Interview with Kristin Thompson - Author of The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood (26.07.07 by Pieter Collier) - Comments

On the inside flap of the book The Frodo Franchise, to be published on the 1st of August 2007, we read these words by Tom Shippey:

"This is the best all-around view of the Tolkien phenomenon. Thompson understands the books, she understands the movies--she also understands the money and the franchising. Best of all, she understands the people. Thompson offers cultural criticism of the highest order, examining one of the most significant shifts in contemporary popular media."

Click on the images to enlarge.
the Frodo Franchise The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood coverart

Some months ago I contacted the author Kristin Thompson, an Honorary Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, and send her an e-mail full of questions since I had been reading some news about the book "The Frodo Franchise" she was writing and wanted to know more about it. I was very grateful for the long and wonderful answers. Some days before the release of her new book I hope this article with questions and answers with the author will give you some more insight in what to expect of her new book. It for sure promises to be very interesting!!

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I’m American, and I’ve lived most of my life in the Midwest portion of America:  born in Iowa City, where my parents met as graduate students at the University of Iowa; raised mostly in Illinois; and since 1973 living here in Madison, Wisconsin.  Kristin Thompson author of The Frodo Franchise

I got my Ph.D. in film studies in 1977 from the University of Wisconsin, and my husband, David Bordwell, taught there until his retirement three years ago.

In 1977, just as I was finishing my dissertation, David and I were asked to write an introductory film-aesthetics textbook.  The result, Film Art:  An Introduction, just had its eighth edition published this past December.  Basically instead of going out and getting a teaching job, working on that textbook and its “sequel,” Film History:  An Introduction, allowed me to become a full-time writer.  I’ve never had a tenure-track post.

Apart from the textbooks, I’ve done eight other books on film, some history and some close analysis.  I’ve done books on Hollywood filmmaking.  In The Classical Hollywood Cinema:  Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (1985), written with David and our colleague Janet Staiger, I discussed the early formulation of filmmaking guidelines in Hollywood in the silent era.  In 1999 I published Storytelling in the New Hollywood:  Understanding Classical Narrative Technique.  As the title suggests, I analyze how the narratives in modern Hollywood films are structured very similarly to those in the “golden age” of the studio era. 

The Frodo Franchise:  The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood is partly an attempt to bring my work on Hollywood history up to the contemporary era and look at how franchises have affected the way films are made. 

I feel very lucky to be able to write full-time.  For one thing, I was able to travel to New Zealand three times on relatively short notice to do research for the book.  I couldn’t have done that if I were tied to a teaching schedule. 

Writing full-time also gives me the chance to pursue other interests.  I have written one non-film book, Wooster Proposes, Jeeves Disposes, on the work of P. G. Wodehouse.
Kristin Thompson author of The Frodo Franchise

In 1992, I also re-kindled a childhood interest in ancient Egypt when I took a tour there.  I started studying Egyptian art seriously, eventually gave some conference papers, and in 2001 I became a member of an expedition in Egypt.  (It’s at Tell el-Amarna, for any Egyptophiles reading this.)

What did you like to read when you were a girl?

I was born in 1950, and I think that decade was a great period for children’s literature.  I did read some fantasy that was coming out then, my favorites being the magic-oriented books by Edward Eager, Half Magic and six others that have become classics.  I also read mysteries.

I went to a very good high school and had some excellent literature teachers.  I think that prepared me well for tackling and enjoying a long book like The Lord of the Rings.  In the years just before I had read David Copperfield and become fond of Dickens; he’s still one of my favorite authors.  I was reading The Once and Future King and Don Quixote at about the time the Ballantine paperbacks came out in the U.S. in late 1965 and started the big craze for LOTR.

How did you get interested in Lord of the Rings?

I had never heard of it or Tolkien, but just after the Ballantine editions came out, I was in a bookstore with my best friend and her mother.  The mother pointed out the books to us.  She was English, and I was quite an anglophile at the time, so I was intrigued. 

I bought The Hobbit and enjoyed it, so I went on to LOTR and got hooked. That was the autumn of 1965, so I would have been 15. 

