In 1971, Jan Sterling was 19 years old, married, caring for a one-year-old baby girl, and living out of a 1961 Econoline Ford Van. She was driving around the country in a state that she describes as "quite homeless." She says that her life was forever changed when, one day, she happened upon an old set of The Lord of the Rings books.
"I was saved by Tolkien's story and world," Sterling says. "It became my lifeline through those lonely, hard days and years after. It was incredible how the same story spoke to whatever life events I was experiencing."
Sterling isn't alone. The works of J.R.R. Tolkien have impacted millions across the globe thanks to the continuous publication of texts like The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and The Hobbit and Peter Jackson's highly successful adaptations of the Rings trilogy. Now, Jackson's version of The Hobbit is in theaters and is once again putting the spotlight on Tolkien. Even with the original trilogy's success, there was widespread skepticism for the project, first from the departure of original director Guillermo del Toro, and after Jackson took the reigns, the decision to split the 310 page novel into its own three-movie series. "I would say that half of the fans are worried and half of the fans are excited and pumped for The Hobbit," says John Tedeschi, a 45-year-old staff member of TheOneRing.net, the flagship site of Tolkien fandom on the web. "Most of that stems from the announcement of three movies instead of two. Most of that trepidation comes from these fans mostly being unfamiliar with the extensive world Tolkien made."
In a post-Lord of the Rings movie world, the fanbase is now a spectrum of young and old, those who read the books when they were younger and those who only discovered them after watching Fellowship of the Rings back in 2001. "I was introduced to Tolkien through general culture as I grew up, but first read the Lord of the Rings books in Junior year of High School," Craig Hermann, 40, says. "I don’t view Lord of the Rings/Middle-earth as ‘fantasy.’ It is Mythology, though contrived. I’m generally not fond of fantasy/sci-fi." Carlene Cordova, director of the documentary Ringers: Lord of the Fans, recalls receiving love poetry written in Elvish from her equally-enthralled high school boyfriend. "It had been cool to be a Tolkien fan in the '60s and '70s, but that all changed in the '80s. It was only us 'geeks' who were in to Tolkien before the Peter Jackson film franchise." That personal connection to the material carries through nearly all Tolkien fans. Marilynn Miller, 60, admits, "I felt this kind of secret, very personal relationship to them as if no one else in the world knew they existed. "
On the other side, there is Justin Sewell, who produces TheOneRing.net's weekly live video talk show, and caught Fellowship four times in theaters. "I read the books after all three films were released. The most important thing at the time was repeating that feeling of surprise and astonishment on screen. I wanted the sequels to feel like the first time I saw Fellowship and [I] was completely blown away." Aromee Kim, 27, was also provoked to pick up Tolkien's written work after experiencing Jackson's films for the first time. "I was not a huge fan of the sci-fi and fantasy genres and was dragged to The Fellowship of the Ring by a friend," Kim says. "The films got me to read anything and everything I could find in and about Middle-earth … They were the first fantasy characters I wanted to invest time in. They were my 'gateway' to other fantasy and sci-fi and comic book franchises."
Fans of the Tolkien oeuvre come from all different places and entry points, and in turn, they have noticeably different reactions to the movies. Erin Wruck, 26, tore through the LOTR books just before catching the movies in theaters. While she admires the movies, her fandom is founded on Tolkien's writing. "There's a lot in the books that I made strong connections with that were thrown to the wayside in the movies. I do understand that some things don't work on screen as well as they do on page, so ultimately everyone's favorite details and little bits aren't going to be in the movies and I'm okay with that." Hermann, who notes he enjoys the movies but can't help nitpicking as a fan, responds to Jackson's changes as reprehensible. "The change of characters and the shoe-horning of character development into an accessible format for the modern view of character arcs I found quite offensive to Tolkien’s work and study of Anglo-Saxon literature," he says.
While fans have gripes with the details, most focus on the the movies have nailed over what they've missed. With a personal history intertwined with the Lord of the Rings books, Sterling considers the work of Jackson and his co-writers Philippa Boyens & Fran Walsh to be "like having more Tolkien." When it comes to Middle-earth on the big screen, any seems to be better than none. "They stay so true to the spirit and sensibilities of the Good Professor, that I have no problem embracing their adaptation. Jackson wasn't doing the book, he's doing Tolkien," says Sterling. Cordova can't help laud Jackson's original movies for just existing, declaring that the director and his special effects team WETA "created a realism and a depth to this franchise that no other fantasy film has ever come close to." The artistry tied to the films is what continues to engross Josh Long, a 31-year-old columnist at TheOneRing.net. "The collectibles I get from Weta Workshop, Sideshow Collectibles, Gentle Giant, and Artist Jerry Vandertselt all allow me to help bring Middle-earth into my home. I can show people this is what I like and why I like it allowing me to help spread the world Tolkien created to someone else," he says.
