Symposium

The Hunt for Gollum: Tracking issues of fandom cultures

Robin Anne Reid

Texas A&M University, Commerce, Texas, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Adaptation; Appropriation; Fan community; Fan film; Filmmaking; J. R. R. Tolkien; The Lord of the Rings; The Hunt for Gollum

Reid, Robin Anne. 2009. The Hunt for Gollum: Tracking issues of fandom cultures. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 3. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2009.0162.

doi:10.3983/twc.2009.0162

1. Introduction

[1.1] The fan-produced film The Hunt for Gollum (Independent Online Cinema, 2009) was released May 3, 2009, for free viewing on the Internet, garnering much interest from The Lord of the Rings fan communities and fan reviewers. The film does an excellent job of bringing to life a subplot of J. R. R. Tolkien's novel and creating a strong visual sense of Peter Jackson's film. Especially compelling are long shots of mountains and forests, as well as closer shots of characters, particularly Aragorn, traveling through Middle-earth. The cinematic aspects of the film are outstanding, but the script, even with dialogue from the novel, is less so.

[1.2] Reviews of the film—whether in major science fiction fan communities, on the film's page in the Internet Movie Database, or in individual blogs and LiveJournals—have been positive to glowing. Reviewers praise the high quality of the work done on a low budget (£3,000). The consensus seems to be that the film is atypical of fan productions because of its professional production values. The reviews focus on the quality of the film and its close relationship to the source texts. What the reviewers fail to consider are circumstances of production and reception that relate to gender differences in fan and mainstream culture. To address this lack, I first discuss the film as a fan production, then question how choices made by the creators regarding media and genre and the critical reception can be situated in the broader context of gender.

2. The film

[2.1] The cinematography parallels Jackson's work. Executive producer Chris Bouchard's use of light and dark evokes important themes in both novel and film. The soundtrack, collaboratively created by Adam Langston, Andrew Skrabutenas, and Bouchard, hints at Howard Shore's work. The acting ranges from strong to excellent, and costuming and makeup are well done. The setting, various locations in Britain, is superb. Adrian Webster is convincing as a younger Aragorn, and in some shots mirrors Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn. Webster conveys the physicality of Aragorn as a hunter and tracker, a man used to a solitary life and able to see beyond the material world. The creators clearly attempted to recreate or imitate, rather than transform, Tolkien's and Jackson's work, and they have achieved that goal.

[2.2] The sense of imitation extends to the film's Web site (http://www.thehuntforgollum.com/), which includes forums, invitations to submit fan art, and contest announcements as well as downloadable content. Media sites that build in more fan-oriented features did not originate with Peter Jackson's films, but The Lord of the Rings film site (http://www.lordoftherings.net/) and Jackson's communication and perceived responsiveness to fan input are praised by fans. The Hunt for Gollum site covers visual concepts and art, special effects, makeup, props, costumes, location shots, fight choreography, and a narrative of how the character of Goblok developed over the course of the production. The director's blog (http://www.hunt4gollum.blogspot.com/) includes information on the film, including the current translation efforts, which have resulted in versions with subtitles available in a wide variety of languages, including French, German, and Turkish. The blog invites volunteers to do translations in other languages, an example of the volunteer work done in all other areas of the production, which supplemented the low budget.

[2.3] The film demonstrates a strong knowledge of the novel, but the selection of story creates its own limitations. The plot is what is known in fandom as a gap-filler, showing more than is related in the original text (novel or film). Hunt narrates directly events that are related in expository scenes in the source texts. Besides the appendices, there are two scenes in the novel where Gandalf and Aragorn's search for Gollum is related. The first recounting is brief: Gandalf relates the story of Gollum to Frodo in "The Shadow of the Past," focusing primarily on how Gollum acquired the Ring and what he did after losing it—actions that led to Sauron becoming aware of the Shire for the first time. The second occasion occurs later, when, as part of the exposition in "The Council of Elrond," Gandalf and Aragorn discuss their search for and Aragorn's capture of Gollum. This section of the novel is directly related to the film because the focus is on what the wizard and Ranger do rather than on Gollum's story. Jackson deletes the story of Aragorn's hunt for Gollum; instead, viewers see Gandalf journeying to Minas Tirith to find Isildur's written account. In Hunt, as in the novel, Gandalf asks Aragorn for help, and Aragorn alone captures Gollum, takes him to Mirkwood, and turns him over to the Elves.

