International study of Hobbit audiences launched

Professor Martin Barker (left) and Professor Matt Hills

Professor Martin Barker (left) and Professor Matt Hills

09 December 2014

The final film in the Hobbit trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies will go on general release in the UK on December Friday 12 2014.

On the same day, the most ambitious research project ever undertaken into film audiences will be launched by academics at Aberystwyth University.

The World Hobbit Project will see up to 140 researchers in 46 countries collaborating to seek responses to a survey designed to get inside all the meanings that fantasy has for people around the world.

The survey will be capturing responses in 33 different languages (including Welsh and Maori) and hopes to collect over 50,000 responses.

Amongst the questions asked will be:

  • Who loves, and who criticises the films?  What does each side see in them?
  • What difference does knowledge of the book make? 
  • How do people value Martin Freeman’s performance as Bilbo? 
  • Who takes part in online activities, and how do these affect responses? 
  • How are the films received in countries as diverse as Australia, South Africa, Japan, India, and Finland? 
  • When people think about their reactions to the story, what larger communities do they feel they are part of? 

The researchers will also link these questions with larger questions about the role that fantasy is playing in contemporary culture.

Professor Martin Barker, Emeritus Professor of Film and Television Studies at the Department of Theatre Film and Television Studies at Aberystwyth University is one of the study’s principal researchers.

In 2003 Professor Barker launched a major study into audience response to Lord of the Rings which saw researchers from 18 countries collect an unprecedented 25,000 responses from all round the world.

Professor Barker said; “Even without the overwhelming critical acclaim that greeted Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, the final film in the Hobbit trilogy is pretty much guaranteed box office success. But its success poses a series of important questions.

“Until around 2000, fantasy was widely dismissed by most critics as infantile, and regressive.  But a series of developments have led to a substantial shift in attitudes.  There was the phenomenal, and serious, success of Lord of the Rings films.  This period has seen the emergence of politically-committed fantasy writers like China Mieville – who in his turn curated a major critical discussion of the politics of fantasy.  Game of Thrones has become and remains essential viewing.

“It’s not difficult to think of many big probable causes for this shift.  Any sketch would surely include the following: the resurgent struggle between science and religion – which fantasy nicely sidesteps by addressing large imaginative topics without having to have particular beliefs; the growing capacity for people to live ‘virtual’ lives – playing with becoming other than their daily selves; steadily increasing global mobility, pushing us to think ourselves inside other cultural universes; the growing ability to create digital photorealistic images of ‘other worlds’; and – in so many ways – a steadily worsening cultural pessimism, with the world feeling darker, more dangerous and out of control.

“But big themes like this surely affect people differentially.  Not everyone is turned on equally by post-apocalyptic cinema, for instance – however well done it might be.  Young adult fiction certainly reaches above its target age group, but not to everyone.  So, if fantasy in some broad sense is the ‘coming genre’, what does it mean to different kinds of people?  If the ‘figure’ of the weak-minded fantasy-lover is on the decline, the truth still is that we know almost nothing about the pleasures and meanings of fantasy to actual audiences.”

Speaking of the Lord of the Rings project, Professor Barker said; “One of the most intriguing findings was the film was most loved and admired by those who experienced it as a ‘spiritual journey’ – that is, as a way of addressing very serious moral issues without having to worry about theological commitments.  People responding to the story in this way were able to manage an unusual mental act – having read the books and/or watched the films many times, they could strategically ‘forget’ what was going to happen, so as to relive the journey, its intensities and dangers, afresh.

“The favourite characters chosen by those who most loved the film tended to be those characters who themselves ‘went on a journey’ of self-discovery and change.  Chief among these was Pippin – small and foolish at the beginning, but forced to grow up and make hard choices by the third film.

“For many people, it was a really important part of their enjoyment that they knew these films were being watched and loved right round the world.  They felt connected to other fans of the films, and of the books.”

The World Hobbit Project has been made possible by a small grant from the British Academy and the principal researchers are Professor Martin Barker and Professor Matt Hills from Aberystwyth University, and Professor Ernest Mathijs from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

Professor Martin Barker
Martin Barker is Emeritus Professor at Aberystwyth University.  Across a 45-year research career, he has worked in many fields, but in the last twenty years he has particularly focused on studying film audiences, exploring the pleasures and meanings gained from films as varied as Judge Dredd, Crash, and Being John Malkovich.  Using research methods he pioneered, he has undertaken contract research for the British Board of Film Classification into audience responses to screened sexual violence.   In 2003 he directed the international project to study the reception of the films of The Lord of the Rings, gathering 25,000 responses in 14 languages. 

Professor Matt Hills
After completing his PhD at Sussex, Matt started work as a lecturer at the University of Central England before then moving to Cardiff University in 2000. He joined Aberystwyth University as Professor of Film & TV Studies in October 2012. Professor Hills’ research focuses on media audiences and fandom, Doctor Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, cult film and TV more generally, and digital culture.