Post-classical fantasy cinema: The Lord of the Rings

A film like The Lord of the Rings is a starting place as much as an end product of adaptation: just one reference point in a matrix of intertextual relations created by synergic cross-promotion. Video games, graphic and literary novelizations, CD soundtracks, multiple Director’s Cuts and DVD versions, prequels, sequels, and franchises not only extend the boundaries of contemporary Hollywood fantasy films but also increasingly determine their form and narrative.

by I. Q. Hunter


Since the late 1970s the dominant genre of Hollywood blockbusters has been fantasy, and it is not hard to see why. Science fiction extravaganzas, comic book adaptations, and epic series like Star Wars (1977-2005), Harry Potter (2001 ongoing), The Chronicles of Narnia (2005 ongoing) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) appeal internationally to the crucial teenage demographic; encourage fannish absorption in their expandable universes; showcase advances in special effects; and lend themselves readily to sequels, spin-offs and other commercially essential tie-ins.

Although Star Wars (1977) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (2977), which inspired the continuing wave of fantasy, were original stories, fantasy films nowadays more usually derive from pre-existing novels, films, comic books, and video games with some built-in guarantee of audience recognition and cult interest. But the process is not one of simple ‘‘adaptation.’’ A film like The Lord of the Rings is a starting place as much as an end product of adaptation: just one reference point in a matrix of intertextual relations created by synergic cross-promotion. Video games, graphic and literary novelizations, CD soundtracks, multiple Director’s Cuts and DVD versions, prequels, sequels, and franchises – such ostensibly secondary productions, included among what Gerard Genette called ‘‘paratexts,’’ not only extend the boundaries of contemporary Hollywood fantasy films but also increasingly determine their form and narrative.1 The interminable pod­racing scenes in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999) were essentially previews of the spin-off Episode 1 Racer video game; while narrative gaps were deliberately left in The Matrix: Reloaded (2003) for the spin-off video game to fill in, and its back-story was fleshed out in The Animatrix (2003), a straight-to-DVD collection of anime shorts. This is adaptation understood not as fidelity to a controlling original but as dissemination – the commodification of valuable textual material across numerous media. As Deborah Cartmell argues, ‘‘instead of worrying about whether a film is ‘faithful’ to the original literary text (founded in the logocentric belief that there is a single meaning), we read adaptations for their generation of a plurality of meanings. Thus the intertextuality of the adaptation is our primary concern.’’2

It is in this spirit that I shall look at Peter Jackson’s films of The Lord of the Rings as examples of contemporary fantasy cinema. I shall not work through a point-by-point comparison of the novel and films; for this, see Tom Shippey’s chapter in Understanding The Lord of the Rings, Brian Rosebury’s Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon, and the comprehensive film guide by Smith and Matthews.3 A good deal of writing on the films, especially within Tolkien fandom and in the small, intensely author-centered world of Tolkien criticism, has been pitched as studies in betrayal. The focus is on Jackson’s deviations from Tolkien – ‘‘sins of commission … that gravely change the character of Tolkien’s text,’’ as Jane Chance, one of the better-known Tolkien scholars, complains.4 Rather than judge the films against the original novel – a profoundly dull undertaking – I shall attend to the various contexts that determined how a cult novel, of uncertain literary standing, was turned into an epic fantasy action film.

In any case, as other contributors to this volume insist, fidelity is rarely a useful criterion when exploring a film’s relation to its intertexts. ‘‘Fidelity to its source text,’’ as Thomas Leitch puts it elsewhere, ‘‘whether it is conceived as success in re-creating specific textual details or the effect of the whole – is a hopelessly fallacious measure of a given adaptation’s value because it is unattainable, undesirable, and theoretically possible only in a trivial sense … [The] source texts will always be better at being themselves.’’5 But while, in theory, it is liberating to dismiss fidelity, this doesn’t really work in the case of The Lord of the Rings. The film-makers could not simply jettison the book, even if they had wanted to, because many viewers of the films would have an investment in seeing it faithfully reproduced on screen; for the book’s fans this made the prospect of a film version equally thrilling and anxiety- inducing. The Lord of the Rings films had to stay faithful to the novel – or rather work within a discourse of fidelity – because of its extraordinary and paradoxical standing in modern popular culture.

