Have you ever heard Elijah Wood laugh? Like, really laugh? Straight-up bust a gut in shock and delight? It’s great. He doesn’t really do it much in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but you can still see him do it on the Lord of the Rings DVDs if you dig carefully through the scene selection menus on The Return of the King to find one of two hidden Easter Eggs there. That’s how you’ll find one of the best jokes in the entire film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.
2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies’ 20th anniversary, and we couldn’t imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we’ll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon’s Year of the Ring.
It’s a prank call by Dominic Monaghan, posing as German interviewer “Hans Jensen,” asking Elijah Wood increasingly ridiculous questions in a remarkably consistent German accent. It’s a great goof, but it’s also a good reminder of just how different fan and internet culture was when these films were released — of how if these movies had come out today, we might already be tired of them.
If you’ve never seen the interview before, it’s now much easier to see than it was in 2004, thanks to YouTube. Wood, as he notes in an introduction recorded after the fact, completely bought Monaghan’s schtick, and for the next eight minutes, is absolutely taken for a ride as “Hans Jensen” asks him about his beautiful eyes and, in the best exchange in the video, if he has “vorn vigs.”
(It’s also worth noting that this prank call is a bit of a product of its time — both because it’s a prank call and because Monaghan uses his German character to make blunt statements about their co-star’s sexuality. It’s not terribly egregious, but the joke plays on a discomfort that speaks to the commonplace homophobia of the early ‘00s, which was not that long ago!)
The video is a delight partly because it’s very funny — effortlessly flowing from absurd to cringe to a wicked non-sequitur about Wood’s former dolphin co-star from Flipper — but it’s also steeped in the meta-narrative around the Lord of the Rings movies, and how the cast that played its core Fellowship became best friends over the course of the trilogy’s filming. This friendship was a big part of the movie’s folklore — they all got tattoos of the Elvish character for “nine”, a bit of trivia that comes up often enough that Dominic Monaghan would talk about it at length in a 2016 Entertainment Weekly interview, and Orlando Bloom commemorated the event with a photo he shared on Instagram around the same time.
What’s interesting about this backstory is the way that it’s been preserved and remembered, occasionally surfacing when people, for example, recall on Reddit the time Viggo Mortensen and Karl Urban bought Gunpla together while doing press in Japan. When the Lord of the Rings films were coming out, online fandom was very much there, but social media was not — fans gathered on an Internet that feels prehistoric in retrospect, sharing news and posting away on siloed message boards and fan sites. A lot of them, like this Viggo Mortensen one sharing those same photos in their original context, are still around! And together with the more traditional press stories about the films released at the time, a hybrid text is formed, as modern fandom re-processes the fascination of a previous generation.
The Lord of the Rings isn’t the only movie celebrated in this way, but it is one of the biggest blockbuster phenomena to come along at a time where fans were online and movies were not. Now, something like Dominic Monaghan pranking Elijah Wood wouldn’t be tucked away on a DVD for only the biggest fans to find, it would be shared on the movie’s Instagram account. It would be one of many orchestrated stunts for viral publicity — an appearance on The Masked Singer, maybe another on Hot Ones, a shoot with Wired to answer the web’s most searched questions, a Jimmy Kimmel segment reading hate tweets — a long charm offensive that might start to make people question if anyone on that film actually liked each other. (Or, possibly, affirmed those questions.)
These modern media blitzes can have great moments — Tom Holland promoting Spider-Man: Homecoming by upstaging Zendaya in drag on Lip Sync Battle is a classic of the form — but they’re also a great way to ruin what was previously kind of fun. Now, the press tour is the story, a battery of interviews and viral games that contort actors into pretzels of performative authenticity. We’re at a point that when celebrities start to do things people actually do like, for example, Paul Bettany’s sly joke about getting to work with an actor he’s always wanted to work with (himself), a tidbit snowballs into rampant fan speculation about a mystery WandaVision villain played by … Al Pacino? In a world like this, the only way to win is to troll. Which Bettany did, reminding everyone that this is all performance, and we’re all part of it.
These lines weren’t so cleanly drawn while The Lord of the Rings was happening. And that’s what it felt like, like it was happening, not being projected. Algorithms weren’t so instrumental in deciding who saw what, social media didn’t yet gamify outrage and speculation, and online fandom was still mostly a spectator sport — studios were absolutely not looking to court or engage with online forums. So fans spun their wheels in relative obscurity, and now when we remember those films, we’re also remembering that fandom — which is, of course, an extension of a very long line of people who adore the world of Middle-Earth.
It’s fitting that a trilogy of movies about wonderful and frightening myths rising up from the shadows for one last hurrah would also generate its own mythology that feels like one of the last of its kind. That distance between the Internet as it was and the Internet as it is makes The Lord of the Rings feel like a piece of the past, in a way that the subsequent Hobbit trilogy and forthcoming Amazon show never will.
Something that happens on the Internet now is always happening, always present, all shared on the same social networks. But with The Lord of the Rings, all we have are the stories, and one really good prank call.