On Wednesday, The Two Towers opened internationally. By the end of that day, the film had grossed about $42 million in and out of North America. By the end of the weekend, the North American grosses were reported to be about $101 million. At a party that Vivian and I went to Saturday night, at which the majority of the partygoers were by no means card-carrying members of the D&D club in high school (or otherwise dyed in the wool fantasy and SF readers), the only film which was discussed, coming up over and over again, was The Two Towers. Guests who had seen it respectied the universally expressed desire of those who had not to remain mum save expressions of approval.

The last film that I recall prompting such universal fascination was Quentin Tarantino’s never-equaled-by-him Pulp Fiction. I have memories of leaving the theater among countless impassioned, amazed discussions. I treasure the memory of seeing the audience so energized by a film, by a work of art and entertainment.

Given the level of interest that this season’s entry in The Lord of The Rings cycle has generated, I must assume that Peter Jackson has gotten medieval on our asses.

I noted earlier my admiration for the marketing that Lord of the Rings is generating, and I’d like to reiterate this. Jackson’s game plan appears to be to release differentiated DVDs of the films, with unique editing, packaging, and special features, at intervals of approximately every four months. Thus we can expect to see The Two Towers on DVD sometime in spring, and an extended edition sometime in fall.

I suspect that these releases will also be accompanied by repackagings of The Fellowship of the Ring. The extended edition of The Two Towers may also be available in a package deal with some new variation of The Fellowship of the Ring. That’s a marketing strategy I expect to see carried out to the nth degree by sometime after the release of the third movie.

I anticipate some limited release of all three movies to the theatrical circuit as well a year or two after the release of the last film, probably in support of a one-to-two hundred dollar completist’s DVD set. All of this is simply speculative, of course. As someone who has worked on both software and DVD marketing plans and products, I would say that anything less would be slightly unprofessional.

The extended edition DVD for The Fellowship of the Ring surprised me. Jackson’s team decided to treat their filmmaking experience as analogous to the detailed notes and background stories and appendices and grammars which Professor Tolkien included in his books. It’s both a simple reflection of marketing expectations for DVDs (Jackson is far from the first film maker to offer commentary and featurettes and still photos on a special edition DVD) and an inspired extension of the densely-documenting aesthetic that clearly appeals to both the casual and the committed Tolkien fan.

As a kid, I devoured the additional information that was available in the books. However, at some point I realized that the data was not only useless to me personally but in some ways may have prevented Tolkien from delivering a better book. Currently I have a sort of indulgent fondness for the material, tinged with regret at what could have been.

Therefore, as someone who hovers between the categories of committed and casual, I have found myself surprised to be so deeply interested in learning about the process that went into the film. The extended edition DVD for The Fellowship of the Ring offers no less than four commentary tracks: the writers, the director, the production designers, and the actors. I’m looking forward to watching the film with each track. No, really, I am.

The last aspect that I wish to touch on before I return to my regularly scheduled blogging is what meanings the film (and, to an extent, the writing) carries in the world depending where the audience member is standing.

In the United States, the struggle against the Dark Lord reflects not only our pop-culture experience of George Lucas’ borrowing of him as Darth Vader but also the American experiences of World War Two and the Cold War. Mordor, in this view, is a metaphoric representation of either the Axis or the Soviet Bloc, enslaving and twisting people. I’ve noted that Tolkien explicitly disavows this sort of interpretation, but it must be recognized and discussed as a layer of the story’s meaning.

Now, let’s take a moment to imagine what the film might mean from the perspective of a viewer in, say, New Zealand, where the films were shot, and a country which has banned naval vessels that carry nuclear weapons from port. Here’s a quote from a Dodgy Magazine’s question and answer session held last Wednesday in Wellington at the film’s hometown premiere:

Dodgy Magazine: There has been a lot of debate over the years about Tolkien’s work and whether he was trying to send a message; anti-war, anti-industrialisation. What are the key messages that Tolkien gave, if any?