The novel is far and away one of the most popular ever written, in terms not only of its breadth of readership (there seem to be no Tolkien readers, only re-readers), but the enthusiasm of its fan-base, which is global, cross­generational, and highly productive in fanzines, small press publications, and online fan fiction. At the same time the novel, since its publication in 1954-5, has attracted the scorn of ‘‘the British literary establishment.’’ The ‘‘official’’ line on Tolkien remains a toxic mix of contempt for his Catholicism and conservative politics, disapproval of the fantasy genre as a deviation from the true path of modernism, and snobbish distaste for Tolkien’s readership, who are typically constructed as childish, regressed, and nerdish devotees of escapism. In 1997, when a British poll voted The Lord of the Rings the ‘‘book of the century,’’ there followed an astonishing outpouring of loathing for it in the quality press as a symbol of the public’s philistinism and inability to grow up.6 These discourses about Tolkien and his readership cropped up again with the release of the first film in the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. Jenny Turner claimed, for example, that ‘‘The strange power of his book casts a spell over readers, as children, as pubescent, as adolescents, as adults, a spell some of them grow out of and others don’t.”7 The book, she goes on to say, is ‘‘tit in some way, it’s an infantile comfort. It’s an infantile comfort that’s also a black pit.’’8 Significantly, the same sort of imagery (infantile, nerdish, irredeemably Other) is often attached to Star Wars and its fandom. Star Wars is demonized within ‘‘serious’’ film culture much as Lord of the Rings is within literary circles. Their popularity is taken as a sign of mass geekery and ideological compliance, and the disdain for Tolkien and Star Wars has become a display of cultural capital; proof not only of one’s maturity but also of inoculation against regressive Englishness (Tolkien), dumbed down Hollywood (Star Wars) and the virus of fantasy itself.

In other words, for all its popularity, The Lord of the Rings was a controversial book and would be a tricky adaptation to get right. A cult item, it was nevertheless widely despised and had uncertain appeal to general film audiences. Although fantasy and science fiction were extremely popular film genres, the type of fantasy to which The Lord of the Rings belonged was not especially commercial – namely, sword and sorcery. Star Wars – sword and sorcery dressed up as science fiction and itself highly indebted to Tolkien – had briefly inspired a spate of heroic adventures in supernatural lands of fable. Dragonslayer (1981), The Beastmaster (1982), Conan the Barbarian (1982), The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982), and Red Sonya (1985) were high-camp mixtures of pulp, comic strip violence, and the peplum (Italian sword and sandal movies), sometimes beefed up with anarcho-individualist politics; while Willow (1988) slavishly reworked Star Wars’s formula with additions from the stories of Christ and Moses. But this sub-genre petered out in the late 1980s, finding a more permanent niche in role-playing and video games, and until The Lord of the Rings, few efforts were made to revive it on screen. Star Wars itself would remain the most important template for the adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