[2.4] This gap in the source narratives is exactly the sort of space that fan creations can fill, and the directors, producers, cast, and crew of Hunt have done an excellent job, with a professional-appearing production faithful to the two source texts. Hunt opens with a prologue that provides background on the Third Age and the scattered line of kings, on the Rangers, and on Mordor's rising threat—and the immediate threat of the One Ring. The main story arc is Aragorn's search for Gollum after he meets Gandalf at the Prancing Pony at Bree. During his journeys into the wilderness searching for Gollum, he visits a weatherworn statue of his ancestor, Elendil, asks for his help, and sees brief visions of the future related in The Lord of the Rings.

[2.5] Aragorn has no luck in his search until he meets Arithir, an original character. In language mirroring Gandalf's when he speaks to Frodo in the novel, Arithir relates rumors from Ithilien to Mirkwood of a ghost that drinks blood and steals food. As Aragorn searches for Gollum, and after he captures him, he must fight Orcs and the Black Riders who have come west of the river. After a major battle with a large group of Orcs, Aragorn is badly injured and nearly collapses. He sees a white flower, not identified in this film but clearly meant to be athelas (a healing herb), and then has a vision of Arwen speaking Elvish, who assures him of her love and seems to heal him. Gollum escapes as Aragorn is unconscious. Aragorn then tracks Gollum through the night, only to be attacked by a Black Rider. The Elves come to Aragorn's aid after he has fought off the Nazgûl, and Gollum is captured. Gandalf and Aragorn then plan to move to protect Frodo, and Aragorn tells Gandalf to send the hobbit to Bree, where Aragorn will wait to help guard him.

3. The reception

[3.1] The fan reception, as judged by Internet reviews, has been positive. I have seen no commercial media review the film, nor would I expect to. Most reviewers agree the film is a better homage to Jackson than to Tolkien. The assumptions these reviewers have in common are that fan productions are amateur—meaning "not done very well"—and not worth viewing by any but the most dedicated of fans, who by definition have flawed critical standards. Because of its high production values, Hunt is seen as an exception to this rule, and indeed it is worthy of praise in terms of professional criteria. Ken Denmead (2009) praises the film for looking like footage leftover from Jackson's film; Michael Marano (2009), although claiming that the quality of Bouchard's film is better than professional fantasy films from the 1980s, is the only one to criticize the "flawless re-creation of flawed filmmaking" (Jackson's) and to claim that Bouchard is better when creating his own vision. Reviewers note that the audience for this film consists of fans of the book or film: except for the prologue, the film provides little background information on the characters' history. Whereas Jackson's film had to appeal to viewers who had never read the book, Hunt provides no context, instead presenting scenes that require work on the part of the viewer to place into sequence as part of a larger metatext including both novel and earlier film.

[3.2] However, Hunt's Web site provides some clues about their understanding of the "fan" part of the fan text. The FAQ section notes, "The film is completely unofficial and non-profit. We have reached an understanding with Tolkein [sic] Enterprises to allow the film to be released non-commercially online but the project is completely unofficial and unaffiliated" (http://www.thehuntforgollum.com/faq.html). This text acts as a disclaimer that firmly places the film within the fan realm. Yet the Web site also indicates that the creators are overwhelmingly men, primarily white. Additionally, many either wish to have or already have careers in acting and filmmaking. This film can be read as a fan production that also serves as an audition or promotion piece for aspiring professionals. The science fiction community in particular has long been known for raising few barriers between fan and professional and for close interaction between pros and fans, and Hunt follows this lead. However, certainly not all fans engaged in fan production in any media are interested in professional careers, as opposed to enjoying fan activities as a hobby.

[3.3] Higher status relating to professional and original works compared with the lower status relating to hobbies and amateur productions has already been well described as a (gendered) part of capitalist culture (Jenkins 1992). This hybrid fan/pro film emphasizes one split in fan cultures and values: works done primarily for the community, as hobbies, out of love for the text, are received differently than works done as a type of apprenticeship, which includes love of the source text but has professionals as part of the potential audience. The upshot: slickly designed fan films created by men hoping to enter the profession generate a lot of attention—and may really lead to the very job opportunities they are hoping for. Artworks and fictions created by women, despite what in some cases are equally high production values, are criticized for being amateur. There are also genre distinctions: most of the fan-produced films or episodes of shows—including Star Trek: The Hidden Frontier, the Star Trek fan film that includes gay (male) characters—are primarily produced by men (http://www.hiddenfrontier.com/contact.php) while women tend to work with the shorter art form of videos, or vids.

