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Twenty Years of Fellowship

"In the land of New Zealand, in the fires of an editing room, the Dark Lord Jackson forged in secret a master movie, to control all others...."

Twenty years ago this weekend, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring premiered in US cinemas, forever changing how the fantasy genre is seen in the public consciousness, the way movies are made and presented, and, yes, the games we play and the expectations of those who play them. As nerds who were reading, watching, and playing fantasy stories both before and after the momentous impact of Fellowship, we thought we’d take this opportunity to discuss the movie and the effects it’s had on the things we love. - B

A: The release of Fellowship was quite the event. In a time when motion capture and the internet still seemed new, somehow everyone knew about and was excited for this movie. Fellowship, and to a certain extent the opening of the Harry Potter film series, marked the beginning of an era. Prior to the popularity of epic fantasy on both big and small screens, something like the Lord of the Rings was a dusty old book you borrowed from your dad’s shelves (or from the nerdy spectacled kid that became your best friend in grade school.) Coming out of a post-Satanic Panic period, fantasy was around but still reeling from the damage done. That all changed when the grandfather of fantasy was brought to life on the silver screen in a modern way. No rotoscoped Gollum for us! Everyone had now at least heard of Lord of the Rings. We were no longer just nerds sitting in the front rows of classrooms and rolling funny shaped dice in basements. We were people knowledgeable about something…popular. Bugsy, how did you feel about the wave of popularity that this movie brought?

B: J. R. R. Tolkien's books were foundational, not only to fantasy as a genre, but also to the people who read that genre - so a lot of us tend to experience them at a very early age, getting them, as  you said, from parents or peers. By the time I was in my big Tolkien phase at age 10-11, the phenomenon was already a quarter-century old and had inspired an entire industry of directly associated products: calendars, atlases, encyclopedias, games both analog and electronic... and that's only counting stuff I owned! The only thing missing, it would see, were live-action movies - but how could you adapt something so big? Aside from the books themselves and the Rankin-Bass animated Hobbit film, my favorite version of the stories were the radio plays produced for NPR by the Mind's Eye - which had a combined runtime of over twelve hours.

This wasn't for lack of trying, of course. The earliest attempts at putting Middle Earth on the big screen were during Tolkien's lifetime (he hated the idea, but badly needed the money -  even at the initial peak of the books' popularity, he saw very little financial success), but these yielded no results, and, when it did finally make it to the big screen via Ralph Bakshi's animated film in 1978 (the aforementioned Hobbit having been made for TV), the results were an abbreviated mess, unintelligible to anyone who hadn't read the books, but also full of enough changes to alienate that same audience. Among my own peer group of people who had read the books, it was assumed that any screen adaptation would suffer the same fate, so we certainly weren't clamoring for a new version, not to mention the poor track record of genre adaptations in the 90s.

Fellowship changed all that - it was successful both as its own movie and as a near-perfect adaptation, with Peter Jackson knowing just what to keep, what to drop, and what to change. (Tom Bombadil notwithstanding, it's a pity we didn't get to see what Jackson could have done with the barrow-wights.) For the first time, it seemed, there wasn't a "hierarchy" of incarnation: there "fans of the books" or "fans of the movie," there were simply fans. And, while all my peers had already read the books, plenty of other people were inspired to pick them for the first time. Suddenly there was visibility outside the (metaphorical) Middle Earth cottage industry, but because the groundwork had already been established, it didn't feel alienating at all. I don't thing I ever heard anyone proclaim their love of Lord of the Rings "before it was cool." 

Naturally, the media industry took note, both in the increased prevalence of fantasy adaptions (investors probably wouldn't have thrown money at Game of Thrones or The Witcher if the Lord of the Rings movies hadn't been so phenomenally successful). While fantasy in print had never really gone away, the twin successes of Fellowship and Harry Potter and the Philosopher Sorcerer's Stone led to the publication of any number of series that combined the two franchises to one degree or another (Eragon, anyone?) But a step away from monied interests, the effect of the movie was seen in the fantasy stories we make with each other. Andy, you were involved in fantasy gaming before and after Fellowship of the Ring was released, how did things change there?

A: One of the keys to Dungeons and Dragons, or any tabletop roleplaying game, really, is communication. Too much communication ruins it. For really good communication, you need to start from common ground. Sure, any system's core rulebooks can help, but, as the saying goes, pictures are worth a thousand words. (Back when Fellowship came out, a "moving picture" only cost me $4.50!) We’ve had fantasy movies before, but so many were cult classics at most, the kinds of things we’d get to share with people who ha never seen or even heard of them. "Have you seen Willow? No? Lets watch!" "No, I’ve never heard of Krull, what is it?" The kind of trade that almost felt like a backalley deal, a secret kinship and bond. Then Fellowship came out, and that all changed. The popularity provided a common ground for most of your nerd friends, and an entry point into table-top roleplaying games. We now had easy points of reference: I want my character to be like Pippin, but with wizard powers like Gandalf, or like Strider but with Gimli’s axes. You could now easily broach the subject of tabletop games when you heard someone liked Fellowship. Bugsy, what changes did you see in the gaming landscape after the movie’s release?

B: It seems paradoxical to say for something that, in its original form, codified so much of what we see as "fantasy," but I think the success of Fellowship and its followups encouraged creators to break out of a certain formula. Dungeons and Dragons was vital to the survival of fantasy throughout the 80s and 90s, but, as a result, exclusively shaped what that gaming could look like, whether (to use electronic examples) it was official or just "D&D without the brand name"- it was all getting pretty stale by the end of the decade. But, despite its influence, Middle Earth was a different kind of setting, both more mortal and more cosmic: wizards weren't simply individuals skilled in the ways of magic, they were essentially a handful of demigods assuming humanoid form to pursue a specific mission. Magic wasn't a process of rote spells and enchantments, but rather the will and persona of a powerful being infused into an object or place. And, while official D&D products were starting to push expected boundaries, the presence of an alternative approach opened things up, both at the table and onscreen. You started to see a lot more variation, with movement into dark fantasy and steampunk through new gaming systems and modifications to existing ones (including, D&D, via the Open Game License). Morrowind, for example, moved the Elder Scrolls series past its simple "D&D with the serial numbers filed off" format into a new set of influences and styles of gameplay. Likewise, I think that the success of Fellowship's mold-breaking led to better acceptance of Berserk anime when the English dub was released in the following year, opening up audiences to a new style of dark fantasy that would eventually take the form of mega-hits like the Souls game series by From Software in years to come.

Maybe that sounds like a lot to pin on just one movie, and, it is... one movie with a 47-year lead-up, anyway. But I guarantee some of you are here because of a journey you started with Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, and Peter Jackson, and that makes it a wonderful thing, regardless of its other merits. Let's walk that Long and Ever-winding Road together.


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