A funny thing happened on Frodo's journey to destroy the evil ring of Sauron in Mount Doom: He picked up a horde of adoring women -- of all ages.
Despite its predominance of warriors, kings and bearded wizards, the fantasy fan realm of "Lord of the Rings" is not just a man's world. Females young and old are crowding multiplexes and the online communities in surprisingly large numbers.
The long journey of the hobbit and his eight companions in "Lord of the Rings" has always had a large audience, beginning with J.R.R. Tolkien's novel, ranked as the "Book of the Millennium" by an Amazon.com poll and a bestseller since its first publication in the U.S. in 1963.
When 100,000 fans packed the streets of Wellington, New Zealand, for the December premiere of "Return of the King" -- the third installment of Peter Jackson's film adaptation -- it wasn't so hard to believe the first two films had already grossed $1.8 billion worldwide. "Return of the King" (which received 11 Oscar nominations last week), took in more than $840 million in its first six weeks of release.
What surprises many, including New Line Cinema, the studio behind the films, is that many ardent "Rings" fans are women.
Females "have definitely been the growth business of the movie," says Russell Schwartz, New Line's president of domestic marketing. "The audience for each movie has grown, and a large portion of that has been female, both younger and older."
Schwartz says the percentage of the audience that is female has gone from 42% for "Fellowship of the Ring" to 50% for "King." Fantasy movies have traditionally had a male-dominated audience. Their emphasis on warfare, monsters, muscle-bound heroes and scantily clad damsels in distress have left female viewers largely ignoring movies like "Conan the Barbarian," "Willow" and even "Star Wars" and looking elsewhere for stories to capture their imagination.
"Rings' " mostly male cast and its world on the brink of war make it seem, at first glance, to be another movie better left to the boys. But females of all ages are joining the males in returning to theaters to watch the movies multiple times.
"We've found on "Return of the King" that females are bigger repeaters than males," Schwartz says. Exit polls conducted by New Line three weeks after "Kings' " release showed that 56% of women under 25 had seen the movie at least once and 6% had seen it at least four times. By comparison, 54% of males under 25 had seen the it once and 4% had seen it four times or more.
Carlene Cordova, director of the coming documentary "Ringers: Lord of the Fans," has spoken to hundreds of "Rings" fans over the past few years and confidently estimates that fully half of the audience is female.
"People used to give me a hard time when I read the books as a kid," Cordova says. "They said, 'Those are guy books.' Then the movies came out and they're filled with all these hunky men with swords. Women fall in love with these men and the strength of the relationships between them."
The most famous template for science fiction or fantasy fandom is the "Star Trek" fan, or "Trekkie." Although the name conjures up images of socially awkward teenage males with hygiene problems and an obsessive nature, "Lord of the Rings" is showing women can be just as obsessed over a movie. Cordova remembers an American woman she encountered at the "Return of the King" premiere in Wellington, who had mortgaged her house in the U.S. to travel to New Zealand.
"There are some people who are a little unhinged," she says. "But there's something goofy and nice about it that I haven't encountered in other sci-fi fan cultures." "Rings" fans "aren't scary."
At "The Gathering," a three-day "Rings" convention held in Toronto in December, two-thirds of the 1,500 tickets were sold to women. Attendees were not as interested in the guy-themed merchandise such as action figures and war games as they were in making new friends and bonding.
Though it may seem that the burgeoning female fandom is based on sex appeal, many women deny their attraction is based solely on the good looks of stars Orlando Bloom, Viggo Mortensen and Elijah Wood.
"Most female fans don't want to bed Aragorn [Mortensen's character], they want to be Aragorn," says Coralie Davies, who runs a fan fiction archive on the website Tolkien Online. Davies says that 85% of the stories submitted to the site are written by females.
"A lot of them are middle-aged women," she says. "A lot of housewives who have gone through some personal crisis or illness."
