January 28, 2015

An unexpected journey: Offhand comment inspires prankster philanthropy


Professor John Kessel of the CHASS Department of English

Some of the most creative fundraising starts with an offhand remark, perhaps even a sarcastic jab, followed by a classic light bulb moment.

For example, one person - for the sake of argument, let's say he's a distinguished professor at NC State - might comment via social media that he considers ecstatic anticipation about The Hobbit : An Unexpected Journey so off-putting that "nobody could pay me enough money to see that movie." Bemused friends joke that the challenge should be posted on eBay or Kickstarter.

That's when things clicked for Sam Montgomery-Blinn, who quickly organized an online drive on Bull Spec, a Raleigh-based magazine of speculative fiction. He persuaded his friend, Professor John Kessel, winner of a Nebula Award for science fiction/fantasy writing and a member of the CHASS Department of English, to turn the joke into a serious fundraiser.

If people really are willing to donate to one of his favorite charities just to see him suffer through a big-screen spectacle, Kessel thought, so be it.

"Basically, we indicted him with his own words," jokes Montgomery-Blinn, who, with Kessel's blessing, posted an amusing menu of funding options.  All proceeds will benefit the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America Emergency Medical Fund (SFWA).

"I've taught The Hobbit many times in my fantasy class, but I'm thinking the movie probably isn't very good," Kessel says of the project's genesis. "I'm kind of a curmudgeon about some things and people are aware of that, but I also have a sense of humor and a commitment to help out when I can."

Kessel says he chose SFWA because "a lot of freelance writers can't get medical insurance because they're self-employed. This fund helps people who need medical care."

While such one-off fundraisers typically do not cultivate a community of givers, this type of "prankster philanthropy" could develop into a meaningful giving model, says Iavor Ivanov, vice president of digital at Fenton, a public interest communications firm.

"He's concocted the perfect guerilla operation," Ivanov says with a laugh. "The connection between what he's doing and how it links back to an issue that's important to him is fabulous. Hopefully that will connect with the people who are giving and they'll continue to support the cause."

While a you-can't-pay-me-enough campaign may not be a good fit for the sober efforts of a major organization, Ivanov says it is a good way to engage young givers.

"Think about the student who gave $5 just to be part of it," he says. "The thing we see across clients and campaigns is that people are more likely to engage with something if it's fun, instead of a house-is-burning situation. It could be the start of something bigger."

While most pledges were under $25, all givers enjoyed benefits that increased dramatically as the cumulative total grew. By Tuesday afternoon, just hours before the campaign concluded, 64 donors had given a total of $1,410. That guaranteed Kessel not only would see The Hobbit dressed as the wizened Gandalf, but also write a 500-word essay about the film and consume a calorie-bomb Hobbit-themed burger at a chain restaurant.

Montgomery-Blinn says that a last-minute anonymous gift lifted the project to its $2,500 goal. Kessel ultimately thanked supporters with the grand prize of him dressing as Galadriel, the luminous elf and ring protector portrayed by Cate Blanchett.

"I've never dressed in drag in my life so I can't imagine what it will be like when we walk into the theater," muses Kessel, promising that photos will be posted to his Facebook page, where he left this message after finding the perfect costume:

I need to thank all of the people who pledged to the SFWA Emergency Medical Fund in order to make this humiliation possible. You have done some real good for a worthy cause, and you should be proud of yourselves when you are not feeling ashamed for putting me through this. There will be photos and videos, I am told, and I must say with all due modesty that I am stunning in white.

The good-humored project has generated many playful comments online. "I'll live-tweet the whole thing," offered one supporter.  "Kudos to JK for being such a good sport," wrote another.

Another friend expressed appreciation for the clever marketing of the fundraiser: "If every charity offered such enticements, we'd have the world's problems licked by the time (Director Peter) Jackson finished the third film."  

"I guess," Kessel himself wrote, "I ought to start shaving my legs."