Jackson and his co-adaptors were constrained not only to satisfy Tolkien readers by capturing ‘‘the essence” of the novel, but also to produce a blockbuster action movie accessible to viewers with no emotional investment in the novel. But the novel’s wide fan base, while not sufficient, as Kristin Thompson remarks, to make the film a hit, was certainly large enough to cause damage if the film was felt to be inauthentic, ‘‘Hollywoodized’’ and out of alignment with readers’ expectations: ‘‘the book’s fans were important disproportionately to their numbers, for many of them were vociferous and had either their own websites or at least a niche within a larger site.’’9 Success with the fans guaranteed invaluable word of mouth and lucrative repeat viewings. Bertha Chin and Jonathan Gray studied the postings on internet discussion boards of ‘‘pre-viewers’’ of the The Fellowship, and found that overwhelmingly they were ‘‘devoted fans of the books.’’10 Although they were anxious about the films, they were willing to see changes and looked forward to the films as a way of continuing the experience of the books and validating their devotion to them. The ‘‘pre-viewers,’’ according to Chin and Gray, ‘‘regard the films as correlates of the book, and not as unitary, independent entities, not as texts in the traditional sense of the word … [They] regard the films as accessories to the product that is the book.’’ To keep the fans onside, it was crucial not only that the films (or at least the first one) stuck closely to the novel, but that Jackson and his team display credentials as fans themselves. The Tolkien estate, luckily, had no control over the films, but convenient links were emphasized between Tolkien and the filmmakers – for example, the fact that Christopher Lee, who plays Saruman, had actually met Tolkien. Jackson himself was opportunistically spun in publicity material as a genial, tubby, bare-footed hobbit. Even so, while mollifying the fans ensured some sort of audience for the film, pandering exclusively to them was aesthetically constricting and commercially perilous. As with the first Harry Potter film, trying to photocopy the novel on screen might stifle the adaptation process completely.11 Furthermore, for a minority of film fans (like me), The Lord of the Rings was not simply an adaptation of Tolkien: it was the latest film by the auteur Peter Jackson, an accomplished director of fantasy movies from the splatter-comedy Bad Taste (1987) to the psychological drama Heavenly Creatures (1994). How would Lord of the Rings adapt to and extend his distinctive vision? Was the quirkily subversive New Zealander at last selling out to Hollywood?


In film terms, the novel of The Lord of the Rings is badly put together. There is no villain, except, as Jackson notes several times on the audio commentaries, a lighthouse topped with Sauron’s flaming eyeball; to compensate, Saruman and, in The Return of the King, an Orc captain are promoted to chief villains and active antagonists to the Fellowship. Some narrative climaxes seem out of place in the book, such as Boromir’s death, which occurs at the start of The Two Towers novel but is sensibly moved to the end of the film of The Fellowship. And the novel’s story wanders, especially in The Fellowship of the Ring, where it is continuously sidetracked by songs, poems, and irrelevancies such as the episode with the insufferable Tom Bombadil, the novel’s Jar Jar Binks. In other words, and quite unsurprisingly, the novel is not remotely like a screen treatment.

The films reorganized it into a relatively classical narrative that draws on established Hollywood genres (the action film, the buddy movie, the war film). The solution with The Fellowship of the Ring was to make the story ‘‘Frodo-centric,’’ as Jackson and his collaborators explain in the audio commentary, and streamline it as a quest or road movie narrative; events are localized through Frodo, who, like Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter, becomes the source of most of the story information. The second and third films also reshape the books into more propulsive and linear plots. The story of The Two Towers, which in the book is hewn into blocks of self-contained narrative that relate, in turn, to different groups of protagonists, is straightened out into chronological, cross-cut parallel story-arcs; these climax with the action sequences of Helm’s Deep, the Ents’ attack on Isengard, and Frodo and Sam’s sojourn in Osgiliath (invented for the film), which are spliced together like the finale of The Empire Strikes Back (1980). This default linearity makes for some awkwardness, notably in the sudden abandonment of Saruman at the end of the theatrical cut of The Two Towers. On the other hand, cross-cutting pays off superbly when Gandalf and Pippin, in Minas Tirith, and Sam, Frodo, and Gollum, at the foot of the stairs of Cirith Ungol, simultaneously watch a column of green fire explode from Minas Morgul; this brilliantly unites storylines otherwise separated by many miles and, in the book, by many chapters. Crucially, restructuring the novel ensures that each film is anchored by extended set-piece scenes of peril or war – the Mines of Moria; Helm’s Deep (barely a dozen pages in the book); and the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.