That has been a common thing, of course, for high school and college students to read Tolkien and become life-long fans.
The Lord of the Rings Ballantine Editions

I'd like to talk about your book, The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood. What prompted you to write this book?

Like a lot of long-time Tolkien fans, I was pretty skeptical about the films.  I didn’t pay a lot of attention to news about the production—which was pretty easy, because most of that news was on the internet, which I hadn’t learned to use at the time.

I got more interested in the films during 2001.  Partly that was because of the preview footage that was screened at Cannes that May.  The coverage was so enthusiastic that I started clipping stories from Variety and other trade journals and magazines, though with no notion of what, if anything, I would use them for.  In the autumn I saw some of the making-of documentaries on cable television, so I had seen a little footage and what the characters looked like and so on.  To my relief, I also enjoyed The Fellowship of the Ring.

The film’s success seemed like what had happened with the papersback editions back in the 1965, but now the frenzy was far more widespread and international.  I realized that with the internet campaign, the making-of documentaries, the licensed products, and, later, the DVDs, this was a huge phenomenon that went beyond the films.  Someone should record all this while it’s happening, I thought, but it was clear nobody else was going to do it.  By the autumn of 2002, I was beginning to wonder if I could manage it.  I knew it would be a mammoth task to cover all those different aspects of the franchise.

Title: The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood
Author: Kirstin Thompson

Hardcover: 421 pages
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: August 1, 2007

Language: English
ISBN-10: 0520247744
ISBN-13: 978-0520247741
Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.2 x 1.3 inches

A lot of people consider the Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies as one the most important films ever made. What is your view?

I absolutely agree, though I should specify what I mean by “important” in this context.  I can’t think of any other film that has ever had quite the impact that this one has had.  LOTR had a truly profound effect on New Zealand, influencing the national economy and changing its whole image from that of a pretty, sleepy place with a lot of sheep to a sophisticated, creative country.

Beyond that, it affected the film industry internationally.  It influenced how studios use internet publicity, how videogame companies design film-related videogames, how DVD makers plan supplements, and how filmmakers perceive the fantasy genre.  Its key technological advances affected computer-generated imagery. 

That’s all apart from the financial impact, which was considerable.  New Line went from being a relatively small studio known mainly for the Nightmare on Elm Street series to being a significant force within the industry.  One almost unknown factor in all this is how LOTR infused a lot of cash into small, independent distribution firms around the world.  The independent and non-English-language film market happened to be in a major slump in the years just before LOTR started to come out, and the income from it helped that market recover.

You also read the book The Lord of the Rings. How do see these compared to the movies?

Certainly a lot of changes were made in adapting the novel into a film.  The original dialogue is truncated or changed, and lines spoken by one character in the book get given to another fairly often.  Major plot alterations make the overall structure signficantly different.

Yet I like the films, and a lot of Tolkien fans were willing to accept Jackson’s film as another version of the story, and one with its own value.

It occurred to me shortly after I saw Fellowship for the first time that in a sense, the film is somewhat comparable to the illustrations that have been done for many editions of Tolkien’s books and for calendars and games and so on.  John Howe may have a different conception of Treebeard than Ted Nasmith does, but we can admire them both.  In some ways one could look upon the films as very elaborate illustrations of the novel.

Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens have said all along that in writing the script they didn’t expect fans to agree with every change that they made, and of course none of us do.  There are moments when I grit my teeth and wish they had stuck more closely to the original.  Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens

That said, I think fans are less likely to point out some ways in which I think the films actually improve upon the book.  I find Boromir a far more interesting character in the films, and his death scene is, for most fans an yway, more moving than in the book—partly because a gradual and grudging relationship has been set up between him and Aragorn that isn’t in the book.

It can happen in the details, too.  One example comes when Bilbo and Gandalf are sitting outside in the evening and Gandalf blows smoke in the shape of a boat.  That’s not in the books.  There Gandalf blows smokerings that move around and go up the chimney and change colors and so on.  Think how long that would take to happen in a film.  The smoke boat takes a couple of seconds and gives us our first real indication that Gandalf is a magical being.  The boat itself sets up a motif that reappears in Galadriel’s boat and again at the end at the Grey Havens.  It’s also based on the book’s description of one of Gandalf’s fireworks in the shape of a boat.  Here’s something that is true to the spirit of the novel without being present in it.  The first two times I saw Fellowship, when Gandalf blows that shape, members of the audience emitted little “aaahhs” of surprise and delight.

