The Why’s and How’s of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit Projects

By Martin Barker*

If truth be told, the Lord of the Rings International Audience Project (2003–4), and then the World Hobbit Project (2014–6), came out of some pretty odd combinations of reasons and circumstances.

The Rings project was occasioned by at least the following:

  1. A number of us had the feeling that audience research was hitting a barrier, which was preventing us exploring the way phenomena like blockbuster films were being received around the world. At that time, really, the only major attempt to do this – the project which led to the book Dazzled By Disney – had some major methodological problems, which I believed we could overcome. The best other example – the Big Brother International project – had to work within the constraint that this founding ‘Reality TV’ series was shaped differently in each country where it was produced.
  1. There was a strong sense that the films of The Lord of the Rings were shaping up to have a major impact – and that its three-year cycle gave us time to plan and launch our project. This is really important – it can take up to two years to get a big project off the ground.
  1. There were some odd, apparently incidental events – to me, most notably the anonymous email that circulated, showing a photograph of George W. Bush wearing a ring, with the caption ‘Frodo Has Failed’ … which raised a startling question about the ways in which a ‘fantasy’ story might be able to carry political meanings and implications. Could we research this, and find out what sorts of political uses were widespread?
  1. A will was growing to build a network of researchers – which could not only mount a project of this scale, but might then provide the basis for grounded debates about concepts, theories and methods in the field of audience research.

In most ways I think the project succeeded.  It drew together researchers across 18 countries.  The questionnaire which was agreed upon by all participants used an innovative design, mixing within one implement a combination of multiple-choice, and open-text, questions.  This allowed us to link quantitative and qualitative methods of analysis in complex ways. We gathered responses from around the world in 14 languages (although it has to be admitted that mainly these were European-based).  And we managed to attract just under 25,000 responses.  Analysis of those responses produced many important findings.  To me, I have to say, the most significant of these was the discovery and elucidation of the ways in which the films were experienced as a ‘spiritual journey’ for many, and in particular, the most enthusiastic viewers.  But there were many more.

What we didn’t know when we conceived that first project, even while we sensed that the films might get a warm reception, was that the Lord of the Rings trilogy were going to become the epicentre of a whole shift in the way ‘fantasy’ was conceived, received and understood.  That has become clearer and clearer as a series of other major films and TV series – Avatar (2009), The Hunger Games (2008-10), Game of Thrones (2011-) are perhaps the pre-eminent examples – have both drawn huge ‘crowds’ and provoked major public debates.  A number of these have also of course been real ‘hits’ as books.

The impulses for attempting the World Hobbit Project were again quite various:

  1. In 2011, Peter Jackson announced that he would ‘helm’ the Hobbit films – and that there would again be three. How would he manage this, with such a slim book as their basis? He would call upon the wider materials within J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Legendarium”: the whole imagined world and history of Middle-earth.  Among other things, that raised an intriguing set of questions about the way these films would be simultaneously a sequel to the Rings trilogy, but also a prequel.  How might this affect audience responses?
  1. Jackson also announced that he planned to deploy some new technologies to make the films ‘come alive’: 48 frames per second filming; enhanced CGI and motion capture; and so on. Could this allow us to capture and make sense of audience experiences of changing cinematic techniques?
  1. And of course there were the bigger questions of the rising importance of fandom, and transmedia participation in films; and that gravitational shift in the status and role of fantasy.
  1. Could we make it even bigger? In the years between the Rings and the Hobbit films, the networking of audience researchers had increased. The online Journal Participations (of which I am proud to have been a founder) had made audience research both more visible, and more interconnected.  There was an ambition to reach more widely than the mainly European-centred Rings project.  And we succeeded, with 46 countries involved in the second project, and with at least representatives in all continents around the world.

The Hobbit films were not received with the overwhelming approbation that greeted the Rings trilogy. And that affected our ability to recruit responses. Even so, we achieved a remarkable 36,000 completions across a total of 34 languages – usefully including many which display different kinds of criticisms of the films.  Analysis of those 36,000 responses is currently underway, and is already revealing some striking new kinds of knowledge of the range of ways audiences relate to films of this kind.

What needs saying, perhaps, more than anything, is that the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit projects were ridiculously ambitious. They didn’t achieve quite everything we attempted.  But that really would be ‘fantasy-land’, wouldn’t it?

*Martin Barker is an Emeritus Professor at the Aberystwyth University, located in The United Kingdom.

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