Fans – who may accept changes to the plot – might nevertheless expect the filmmakers to respect ‘‘the spirit’’ of Tolkien, but that spirit is often controversial and unhelpful. Some aspects of the story might be hard to put over to a modern audience – the healing power of kings, for example, or the master-servant relationship between Frodo and Sam – but what are often regarded as Tolkien’s misogyny and right-wing politics are equally uncomfortable material for a popular film. Elsewhere I have discussed the degree to which the Jackson films know about the ‘‘repressed’’ and misogynistic ele­ments of The Lord of the Rings, and correct them.12 The issue of race is more troubling. The book rests on an opposition of white and black, West and East that is easily interpreted as unthinkingly racist. Admittedly, white-black dichotomies are built into the novel’s mythopoeic sources. It is arguable too that, color aside, the novel is intensely multicultural in celebrating the coming together of many peoples against an evil monoculture. But, transferred to screen, The Lord of the Rings becomes one of the most racially suspect films of recent years, with its Aryan Elves and pitch-black Orcs and Uruk-Hai (acted much of the time by Maoris). The films deal with race largely by ignoring the problem of skin color, and by emphasizing regional (Scottish, Welsh, and mid-Atlantic) and class accents as markers of difference; the races of Middle Earth are variations within a British diaspora, so that rather than ‘‘black’’ the Orcs are also squaddies speaking guttural Cockney.

The filmmakers latch onto ways to make the film connect to modern audiences, especially the all-important teenagers. The hobbit protagonists are more youthful than in the book. Orlando Bloom as Legolas is turned into a teen idol along the lines of Leonardo di Caprio in Titanic (1997). Gross comic relief is introduced, centered mostly on Gimli, and there is some crowd-pleasingly anachronistic dialogue and action (dwarf-tossing, skate­boarding with shields). More significant is the Aragorn and Arwen romance. Relegated to an appendix of The Return of the King, it is expanded into a key plot development; this alleviates the unrelenting maleness of the story as well as reaching out to young women, who, post-Titanic and Gladiator (2000), have become target audiences for action blockbusters.

Certain themes in the book, especially those highlighted by Tolkien criti­cism and in fandom, are drawn out in the films because of their contempo­rary resonance and applicability (a term Tolkien favored). While esoteric readings of the novel as a Catholic fable or Cold War allegory are unlikely to strike chords with young audiences, its anti-industrialism and ecological concerns seem remarkably up to date. Saruman is a symbol of globalization out of control as he tears up forests and genetically modifies Orcs into Uruk- Hai; Treebeard becomes the mouthpiece of nature against its despoliation by science and power; while the touristic, digitally manipulated images of New Zealand’s landscapes rebuke the degradation of the Old World and prompt nostalgia for the pre-industrial West.13

The films pay homage throughout not only to Tolkien but to his interpreters and adapters. After all, Jackson’s film was a remake as well as an adaptation. Following aborted efforts by, among others, the British director John Boorman, Ralph Bakshi’s long but severely condensed animated version of The Lord of the Rings was released in 1978. Widely despised among Tolkien fans, Bakshi’s film ends mid-way through The Two Towers because funding failed for the proposed second part (in 1980 the producers released a made-for-TV cartoon of The Return of the King, which is in the style of a children’s musical). Bakshi’s film has a psychedelic tone, as might be expected from the director of Fritz the Cat (1972), which dates it as a film made for the 1960s generation that had turned the book into an underground cult. Unlike Jackson’s version, it is strikingly untroubled by the need to appeal to a teen audience, for example with young protagonists; its Frodo and Sam are potato-faced yokels, while Aragorn is as middle-aged, unpre­possessing, and ‘‘foul’’ as he is initially described in the book. Jackson directly quotes Bakshi’s film in two shots: in the opening prologue of The Fellowship, when the ring bounces in silhouette down a rock, and, in the party scene, with a looming close-up of Odo Proudfoot’s feet. But Bakshi’s film was not the only precursor adaptation, though it perhaps stood as a model of what not to do. Homage is paid to the highly regarded BBC radio adaptation (1981): Ian Holm, who played Frodo on radio, is Bilbo in Jackson’s films. Reassuring appropriations of previous versions of Middle Earth further ensure continuity between the novel, previous visualizations, and Jackson’s films – for example, as well as featuring Tolkien’s illustrations, the films owed much of their design to the Tolkien illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe. As a result, the films are a compendium of allusions both to earlier versions of the novel and to widely disseminated interpretations of it, which Jackson and his colleagues discuss on the audio commentaries. The mushroom cloud explosion when Sauron is defeated in the prologue nods to readings of the One Ring as a symbol of the atom bomb, and of the novel as a Cold War allegory (this Tolkien much disputed). Recent interpretations of the novel as a meditation on World War I inflect not only the sequence in the battlefield of Dead Marshes, but also the final scene of homecoming when the hobbit veterans sit silently in the Green Dragon, distanced from the rest of the Shire by their incommunicable experience of war.14 Inspiration is even drawn from irreverent fan readings of Sam and Frodo as a gay couple.