I also like many aspects of the film that are quite specific to film.  I love Howard Shore’s soundtrack, the cinematography is wonderful, the design elements are all fantastic (except for the mystifying decision to make Lothlorien blue instead of yellow!), and the casting really can’t be faulted—including casting New Zealand as Middle-earth.  And the beacons sequence in The Return of the King is just amazing as a piece of filmmaking.

You did a lot of interviews for your book, where did you start and how did you decide who to interview?

The interviews were the core ingredients for the book.  From the time when I was just speculating as to whether I should tackle such a difficult project, I knew that I would have to talk with the people involved.  Most of what I wanted to know hadn’t been written about yet, and much of it never would be.

Interviews meant that I would have to gain the interest of someone very high up in the production.  That basically meant Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, or Barrie Osborne, the producers.  To make a very long story short, I met an Australian film editor named Annabelle Sheehan at a conference.  She knew my work, and when she heard that I was considering a LOTR book, she put me in touch with Barrie via email.  Fortunately he was intrigued and agreed to pursue the project.  That was in January of 2003. Barrie Osborne

There were negotiations with New Line, and that delayed the start of my interviews longer than I had hoped.  But at the end of September I was able to make the first of three planned trips to New Zealand.

Barrie assigned the unit publicist, Melissa Booth, to be my point person, and she was enormously helpful.  We met on my first day in Wellington, and right away she grasped what I needed.  We made a list by chapters, and she told me who could provide information relevant to the subject matter of each.  She made some appointments for me and provided contact information for me to make others. I talked to some of the designers, like Richard Taylor and Ngila Dickson, as well as people who are less well-known to the public.

For example, I interviewed Judy Alley, the Merchandising Coordinator for LOTR.  She dealt with requests from various licensees for design and audio material, most importantly from the videogame makers, Electronic Arts.  Later I was able to talk with Nina Dobner, the person at EA who was in charge of making those requests.  So I got an excellent sense of how the games and film people worked together.

Given that I wanted to examine the impact of the film on New Zealand, during that first trip I also interviewed executives at Tourism New Zealand, Film New Zealand, the New Zealand Film Commission, and so on.

One of the most exciting aspects of the trip, apart from meeting people who were working on LOTR, was that I got to see a fair amount of footage from the film, though almost none of it was in finished form.  I got to watch some of the sound mixing and see a bit of animation going on.   

I made two more trips to New Zealand, in June/July and November/December of 2004.

Because I was doing a chapter (which became two chapters) on the internet, I also talked to several webmasters, including three of the four co-founders of TheOneRing.net and Ian McKellen’s webmaster, Keith Stern.  (I interviewed Ian as well, which was a treat!)

Apart from that I filled in as needed.  I deal with press junkets, so I interviewed critic Roger Ebert about his experiences from the 1960s onward.  I discuss LOTR in relation to the international independent film market, so I talked with Jonathan Wolf, manager of the American Film Market (one of the biggest markets for independent and foreign-language cinema).  I interviewed people involved in producing the videogames.

Any remarkable moments during these interviews you wish to share?

Some of the remarkable things happened in situations that weren’t interviews as such.  On my fourth day in Wellington in 2003, when I was just starting to meet people and set up interview appointments, I got a tour of The Post House.  That was a temporary facility set up by a German company that had invented a fantastic new selective-digital-grading system for LOTR.  (Selective digital grading is a process for changing light or color values in parts of shots while leaving the rest of the composition unaltered.)  One of the inventors, Peter Doyle, did the grading on LOTR, as well as King Kong, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and some of the Harry Potter films.