Richard Taylor (costume designer): Tolkien certainly tried not to profess that this was an analogy but we decided very strongly from the beginning, I’m not saying Peter did, the people at Weta that we did want to treat is an analogous piece of writing and therefore draw the messages from it. The sweeping aside of cottage industry England for the coming of the industrial revolution, the creation of the minions the masses and the working class, the demoralizing of the working class.

I think the greatest message that Tolkien was writing in these books that is so much more pertinent today than even the calamities of the first world war, life in the trenches of the first world, is so imperative for us to appreciate in the globalised world we live in, is that; unless all species, all races, unless dwarves can live alongside men and men alongside elves there is no ability for our own Middle Earth to conquer and vanquish evil. And how resounding that fable is today to the people on this planet. We very firmly need to sit up and listen to the chap.

Here’s another.

Dodgy Magazine: A lot of people say that there is a message behind Tolkien’s trilogy. Anti-war. Anti-industrialisation. What’s the message for you?

Karl Urban (Faramir): I don’t think there is one central messages, I think there are many messages, ideals and considerations. I think the themes that strike the most resonance for me are primarily the destruction of the environment. I think that has a particular pertinence and resonance to today’s society especially with certain policies of certain large foreign governments. I think that the whole idea of altruism strikes a chord for me. I really appreciate and respect the extent of the loyalty and the connection of the fellowship. The fact that Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli run for days and days and days just for the merest chance, the merest possibility that they can save their friends. Vastly outnumbered by a group of orcs. That’s the extent of the loyalty, altruism, and friendship.

Now, just imagine for a minute that you’re an audience member in a non-Western country, one with some familiarity with the idea and image of the United States as a source of cultural disruption, the icon of loss of traditional economic means of support and the replacement thereof by industrialization, and as a great wellhead of temptation away from the traditional.

It does not take an effort to understand that to a viewer with such a cultural background, Tolkien’s Dark Lord and rings of power created to ensnare the unwary in bondage will be immediately understood to represent the United States and our media and economic culture.

Within the U. S. , diametrically opposed interpretations of the story will, and do, coexist. There will surely be pundits comparing the War on Terror and the War of the Ring, uniting “the free peoples of Middle-Earth”. The opposite interpretation, however, in which the forces of a medieval, magical worldview struggle to defeat an enslaving vision of global unity under an industrial future can plausibly be argued as a more faithful understanding of Tolkien’s original aims.

3 thoughts on “I can feel it in the water

  1. It is worth noting that the argument of how the world might best perceive (in a ‘modern’ rather than contemporary) interpretation was raised by the actor Viggo Mortenson on Charlie Rose a few weeks back (and repeated in the past week). It’s worth noting his opposition to the interpretation that the film is in any way “pro war” or “anti-what the US considers evil.”

    An audio rendition of this show from 3 December is available at


  2. Now, just imagine for a minute that you’re an audience member in a non-Western country, one with some familiarity with the idea and image of the United States as a source of cultural disruption, the icon of loss of traditional economic means of support and the replacement thereof by industrialization, and as a great wellhead of temptation away from the traditional.

    I think that feelings towards the US in third-world countries are far more complex and positive than many in the US give credit for. Yes, it’s true that the US is often the symbol of everything new and non-traditional; however, the American dream is often embraced by the people of third-world countries.

    What we see as sweatshops are seen quite differently by those who choose to work there; if it’s a choice between making sneakers and laboring knee-deep in a rice paddy, I’ll take Nike. See http://paulfrankenstein.org/archives/000201.html#000201 for more.

  3. Fair enough, Paul.

    I must admit was not thinking about the sweatshop suspects (Mexico, Latin America, east Asia) as much as about some other places. But the specific places I was thinking about aren’t wholly germane, which is why I was non-specific.

    My point is more that Tolkien’s position is anti-industrialist, and that first of all undercuts the material as seen from our post-9/11 vantage, and second aligns it in some ways more with John Zerzan and other neo-Luddities, western or not, than either Noam Chomsky or Thomas Friedman.

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