[3.4] One film being created by a group of fans that includes more than one or two women is the partner film to Hunt, called Born of Hope (2009). The crew page lists Kate Madison, Teja Hudson, Sara Austin, Keira Robertgon, and Vanessa Mills (http://www.bornofhope.com/Crew.html). This film focuses on the storyline of Arathorn II and Gilraen, parents of Aragorn, and the trailer shows the action set in a community, the Dúnedain. While Hunt focuses on Aragorn as an epic hero, alone, performing deeds beyond the skills of most men, Born of Hope focuses on another element in Tolkien's novel: the communities and families who were threatened by Sauron's war with the West. The appendices to The Lord of the Rings include the information that Aragorn's father, the Chief of the Dúnedain, was killed by Orcs, and that his mother, with their child, took refuge in Rivendell, where Aragorn was raised. The gendered nature of film topic and creators seems clear: the men focus on the epic hero, and the women focus on community. The decision to focus on a storyline that is even less present in the text than Aragorn's journey, referenced in only a few lines in appendix A and B, is an example of what Henry Jenkins (1992) has identified as refocalization.

[3.5] Refocalizing involves changing the focus away from major characters or events in a source text and making minor characters or events the focus of the fan production. Refocalizing allows women characters to become protagonists and, in the case of Hope, can show Aragorn as a baby and a young child, within the heart of his family and community, even though that community is later destroyed. Since the majority of media texts (and, arguably, the literary canon as well as much popular genre fiction outside the genre of romance) tend to focus on the solitary if not always epic male hero, it seems clear that fan productions that recreate the characterization and plots of the source texts will always be more male-dominated (even if women are involved, which happens).

[3.6] Transformative works, which shift the focus to minor or underused characters or, in the case of slash fiction, foreground relationships, including romantic relationships between the main male characters in action adventure narratives, tend to be the creative domain of women fans. While the focus of this essay is on gender, it is important to note that gender must be understood in the context of race and class. In the case of these films, the fan creators are British; however, pictures on Web sites are not clear indicators of ethnicity. The issues of constructions of race in media and print texts, as well as how race operates in fandom productions and communities, must be the focus of another essay: for example, the discussion of the Orcs in Tolkien's work as raced others is a part of ongoing dialogues in fandom.

[3.7] In theory, fan productions and creations will be valued in the fan community, whether imitative or transformative, on their own merits, rather than on the gender or race of the creators. However, The Hunt for Gollum's reception raises the question of whether fan stories of a more transformative sort—including slash—would stand any chance of being created on film, given the necessity of raising money even for a low-budget film. The choice of women to produce vids, transformative works utilizing already created graphic and audio materials, shows that women are neither averse to nor lack the skills to work in visual media. However, a film of any length requires greater resources, which may also not be as available to women as to men. The probability is that stories that transform source texts too radically with regard to gender and sexuality are unlikely to attract the support that more traditionally constructed stories (stories like Hunt and Born of Hope) have, regardless of the love and passion of the creators for the source texts and the quality of their work. Because mainstream culture tends to value productions that reflect the dominant values regarding gender and sexuality, fandom is one cultural space where those values may be questioned.

[3.8] My purpose in this essay is not to reverse the hierarchies that exist in mainstream culture, that is, to dismiss one type of fan space and fan production, the space and work that aims for professional employment, as inferior to or less than another type of fan space and production, one that questions mainstream attitudes and is created for love. Both are valid, but it is possible to note that mainstream culture tends to valorize the professionalized space, equating it with masculinity, and to ignore or marginalize the other spaces where equally exciting work, including work that meets various types of professional standards, also exists.

4. Works cited

Denmead, Ken. 2009. Lord of the Rings fan film The Hunt for Gollum is an impressive achievement. GeekDad, May 5. http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2009/05/review-lord-of-the-rings-fan-film-the-hunt-for-gollum-is-an-impressive-achievement (accessed August 24, 2009).

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual poachers: Television fans and participatory culture. New York: Routledge.

Marano, Michael. 2009. Aragorn's untold adventure is precious in The Hunt for Gollum. Sci Fi Wire, May 8. http://scifiwire.com/2009/05/review-aragorns-untold-ad.php (accessed August 24, 2009).



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