Peter very kindly sat down with me and gave me a demonstration of how the process works.  He showed me a close shot of Denethor in his first scene, and how skin tones can be very subtlely changed without the surrounding hair and costume being affected at all.  He also showed me the distant view of Gandalf’s cart taking the hobbits to the Grey Havens (though I didn’t know at the time what it was, since there’s no cart in the novel).  Peter could put more or less sunshine in the patches of green fields, depending on where he wanted the eye to look.  In the film the field on the far left has been made a little brighter through grading, since the figures are moving right to left.

Anyway, while he was showing me all this, Peter suddenly said, “Oh, there’s the last shot.”  The man at the computer to our left was grading the very last shot of the film, with the camera moving in toward the closing door.

There was so much speculation on the internet about how the film would end, and glimpsing that shot made it clear that it was going to end pretty much the way the book does.  But of course I wouldn’t share that information with fans in cyberspace!

During a tour of Weta Digital I also met one of the supervising animators.  She just happened to be working on the shot where Gollum falls in the lava.  What are the odds of seeing two crucial shots like that?

Another amazing experience was watching the Cannes preview reel.  I was told to arrange a viewing through Jamie Selkirk, co-owner of Weta Ltd. and the supervising editor for LOTR.  I called him, and he started talking about when the little theater at Weta would be available.  (That little theater is seen a lot in the DVD supplements.)  I said that if it was more convenient I could watch it on an editing table rather than projected.

His reply was, “No, no, you really must see it on a screen.” A man after my own heart.

So I showed up at the appointed time, and the projectionist was doing focus and sound tests to make sure that the screening would be perfect.  Jamie and I sat side by side in the ideal seats and watched the preview.  I kept trying to imagine how it would have felt back on May 11, 2003, to all the journalists and distributors who had never seen any footage from LOTR.  It had a montage at the beginning introducing the characters, but most of it was a long stretch of the Moria sequence, from the cave-troll battle to the moment the Balrog appears.  It must have been pretty overwhelming, and I could understand why the reports the were published were so enthusiastic.

That screening was typical of how generous the filmmakers were.  New Zealanders are incredibly friendly and hospitable in general, and despite the fact that they were working on this huge Hollywood project, the filmmakers were most welcoming.

You had a lot of contact with Peter Jackson?

I wouldn’t say a lot.  On my first visit I was hoping to interview him, but the work to finish Return of the King was just too hectic.  Peter did give me permission to watch him supervising the final sound mix on the Shelob sequence, which was thrilling.  I was sitting right behind Peter in one of the gorgeous new sound-mixing studios at his company, Park Road Post.  I didn’t introduce myself or say anything, since he was working.

My second visit was in June and early July of 2004.  Things were a lot calmer then, since everyone was working on the pre-production for King Kong.  Peter, Fran, and Philippa were writing the script.  The designers were at work.  I walked into the art department to interview Grant Major, and the whole outer room was covered with pictures of the Empire State Building.

That was good timing.  Of course Peter was still very busy, but he did manage to make time to speak with me:  exactly one hour.  It was an excellent interview, and naturally I quote from it fairly often in the book.  That was my only direct contact with him.

Peter was very helpful in other ways, though.  He agreed to write (or, I suspect, have his assistant write) an email message confirming that he was cooperating with me.  His assistant would send that at my request if I was having trouble getting a response from someone I was trying to contact about an interview.  I think there were three or four people I wouldn’t have been able to talk to if it had not been for that message.
Peter Jackson

Apart from that, I have made a number of requests to Peter through his assistant.  I think perhaps after he and I talked, Peter realized that I am a serious historian, not some sort of glorified journalist.  On my third trip I asked to see the Cannes preview reel and the famous 36-minute video that he had used to pitch LOTR to Bob Shaye at New Line.  Peter gave me permission to watch both, and of course they were fascinating; I wish they had been included as DVD supplements.  They gave me a lot of insight into two of the most important events in the history of the film up to the first part’s release.  On that third visit Peter also gave me permission to tour the miniatures department, which I had missed previously, and to tour the huge new sound stage that had been built at Stone Street Studios after LOTR was finished.  Both were full of Kong sets and miniatures, but Peter trusted that I wouldn’t secretly take spy photos or anything like that.

So although Peter was not heavily involved in my project, what he did contribute was incredibly useful.  The person I ordinarily communicated with during the project was Barrie, who gave me a lot of support and basically made the book possible.