But the films’ references go well beyond Tolkien and his interpreters. There is fidelity in the films’ promiscuous allusiveness, since the novel itself is a recombinant pastiche of mythology, Anglo-Saxon poetry, Shakespeare, and religious fairy-tale. (At moments the films neatly reference Tolkien’s own sources, as when Theoden, before the battle of Helm’s Deep, recites a poem [in the novel it is given to Aragorn] in the valedictory ubi sunt form of Old English poems such as Beowulf and ‘‘The Wanderer’’). Jackson’s films are faithful in many ways to the novel and the discourses around it, but they ultimately inhabit generic and intertextual worlds well beyond Tolkien. This is unavoidable, given the films’ need to work as contemporary fantasies rather than antiquarian pastiches of those of the 1950s. By the time of The Return of the King, which takes the most ‘‘liberties’’ with the novel, the essential texts to which Jackson had to remain faithful were the preceding two in the trilogy; it was the fans of those films, an entirely new constitu-tency, who must now be satisfied and appeased.

The rain-drenched battle scenes in The Two Towers recall the Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa; the fight in Fellowship between Gandalf and Saruman is staged as if for a martial arts film; Kristin Thompson notes an allusion to the ‘‘Stargate’’ sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) when Gandalf passes beyond time and space in The Two Towers.15 More ambig­uous are echoes of Marathon Man (1976) in Gandalf’s asking ‘‘Is it safe?’’ and Jaws (1975) in Gimli’s toast to bow-legged women. Christopher Lee’s casting as Saruman links the films with both horror, a genre to which many scenes unquestionably belong, and Star Wars, Lee featuring as Count Dooku in Episode II (2002) and III (2005). Star Wars is the films’ acknowledged precursor and rival, as scattered allusions to it attest. Theoden’s death scene exchange with Eowyn (‘‘I have to save you,’’ ‘‘You already have’’) repeats the last words between Luke and Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi (1983).16 The defeat of the Oliphaunts at the Battle of Pelannor Fields replays the Battle of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back: the giant elephants are brought down with tripwires just like AT-AT Imperial Walkers.

The Lord of the Rings, with its aesthetic of something for everyone (romance, action, queer subtexts), was solidly in the tradition of the post­Star Wars revival of the family film. As Peter Kramer has shown, the key films in the ten years after Star Wars returned to the epic form of the pre-New Hollywood era and also to spiritual matters, albeit now in the guise of science fiction and fantasy.17 Mark Cousins noted that since the blockbuster period of the late 1970s films have increasingly aspired to mythic status:

For nearly sixty years … American movies had been about people and what they do – fall in love, explore the mid-west, commit crimes, drive cars, sing, etc. Many of the new blockbuster films also had strong characters but they drew more from comic books, the ideas of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and from myth. Like early, pre-psychological cinema, they used the promise of sensation, thrill and fear to lure people back to the cinema.18

