Ring leading research

December 11, 2008

I was pleased to see Ian Conrich's review of our book Watching the Lord of the Rings (4 December), but I was puzzled by some aspects of it. Conrich highlights, as though it were somehow inappropriate, our claim that this was the largest study of audience responses to a film yet undertaken. Why the slight sneer? I am honestly not aware of any other research that has come close to matching this, and I am proud of this as an achievement in itself. The resulting database of audience responses is already being mined by other researchers.

Secondly, Conrich somewhat dismisses Guiselinde Kuipers' and Jeroen de Kloet's findings about the films' transnational appeal with a riposte that "surely" the films must have been sold on the basis of their New Zealand locations. This is interesting. Audience research, complexly carried out and analysed, does not indicate this as a major ground for the film's appeal. Yet it is apparently acceptable for scholars simply to assert the opposite.

Actually, as Conrich is surely aware, in a separate essay Ernest Mathijs and I did address this directly. We mined our database for all its references to "New Zealand" to determine how audiences drew upon and related to its much-publicised sources, and found that, for those who draw upon the connection, it is New Zealand's very distance (perceived to be geographical and moral) that permits it to function as an imaginative arena for people's cultural concerns. That implies a very different relation to the film than audiences being "sold" the New Zealand/Middle-earth connection.

A final point, and one that I would emphasise because of its lessons for future research: Conrich is right to say that, in its design, the Lord of the Rings project did build upon previous researches that we have been involved in. However, the research teams across the world by no means shared one theoretical or analytical approach - and the book is designed to reflect that variety. It is in my view a substantial problem for the field of media audience research that there are few shared research models or protocols. If there is a serious problem with our book, it is, I suspect, a result of that.

Martin Barker, Aberystwyth University.

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