In his 1940 preface “On Translating Beowulf,” J.R.R. Tolkien contends that “The effort to translate, or to improve a translation, is valuable, not so much for the version it produces, as for the understanding of the original which it awakes” (53). Though made with a specific literary tradition in mind, Tolkien’s assertion about the value of translation bears re-visitation in light of circumstances where the terminology has shifted. Specifically, Tolkien’s own work has since become the myth undergoing translation, and in popular parlance, translation itself has changed from simply describing the transference of a text between languages to now include the transmutation of narrative(s) between media. The move from text to film illustrates one significant ramification of this re-definition: how to distinguish and enact canonicity with regards to adaptations of the original myth, Tolkien’s Middle-earth. In several of his letters, Tolkien himself forcefully questions the purpose and methodologies of screenwriters and filmmakers looking to adapt his work. And although criticism of text-to-film translation has focused mainly on Peter Jackson’s 2001-2003 Lord of the Rings and 2012-2014 Hobbit film trilogies, an additional area of interest concerns fan film culture, which further complicates questions of translation “validity.”

In this paper I expand on existing definitions of “fan films” in order to demonstrate how fan film culture is related to but also distinct from other fannish productions, such as fanvids and playlists, in terms of both purpose and function. I then offer some examples of Tolkien-derived work from across fan film culture, delineating differences of technique, effect, and implication based on type and location, i.e. the differences between fan film culture for the Third Age (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings) versus the First and Second Ages (Ainulindalë, Quenta Silmarillion, Akallabêth). I also explore the difference between target and viewing audiences and examine reactions from these different audiences in terms of technical and “canonical” reactions, before moving on to examine how fan film culture makes use of pre-existing media, including “real” films. I then argue that although fan films and fan film culture sometimes make use of other Tolkien-derived films, most usually Jackson’s, they should be considered separate and distinct creations because they are paying homage to Tolkien’s world, rather than re-visiting Jackson’s particular vision of it. Finally, I return to earlier questions in order to reflect on claims about translating Tolkien’s Legendarium “correctly,” concluding that there is a difference between “adaptions” and “translations” when considering a narrative’s move from text to film, and specifically, to noncommercial forms such as fan films.



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