Hollywood’s mythic pretensions accelerated further when Chris Vogler, a script analyst for the Walt Disney Company in the 1980s, wrote a famous memo arguing that successful screenplays were variations on a twelve-stage Hero’s Journey model. A good film reworked this Jungian ur-narrative within the standard Three Act structure promulgated by screenwriting manuals. The perfect screenplay was Star Wars and the ideal genre was fantasy, in which archetypes could gambol freely and spirituality was untouched by religious dogma. If The Lord of the Rings reminds us of Star Wars, this is not only because Star Wars borrowed heavily from Tolkien’s novel, or even that both happened to mine identical archetypes: all Hollywood films now draw inspiration from Star Wars’s Joseph Campbell-influenced pseudo-myth of individual liberation, sacrifice, and enlightenment. Nowadays, as Tom Shone acidly remarks, it is no longer enough for a film’s hero to be human; he must be supremely archetypal, at the very least a messiah (Neo in The Matrix trilogy) or Chosen One (Harry Potter, Anakin Skywalker) and preferably God himself (The Passion of the Christ (2004)).19

This intoxication with universal archetypes invites a more sinister ideological interpretation. Ken Gelder has suggested that The Lord of the Rings, like other recent epics, is compensatory fantasy of the most serious, imaginatively disabling, and politically reactionary kind.20 For him its lurid ‘‘clash of civilizations’’ encourages the projection of simplistic moral and cultural divisions onto world politics, divisions with straightforward heroic solutions. The recent efflorescence of the fantasy genre, which most openly indulges ideological daydreams, is therefore symptomatic of a dangerously mythic understanding of the present. But I suspect Gelder is too pessimistic. If the films had been made in the 1980s, Sauron’s evil Empire would have an obvious signified and their politics might be as unambiguous as Conan the Barbarian’s. But (judging anecdotally from commentary on the internet) the films are capable of quite different political applications. The Return of the King is widely read as an inadvertent commentary on the Iraq War, with Sauron standing in for George W. Bush.21


Especially in contemporary Hollywood, adaptation is caught up in intermin­able processes of allusion, homage, commentary, and appropriation. Some critics argue that this compulsive referentiality, along with the predominance of special effects and action sequences, signal a new stage in Hollywood film, a development (or regression) away from the virtues of classical narrative. According to this argument, since the late 1960s American cinema has entered a post-classical period in which films increasingly deviate from classical nar­rative’s flexible guidelines, which ensured that stories were character driven, had a conventional structure of beginning – middle – end, with clearly moti­vated events linked by chains of causes and effects, and, thanks to the rules of continuity editing, were easy for spectators to follow. In post-classical Hollywood films, these guidelines are either weakened or overturned, above all in the ‘‘high concept’’ blockbuster action film pioneered by Jaws and Star Wars. High concept films, whose essential elements can be pitched in thirty seconds, ‘‘can be considered as one central development – and perhaps the central development – within post-classical cinema, a style of filmmaking molded by economic and institutional forces.’’22 In such films, some critics maintain, coherent plot development and characterization have broken down and there is an increasing dominance of spectacular action sequences and special effects; as Warren Buckland explains, they are not “structured in terms of a psychologically motivated cause-and-effect narrative logic, but in terms of loosely-linked, self-sustaining action sequences often built around spectacular stunts, stars, and special effects … Narrative complexity is sacri­ficed on the altar of spectacle.’’23

However, this is an overstatement, a rhetorically sweeping dismissal of dumbed-down Hollywood rather than an accurate description of its character­istic products. Kristin Thompson notes that in any case blockbusters do not make up the majority of Hollywood films, which still adhere to classical norms:

Why has the notion of fragmented, incoherent, spectacle-and-action-laden films taken such hold in academia recently? For one thing, most commentators have too quickly equated all of Hollywood cinema with its blockbusters. Most films made in any given year are medium-budget comedies, romances, action pictures and children’s fare … [Such] genres tend to be built on principles of classical construction. Even if special-effects extravaganzas were as fragmen­tary as critics claim, they would not constitute the norm.24

And, as we have seen, even a blockbuster like The Lord of the Rings attempts to follow established classical principles. For all its post-classical delight in special effects, hyperreal locations and characters like Gollum, and set-piece action sequences, The Lord of the Rings is a sequential character-driven quest narrative (albeit a quest to dispose of rather than discover something); it is filmed in a style of unemphatic realism in which the staggering special effects are subordinated to the needs of the story; and the plot resolution, while exhausting, at length achieves the resounding closure of ‘‘The End.’’ Indeed some of the difficulties of adaptation were caused by the novel’s being so resolutely non-classical in its construction. Like most recent Hollywood cinema, in Thompson’s words, the film trilogy ‘‘continues to succeed through its skill in telling strong stories based on fast-paced action and characters with clear psychological traits. The ideal American film still centers around a well-structured, carefully motivated series of events that the spectator can comprehend relatively easily.’’25