But there's a noticeable disconnect between most Tolkien fans and The Hobbit. Whether they were raised on the books or the movies, the prequel novel stands outside the undying love for the Rings trilogy. Liese May, 45, recalls reading The Hobbit at the age of 9 (after consuming Lord of the Rings) and feeling like the books talked down to her. Wruck also picked up The Hobbit after her Rings trilogy movie and book experiences. It did not go well. "It's like going from adulthood to childhood. I found it hard to finish; I kept putting it down and starting on other things, or re-reading chapters I liked from Lord of the Rings."
That disconnect from The Hobbit may be the reason why fervor over the follow-up to the massively successful Lord of the Rings films isn't as apparent as it should be (as was the case with the Star Wars prequels. But fanbase's of any kind rarely stay silent, and Pat Dawson, forum administrator for TheOneRing.net, says she has seen every possible fan reaction to the upcoming Hobbit films — with an emphasis on "every." "Some fans are worried that [Jackson] will stray too far from 'cannon' (either regarding the book or the Lord of the Rings movies)," Dawson says. "Some fans are worried there will be too much humor (despite the fact that The Hobbit book is much lighter in tone and has it's fair share of delightful humor written by J.R.R. Tolkien). Some fans are just plain overjoyed that they'll get to go back to the incredible world of Middle-earth created by PJ and crew."
"What it needs to 'succeed' for me is likely more what it needs to not do," Miller says. "It needs to not get too ridiculous in ways that jerk me out of the gentle fantasy of Middle-earth. Moments in LOTR that tend to do that are, in my opinion, moments of pure Jackson glee, but little Tolkien magic: tossing dwarves, cascading skulls, and Wilhelm screams." Kim is also wary of additional changes that come with spreading the book into three films. "The universe is rich enough without any unnecessary characters and plot lines revolving around said characters. I thought the move to write in new characters a rather arrogant move." Anne Giffels, 54, is blunt with her list of demands: a talking purse, talking eagles, animals serving dinner at Beorn's house, and an incredibly magnificent Smaug. "I want The Hobbit movie to be true to The Hobbit book, which means that it's lighter and not as epic as LOTR," says Giffels.
What the fans do need is the essence of those previous movies. Sterling was originally worried when del Toro was slated to direct The Hobbit, afraid that the movies may be more of a reintroduction to Middle-earth rather than "a return to it." Unlike Star Wars fans, who eventually chastised George Lucas for playing to a younger crowd with The Phantom Menace, Jackson appears to have flexibility with The Hobbit, in part because the book isn't as treasured to the vocal Tolkien fanbase. "I’m probably more excited for The Hobbit than I was for LOTR," May says. "I was actually quite worried about the LOTR movies, fearing that they were about to totally stuff up the stories I love so much. I’d always heard that it just wasn’t possible to do a live-action version of the books."
When reviews started trickling out for The Hobbit, an extreme group of fans took to sites like Rotten Tomatoes to take down the blockbuster's naysayer's. Few of them had seen the film at the time, but they had a harsh words for critics giving the movie bad reviews. Miller says we can't take those "fans" seriously. "The flip side of this — the people who are extremely worried about Tauriel [Evangeline Lily's character who Jackson has created for the films] or talking purses or jumping out of their skins to see it or fussing over how many negative reviews it is getting — are way more vocal. If one judges what the fan base thinks by putting one's ear to the screen, this is all they will hear," he says.
What keeps fans of The Lord of the Rings movies coming back for more, and why no matter the general reception is to The Hobbit as viewers take it in over the holiday season, is a deep, affectionate, is warm love for Tolkien's works that is rarely found in the "geek" world. Good or bad, keeping the fantasy world of Middle-earth in the conversation is the ultimate goal. "If you read his works and are as moved [by them], it becomes an integral part of your life," Tedechi says. "I would say we are not much different from fans of other series. Fantasy is a chance to escape the world we live in, we can leave our troubles behind and be totally engrossed in a land we wished we could live in. Whenever things in my life become tough and I feel like I am losing my way, I will reread the LOTR and it grounds me and gives me the hope and confidence to deal with the real world."