Comment on this article


it is so wonderful and strange to have a crazy thought like this that if people really are willing to donate to one of his favorite charities just to see him suffer through a big-screen spectacle,so be it. Thank you for sharing.

Thanks for sharing wonderful blogs.

What did John think of the movie once he saw it?

Here's the review that I wrote:

The Hobbit
Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro

Since I got myself into this by making that rude remark about how nobody could pay me enough to go see “The Hobbit” I figure I ought to start by explaining why I said that. That requires some history.
I grew up loving science fiction and reading it from the moment I could read. I can’t remember even what first got me interested in sf—it was almost as if I came out of the womb programmed to love it. I liked fantasy, too, but there wasn’t much of it around back then, believe it or not. I liked Fritz Leiber’s fantasy stories, and Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt’s Harold Shea stories, and older writers like Thorne Smith and John Collier. Tolkien became popular when I was in college, but somehow I managed to avoid reading The Lord of the Rings, maybe because everyone else was reading it and putting up posters in their dorm rooms and naming their dogs Frodo and Gandalf.
I didn’t read the trilogy and The Hobbit until I was more than 30 years old. They never enraptured me, and the kind of secondary world quasi-Medieval quest fantasy that followed did not appeal to me. I think the reason is that I feel that fantasy is essentially conservative (the golden age is in the past) and science fiction is progressive (the golden age is in the future) and I am essentially a progressive. There were no space ships or antibiotics in Tolkien. I appreciated Tolkien’s originality and his depth of imagination. I was impressed by how much he drew on Anglo Saxon and other sources—his vast erudition was much more than I could aspire to. But his temperament is different from mine.
That said, you can’t teach a course in Fantasy without engaging with Tolkien, and I’ve taught The Hobbit at least a dozen times over the last thirty years. So I know the story pretty well, and have grown to like it. The idea of a movie made from it does not offend me. But when I heard Peter Jackson intended to make three movies from the book, my instinct was that it does not demand three movies, and won’t support three movies--unless you are a huge fan of Tolkien. Plus, The Hobbit was written for kids, not adults as the Ring trilogy was. The book’s first reviewer was the ten-year-old son of the publisher who was considering buying it.
So, that’s where I was coming from when I sat down to watch the movie in my Galadriel costume, and you can take what I have to say from this point on accordingly.
Basically I think the movie is an entertaining, relatively faithful adaptation. Most places where it departs from Tolkien are explicable to me. The extended Radagast sequence, though it seemed very twee to me and not necessary to the story, was I guess brought in from other Tolkien writings. We get Galadriel, we get Saruman, we get lots of things that tie this story to the trilogy in ways that the novel does not. Jackson does some heavy lifting in changing the tone of the novel from that of a children’s book, with a sometimes-jokey intrusive narrator, into something closer to the epic dimensions of the ring trilogy.
For example, the encounter with the three trolls, Bilbo’s first challenge on the journey, is completely reimagined from the book. I suspect this was because the way the dwarves in the book get themselves captured—one by one they just march into the trolls’ campsite, all thirteen of them—is too idiotic to translate into the movie. In the novel the dwarves act like idiots, the trolls act like idiots, Bilbo acts like an idiot, and so even does Thorin. The entire episode is like a fairy tale, in the sense that the characters are childlike, their reasoning that of six year olds. Jackson keeps much low humor, but even so he tries to make the scene play a little more plausibly.
The chase sequences in the movie are extended and elaborated and intensified. I think they are there for the “thrill ride” element that fantasy movies seem to need; they are like video games with their compounding of hair’s breath escapes, wooden bridges collapsing over chasms, acrobatic swordfights, noise and furious action. These are artifacts of contemporary moviemaking more than representations of anything Tolkien wrote. I found the longer they went, and the fact that they follow one another with only brief respite between them, tedious. I think I’m a bit of a Grinch for not getting into the spirit of this more.
