMER [email protected] Solutions

One Web Site To Rule Them All

The hobbits and the elves have pointed ears. The ring wraiths' horses are brown, not black. Arwen is played by the daughter of an Aerosmith member and travels with the Fellowship?! Tom Bombadil has been eliminated!

If this means nothing to you, then you're not a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy The Lord Of The Rings. If you are a fan and have visited any of the Web sites monitoring the progress of the film version of the first book in the trilogy, The Fellowship Of The Ring, due in theaters Wednesday, December 19th, you'll understand that these are a sampling of the types of concerns that have been expressed in editorials and on message boards related to the film.

By my casual count today, I saw 32 Web sites, many dating back as far as 1998, dedicated to both the print works of Tolkien and the upcoming films. Most of them contain areas in which fans of the books and film buffs can discuss news and photos that have been released about the film. Today, much of the discussion centers around the critics' reviews, which are trickling in little by little during these, the preceding days of the film's opening. One of the most visible of such Web sites has been TheOneRing.net, a professional-looking site tended as a labor of love by a dedicated and international staff of Tolkien fans. The site contains over 800 pages, which is a clue as to the breadth of the challenges the filmmakers have faced under the scrutiny of an enormous and multigenerational fan base. It includes resources for information about the films and Tolkien's books, chat and discussion, gaming, fan clubs, trivia, news and archives.

The challenge film director Peter Jackson, a New Zealander, tackled in getting the books on screen ten years ago would have been significant (the trilogy will be covered in three movies, Fellowship this year, with The Two Towers in 2002 and The Return Of The King in 2003). The challenges Jackson faces today are at least twofold. The Internet has made it so. When the first trailer for the film appeared on the Internet last year, it was downloaded 1.7 million times in the first 24 hours of its appearance.

Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings, one of the greatest and most beloved books of the twentieth century (British polls, and many American ones, consistently vote it to the top spot), has a fan base that makes Trekkers seem only vaguely interested in all things Star Trek. (Though Tolkien fans are not generally known for dressing up as hobbits and elves and parading around convention centers.) The trilogy, published in 1954-1955, essentially gave birth to the fantasy genre and nearly all fantasy written thereafter contains liberal sprinklings of its influence. Director Peter Jackson himself expressed both "the joy and the curse" of filming a book that is both one of the premiere cultural icons of English language literature and that fans consider something bordering on a religion.

In addition to TheOneRing, a Web site Jackson could hardly have failed to pay attention to is that of The Tolkien Society, a British non-profit group founded in 1969. The group's Web site is more sedate than others that cover all things Tolkien, but it does contain information and updates regarding the films, as well as opinions by members. One concern expressed by Tolkien Society members was that the elves in the story should speak "Elvish" (Tolkien, having been a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, created complex languages for his books). Though I have not yet seen the film, word on the street is that the filmmakers did remain true to the books on this note, supplying the accompanying English subtitles.

The massive fan response on the Internet, while probably daunting to a filmmaker, surely has an upside to it, however. In the days of old, film studios would, and likely still do, organize and pay for focus groups. What are such Web-based discussion sites but massive, unsolicited virtual focus groups that filmmakers can tap in to as a means of ensuring they are staying in synch with the wishes of fans and filmgoers? Ask director Chris Columbus why he was so faithful to the book Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone during the filmmaking of that project, and he'll likely tell you that he was afraid of being chased down the street by irate fans for the rest of his natural life. (There were a number of Web sites created by fans, most of them young, to keep in touch with developments during the filmmaking process of that movie.) Though it is unlikely a director will ever admit to changing his plans due to fan response, it seems impossible that Jackson and others like him have been able to ignore the voices of millions of a book's adherents. "Tehanu," a member of TheOneRing.net family, expressed to me that she believes that fan outcry provoked by the beefed up and altered role of the character Arwen in the film (played by actress Liv Tyler) led in part to the filmmakers' eventual toning down of the character.

The lessons learned in filming The Lord Of The Rings are likely to resonate in the future. News reports indicate that a film version of C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, the first book in the author's universally beloved Narnia series, is due to begin filming soon, for a planned release in 2004. Controversy is likely to arise in the fact that Lewis (who was a friend and fellow Oxford professor of Tolkien's) often incorporated religious imagery into his books. A brouhaha arose earlier in the year when HarperCollins, which owns the rights to the Narnia books, announced plans to "rewrite" them for a modern audience. This alteration allegedly involves excising Lewis' original religious themes from the books. The plans to tamper with Lewis' work stirred up such horror among fans and literature scholars that any directors and script writers who take on the film project will no doubt find themselves walking a minefield of issues. Rumor has it that first-draft plans to set the film in modern-day Los Angeles during a series of earthquakes, instead of WWII-era Britain during the Blitz, were ditched when C.S. Lewis fans collectively began howling with displeasure (rightfully so, I might opine).

As the Internet and the film industry form a more comfortable partnership, the results will be fun to watch. The Web is already becoming a premium marketing vehicle for the film industry. Anyone who doubts that should recall the brilliant use of the Web by the producers of The Blair Witch Projectby the time they were finished reaping the rewards of the nearly-free marketing accomplished for them by Internet surfers (what some call "viral marketing"), they hardly need have bothered buying expensive TV air time or newspaper ads. The public was already clamoring for the film. It's also interesting to watch the Internet become the actual delivery vehicle for short films by aspiring filmmakers who would otherwise never be able to distribute their work to such a large audience.

Finally, in case any of my readers are looking forward to the film as much as I am, the Web designer and co-Webmaster of TheOneRing.net ("Calisuri") has had the benefit of a pre-screening and referred to it "mindblowing." Enough said.

The author may be contacted at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com.

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