Peter Jackson’s first Lord of the Rings film was a stunning achievement but it introduced a new world of delayed and extended gratification

When I first saw The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring with my dad at a Johannesburg mall multiplex one afternoon in that idle dead zone between Christmas and New Year, not everyone in the audience was left as rapt as they might now claim to have been. “That’s it?” asked a bewildered punter in front of us, to nobody and everybody in general, as the credits rolled to the droning vocal windchimes of Enya. “That’s really the end?” He and his partner skulked out of the cinema before anyone could reassure them more was on the way. I assume they got the memo eventually.

Even for those of us forewarned of Peter Jackson’s bold three-film adaptation strategy, however, the limbo in which the first instalment left us was disorienting and exhilarating, like being woken abruptly from a still-escalating dream. Twenty years on, to a Generation Marvel audience, that shock might be hard to understand. A vast amount of blockbusters these days are but chapters in a larger narrative; their fans are less preoccupied with endings than with closing-credit teases and hints for whatever’s coming next. By 2001, we were fully accustomed to ubiquitous sequels, of course, though they largely feigned completeness in themselves each time; the promise of future extensions and rehashes was left tacit, a sort of silent gentleman’s agreement between studios and paying viewers.

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