Can you tell us a little about the movie rights of Lord of the Rings? I've never understood the complexities of how that worked, but I’m sure you do.

The whole subject is complex indeed, and I was having trouble figuring it all out myself.  Luckily I was able to interview Ken Kamins, Peter’s agent, who was a key player in the negotiations in the mid-1990s.  With his help I was finally able to understand what happened back in the early days.

In the book I outline the film rights dealings from the 1950s onward, but to be brief, I’ll just say that in 1995 Peter Jackson decided he wanted to film LOTR.  Producer Saul Zaentz, who had made the Ralph Bakshi animated LOTR film in 1978, still had the rights.
Saul Zaentz

Zaentz and Peter both had connections with Miramax, Peter because Miramax had distributed Heavenly Creatures in the U.S. and Zaentz because they produced The English Patient.  Even with that connection, though, it took from late 1995 to the end of 1996 for the negotiations between Miramax and Zaentz to result in a deal.  At the beginning of 1997, Miramax bought the rights and put the film into pre-production.  At that point it was intended to be two parts.

After about 18 months, Disney, which owns Miramax, insisted that the LOTR film be a single two-hour feature.  Peter refused to direct under such circumstances, and Miramax gave him three weeks to find another company that would buy the project.  (It was highly unlikely that he could do so, and the Miramax people knew it.)

Then came the famous session where Peter met with New Line head Bob Shaye and showed him the little video he had made about the work done so far.  Shaye not only bought the project but said he wanted it made in three parts.

There’s much more to it, of course, but that crucial Miramax-Zaentz connection is probably something most people don’t know about.

And how about the rights for A Hobbit movie?

The big problem with The Hobbit is that although Zaentz owned the production rights for it and sold an option to New Line (which expires in 2009), the distribution rights had stayed with MGM.  When LOTR was such a huge success, of course New Line wanted to work out a deal with MGM.  But MGM was up for sale, so none of its assets could be disposed of.  That delayed things until after Sony Columbia bought MGM.

Now New Line and MGM have announced that they will co-produce The Hobbit.  That has solved the rights problems.  Now the delay is over who will direct.  Peter Jackson filed a lawsuit against New Line over getting access to financial records on Fellowship.  Back in January Bob Shaye said that Peter would never be asked to direct The Hobbit because of the lawsuit.

I think that his position has softened a bit.  I actually believe there is a decent chance that the suit will be settled and Peter will be asked to direct.

I’ve written four entries on my blog about the Hobbit situation explaining it as best I can:

http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=10
http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=317
http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=944
http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=1062

Of course a decision could be made at any time that would make all these analyses obsolete, but for now that’s how I see things.

Will cinema ever be the same now?

Despite the fact that LOTR made so much money and had such an influence on technology and on how franchise products are made, I don’t think it changed cinema as such.  There were franchise series before it, and film-based videogames, and the rest of it.  There hadn’t, however, ever been a franchise that was quite so successful in so many ways—the internet campaign, the DVD supplements, and so on.  It became a model for others to aspire to, and they probably will for a long time.

I do believe that LOTR gave respectability to the fantasy genre and even to franchise filmmaking.  It was easy before for “sophisticated” moviegoers to turn up their noses at franchises based on comic-book heros, like the Batman series, or at “childish” sci-fi series like Star Trek or Star Wars.  But LOTR was based on a literary classic, it had an extraordinary cast with people like Ian McKellen and Cate Blanchett in it, and it won 17 Oscars.  It’s harder to dismiss.  (Of course some people still do dismiss it, but not nearly as many.)  

Did the movies also have an impact on the book sales?

A huge one.  I know that there is a hard core of Tolkien fans who were not won over to the film and heartily dislike it.  Even the argument that the film caused a lot of people who had never read LOTR before to do so wasn’t convincing to them.

