The Vancouver Sun
Wednesday, April 19th, 2000


Mike Shahin – Southam Newspapers

WELLINGTON, N.Z. — Whether the legions of Ring fans around the world are ready or not, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is being turned into a series of three movies.

While New Zealand director Peter Jackson stages Orc battles and Hobbit miracles in the shadows of New Zealand’s imposing mountains, the movie’s L.A. production company finds itself jousting with the public’s desire to know more about the project.

On one side is a film company, New Line Cinema, wanting to protect its $260-million investment by keeping its work under cover until it is ready to be seen — while still getting as much publicity as it can, of course.

On the other side is a community of Tolkien fans, organized mostly through the Internet, and world media dying to know more about the movies. Many fans are serving as self-appointed watchdogs to ensure the epic story isn’t corrupted. Both groups simply want to be voyeurs to the film-making.

Last weekend, after keeping its gates tightly closed to outsiders since shooting began late last year, New Line (a subsidiary of Time Warner Inc.) released on the Internet a two-minute preview and inside look at the making of the film.

According to New Line and Apple Computer, the preview was downloaded nearly 1.7 million times during its first 24 hours on the Internet. This, New Line trumpeted in a news release, shattered the record of one million hits registered by an online trailer for Star Wars’ The Phantom Menace last year.

“This staggering launch shows how important the online community is to our marketing efforts moving forward,” said Gordon Paddison, a New Line marketing executive.

But not all interaction with the “online community” has been so cosy for the film’s makers. Auckland resident Erica Challis, who helps run a Web site about the Rings movies, was in January served with a trespass notice banning her from the film set. Producer Barrie Osborne said at the time that she was banned because she suggested on her site that she would try to snoop for film details on set.

“It makes them look ridiculous,” Challis told a Wellington newspaper after receiving the notice. “It’s like using a sledgehammer to squash a fly.”

Soon after, amateur New Zealand actor Eddie McCarthy said he was blacklisted by Wellington acting agencies after publishing a light-hearted account of his time as an extra on the Rings set.

McCarthy said he received a letter from the producers advising him that he had breached a clause in his contract that prohibited him from talking to the media about the film.

Throughout the shooting in New Zealand, Rings publicist Claire Raskind has received about 100 international media requests every month for access to the heavily-guarded sets and the stars of the film. Nearly all of them are thanked for their interest and turned away.

If all this seems a bit heavy-handed, with New Line resembling the dark lord of Mordor, fans should remember that movie-makers have always exerted careful control and promotional spin over their product. In the case of the Lord of the Rings, the pressure on the producers is enormous.

The novel, nearly a half-century old, has sold 50 million copies and has been read by people in 25 languages. It is a quintessential tale of good versus evil, an old-fashioned story told with simple elegance and an exquisitely intricate plot. Fans don’t read the 1000 or so pages of the Rings just once — they read it once a year.

But the cult-like devotion of many Tolkien fans manifests itself in some strange ways, mainly on the Internet. Examples abound of what director Peter Jackson has called an “underlying current of paranoia and fear.”

There are entire societies dedicated to speaking the languages invented by the author. There is a petition, with nearly 9000 signatures, beseeching the producers of the film trilogy to keep the book’s “integrity” intact.

“We believe wholesale alterations … are completely unnecessary, would violate the integrity of Tolkien’s work, and alienate many of his fans,” the purists warn. “If these kind of changes are in fact planned, we appeal to you, as creators of this project, to stop and consider your obligation to do what is right in service of Professor Tolkien’s legacy. Many, many people have come to love this story as it is, and will be strong supporters of these films, provided they tell the story as we know and love it.”

There are an estimated 400 Web sites devoted to the movies alone, and probably hundreds more devoted to Tolkien’s work. Many of the movie sites thrive on rumours about budget, cast and storyline, and every bit of real news about the production is seized on and spread with lightning speed. Illicit photos are snapped at sets and smuggles onto the Net. The most notable was of two actors dressed as Nazgul, the dreaded Black Riders of Sauron, puffing on cigarettes during a smoke break.

All the while, fans drool over the prospect of having Hollywood put a face on a story that has existed for so many years in their imagination. “I love it,” gushed a fan after watching the Internet preview. “I don’t care if [the movie] deviates from the book. I’ve been waiting some 20 years to get a peep at the images I just saw, I’m already popping the popcorn.”

Eighteen months of shooting is due to finish at the end of this year. The first of the three movies, The Fellowship of the Ring, should be out by December 2001.

Thanks to Corinne and Tom for the article!