In December 2002, I knew one thing: The things I liked weren’t cool, and hardly anyone wanted to hear about them. Star Trek, not cool. Batman, for babies. That’s why it was so personally terrifying when a girl – a normal girl with purposefully chosen clothes, hair, and makeup – poked her head through the locker room lockers after the gym and shouted in my direction “HEY! That new Lord of the Rings movie coming out this week?
2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the Lord of the Rings films, and we couldn’t imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So, every Wednesday of the year, we’ll be going back and forth again, examining how and why movies have remained modern classics. This is the year of the Polygon ring.
I must point out that she and I had never spoken before – my high school had a few thousand students – and we never spoke again. She just looked at me and thought: “This girl knows the release date of The two towers from the top of his head. I stammered an affirmative answer and it disappeared around the lockers, leaving me alone and half-clothed, in the wreckage of an instant, accurate and devastating read on my whole affair as a person.
I never really got over it, but that sums up perfectly how well Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy entered mainstream consciousness and how quickly – despite everything that was going on in the world at the end of 2001. The gross $ 3 billion of movies (in the early 2000s) served as the first ignored warning that “niche” interests could dominate mass entertainment, a death knell for the nerd as a subculture rather than simply “culture”.
The Lord of the Rings films were a decade too early to be the last nail in the coffin, not because of something wrong with them, but because of a lack of cultural infrastructure. Middle-earth was ready for the big time, but no one else was. Not nerds, and especially not normies.
A time when the Lord of the Rings was indistinguishable from Pokémon
It can be hard to remember how obscure JRR Tolkien The Lord of the Rings was before the Peter Jackson trilogy, but here’s an example.
In a November 1999 episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, competitor Toby Moore, for $ 500,000, was asked to choose which of the four choices was do not a Pokémon. After much deliberation, and using his 50/50 lifeline, he chose “Jigglypuff” as the final answer, ending his run. The correct choice was “B: Frodo”. Three years later, a complete stranger was casually yelling at me about The two towers.
Even when it rolled out in the early 2000s, when poor Toby’s Pokémon question would have been worth at most $ 2,000, The Lord of the Rings trilogy was shockingly inaccessible compared to today’s nerd blockbusters, as the cultural infrastructure behind those blockbusters did not yet exist. If a movie buff wanted to know a bit more about Gandalf – or even how many movies were on the way and when – it’s not like they’d see the answer pop up in Google News.
It was still the era of webringing, with Google, Inc. launching its free ad-supported search engine as the trilogy went into production in New Zealand. When The Fellowship of the Ring released in theaters, Wikipedia was less than a year old. YouTube did not exist; if you wanted to watch a trailer again, you would go to apple.com/trailers/ and wait for a flash-based Quicktime movie to be buffered.
In more than one way, you couldn’t just walk into Mordor. It’s not that the interests of today’s nerds are more engaging than the Lord of the Rings trilogy – it’s that everything about them is more accessible. Jackson’s films came about when the internet and mobile technology were departure so that it is more possible than ever to get into things. But it was still the days of panic when you accidentally pressed the button that opened your flip phone – and I use that term loosely – “internet browser”.
Indeed, it is now almost impossible to escape “nerd stuff”, because the Internet becomes a gateway to answer the girl’s questions in the locker room. Google has countless wikis of hard-working fans. Entertainment media use this algorithm to empower their own audiences. Fan communities are no longer island pockets you have to look for, but social media trends presented to you whether you are looking for them or not. The “niche” now dominates the mainstream so completely that it makes Netflix’s Geeked Week debut feel weird and cringe.
And it’s better this way
When I first read Tolkien’s work, there were no wikis, no meme culture to engage in, no communities that I was not far too shy to engage with. As far as I know, the things I liked weren’t cool, and no one wanted to hear about them.
Fandom through social media has a lot of issues, but accessibility isn’t one of them. Easier access to fan communities has allowed a much greater diversity of people to express themselves in fan discussions, allowed more people to experience art that truly touches them, and normalized the love of the game. genre fiction.
This accessibility has led to its own increase in access control; accusations of “fake nerd girl” or “casual” as a means of denigrating those who are perceived to have only jumped on the bandwagon now that something is popular, or have had an easier path to their interests than those who came before him. Which is crap, of course. People should know how to read The Silmarillion then immediately go to Tumblr and check out the thriving community of fanartists who love to draw Morgoth and Sauron kissing. It’s a better way.
If there’s one cultural point to be learned from the impact of the past 10+ years of storytelling in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s that “nerd” stories are in fact universal stories, and their relegation to the world. Niche entertainment is rooted in the format, not their fantastic purpose and silly costumes. Spider-Man’s Story is Spider-Man’s Story is Spider-Man’s Story, and as long as it’s told well and seriously, it will find an audience.
A decade before the MCU exploded, the Jackson’s Rings trilogy took this assumption for granted. He and his collaborators never winked, shrugged or made jokes at the expense of their own theatricality, despite their commitment to the spirit of Tolkien’s work which almost cost them the job. The saga simply unfolded in front of an unwilling audience, and during the performance, Jackson was convinced that the lyrical romance of the JRR Tolkien series was captivating enough on its own. The production refused to hold the viewer’s hand, never explaining what a wizard is, or how Elven immortality works, and leaving “plot holes” wide open.
If you weren’t ready for that reality, well, the theater exit was right there. But if you were, there were very few avenues available if you weren’t already in the existing fan spaces. After all, when the easiest way to buy movie tickets is to call a robot on the phone, yelling at a nerdy-looking kid across the room seems like a pretty effective option.
When the ‘niche’ culture becomes mainstream, you no longer need to find people to talk about it – the modern internet will find you. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was ready to go for the new accessible fandom of the new mainstream geek. We just weren’t quite ready for it.
The death of the “nerd” was a long time coming, but it didn’t come quickly enough for this girl in my high school locker room. I hope she could see The two towers the opening week. I hope she still enjoys the Lord of the Rings movies. But I can rest assured that cool girls don’t have to use my nerdy ass as their own personal Siri anymore. They can google it and find one of my posts instead.