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]