There was a time not so long ago that reading, especially reading lengthy fantasy books, was largely the domain of social outcasts and “smart kids.” At most, you got a pass for your brains but were rarely considered one of the “cool” kids. (Go ahead, ask me how I know.) At worst, you were a social pariah and known as “the weird kid.”

But in 2001, something amazing happened: being a lit nerd became cool. Thanks to two movie adaptations that hit the big screen that year, books and reading came back into style in a big way. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone debuted on November 16, 2001 and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring came along a month after on December 19th. Suddenly, being made fun of for always having your nose in a fantasy book became a thing of the past. Instead, being a bookworm was not only accepted, but the new hotness.

Plenty of people believe that geek culture exploded with the arrival of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and they’d not exactly be wrong. But seven years before Tony Stark ever banged out his first Iron Man suit in a cave, the worlds of Hogwarts and Mordor, Diagon Alley and the Shire were paving the way for nerd culture to go mainstream.

Recent controversies aside, J.K. Rowling gets credit for getting an entire generation of kids to read again. The first book was published in 1997, four years before the movie adaptation hit screens. By the time the movie hit screens, the first four books in the series had been published, and already, there was a shift in the way kids read – mostly that they were reading at all. By the time the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, was released in 2000, even adults were starting to take notice. Harry Potter was becoming not just a niche book series a few kids were reading, but a genuine cultural phenomenon.

And then Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone hit theaters in 2001 and almost overnight, Harry Potter went from a successful kids’ book series to a cultural phenomenon in the literary world to a global movement. The first movie grossed $974,755,371 worldwide, the equivalent of $1,419,711,923 today. Not adjusting for inflation, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone became the then-4th highest-grossing movie of all time after its release. To that point, only three movies had ever earned more at the box office outright: Jurassic Park, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, and Titanic. Today, we take billion-dollar movies for granted, but that was a massive box office number for any movie in 2001, and absolutely unheard of for what was essentially a kids’ movie based on a book. While the books had been popular before, the movies vaulted book sales into uncharted territory as more people became curious to read the source material.

A month later, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring grossed $883,726,270 upon release – $1,287,129,837 today. While its box office haul wasn’t as much as The Sorcerer’s Stone, what it accomplished was arguably even more impressive. For one, Fellowship of the Ring lacked the boost of a rabid audience of kids powering its box office. Second, Sorcerer’s Stone had the advantage of riding the wave of momentum generated by the Harry Potter books, which were hugely successful. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings had sold 100 million copies in almost half a century before the movie’s release and had seen a few TV specials and animated adaptations.

But tastes and trends wax and wane, and by the time of Fellowship of the Ring‘s release in 2001, The Lord of the Rings was a niche series. Today, book series involving elves and dwarves abound, tabletop games and Dungeons & Dragons are more popular than ever before, Lord of the Rings cosplay is a common sight at conventions. But back then, it was the antithesis of popular. Peter Jackson spending a staggering budget of $93 million to shoot all three movies concurrently for a high fantasy series, a genre that hadn’t been widely popular in movies since the ’80s and arguably never popular for adults. To say it was a risky venture was an understatement.

The risk paid off, not only for Jackson and New Line Cinema, but also for Tolkien’s estate. After the release of Fellowship of the Rings, sales of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work skyrocketed thanks to the movie sparking a renewed interest in the books. Thanks largely to the movies, The Lord of the Rings is the 4th best-selling novel of all time, with one-third of its estimated 150 million copies sold coming in the year after the release of the first movie.

It’s not an overexaggeration to say Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring shaped an entire generation’s idea of what was popular. An entire generation of kids grew up with reading being a normal hobby that everyone did, especially if they wanted to be part of the conversation everyone was having. And, including Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in 1999, they grew up with medium-spanning mega-franchises as the norm, IP franchises that included books, movies, TV shows, video games, comic books, amusement parks, tourist destinations, toys and merchandise.

Today, geek culture is pop culture; for better or worse, they’re interchangeable. It’s hard for many of us to remember a time in which it wasn’t. Thanks to 2001’s one-two punch of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, bookworms everywhere are now able to proudly let their fantasy freak flag fly.

If you never got the chance to see them when they were in theaters, now’s your chance. Movies from the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises are coming to select theaters for a limited time.

Check your local theater to see what’s playing in your area.

  • Editorial