Forty years after picking up her first copies of the books, Sterling is still a Tolkien lover, a proud member of groups like TheOneRing.net, and an eager fan ready for Jackson's The Hobbit. Since 2004, she has been part of the site's "Make the Hobbit Happen" effort, promoting the idea of turning The Hobbit into the film and reporting every bit of news along the way. "This is the climax of years of worry, work, hope and fear. Now, elation and so much joy for Jackson's achievement after so many years of his fighting to make these films a reality."
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures]
'The Hobbit': Making Sense of Kili, the Hot Dwarf
'The Hobbit': 6 Biggest Changes From J.R.R. Tolkien's Novel
'The Hobbit' Star Richard Armitage on Becoming a Dwarf and What We'll See in Part 2
From Our Partners:
’The Hobbit’ Cast: A Who’s Who New Character Guide (Moviefone)
’Les Miserables’ Unscripted: Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway On Singing And Being Modest
Matt Reeves' magnificent Let Me In is an Americanized adaptation of Let the Right One In a Swedish horror film which itself is based on an acclaimed novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist (also Swedish). As such its setting has been moved from frigid Scandinavia to the more familiar but no less frigid Los Alamos New Mexico a town depicted as so bleak and uninviting as to provoke a lawsuit from the state’s tourism commission. Its atmosphere is particularly inhospitable to timid loners like 12-year-old Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) a spindly late-bloomer who suffers regular humiliations at school courtesy of a trio of pubescent sadists.
Owen’s home life isn’t much better: Dad’s gone for good pending a divorce from mom who’s an aspiring wino and something of a religious nut. He seeks refuge nightly in the solitary confines of his apartment complex courtyard where he meets and befriends Abby (Chloe Moretz) a new neighbor and apparent kindred spirit whose quirks include a penchant for walking barefoot through the snow. That along with her professed inability to recall her exact age provides Owen with the first clues that his new friend may not be entirely normal.
She is in fact a vampire. And like any vampire Abby requires blood for sustenance. But since the sight of a little girl chomping on the necks of locals is certain to raise eyebrows at Child Protective Services she entrusts the duty of procuring nourishment to her haggard elder companion (Richard Jenkins). First believed to be Abby’s father but later revealed as otherwise he (his name is never stated) trots out wearily on occasion to find a fresh young body to drain of its blood. His skills appear to be slipping in his old age (like Owen he is a mere mortal) and his sloppiness soon attracts the attention of a grizzled local cop (Elias Koteas) who has no idea how far in over his head he is. (The film is set in 1983 when the vampire-detection tools available to law enforcement officials were woefully inadequate.)
Meanwhile Abby and Owen’s relationship blossoms and notwithstanding the inevitable complications that arise in every human-vampire relationship they develop a profound and sweetly innocent bond. Still lurking in the back of our minds is the knowledge that Abby at her core is a remorseless bloodsucker and one significantly older than her pre-teen visage would have us believe. Is her affection for Owen sincere or is she merely grooming him to assume the role of her caretaker once her current one exceeds his usefulness?
There’s a great deal of manipulation at work in Let Me In both on the part of Abby and director Reeves who alternates between tugging on our heart-strings and butchering them. Abby is one of the truly great horror villains — so great in fact that I suspect many audience members won’t view her as one even as her list of mutilated victims grows. Reeves does well to preserve an element of ambiguity resisting the urge to proffer a Usual Suspects-esque denouement inviting us instead to connect the story’s dots ourselves. The film’s unique and affecting juxtaposition of tenderness and savagery combined with a slew of stellar performances makes for an experience unlike any other in recent horror-movie memory one whose effects will linger long after the closing credits have rolled.
