Opponents of war in Iraq used The Lord of the Rings to mock George Bush. Martin Barker will use the film to study other cultural takes on fantasy and to test whether Hollywood is colonising the world's imagination.
In January, an image of US President George W. Bush wearing the "one" ring of Sauron, the demonic villain of The Lord of the Rings, spread like the fire of Mordor's Mount Doom to computer screens around the globe. Released as America prepared itself for the invasion of Iraq, it was accompanied by the text "Frodo has failed". The doctored image may have seemed like a bit of sardonic fun, but for social science researchers interested in exploring how people use "fantasy" in different ways, it had a special significance.
The Lord of the Rings movies have been worldwide hits. The second film, The Two Towers, grossed just under £1 billion - making it the fifth highest earner of all time - even before its release on video and DVD. The trilogy is an international phenomenon. And it offers a special opportunity to examine the ways that globally distributed films take on importance to viewers in different national contexts - a matter of long-standing debate among academics and cultural opinion leaders.
Backed by a £40,000 Economic and Social Research Council grant, audience research groups at the universities of Aberystwyth, Wales, and Waikato, New Zealand, collaborating with a diverse network of media audience researchers in 17 other countries, are preparing to study the launch and reception of the third movie, The Return of the King. Helped by advance knowledge of the release date, we plan to look at how audiences relate to "collective fantasies" and what it means for them.
There are several issues at stake. First, there is a long tradition of concern about the impact of global media products on local cultures. This often takes the form of fears that Hollywood is "colonising our imaginations", an argument countered by the insistence that these products are "only fantasy". Such claims and counter-claims have rarely been tested.
Yet they are important, particularly in light of the cultural phenomenon The Lord of the Rings trilogy has become.
There is also the complexity of the origin and the ownership of the story.
J. R. R. Tolkien conceived The Lord of the Rings as an attempt to forge a mythology appropriate to an England that had lost its own during the Middle Ages. The books were written from his experience of the decline of village England and of the horrors of war. But they quickly took on a life of their own, much to the author's irritation. Helped by a massive fan base that appropriated his story, the books rose to popularity in the 1960s counter-culture - where Tolkien's pipe-weed was certainly not the kind promoted by the underground paper Gandalf's Garden.
The films have added new dimensions to this. There is the much-publicised fact that they have been made in New Zealand, celebrating the country's landscapes and reshaping its film culture. At the same time, the films were financed through New Line Cinema, part of Hollywood giant AOL-Time-Warner (whose slogan is "The world is our audience"). Its support allowed Peter Jackson - one of a number of horror directors recently welcomed into the mainstream - to make the three films back to back.
At the project's centre, however, is another issue, one that has barely been studied. This involves the cultural uses of a fantasy text by its viewers, and the variations produced by different contexts. Just whose fantasy is this, and what might it mean for different people? Where is Middle Earth, the idyllic land threatened by destruction in the book, and what does it represent to different peoples?
Just because Tolkien was very "English", that does not mean that viewers in countries such as China, Slovenia or Brazil will imagine an English setting. We have already received messages from people in Norway, for instance, insisting that Frodo's world is Norse - an extension of their legends. Aberystwyth locals have told us that mid-Wales has always given them the geography to follow the film. The point is not just about how people may fill in the film with their own pictures, but about the ways that the story is given wider meanings. Suppose, for instance, that for Chinese people Tibet provided the mental geography - the potential political implications of the film would be greatly enhanced by such a move.
Fantasy has long been a topic of theoretical speculation. At commonsense levels, one regularly hears claims that stories such as The Lord of the Rings are "only fantasy". There is a tendency in public debate to equate this with "escapism". But within various academic traditions fantasy comes freighted with serious claims. In the 1970s, for instance, Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, the Chilean authors of How to Read Donald Duck, made a powerful case against Disney. They said Disney comics "colonised the imagination" of third-world peoples - forcing a fantasy on them. Within media studies and cultural studies, this tradition of thinking has spread and taken on Freudian themes, providing a theoretical basis for critiques of Hollywood as an ideological agency.
This strand of thinking, although never seriously tested, remains a powerful element in debates about media and globalisation. The aim of this project is to make fantasy and its meanings to different people empirically researchable. The chance appearance of the doctored George W. Bush image in an email made it possible to glimpse how this might be done. It indicated how a film fantasy could provide a repertoire for commenting on the world.
This will be by far the largest cross-national audience study yet attempted. Moviegoers from across the globe will provide data, but the work will be coordinated in the UK. For such an undertaking, a well-rehearsed methodology has been devised. Each step has already been piloted. The first stage examines systematically how the film was anticipated - the publicity, gossip, leaks, predictions, teasers and trailers, interviews - and, of course, commentary and controversy. And how these pre-release commentaries change for the final part. It will do so within each national context, making it possible to see how the expectation is forged around the movie and what cultural significance gets attached to its reception.
Such prefigurative materials play a role in shaping the conditions under which the film will be viewed. When The Fellowship of the Ring was released, Bertha Chin and Jonathan Gray, two British researchers, found in a study of fan websites that the film was constantly compared with the book. But the following year, when The Two Towers came out, things had changed radically. An Aberystwyth study revealed that the second film was being greeted as an epic, an engrossing fantasy, but also as having a moral tone "appropriate to our time". Opposite this was a minority voice of concern at the way a fantasy could diminish people's engagement with the real world. Some British newspapers argued that The Lord of the Rings offered exactly the kind of heroism needed in our times - times of global conflict, of the rise of the "little man". This was no longer innocent fantasy or just epic storytelling. There seems to have been a will - in the context of the coming war on Iraq - to find an appropriate, if still quite ambiguous, moral lesson within it.
The second stage involves getting moviegoers to complete a questionnaire to map the different meanings that they extract. This will be a common set of questions for all countries and is designed to gather as wide a range of responses as possible.
Finally, after we have looked at patterns in the responses to the questionnaires, a selection of people will be interviewed in detail. We will seek to fully understand how and why a story such as The Lord of the Rings matters to different people, and how they relate this into their wider lives. In this way, we hope to discover where Middle Earth is, and what it means for people living different lives in the 21st century.
Martin Barker is professor of film and television studies at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.