My favorite sequence was the encounter between Bilbo and Gollum. This was more a psychological conflict than a physical one, with not all the right on one side. I thought the movie handled the moment when Bilbo is tempted to kill Gollum but then refrains, a moment that ultimately leads to the salvation of Middle Earth, very well.
But though I can understand the reasoning behind most of these changes, I do not understand some others. For instance, in the novel, Bilbo finds the ring while crawling down a tunnel in complete darkness. His groping hand “accidentally” falls upon it. He does not know where it came from and gives it no thought as he “automatically” puts it into his pocket. Only later does Bilbo figure out that the ring is Gollum’s “precious” lost sometime earlier. This points out the power of the ring to mold events around it, adding an element of fate or psychological control that becomes terribly important in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien went back into the Hobbit to rewrite this very chapter in order to prepare just such details as this to set up his trilogy.
In the movie, Jackson chooses to have Bilbo see the ring fall out of Gollum’s “pocket” and picks it up immediately. This seems to me a terribly wrong decision, and I am at a loss to understand why the film does this.
Then in the riddle contest, inexplicably, Jackson chooses to throw away one of Tolkien’s moments of tension, when Gollum asks Bilbo the riddle about, “This thing all things devours…” Bilbo can’t think of the answer. He mutters to himself “Give me more time!” but all that Gollum hears him say is the word “time,” which is of coourse the answer to the riddle; so once again Bilbo is saved by happenstance (or fate). In the movie, Gollum simply gives away the answer by saying the word “time” himself. Tolkien’s handling of this situation is much stronger, and again I am at a loss as to why Jackson and his co-scriptwriters change it.
Finally, at the end, when the dwarves are trapped in the trees, Jackson has Bilbo leap down to aid Thorin in his battle with the chief Orc (a battle that is not in the novel). This is completely out of character with Bilbo’s stage of evolution in the novel. The novel sets a careful sequence of challenges to Bilbo’s courage and prowess: the trolls, the encounter with Gollum, the fight against the spiders, countering the wood-Elves, his contest against Smaug, and finally his decision of what to do with the Arkenstone. It is a strict growth, from abject failure (the trolls), though physical courage, to a battle of wits, and finally to moral courage. Having Bilbo leap into heroic action this early in the story is completely against this emotional development Tolkien so carefully orchestrates. Basically, it’s too soon for him to take up a physical heroic challenge like this.
I think I know why Jackson chose to do this—to give the movie a satisfactory uplifting ending, with Thorin admitting that he was wrong about Bilbo and embracing him—an act that does not come in the book until much later. But I think this is exactly the sort of problem that inflating the book into three long movies causes. I appreciate why Jackson did it, but it also feels disappointing to me.
On the other hand, adaptations of novels are not the novels themselves, and absolute faithfulness in a motion picture to the source material is not an absolute virtue. So go to the movie realizing that what you are getting is a movie, not the book.
So that’s my conclusion: Jackson’s movie of The Hobbit is not the book. Duh. Whether you like it depends on whether the things it does well make up for those things that are lost. In my case, I just wish it were less overblown, and offered a few less thrills. How’s that for a perverse opinion?
One last thing: I went into the movie with a little joke prepared for this review. I was ready to complain about something that I was sure Jackson would leave out, but to my amazement, he kept it—Gandalf’s reference to the Old Took’s great-grand-uncle Bullroarer, who in the battle of the Green Fields, knocked off the goblin king Golfimbul’s head sending it a hundred yards into a rabbit hole, thereby inventing the game of golf. This is a joke so out of keeping with the tone and history of Middle Earth as Tolkien was to develop them that I was astonished it was kept in. But this leaves the delightful fact that somewhere in Middle Earth there are golf courses.
Imagine Aragorn on the links discussing sand wedge technique with Gimli. Now that I would like to see.

--Your faithful correspondent, J.J. “Doc” Kessel

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