July 3, 2001
Hobbits Take Revenge on
Call it Frodo's revenge. Almost half a century after the American literary establishment dismissed The Lord of the Rings as "balderdash" and "juvenile trash", a new film version of J R R Tolkien's epic is breaking records six months before its release.
A 90-second preview of hobbit action, viewable on the film's website, was seen by 1.7m people in the first weekend it was released last month. It has since attracted more than 350m visitors, believed to be an online record for a film trailer. As Tolkien's books fly off American bookshop shelves, the critics who once sneered at British enthusiasm for stories about elves and trolls have begun to eat their words.
"Ever since I arrived at university in 1964 and encountered grown women clutching teddies and babbling about hobbits, it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be one of the most influential writers of the century," wrote Chris Mooney in The American Prospect magazine. "The bad dream has materialised."
Tolkien's American publishers have already sold 250,000 copies of a special Rings edition tied to the film, which stars Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins and Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf. Last week Houghton Mifflin ordered yet another reprint of 100,000 copies, even though the film, the first in a planned Tolkien trilogy, is not to be released until December.
"Sales are going through the roof," said Kuo-Yu Liang of Del Rey/Ballantine, the paperback publisher of the series. A 13-hour 10 CD audio version of the book is 15th on the Publishers Weekly bestsellers list, despite its $70 price tag.
Enthusiasm for the Rings and another hotly anticipated British film debut, Harry Potter (to be released in November), has fuelled an intriguing debate over America's growing obsession with fantasy worlds and unconventional spirituality.
During the past few months, American booksellers have seen a growing demand for so-called New Age books on everything from tarot, i ching and runes to numerology, feng shui and witchcraft. In the fad for escapist fantasy, some see signs of what one bookseller called "a sea change in American spirituality".
In place of the traditional reliance on churches, said Chris Faatz of Powell's Books in Oregon, there was "evidence of the loosening of religious structures in our lives".
According to Michael Collings, professor of English at Pepperdine University, books such as The Lord of the Rings have recently become even more popular because they are "about the way the religious impulse shapes our destiny and the way in which the supernatural can intrude upon the natural".
For Tolkien it amounts to a posthumous triumph after the disparaging reception that greeted The Lord of the Rings when it arrived in America in 1956.
Although W H Auden wrote in The New York Times that Tolkien had surpassed Milton's Paradise Lost, Mooney recalled last week that Edmund Wilson's review in The Nation had dismissed the book as "balderdash". In a supercilious blast entitled "Ooh Those Awful Orcs", Wilson, one of America's foremost writers, noted: "Certain people, especially perhaps in Britain, have a lifelong appetite for 'juvenile trash'."
Salt was rubbed in the Tolkien wound when Harold Bloom, professor of English at Yale and a notoriously trenchant literary critic, described the book as "inflated, overwritten, tendentious and moralistic in the extreme". Yet Bloom went on to edit two books of Tolkien criticism and several American universities now teach The Lord of the Rings.
For New Line Cinema, the studio behind the film, the hype is a godsend. Squeezed by the merger of Warner Bros, its former corporate parent, with America Online, the studio was responsible for one of the biggest duds of recent years - Town and Country, Warren Beatty's $90m flop.
The Los Angeles Times recently reported that New Line had earmarked $150m for marketing costs alone on the Rings trilogy, which will continue next year with The Two Towers and will end in 2003 with The Return of the King.
The three films were made simultaneously for an estimated combined budget of $270m.
There was an immediate pay-off in critical raves after the first public showing of extracts at the Cannes film festival last month. "You can bet money now that this film will have the biggest weekend opening in the history of cinema," McKellen boasted to interviewers.
The film-makers are hoping that the Rings will appeal to two distinct audiences: the fantasy-loving, game-playing teenage audience whose appetite for adventure is likely to be whetted by Potter's wizardry; and the ageing generation of American baby boomers who remember the Rings as one of the key texts of the Vietnam war.
For tens of thousands of anti-war demonstrators, Tolkien's theme of magic as a power for good falling into the hands of sinister forces became a metaphor for American weaponry being used against Vietnamese peasants.