Watching the Lord of the Rings: Tolkien's World Audiences

December 4, 2008

Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings film trilogy (2001-03) was a global phenomenon that dominated screen culture in the early years of the 21st century. On a national level, an entire country, New Zealand, saw itself transformed and all but believing that it was Middle Earth. New Zealand is slowly beginning to move on, but the impact of the blockbuster continues to be felt through the many imitations and extensions of this popular fantasy. Academia has been drawn to Lord of the Rings in an unprecedented manner (Star Wars, for instance, has never attracted this amount of research) with an impressive flurry of books and articles, published following the trilogy's completion. These publications reveal that the academic field of inquiry knows no bounds: the countless studies range from Lord of the Rings computer games to porn industry "remakes".

Martin Barker and Ernest Mathijs have been at the centre of the Lord of the Rings academic community, and Mathijs in particular has already published two co-edited collections: From Hobbits to Hollywood: Essays on Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, and The Lord of the Rings: Popular Culture in Global Context (both 2006). Both editors have been involved in audience studies research, and their Lord of the Rings project bears characteristics of their previous work on the graphic novel character Judge Dredd, David Cronenberg's film of the J. G. Ballard novel Crash, and the television series Big Brother.

Back in 2001, with the first part of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy yet to be released, Barker and Mathijs realised the research potential offered by director Jackson's vision and began searching for local and international companions for their own daunting quest.

Their project focused on responses from cinemagoers from across the globe with the release of part three in the trilogy: they proclaim it "the largest and most complex attempt to date to study audience responses to a film".

This meant collecting an archive of ancillary materials - including publicity materials, reviews, interviews and websites - in addition to the core documentation of audience questionnaires, which were completed by 24,739 people. Not every article in the subsequent collection focuses on these questionnaires, and the first contribution, a consideration of the cinema industry by Janet Wasko, is too often reductive and journalistic. The real value of this book is the questionnaires; how they are used for case studies creates contrasting results.

Sue Turnbull offers a frustratingly short consideration of Australian audiences who had read the books, and had responded to the questionnaire with thoughts on the issue of adaptation. It is a fascinating subject, with 59 per cent of Australian respondents saying they had read the three books in Tolkien's trilogy more than once. Turnbull notes that there are "ongoing cultural connections between the United Kingdom and its former penal colony" but she does not manage to explore the cultural relationships that led to the books being voted in 1997 as number one on the list of Australians' "favourite books of all time". With a neighbouring former British colony harnessing the books in such a way that it adjusted the nation's cultural and economic identity, there was an opportunity for comparisons and reflections.

At the heart of the book are the valuable chapters eight (by Giselinde Kuipers and Jeroen De Kloet) and nine (by Barker), which approach the complexity of the gathered audience responses within cross-national frames. Kuipers and De Kloet examine national differences in Lord of the Rings appreciation, involvement, and the reading of character and genre. Yet they somehow conclude that Lord of the Rings is "a profoundly cosmopolitan media text ... deliberately detached from national and local contexts, which explains its transnational appeal".

Surely, Lord of the Rings foregrounded its New Zealand locations, and through supporting documentation deliberately established the uniqueness of the country's involvement in the productions. Lord of the Rings' appeal was also the way in which New Zealand was sold.

Watching the Lord of the Rings: Tolkien's World Audiences

Edited by Martin Barker and Ernest Mathijs. Peter Lang. 297pp, £45.00 and £16.50. ISBN 9780820463971 and 63964. Published 1 November 2007

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