The Fellowship of the Ring hit theaters on Dec. 18, 2001. But there might be an even more important anniversary for fans who love the movie: Nov. 12, 2002. That, of course, is when The Fellowship of the Ring: Special Extended Edition DVD box set hit stores.
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.
Followed by The Two Towers and The Return of the King box sets, the Lord of the Rings trilogy’s catalog of extra content mirrored the films themselves; a massive effort by hundreds of creatives, finally getting the thorough documentation they deserved. The final tally marked a full 43 documentaries, nine image galleries, 12 commentary tracks, dozens of interactive maps, featurettes, original art, and anywhere from 30-50 minutes of additional footage added to each Extended Edition cut of the films.
That was 20 years ago, but the story of the making of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is still being told. On TikTok, sketches, memes, and viral audio clips reference content you would only find if you spent long hours pouring over every cast interview and armor schematic available on the Special Edition discs. Right down to “Do you wear wigs?” memes on your FYP. And as prolific creators of TolkienTok — that is, the Tolkien-loving TikTok community — tell Polygon, the audience’s relationship to the Extended Edition DVDs is changing the way the Tolkien fandom communicates.
Ultra-specific content delivery is, of course, TikTok working as intended. But in an ironic way that community-based targeting can sometimes be quite isolating. What appears to be trending audio may actually just be 20 videos that TikTok has hand-delivered to you and only you, pushing you ever deeper into the hole in the social media mountainside that’s just your size.
But “Lord of the Rings Watch Party Hotline,” a video by Don Marshall (aka “Obscure LotR Facts Guy”) is a bonafide Tiktok success, in and outside of TolkienTok. In it, Marshall acts as a kindly representative of a collect-call service that gives LOTR super-fans a safe place to spew fun facts about the films to him instead of their unsuspecting normie friends.
Marshall recalls originally writing the bit with a specific scene in mind: the classic “Did you know?” fun fact from The Two Towers, which includes actual footage of Viggo Mortensen breaking two toes after kicking a helmet in acting out Aragorn’s grief. Impulse to announce “Viggo actually broke his toes there” is well-memed within the fandom, to the point where Marshall actually re-wrote the original idea to make it not so specifically about Mortensen’s injury. This ultimately made the video much more shareable — some duets made with it have racked up views in the millions. With dozens upon dozens of enthusiasts quoting different film facts, the video became a collective nerd release valve in action.
“I think my family and I spent collectively more time watching the behind-the-scenes of those movies than any other medium of entertainment in the 2000s,” Marshall recalls. He notes that the Extended Editions in a way perfectly suit TikTok’s quick-bite-info/storytelling sensibilities: “So many people look at things like the costumes, and say ‘they’re so intricate,’ but half of the things you don’t even see.” You don’t need to be an existing fan to be interested in intimate details.
“The best thing I think about TikTok is how universal something can be, even if it is so specific.”
An infamous video of Dominic Monaghan pranking Elijah Wood during the press tour for The Return of the King is something of a niche joke among film fans, available only in a hidden button on the Extended DVD set. But when “Do you wear wigs?” was uploaded to TikTok for modern fans to enjoy, the audio morphed into a meme format, used generally as shorthand for “Do you ___?” “No I do not.” (Or just cosplayers showing off their wigs.) The results yielded 3000+ videos, with millions of views.
On TikTok, communities are built with engagement, not just views. User Knewbettadobetta, a Tolkien mega-fan, joined TikTok just as something to do, and was surprised that he couldn’t find many Lord of the Rings creators at first. It took creating his own Tolkien content to teach the algorithm to take him to TolkienTok: “I was looking for [Tolkien fans], and it didn’t put me on to the algorithm; but once I started talking about it, and people started talking about it to me, and they were sharing my stuff with the people in TolkienTok, then boom, I got locked in.”
Knewbettadobetta’s TikTok draws significantly on book lore, and he sees his content as a gateway for film fans to come into the fold of the Tolkien fandom. He specifically recalls how even the smallest bits of Extended Edition content can reveal a creator’s devotion to being book-accurate, including minute moments found only if you have the subtitles on.
In September, TikTok user @Cavatica discovered something interesting watching The Fellowship of the Ring with the subtitles on: “They’re going over Caradhras, and you see Saruman reciting spells to create the storm, and Gandalf is trying to counter the spell. [The subtitles say that] Gandalf is speaking Sindarin, and you see Saruman is speaking Quenya.” Knewbettadobetta wasted no time in duetting with his own theories. “That’s huge — they don’t say they’re just *speaking Elvish*….Saruman is high and snooty and is trying to speak the language of the more powerful elves, while Gandalf is more the everyman, speaking the language of the people. Stuff like that is amazing.”
The way the Tolkien fandom consumes content goes hand in hand with the way the fandom itself has changed over the years, and some TolkienTok creators that become popular by helping other fans see themselves in the work. WizardWayKris, who uses she and they pronouns, is a TolkienTok creator focusing mainly on Elves and Elvish language. To them, Extended Edition content bolsters their devotion to the language and lore of Tolkien, as well as giving her the opportunity to create moments of inclusivity.
“Art is created by those who consume it; we as the consumers bring our own lens. When we experience fandom and canon, we pull things out that may not have been important to other people,” WizardWayKris told Polygon, noting in particular a scene from the Fellowship Extended Edition commentaries. Sir Ian McKellan relates the story of how he emphasized to Elijah Wood and Sean Astin that Tolkien’s inclusion of Sam holding Frodo’s hand while bedridden was very important to certain gay readers, and that it was vital to make sure that moment was seen onscreen. As a nonbinary trans creator, WizardWayKris says that “me even existing as a creator in this space helps open it up to those people who would say ‘this is all just subtext, no one is actually saying these things’.” To many, subtext is increasingly text in the modern Tolkien fandom.
An element of Extended Edition TikTok that can’t be ignored is the myriad of videos that are just ripped uploads of the documentaries themselves. And while it may not be in keeping with the standards of copyright law, it can’t be ignored that for many young, non-DVD-player owning fans, TikTok may be the only place they would ever see this content.
While the Extended Editions are considered to be gospel among fans, the passage of physical media has been a death knell for the bonus feature industry. The all-access pass viewers had to the creation of the modern blockbuster seemed doomed to become a fond memory. Unless Weta Workshops or Peter Jackson do a streaming cash-in, the Extended Editions could well be a victim of the oncoming digital archiving crisis.
For his part, Don Marshall told Polygon he intends to launch a Snyderverse-style grassroots push to get an even longer version of the Extended Editions released. Whether this sub-sub-section of TikTok will grow or just continue as a hyper-specific personal internet blip remains to be seen.
But either way, TolkienTok gives users a validating feeling that only the best kind of nerd spaces provide — that the knowledge that is important to you, no matter how niche, is valuable and relatable to someone. And thanks to TikTok, it may be easier to find that someone than ever.