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The Hobbit Research Project: An Interview with Ernest Mathijs


Peter Jackson’s cinematic interpretations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings made millions at the box office worldwide. Tolkien fans stretch across the gl0be, but have you ever wondered what other cultures thought about the films?

Recently, I contacted Ernest Mathijs to discuss the cross-cultural film critique called the Hobbit Research Project. Mathijs is a professor of Film Studies at the University of British Columbia. He, along with Martin Barker and Matt Hills, coordinated the Research Project, which features research from 146 scholars in 45 countries. This allowed them to develop – in full collaboration – a thorough questionnaire that was then translated into 35 languages – the goal was to make sure that as many diverse voices on The Hobbit (and on Tolkien, the Lord of the Rings, and on fantasy at large) could be heard and included.

Summarize what the Hobbit Research Project is all about.

The project was set up in 2013 to plan a comprehensive study of the audience reception of fantasy today, to assess its value and meaning in the 21st Century. The background was that we felt that there was a change occurring in the status of fantasy – it was becoming more serious, taken more serious, less easily dismissed as a ‘childish’ form of entertainment. At the same time, Hollywood’s eagerness to now make fantasy adaptations was seen as a possible dilution of the power of the imagination that fantasy so prominently sparked. Was there not a danger that Hollywood was colonizing the world’s imagination? We chose The Hobbit (in particular the last installment of the trilogy) as a case study

To date the project has collected 32,000 responses. I believe this makes it the largest movie audience study ever undertaken. We had about 24,000 responses with the LOTR project. Together, this means a unique opportunity is arising that allows a cross-decade truly global and cross-cultural comparison of fantasy cinema reception.

Why did you choose the Jackson films instead of another fantasy franchise?

Four key reasons: (1) it allowed the project to be comparative to the Lord of the Rings project conducted in 2003-4 – and it would therefore allow the biggest cross-cultural and cross-decade study of fantasy film;

(2) The Hobbit sits in the middle between youth and adult fantasy (maybe not the book, but the movies), so if we are to assess how fantasy is moving to become a ‘more serious’ genre (at least for Hollywood) this is the best case study;

(3) The Hobbit makes it a point to sell itself as a ‘digital film’ (with all the bells and whistles: 3d, 48fps, IMAX, and numerous blogs and blogs that prepared viewers for this). Since we wanted to study the visualization and imagery that cinema fantasy can offer, this was an excellent candidate;

(4) given the timing of the project The Hobbit was one film(trilogy) that has the global reach necessary to allow audiences from all over the world to connect with it. Not many other fantasy films have that reach, or that straddle across age groups. If the project had been started a few years earlier Avatar would have been a great candidate too; or Tintin (though less ‘fantasy’). But The Hobbit seemed the right candidate.


How did you get started?

The project started with the assembly of the research group (we started a Google Groups forum) and contacted colleagues we thought would be interested, and from there on the word spread and we got in touch with other colleagues – a snowball effect. Next to that, we sought funding for the website and database – since we knew this was going to be a big project we wanted to make sure the hardware and software capacity were available to capture responses. We received funding from the British Academy to assure this. The third initial step was to construct the list of questions we were going to ask respondents to answer. We insisted that our methodology would be collaborative. We organized a conference, in Antwerp (Belgium) where delegates from many of the participating regions met and over the course of two days debated rigorously the structure, wording, and format of the questions. It was one of the most exhilarating experiences to see such collaboration between colleagues – a bit like a fellowship.

You mentioned some books that discuss the reception of the films. Can you please provide those for our readers?

Mathijs, Ernest (ed) (2006), The Lord of the Rings: Popular Culture in Global Context, London: Wallflower Press.

Barker, Martin and Ernest Mathijs (eds) (2007). Watching The Lord of the Rings: Tolkien’s World Audiences. New York: Peter Lang.

Mathijs, Ernest and Murray Pomerance (eds) (2006). From Hobbits to Hollywood: Essays on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. New York/Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi.

The Hobbit Research Project is a cross-cultural study. What was it like to reach out to other cultures?

It is the single most exciting thing about the project. To hear directly the thoughts and profound reflections on Tolkien’s work and fantasy as a whole from people around the world is truly fantastic. Since fantasy – essentially – doesn’t exist (that is why it is fantasy), the difference and similarities that different cultures arrive at are fascinating. It means that humans are meaning-making and meaning-seeking machines. Whatever context life puts us in, in whatever regional, religious, social, economic linguistic, or ideological straightjackets, our relationship to fantasy allows us to imagine other worlds, other times, and, therefore, other contexts (regional, social, economic, religious, ideological, etc), and even though the interpretations may be different, there is still the shared power of imagination itself – to see this in action across cultures is simply incredible.


 What responses did you expect from the Project? Did the data reflect what you had hypothesized about the films?

It is too early, I think, to speculate on results. The survey is still running (and still collecting lots of responses), and it won’t be until the end of the fall before we have some solid results.

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