Yet clearly there were many, many new readers.  One gauge of the income from the book comes in Forbes’s “Richest Deceased Celebrities” lists.  Unfortunately they are published at varying times of the year and cover the previous 12 months, so it’s a little confusing.  But in the 12 months before February 2001, Tolkien was the 8th highest earner, with $7 million.  Here’s how things changed:

12 months to Aug 2002, Tolkien #7 with $12 million
12 months to Oct 2003, Tolkien #3 with $22 million
12 months to Oct 2004, Tolkien #3 with $23 million
12 months to Oct 2005, Tolkien #8 with $8 million
12 months to Oct 2006, Tolkien #11 with $7 million

Forbes claims that the Tolkien Estate gets a percentage on the films and DVDs, but if that’s true (and I don’t think the Estate gets any share of the film’s income), it can’t be much.  Those figures are mainly from book sales.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien

Houghton Mifflin reported a 45% jump in sales in 2001, mostly based on LOTR, and that declined only 1.5% in 2002.  Clay Harper of Houghton Mifflin was quoted as saying, “In the history of the company, there have only been two million-copy best sellers.  One was Tolkien’s The Silmarillion in 1977, and the other was The Lord of the Rings in 2001.”  Adding that Tolkien had sold well for years, he said, “But there’s been nothing like the audience growth we’ve experienced coinciding with the new movies.  I know of no other publishing experience like it.”  (read more here)

So whether or not one likes the films, they really have done the cause of Tolkien awareness a lot of good.

I had one vivid indication of this.  I flew to Egypt in March of 2002.  When I got on the plane in Madison, there was a man seated opposite me reading The Return of the King.  I had a long layover at Schiphol, and I was re-reading the trilogy myself.  As I sat there, two other people sitting near me pulled out their copies.  Three of the four people sitting in one little cluster of seats were reading LOTR!

The franchise of franchises has earned billions of dollars to date with no end in sight, how did you manage to get an overview?

Trying to cover the entire making and distribution of the film, plus every product that was licensed in relation to it (reportedly over 400 worldwide) would have been impossible, I think.

What I did, as the book’s subtitle suggests, is concentrate on using LOTR to show how a modern Hollywood franchise works.  That meant focusing on innovations, especially ones stemming from digital technology.

Thus in looking at licensed products I don’t try to list them all.  I look at a few conventional sorts of products briefly (role-playing games, collectible figures), but I mostly stick to looking at the DVDs and the video games, with a chapter on each.  Those are the two most important ancillary products in terms of income as well.
Lord of the Rings DVD

Similarly, in looking at how franchises are marketed, I don’t deal with posters and trailers and the traditional sorts of things we’re all familiar with.  Instead I talk about modern trends like brand partnering, EPKs (electronic press kits, i.e., on CD-ROMs), press junkets, making-of documentaries on cable, and the huge increase in infotainment.  I devote two chapters to the internet, which is obviously a marketing tool that the film industry is still struggling to deal with.

I devote the last part of the book to the film’s impact:  its financial impact on the firms involved, its impact on the fantasy genre, on film technology, and on New Zealand.  The fact that such a huge film could be made there tells us something about the future of film production and post-production.  A movie can be made, from script to screen, outside of Hollywood, and other centers like “Wellywood” are being built.  I end by talking about the implications of that for Hollywood as a filmmaking center.

The trilogy can be seen as part of a network of interlocking marketing campaigns that have continued long after the cinematic release of the third film. Will it ever end?

It has certainly slowed already.  There are still have videogames in the works.  Sideshow and Gentle Giant are releasing new collectible figures; Topps has released new sets of trading cards.  The third CD set of Shore’s complete music and a tie-in book analyzing the music are going to come out.  The Hobbit will, sooner or later, breathe new life into the franchise.  But eventually I suspect that demand for new products will taper off to almost nothing.  The exceptions will be the DVDs (and whatever film-storage devices replace them) and the soundtracks (on CDs or whatever).  These films are clearly going to be classics.

New Line would be crazy not to do some sort of anniversary theatrical re-release, probably of the extended editions.  But I suspect that more and more the licensed products will drift back to being mostly linked to the book, as before.

The Lord of the Rings is being much like an industry, don’t you think the movies could have been better if this was not so much the case?