In the tradition of a classic Disney-esque animated fairy tale The Tale of Despereaux based on the award winning children’s classic by Kate DiCamillo is about a mouse named Despereaux (Matthew Broderick) with Dumbo-sized ears and an oversized heart. His home the Kingdom of Dor was once a happy place but now due to unexpected events it has been shrouded by doom and gloom. Not for Despereaux! The fearless rodent doesn’t adhere to the usual mouse-like criteria but instead yearns for adventure especially after he starts reading fables from the castle library. He also bonds with Princess Pea (Emma Watson) who is sad and lonely her kingdom is in such disarray. Despereaux looks at her as a damsel in distress and wants to help. Unfortunately these are all serious no-nos in Mouseworld and so Despereaux is banished him to live in the dungeon with the evil Rats where he meets an agreeable rat Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman) who is also different from his kind. Roscuro wants to right some past wrongs but is spurned by the princess. Needless to say things do indeed go awry and Despereaux must summon all his courage and bravery to save the day. Some of the best ensemble casts in movies are being assembled for animated features these days and The Tale of Despereaux is a prime example. Broderick is ideal as the dignified and ultimately courageous little mouse. Hoffman -- in his second ‘toon turn of the year (Kung Fu Panda) -- proves again as the soup-loving Roscuro he has a real future as an animated character. Harry Potter’s Watson has the perfunctory English princess role but plays it with compassion while Tracey Ullman as maid-cum-wannabe princess Mig doesn’t go for the laughs but portrays Mig as a hopeful outcast looking for a fairy tale ending to her humdrum life. A whole set of other wonderful vocal talents in Despereaux include Kevin Kline Frank Langella Richard Jenkins Stanley Tucci William H. Macy Robbie Coltrane and Christopher Lloyd. And to top it off with just the right touch of whimsy is the lilting narration of Sigourney Weaver whose comforting voice will assure the youngest kids in the audience that things in Dor aren’t quite as dire as they appear. Co-directors Sam Fell and Rob Stevenhagen invest into this gorgeous-looking film all the care that went into the art of DiCamillo’s beautiful book. In fact unlike many other recent animated features Despereaux is distinctly old-fashioned despite all the CGI. The look of the movie is definitely inspired by older more traditional Disney-style fairy tale classics. Gary Ross’ (Seabiscuit) fine screenplay is reverential to the book and doesn’t back away from the darker aspects of the story which despite its G rating might be a little on the scary side for the very young ones. For everyone else The Tale of Despereaux is most likely this season’s must-see movie event for the entire family.
We meet the two very unlikely sisters while each are having sex. Rose Feller (Toni Collette) is a successful lawyer who is sleeping with her boss and thinking of ways it can improve her career. Maggie Feller (Cameron Diaz) is a party girl and at her 10-year high school reunion--after trying to have a fling in a bathroom stall--she ends up puking instead. Inevitably Maggie gets kicked out of her dad and stepmother's house and winds up on the doorstep of her sister. The Feller girls were close once when they were young girls especially after their mentally unstable mother died. But now their grown-up personalities clash rather dramatically. And when Maggie seriously crosses the line by seducing Rose's new boyfriend the straw is broken. Forced out Maggie stumbles upon some birthday cards from a long-lost grandmother and decides to go hit her up for cash. Turns out Grandma Ella (Shirley MacLaine) lives in a senior citizen's community in Florida that gets its humor from Golden Girls re-runs. Maggie may ingratiate herself within this new environment but isn't any more redeemed by reconnecting with Ella. She still acts like a petulant child. But rather than throwing her out Ella along with the gang of old folk forces Maggie to take some responsibility.
Collette (The Sixth Sense) is fantastic as the frumpy pudgy Philadelphia lawyer who gives up everything so she can walk dogs and lead a simpler life. But she's done this many times before--and honestly is so much better than Muriel's Wedding. Diaz (my personal favorite Charlie's Angel) doesn't need to stretch too far to play a conniving ditz with a heart. This is her There's Something About Mary role albeit a tad more screwed-up with a sister and lost grandma. So that leaves MacLaine as the saving grace for any worthwhile acting in this movie. Despite the obvious shuffleboard clichés--and the occasional leers at Diaz by the old guys around the pool--when the old folk are around the film gets lively and tolerable believe it or not. MacLaine leads the way with the quips and barbs but in a more subtle way than we are used to from this usually eccentric actress. The supporting cast of cranky cronies have some great moments especially veteran actor Norman Lloyd as the blind professor who teaches Maggie a thing or two about manners trust and family.
If this were Nora Ephron directing that would have been one thing but coming from Curtis Hanson the Oscar-winner who gave us L.A. Confidential it just doesn't mesh. Hanson can do quirky (Wonder Boys) he can do adventure (The River Wild) he can do hard-hittin' rap stories (8 Mile) and he can even do scary (Hand That Rocks the Cradle) but why in the world would he attempt a saccharine-soaked female family story that threatens to be a Crimes of the Heart tear-jerker? Screenwriter Susannah Grant who adapted In Her Shoes from Jennifer Weiner's popular bestseller of the same name also wrote Erin Brockovich and 28 Days. She understands strong female characters but there's still a major layer of sugar coating that Hanson can't scrape off. He doesn't tone anything down from Grant's script--not the overly cute dogs nor the embarrassing bridal shower nor the expected moments of guilt-tripping between the ladies. Instead he plods through the paint-by-number script and wraps it all up nicely into a crowd-pleasing film that is ultimately forgettable.