Gloria Atwater, 41, a former wilderness outfitter from outside Reno, was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly before "Fellowship" came out in 2001. After her mastectomy she retreated onto the Internet while recovering.
"I was housebound and my head was in complete chaos," she says. "I was hiding out from friends. I didn't want them feeling sorry for me."
She got involved with a group of women on the official "Lord of the Rings" message boards on Netscape. When the women broke away to form their own group, known as the Burping Troll, Atwater went with them.
"When I felt the bottom dropping out from under me, I had this network of friends in place," she says. She started off role-playing online as a made-up character from Tolkien's world, trying to forget her medical problems, but soon the women began seriously writing their own fantasy fiction, inspired by the movies to do so.
"There was so much intellect and creativity swimming around" in the group, Atwater says. "I thought, 'I can do this. I can crawl out of my little hole.' "
Last month, 23 members of the group including Atwater and Davies got together in Denver for a four-day "moot" (named after the meeting of the tree-like Ents in Tolkien's books). The women brought their families and watched the "Rings" films on DVD and in the theater. "Mostly there was a lot of visiting and talking," Atwater says.
Davies says the books' and movies' themes of hope, self-sacrifice and relationships built on intimacy are familiar with many women who have put aside their personal goals to raise a family. Even women in their 60s and 70s are inspired by "Rings" to do something creative in what Davies calls the "Lord of the Rings Effect": Women who have seen the movies or read the books suddenly become inspired to create fantasy-related art of their own.
"The most popular type of story, which I see a lot, is what I call '10th Walker,' " Davies says. "I get all these girls who want to be the 10th member of [Frodo's] fellowship. In the books and the films, there are no damsels in distress."
Typical of these female fans is Bridget Lynch, a 17-year-old high school student from New York City. Since being introduced to the first film by a friend a little over a year ago, she's seen "Fellowship of the Ring" more than 50 times, "The Two Towers" a few dozen times and "Return of the King" three times in the theaters.
She's also read several of Tolkien's books and writes fantasy-themed stories and poetry of her own.
"After I read the books, I had an actual vocabulary," she says.
That creative impulse hasn't been limited to women. Men like Joe Andersen of Chandler, Ariz., have also been inspired to create after seeing the films. Andersen, a 27-year-old civil engineer, paints Tolkien-influenced fantasy landscapes and is writing his own fantasy novel. But most impressively, he is almost finished with a near replica of Bilbo Baggins' hobbit hole -- as seen in "Fellowship of the Ring" -- in the backyard of his house.
The project, which he plans to use as a playhouse for his children, has taken him nearly two years to complete, mostly working by himself, and he's watched the films countless times to get the details right.
"I hope it gives people the courage to go after their dreams," he says.
The "Rings' " appeal has not been limited to the English-speaking world. The movies' ability to attract such a wide and diverse range of people from cultures worldwide has drawn the attention of academics like Professor Martin Barker of the University of Wales in Aberstwyth, U.K.
Barker is using 30 research groups in 22 countries (including three in the U.S.) to conduct "the biggest piece of research ever undertaken into film audiences." He predicts more than 100,000 responses to a questionnaire designed to probe the exact nature of fans' relationship with "Rings" by asking questions such as "Where is Middle-earth in your imagination?"
Inspired by a picture he received via e-mail that showed President Bush signing a document while wearing the ring of power and labeled "Frodo Has Failed," Barker thinks the films' popularity could reflect the political nature of the times.
"I suspect that films like 'Lord of the Rings' are a way in which people in very, very different contexts feel that they're taking part in a global event," he says. "We're going to have to look at our evidence very closely to see if that's borne out in any significant way, but I think it suggests that film has a really important role as a resource for people to imagine the whole world. Mordor and Sauron represent the biggest danger in the world for you." For Andersen, the parallels between Tolkien's world and our own are part of the appeal.
"The great thing about the hobbits is their simple and unadorned life. Sam is my favorite character. He's just a gardener. It appeals to the everyday person."