It depends what you mean by “better.”  One thing that everyone seems to be able to agree on is that the look of the film is terrific and quite faithful to Tolkien.  Yet that look is dependent on a huge amount of money being spent on sets, costumes, prosthetic make-up, detailed miniatures, and so on.  Gollum, the huge armies, the fell beasts, and so much of the film in general depends on CGI (computer-generated imagery).  In fact, it’s quite possible that roughly half the film’s budget went for special effects.

All that had to be paid for by a lot of ticket-buyers all over the world—far more than had read the book.  That meant that the film had to have certain conventions that audiences are used to (more of a romance, some characters providing comic relief) and be comprehensible to people who are watching it on a screen rather than perusing a dense novel while seated in an easy chair. 

I personally am rather happy that Peter and his colleagues made the film that had popular appeal, with lots of martial action and horror and humor. 

I think about what the film would have been like if they had taken the dignified, respectful, and lifeless approach to adaptation that is so often used with literary classics.  

I remember how reviewers consistently said that the early Harry Potter films were close to the books, yet they lacked energy.  They didn’t say that about the LOTR films.  I would rather have a film that’s lively and not totally true to the book than one that’s literal but bland.
The Lord of the Rings Movies

I should say, too, that Peter managed to retain a surprisingly large degree of control over the film.  Part of that comes from the fact that he was working far from Hollywood, and New Line often did not know what he was doing.  He also inspires a huge loyalty from the people who work with him, and they backed him up in disputes with the studio.  I don’t think the “industry” aspects of the franchise had all that much influence on how he and the other scriptwriters approached their adaptation.  Just one example:  New Line wanted to have crawl titles at the beginnings of films 2 and 3, summarizing the plot up to that point.  Peter refused, and they didn’t use them.  Certainly things like the videogames seem to have had almost no influence on the film.

The movies for sure had a very positive effect for New Zealand?

Very much so.  I devote most of my last chapter to that. It’s quite a dramatic story, how the government saw LOTR as an opportunity to “rebrand” the country.  Various agencies, like Tourism New Zealand and Investment New Zealand, set out to promote the new image of the country that I mentioned earlier.  They stressed creativity and technological sophistication, to counter the widespread perception of New Zealand as a farming country with great scenery.

Certainly a lot of people who had barely heard of New Zealand desperately wanted to visit it after seeing the film.  Dairy products used to be the country’s number one import, but now tourism has replaced it. 

LOTR also left New Zealand with some world-class filmmaking facilities and a large pool of highly skilled filmmakers.  The fact that major film projects continue to be made there suggests that the effects will be long-term.

What was the importance of the internet for the success of Peter Jackson? He used this media a lot...

Being a fan himself, Peter understands other fans.  It was his idea to do a “20 questions” session on Ain’t It Cool News a few days after New Line announced it would be producing LOTR.  He did a second session later that year and intended to do more at intervals, but after that second one New Line told him to stop.  (I’d provide links, but I can’t find those two pages on the site at the moment.)  But it was a brilliant move, reaching out to the fans and trying to reassure them—because of course at the time few people had heard of him or they only knew his comic splatter films.

It was also Peter’s idea to cooperate to some extent with TheOneRing.net back in early 2000, when New Line were fighting internet “spies” and had actually served a trespassing notice on Erica Challis (“Tehanu” on TORN).  He also let Harry Knowles, webmaster of AICN, report from the set during the last week of principal photography in late 2000.

Peter actually used the internet less during the making of LOTR than he did for King Kong.  He told me that during LOTR he mainly looked at websites to check if spoilers were getting out.  But the few times he communicated with the fans through the internet won him a lot of fan loyalty.

What is your hope for your readers?

Apart from learning a lot about the remarkable story of this film phenomenon, I would like readers to get an insight into how Hollywood works in the franchise age.  We all know that movie-based videogames get made, but how do the filmmakers and the gamemakers coordinate the process?  How do making-of documentaries get on TV?  Why were the studios so keen to kill off VHS and replace it with DVDs?  How do the studios try to control what gets written about their films in the press?  LOTR is the perfect film to help explain all that in an entertaining way.

How long were you working on the book?

