What if Fellowship of the Ring had come out a year earlier? What if it were the exact same film, from the exact same people, with the exact same actors, but had hit theaters at the end of 2000? Would the film have worked?
It’s a damn well made movie, and good storytelling and characters remain valid whatever year they’re released. But Lord of the Rings is a movie series not only of epic adventure but of epic earnestness, a movie series that dares to be hugely and unironically about courage and friendship and loyalty. It’s about things that might have felt silly and old-fashioned in the immediate post-Clinton years, when we thought we were at the end of history and when we thought that the pre-Al Qaeda world was one of glorious tech IPOs and the winds of freedom depositing McDonald’s seeds in every dictatorial capitol.
I’m not saying that it was 9/11 that made Fellowship of the Ring a hit, but I wonder if it didn’t have some role in the film’s success. Revisiting Lord of the Rings on the new extended edition Blu-rays it’s incredibly obvious that these are not movies that should have been so huge. They were unlike anything else being made at the time, and they weren’t anchored with major stars or even a filmmaker whose name carried much meaning to the general public. The films are in a genre that had been essentially box office poison since… well since forever*. Yes, Tolkien’s books were a huge cultural artifact, but the popularity of an incredibly geeky series of novels from the 1950s in no way guaranteed any sort of box office. People were aware of the existence of Lord of the Rings, but it isn’t like the previous attempts to adapt the books had found any great success.
Peter Jackson and company surely didn’t meet the audience halfway. These films are unlike almost any previous mainstream blockbuster right from the start, inundating the viewer with weird names and history and characters in weird, silly fantasy armor. This is the immersion method, lobbing you right into the high fantasy of Middle Earth without giving you any time to realize you’ve been dropped in the deep end of the pool. It’s the same method that George Lucas used with Star Wars, hammering you with immediate spectacle and then bringing you into a world where people use all sorts of bizarre jargon and know all sorts of odd, made up history and politics that’s new to you. In fact Star Wars is really the only precedent for Lord of the Rings in terms of blockbuster insular fantasy worlds (looking at the Top 100 grossing films adjusted for inflation you have to go down to number 99 for How The Grinch Stole Christmas, the only other live action film set in a complete fantasy world unrelated to our own. And even that one has Christmas).
But even with the stubborn refusal to cater to norms (including an early in the film wizard fight between two ancient men that straddles the line between awesome and ridiculous), Fellowship of the Ring was enormous, and the series only grew in popularity after the first film. The characters, dialogue and locations of the series became hardy internet memes (“One does not simply walk into Mordor” still gets thrown around out there) and studios are still trying (and mostly failing) to replicate the success of the films.
I really believe it’s the lack of irony that made the films work. They never wink at the audience; the hobbits, provincial and insular, would be the perfect vehicle for audience-surrogate commentary on the goofy outfits, names and lineages of the films, but Jackson never goes there. While there might be more comic relief than strict Tolkienists would prefer, it never comes at the expense of the seriousness of the story and the characters (yes, Gimli is kind of a buffoon, but he’s a badass buffoon - and the integrity of his character remains intact). And that lack of irony, that absence of a way out of taking it seriously, allows the films’ themes to become massive. In 2001 those themes - the defense of an idyllic way of life under siege by an unfathomable and formless evil, the importance of standing by your friends and the need to create multilateral fellowships for the common good - resonated strongly.
Timing is everything. Tolkien’s novels truly blew up in popular culture when Ballantine published them in paperback in the 60s and the counterculture found the world of the Shire - filled with pipeweed, communing with things that grow and general laid backness - to be a representation of the hippie ideal. To that generation Frodo’s battle against the forces of industry and uptightness was the appeal; ‘Frodo Lives!’ was a hippie catchphrase. Thirty years later it would be the themes of courage in the face of an evil that hates your very way of life that appealed to the grown up hippies and their kids.
On a personal note these films were very important to me in the months and years after 9/11. As a New Yorker with immediate ties to the downtown area - a jet engine landed on the corner of the block where I worked - the days after the Towers fell were terrifying and surreal, and there was little comfort in the Bush administration’s rush to war. But there was comfort in the resolute bravery of Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin. I saw that first movie a half dozen times in the theater - it was how I spent New Year’s Eve 2002, in fact - and it wasn’t an escape from a newly uncertain world but an education in how to deal with that world. Like millions of others the events of 9/11 had shaken me so deeply it would take years to really understand the impact, but I knew right away that I craved something real and honest and true. I wanted something that was up front about how bad things could get but was also celebrating the ability to band together to get past that badness, to heal after the horror. And it’s easiest to face those things through the screen of fantasy and entertainment. Just because everything that happened in Lord of the Rings was about as fictional as you can get doesn’t mean it wasn’t all emotionally true.
By the time The Two Towers came out we were a year past 9/11, we were on the ground in Afghanistan and the debacle in Iraq was looming. And in the final moments of that film Samwise Gamgee gave a speech that summed up every single reason why these films were the movies we needed in those days:
I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
In a movie landscape where every new blockbuster is desperately aping the last blockbuster that worked it’s refreshing to savor the uniqueness of these films. Even removed from their historical context, Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is wonderful epic filmmaking, overstuffed with heart and soul and adventure and humanity. These are films made to be good, and the fact that a whole lot of people agreed that they’re good was a bonus, not the ultimate goal. Peter Jackson had a feeling that this was what people wanted, and thank god he was right.
* It’s worth noting that the other breakthrough fantasy movie series, the Harry Potter films, also debuted post-9/11, although that phenomenon is worth its own sociological study. It’s also worth noting that Lord of the Rings is high fantasy, with made up worlds and nations and history while Harry Potter is a more digestible sort of fantasy, one where a normal, relatable person discovers a hidden world.