The post-classicism of the The Lord of the Rings has less to do with details of its narrative structure than with the textual instability created by the extended DVD versions, which were, Jackson said, ‘‘for the fans.’’26 The extended DVDs (which to some extent replicate the ‘‘expanded universe’’ of the novel as well as its more sprawling qualities) are curious texts, both more satisfying and more shambolic than the theatrical prints, neither unpolished rough cuts nor final and definitive Director’s Editions (there is an inviting parallel with The History of Middle Earth, the series of drafts, false steps, and early versions edited by Christopher Tolkien). Some of the material is even ‘‘wrong’’ in classical terms; the scenes of the Mouth of Sauron and the arrival of the Corsairs in the Extended Return of the King are indefens­ible as storytelling, as Jackson admits on the commentary, because their narrative information is redundant. Across twelve DVDs the Extended Versions seem to lay bare the film-making process and the choices involved in adapting the novel. They encourage multiple viewings, absorption into the details of adaptation and film production, and allow consumers a sense of participation in the phenomenon of The Lord of the Rings – all of which help turn a blockbuster into a mass cult film. The DVDs also incorporate parallel competitor narratives to the film itself, such as the heroic struggle, recalled in the ‘‘making of’’ documentary, to edit The Return of the King in time for its premiere, and the forging of the fellowship of the actors themselves, which, according to the cast commentary on the Extended Fellowship, was sealed by their all getting identical Elvish tattoos. As writers of Lord of the Rings Real Person Slash – fan stories about imaginary erotic relationships between the male actors – have been quick to realize, this adds new dimensions to a text already teeming with homoerotic possibilities.27 The leisurely (novelistic?) pace of the Extended Versions, as well as their longeurs and diversions, loosen the classical linearity of the theatrical cuts and elaborate on their style of allusive shorthand to ‘‘missing’’ scenes and thematic contexts of the novel. So in the Extended Two Towers, when Treebeard admonishes an oak tree for trying to devour Merry, his words are those, in the novel, of Tom Bombadil to Old Man Willow; the scene works as an injoke and homage to Bombadil, who has been dropped from the story. The shot in the Extended Fellowship of a statue of Aragorn’s mother, which resembles one of the Virgin Mary, plays to fans’ extratextual knowledge of Tolkien’s Catholicism; it is not a theme the film can do much with but the shot at least installs it as an interpretative possibility.

The Extended Versions, in fact, raise questions about what it means to have actually seen The Lord of the Rings. Has one authentically experienced the film, in its full intertextuality, if one has not seen all the versions, listened to the commentaries, and imagined the ideal cut towards which the ‘‘fin­ished’’ movies only gesture? One might think that this ‘‘ideal cut’’ might, in some Borgsian manner, perfectly reproduce the ‘‘original’’ novel. Yet, para­doxically, the more closely one examines Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, and the more interesting they becomes as films, the less relevant Tolkien’s novel seems to their meaning, context, and aesthetic success.


