The Frodo Franchise and reflecting back on The Lord of the Rings
It’s easy to forget how and when things changed.
And it is perhaps even easier to forget these changes if they fail to fit into preexisting categories, or if they appear to have been negated by later developments.
When I was writing my book on Heavy Metal magazine, I was struck by the way in which a groundbreaking endeavor could be erased by a similarly positioned but somehow more successful iterations. Heavy Metal was overshadowed by Mouly and Spiegelman’s RAW, just as Ultima Underworld (1992) was overshadowed by Doom (1993) in the history of videogames, for instance, and Howard Dean’s groundbreaking digital campaign in 2004 is barely a footnote for people interested in Barack Obama’s more successful one four years later. Reading Kristin Thompson’s The Frodo Franchise serves as a powerful reminder that in recent popular cinema, superheroes have come to similarly eclipse the boom in fantasy movies in the early years of the 21st century. As a matter of fact, Thompson refers to Spider-Man as a fantasy movie (275), and part of that boom, a classification which appear remarkably odd in retrospect.
I hold Thompson’s writing in great esteem. Her work with David Bordwell shaped my understanding of film style and history, and I have been greatly enjoying her occasional columns on animated films on the blog she shares with Bordwell, Observations on Film Art (http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/). I was also aware of her book on The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but memories of that film had been tainted by the frankly terrible Hobbit trilogy that followed (2012-2014) and by my general disappointment with Peter Jackson’s career, and I had never sought out The Frodo Franchise.
Yet, watching the Rings movies again a few weeks ago with our daughters brought home how ambitious and excellently crafted they were. We had selected the extended edition – which I had not seen before – and I appreciated them more than on my first viewing, in which a bout of adaptation anxiety had marred my appreciation of the spectacle on display. Having been a devoted Tolkien fan, perfectly sensible choices like the decision to condense the cast and replace Glorfindel with Arwen in Fellowship has been enough to make me wary of the whole project. I have not re-read the books since, and though I remember them very well, it is fair to say that they no longer have the same hold on my imagination. Thus, while I still regretted the escalation in scope in Return, I was better positioned to appreciate the movies for themselves and not as acceptable replications of a nearly sacred text.
We had fun. The films were slow but we took our time as well, spreading Fellowship and The Two Towers over two watching sessions, enthusing about Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen and – frankly – the whole cast. The first images of the Shire and the astounding recreation of the John Howe painting were as striking in 2020 as they were in 2001. The jokes worked. My appreciation for Sean Bean’s Boromir was enhanced by memories of his role in Game of Thrones, and I found the character more moving and relatable than he had been in the novel. The special effects were absolutely stunning, while I had been afraid that they may now seem cruder, and I also discovered a new appreciation for the radical shifts in genre imagery – in particular the occasional bouts of greenish horror which Jackson is found of – while I had found them jarring (and frankly a little sacrilegious) twenty years ago. And of course, the New Zealand landscapes were splendid.
This convinced me that it was time to read The Frodo Franchise at last.
The book serves as a model of what studying a popular franchise should aim for. It is precise, driven by interviews and data, extremely conscious of the economic structure making such movies possible and yet keen on analyzing, in addition to describing. Over the course of four sections and ten chapters, spanning 330 pages (with about 60 pages of notes and index), Thompson covers the inception of the film and its defining aesthetic choices, the promotional strategy co-created by New Lines and by fans, licensing and videogames, and finally the lasting effect of the movie on New Zealand and the global film industry, such as they could be measured in 2007, when the book was published.
In addition to offering a glimpse of the book’s structure, its introduction defines and historicizes the notion of the franchise:
Essentially, it means a movie that spawns additional revenue streams beyond what it earns from its various forms of distribution, primarily theatrical, video and television. These streams may come from sequels and series or from the production company licensing other firms to make ancillary products […]. In the ideal franchise, they come from both. (4)
Thompson also points out that Tolkien’s novel had become a literary franchise long before the movies, although the trilogy turned what had been a cottage industry into a mainstream global phenomenon.
The first part – about a third of the book – is also the easiest to get into, since it deals with the movie itself, rather than the franchise. The first chapter, in particular, offers a concise account of the unlikely chain of events which made Jackson’s Lord of the Rings possible. In particular, Thompson charts the evolution of the rights to the book adaptation, Miramax’s intial interest and investment before they became afraid of the scale of the project, and New Line’s gamble as they acquired the project, along with the rights under what appeared then to be draconian circumstances. The story is summed up in a useful chart (21), but also recounted as a gripping narrative, culminating in the race to complete a 20-minute preview in time for the 2001 Cannes Festival. That key moment, which is recalled on more than one occasion in the book, marked the first time anyone outside the movie team got to see a fully realized passage from the three films, which had been shot together. The enthusiasm generated by the preview was further enhanced by a lavish party displaying many of the props used in the films and demonstrating the level of craft which defined them.