I first decided to do the book when I met Annabelle Sheehan in late November of 2002, as I mentioned.  That was in Australia, and I happened to be going on to New Zealand for a week for other reasons.  I started my research by interviewing some tour operators in Queenstown who offered visits to LOTR locations.  (I went back and interviewed each of them again about two years later, to see how much things had changed for them.)

Then there was my first contact with Barrie and long period waiting for authorization to start my interviews.  (During that I worked on other projects.)  I finished a draft of the book in late 2005 and sent it to the University of California Press.  There were revisions and a lot of editorial and design work to be done before it could be printed.  I received the first copy of it in June of this year. 

So, basically four and a half years, but there were long gaps in there where I was doing other things.

In your research did you read much about Tolkien? Which resources can you recommend?

I didn’t do any research on Tolkien for The Frodo Franchise.  I knew LOTR well enough that I could write a chapter on the adaptation process quite easily.

In fact I was already working on a book on the novels, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, back in 2002 when the film project intervened.  I’ve done some literary criticism already, mainly on P. G. Wodehouse.  But I also published one essay on The Hobbit, called “The Hobbit as Part of The Red Book of Westmarch,” which came out in the Winter 1988 issue of Mythlore.

I put that aside to work on the film, since that was ongoing and would slip away if I didn’t move fast.  Now I’m returning to the book on Tolkien’s “hobbit tales.”

One final question. Can you tell us a bit about your Gandalf art collection?

I can’t say that it’s huge, but I have a few very nice pieces.  Gandalf is my favorite character by far, so he figures in most of the original pieces that I own.

The centerpiece is Ted Nasmith’s painting, “The Stranger in the Forest,” which was the April illustration for the 2003 Tolkien calendar.  (The book-related one, obviously, not the film tie-in.)  It’s a dramatic depiction of Gandalf the White revealing himself to Gimli, Aragorn, and Legolas in Fangorn Forest. I have another Nasmith, a study for one of his paintings of Minas Tirith with Gandalf and Pippin on Shadowfax in the foreground, galloping toward it.

I quite like the print that Alan Lee did for a scene of LOTR that wasn’t ultimately used in the film:  “Gandalf on Gwaihir.”  It depicts the pair flying over Helm’s Deep.  That would make some sense for the book, though Helm’s Deep seems a bit out of the way if one is going from Isengard to Edoras.  It makes no sense for the film, since there Gwaihir seemingly takes Gandalf all the way back to Rivendell himself.  (This gives rise to the question I’ve seen asked about the film, as to why, if Gandalf can go zipping around Middle-earth on an eagle, can’t he just take the Ring to Mordor that way and pitch it into the Fire.)  Maybe the painting was done before they decided not to have Gandalf go to Edoras and get Shadowfax.  Anyway, I’ve got a copy of that print.

Naturally I’m fond of the opening scene of The Hobbit.  I have the watercolor of that fateful meeting done by Sergei Iukhimov for a Russian edition.  (The Tolkien Shop in Leiden handles this series, which I think is really charming, if not totally faithful to the book descriptions.)  I also have that scene in a pencil study by Greg Hildebrandt (for a painting done as a private commission). I’m not a huge fan of the Hildebrandt brothers’ style, which often seems a very slick and bright in the paintings.  This pencil version is nice, though.

I recently purchased two books with sketches by the artists added at the front.  One, The Hobbit, is the Michael Hague edition, with a sketch of Gandalf on the cover page. 

Apart from Tolkien’s own illustrations for The Hobbit, Hague’s are my favorite.  They’re more like old-fashioned children’s book illustrations than the others.
Gandalf drawing by Michael Hague
The other book is the one-volume edition of LOTR with Alan Lee’s illustrations, decorated on the front fly-leaf with a pencil drawing of Gandalf and Bilbo (or Frodo?) sitting smoking their pipes.  Lovely. Gandalf drawing by Alan Lee

Apart from those, I’ve got a few of the limited-edition prints of Nasmith’s paintings, and I’ve bought some of the artist’s sketch cards in the Topps “Lord of the Rings Masterpieces” series.  I’m partial to Fabbri’s and Dalla Vecchia’s depictions of Gandalf, but I’ve also got a sheet of Gandalf pencil studies for that series by Kohse.  Isn’t eBay great?

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