Screen test

by Ted on July 7, 2004

My fiancee recently finished Helen Hanff’s charming memoir, Underfoot in Show Business, about her failed attempt to break into the New York playwright scene in the 40s and 50s.

At one point, Hanff is employed by a movie studio (which she gives the pseudonym “Monograph”) as a reader. Monograph would give her new novels. She would read them very quickly, write a summary of the story, and offer her opinion about whether the studio should option the book or not. I had to laugh when she read this story to me:

On the blackest Friday I ever want to see, I was summoned to Monograph and handed three outsized paperback volumes of an English book which was about to be published here. I was to read all three volumes over the weekend, and since each volume was double the length of the usual novel I was invited to charge double money for each…

What I had to read, during that nightmare weekend- taking notes on all place names, characters’ names, and events therein- was fifteen hundred stupefying pages of the sticky mythology of J. R. R. Tolkein. (I hope I’m spelling his name wrong.) I remember opening one volume to a first line which read:

Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday…

and phoning several friends to say goodbye because suicide seemed so obviously preferable to five hundred more pages of that.

I also remember the bill I turned in:

For reading and summarizing
TITLE: Lord of the Rings
AUTHOR: J. R. R. Tolkein

Volume I…………….. $20
Volume II……………. $20
Volume III…………… $20
Mental Torture………. $40

Total…………………… $100

Whew! Monograph sure dodged a bullet on that one!



Carlos 07.07.04 at 10:52 pm

I’ve been binging on popular American novels of the 1920s and ’30s that have kinda sorta stood the test of time. Tolkien looks very strange from that perspective. No class issues, no sex, twee as fsck, and firmly in the grip of Thanatos. And the poor man never smelled a horse.


burritoboy 07.07.04 at 11:12 pm

There’s no good reason to think a Hobbit/LOTR movie would have been other than a complete flop before, say, 1968. The books just weren’t that popular before then (the hippie generation popularized the books). I think an audience c.1950 would have been looking at the screen and wondering WTH these weird munchkins are babbling about (ring? fake-olio ancient names? huh?). It took a long time before any OZ movies came out.


Ted Barlow 07.07.04 at 11:18 pm

My fiancee made a similar point, saying that special effects in the 50s were at such a state as to make the movie impossible.

Maybe. I just thought it was funny.


a lesser mongbat 07.08.04 at 12:10 am



Carlos 07.08.04 at 12:38 am

Twee? Bombadil, the F/S interactions, “eleventy-first” and in fact the whole Shire business. Where’s the Life Force? Where’s the lusty country farmer exemplifying the eternal verities of obscenity trials? My goodness, Sam doesn’t even poach. He eavesdrops a bit, that’s all.

And even considered as a quasi-historical novel, by the standards of that time, it lacks the sweeping romantic grandeur a reader expected. The descriptions are sparse, the characterizations spare, and the books rely on an understanding of textual clues of the sort that only detective novels of the time really bothered with. This may be a key to why Auden appreciated it so early.


bob mcmanus 07.08.04 at 1:14 am

what carlos said. I think not enough people look at LOTR as the weird piece of modernism it is, and too many attribute what they dislike about Tolkien to a lack of competence rather than an obscure intent.


Ken 07.08.04 at 6:21 pm

What a sweet life she must have had for that to be the blackest Friday she ever wanted to see. How enviable.

One of the entertainments of the films coming out was seeing all the public statements by Tolkein haters in the press. So many flags being waved to say “people like us don’t like things like that”. Is Ted’s post more of the same?


Carlos 07.09.04 at 3:09 pm

Dunno about Ted, but it’s kinda entertaining for me to see an anti-anti-Tolkien commenter misspell his name.


Dan McEnroe 07.09.04 at 10:18 pm

Yes! Twee! Abso-freakin’-lu-twee!

It actually took the movies to get me to like the books, because the story was liberated from JRRT’s prose. I read just about everything, but something about Tolkien’s prose always grated on me. My friends say it’s not as bad in the 2nd & 3rd books, but I threw in the towel after book 1.


Gary Farber 07.10.04 at 4:18 am

Two things going on here. a)yes, of course special effects weren’t up to LOTR before now, and it’s good that no one tried; b) a vast number of folks who despised fantasy — and I love Hanff’s two published books, and was a trivial editorial worker on republishing both back in the Eighties — never got fantasy, found it incomprehensible, and that’s their loss and shame and dreadfully smallmindednes.

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