1. Gerard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, trans. Jane E. Lewin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). On Genette’s useful categories, see Robert Stam and Alessandra Raengo (eds.), Literature and Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation (Malden, Massachusetts; Oxford, and Carlton: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), pp. 26-31.
2. See Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan (eds.), Adaptations: From Text to Screen, Screen to Text (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 28.
3. Tom Shippey, ‘‘Another Road to Middle Earth: Jackson’s Movie Trilogy’’ in Rose A. Zimbardo and Neil D. Isaacs (eds.), Understanding The Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), pp. 233-54); Brian Rosebury, Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); Jim Smith and J. Clive Matthews, The Lord of the Rings: The Films, The Books, The Radio Series (London: Virgin Books, 2004).
4. Jane Chance, ‘‘Is There a Text in This Hobbit? Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring,’ Literature/Film Quarterly (2002: 2), 82.
5. Thomas Leitch, ‘‘Twelve Fallacies in Contemporary Adaptation Theory,’’ Criticism 2 (Spring 2003), 161.
6. On critical disdain for Tolkien and the scandal of the 1997 poll, see Tom Shippey, R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (London: HarperCollins, 2001), pp. xx-xxiv; Patrick Curry, Defending Middle Earth: Tolkien, Myth and Modernity (1997; London: HarperCollins, 1998), pp. 15-20; and Joseph Pearce, Tolkien: Man and Myth (London: HarperCollins, 1998), pp. 21-2.
7. Jenny Turner, ‘‘Reasons for Liking Tolkien,’’ London Review of Books 15 November 2001, 16.
8. Ibid., p. 15.
9. Kristin Thompson, ‘‘Fantasy, Franchises, and Frodo Baggins: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood,’’ The Velvet Light Trap 52 (Fall 2003), 46.
10. Bertha Chin and Jonathan Gray, ‘‘ ‘One Ring to Rule Them All’: Pre-viewers and Pre­Texts of the Lord of the Rings Films,” Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media Issue 2.
11. Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan, ‘‘Harry Potter and the Fidelity Debate’’ in Mireia Aragay (ed.), Books in Motion: Adaptation, Intertextuality, Authorship (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2005), pp. 37-49.
12. I. Q. Hunter, ‘‘Tolkien Dirty: Lord of the Rings Sexploitation Films,’’ paper given at ‘‘Tolkien 2005: 50 Years of The Lord of the Rings,’’ Aston University, Birmingham, 13 August 2005; published as ‘‘Tolkien Dirty,’’ in The Lord of the Rings: Popular Culture in Global Context, ed. Ernest Mathijs (London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2006), pp. 317-33.
13. On Tolkien as a proto-postmodern deep-ecologist, see Patrick Curry, Defending Middle Earth: Tolkien, Myth and Modernity.
14. On Tolkien as an author of World War I, see John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle Earth (London: HarperCollins, 2003).
15. Thompson, ‘‘Fantasy, Franchises,’’ p. 46.
16. Smith and Matthews, The Lord of the Rings, 191.
17. Peter Krämer, The New Hollywood: From Bonnie and Clyde to Star Wars (London and New York: Wallflower, 2005), pp. 97-8.
18. Mark Cousins, The Story of Film (London: Pavilion Books, 2004), p. 378.
19. Tom Shone, Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer (London and Sydney: Simon and Schuster, 2004), pp. 303-4.
20. Ken Gelder, Popular Fiction: The Logic and Practices of a Literary Field (London: Routledge, 2004), pp. 142-57.
21. See, for example, the celebrated image of a ring-wearing Bush, captioned ‘‘Bush has the One Ring, Frodo has failed.’’
22. Justin Wyatt, High Concept: Movies and Marketing in America (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994), p. 8. On the concept of post-classical film, see Peter Kramer, ‘‘Post-classical Cinema’’, in John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson (eds.), The Oxford Guide to Film Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1998), pp. 289-309.
23. Warren Buckland, ‘‘A Close Encounter with Raiders of the Lost Ark: Notes on Narrative Aspects of the New Hollywood Blockbuster,’’ in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema, ed. Steve Neale and Murray Smith (London: Routledge, 1998), p. 167.
24. Kristin Thompson, Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 347-8.
25. Thompson, Storytelling, 8.
26. On the extended DVD versions, see Sue Kim, ‘‘Beyond Black and White: Race and Postmodernism in The Lord of the Rings Films,’’ MFS Modern Fiction Studies 4 (Winter 2004), p. 887-9.
27. On the novel’s and films’ homoeroticism, see Anna Smol, ‘‘ ‘Oh… Oh … Frodo!’: Readings of Male Intimacy in The Lord of the Rings,’ MFS Modern Fiction Studies 50.4 (Winter 2004), 949-79.


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