The second chapter deals with the adaptation process. Thompson is less interested in adaptation theory – which is remarkably absent from the text and its note – than in documenting the logic behind the many changes between the novel and the films. The chapter opens with a quote from a review of the first film in The New York Review of Books, in which the reviewer points out that while he had read the novels as historical epics, his son consumed them in a much different media environment – other fantasy films and especially videogames – which led him to have radically different mental image of the novel. The additional necessity of capturing the attention of Tolkien fans while drastically enlarging that viewer base also led to many decisions to streamline the narrative. Thompson quotes Jackson as saying: “We sort of had this rule of thumb that we were writing it for the people who had read it ten years ago, not ten months ago.” (68). Beyond the issue of fidelity, Thompson seeks to demonstrate that the trilogy sought to eschew the trap of prestigious literary adaptations to produce genre films, borrowing not only from the conventions of fantasy, but also from horror, superheroes and kung-fu : “Clearly, these people love popular cinema, including Asian martial art movies, and are steeped in its conventions. Rather than striving to make an ‘important’ film, they made it to appeal to themselves – and thus to the vast number of people who share their tastes.” The chapter strikes a defensive note, defending the film but also implicitly the project to write a whole book about it. It also effectively charts the way in which adapters of popular work locate their work at the intersection of three different series: the original work, the consensual expectations regarding this work in the most vocal fan communities, and the broader cinematic history of the genre the original work belongs to.
The third chapter, “Handcrafting a blockbuster” argues that whatever compromises may have been made to “aid those unfamiliar with Tolkien’s novel” (75) were offset by a strategy of “overdesigning” the world, well beyond Hollywood norms and the strict demands of the narrative. This is of course familiar to any reader familiar with the notion of world-building within transmedia storytelling, where the world contains narrative gaps and overflowing details, which are all meant as anchors for possible future narratives. Thompson’s book was published shortly after Jenkins’s Convergence Culture, and she does not use the concept of transmedia in this chapter, though she later provides a fruitful parallel between The Matrix – a key example for Jenkins – and Rings. Once again, this acts as a reminder of the myopia generated by a strict focus on transmedia, which is often but one option in a set of complementary intertextual practices: some of Jenkins’s insights apply equally well to an ostensible adaptation of Tolkien’s secondary world, in the context of a preexisting franchise, that found itself drastically expanded1 Rather than theoretical inquiries, Thompson offers a detailed account of the power structure which made this “overdesign” possible, and provides telling example of the care with which even invisible elements (such as the size of the thread of the characters clothes, which varied depending on whether the scene was hobbit-sized or human-sized (91) ) participated in this strategy.
This first section reads in 2020 probably in much the same way as when it was published. The rest of the book, however, functions more as a map to the innovations of Rings which have now been forgotten, precisely because they have become the norm. In particular, Thompson studies the way major studios were learning to navigate digital culture: putting up their own websites, learning to leverage fan sites, and cooperating with videogame companies, which were by then able to reuse almost directly some of the digital assets generated for the film. Rings’ status as a transitory object is evidenced by Thompson’s description of the circuitous set up by which digital effects were transmitted from New Zealand to London, there to be transferred to analog film in the form of individual jpg, transferred into an ipod (303-306)!
The last two-thirds of the book thus now read purely as historical documents about this rapid transition, at a time when DVD supplanted VHS in just a few years, only to be made obsolete by digital distribution in the next breath, and when the Internet suddenly began to overshadow all the other means by which movies could be marketed and sold. Peter Jackson and his team proved adept at navigating this new territory, but the Internet they were dealing with was one of Geocities and AOL, just before Facebook and Youtube came along to redefine media consumption on-line. Similarly, Rings may have been an important step in Hollywood’s growing presence at the San Diego Comic-Con, but it only took a few years for this presence to become absolutely normalized. Thompson suggests that these innovations would last, and along with them the memory of Rings‘ role, but the rapid transformations that followed have obscured that legacy.
In particular, we now know that fantasy was not to become the dominant film genre of the 21st century. The rapid collapse of the Narnia movies and of The Golden Compass along with the aesthetic failure of Jackson’s own Hobbit all inform our retrospective view, one in which even Harry Potter and Pirates of the Carribean appear as proprietary series rather than exemplars of the genre. In that light, Rings was a false dawn, a singular object which failed to create a broader trend (and yes, of course, Game of Thrones may simply have pushed the genre to television, but apart perhaps from Netflix’s The Witcher, other fantasy TV shows have not exactly become successful). Thompson’s book offers a radically different perspective, one in which Rings serve as a precursor or key example for a changing industry which established new connections with fans, invested in narrative projects spread over multiple films and negotiated the tension between transmedia and adaptation in the age of convergence. The recent Star Wars trilogy and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to take two obvious examples, appear clearly indebted to Jackson’s innovations. That connection has not been ignored (Liam Burke uses Thompson’s book in The Comic Book Film Adaptation, for instance), but reading The Frodo Franchise in 2020 provides a useful antidote to any potential cultural amnesia.
Thompson’s own post-mortem from 2016 can be found here: http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2016/07/31/frodo-lives-and-so-do-his-franchises/
- On the intersection between franchise, adaptation and transmedia, see also Parody, Clare. “Franchising/Adaptation.” Adaptation 4, no. 2 (September 1, 2011): 210–18. https://doi.org/10.1093/adaptation/apr008.; Labarre, Nicolas. “Les comics Star Wars et les paradoxes de la fidélité.” In Transmédialité, bande dessinée & adaptation, edited by Evelyne Deprêtre and German A Duarte, 258–69. Graphème. Clermont-Ferrand: PU Blaise Pascal, 2019.