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Firsts: The epic, decades-long journey to get The Lord of the Rings to the screen

Contributed by
Jan 2, 2018

The journey that The Lord of the Rings took to get to movie screens is almost as epic as the journey that the book's characters take themselves, with adaptations being planned and then falling apart multiple times throughout the years.

Film versions of the tale were considered almost as soon as J.R.R. Tolkien's masterpiece hit the shelves, and though the final volume in the trilogy was published in 1955, the full story wouldn't truly appear on cinema screens until 2001. The road of adaptation truly went ever, ever on, and there were plenty of twists and turns involved that are worthy of Tolkien himself.

It's time to travel the path laid out by the fellowship that came before us, both in terms of the epic book itself, as well as the multiple versions that we came close to getting over the years. Some of these attempts actually saw the light of day. Some were almost too bizarre for words, and others would eventually become some of the most cherished films of the modern age. Don't wait for Gandalf any longer — pocket the ring, grab your pack, and let's head off down the hill toward adventure.

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1937 - THE UNEXPECTED EPIC

Written in fits and starts between 1937 and 1949, The Lord of the Rings had an unexpected journey coming into the world. Beginning as a simple sequel to his 1937 smash hit The Hobbit, it soon spiraled out of Tolkien's control and became much bigger (and longer) than he had ever intended. Readers of what is now known as the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, may see evidence of this, as the book (this is said with great love) meanders its way along, and takes plenty of time doing so.

Series mainstays like Strider/Aragorn began life as "Trotter" in the early stages, and he was not a man at all — he was a Hobbit with wooden feet. This would eventually be changed, but it wasn't until Tolkien got to Balin's Tomb in Moria that he truly hit a wall, having no idea how to proceed.

The legendary author decided to take some time to figure out what his story was actually going to be. Using that time he figured out an endgame, and proceeded past Moria in a more focused manner. Three-chapter sequences dealing with characters like Tom Bombadil were a thing of the past, and toward the end of the trilogy what once would take an entire chapter Tolkien does with one line. When the epic was complete, he turned the entire thing over to his editors as one giant tome.

Significantly larger in both volume and sophistication than The Hobbit, Tolkien's publishers were still game to publish it, but they insisted that it be broken up into three volumes. Tolkien's preferred titles were used for the first two —The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, respectively — but his title for the third volume was changed. Tolkien's title of The War of the Ring was rejected in favor of The Return of the King, a title that Tolkien never liked ... not least because he thought that it ruined the ending of the book.

Released in these three parts in 1954 and 1955, the books took the world by storm, and naturally filmmakers began to clamor for a piece of them. How would they do it? How would they take what would eventually become known as an "unfilmable" book and do it any kind of justice? It seems like any and all approaches were considered.

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A Midsummer Night's Dream by Arthur Rackham

1957 - THE ACKERMAN PROPOSAL

The first real proposal put to Tolkien was from a team of artists led by Forrest J. Ackerman himself in 1957. Tolkien had no interest in an animated version of his books, and in fact was firmly against it. This proved suitable for Ackerman, however, as his proposed film would have used a blend of animation, live action, and miniature work. This was good enough for Tolkien, who liked that the concept art (based on the work of Arthur Rackham, seen above) was not at all similar to that of Walt Disney, which was a style he despised.

The film would have had a run time of three hours, with two intermissions. Despite liking the artwork, Tolkien ultimately passed on the proposal due to things he objected to in the script. Lothlorien was an issue, as Tolkien greatly disliked the overt "fairy tale" approach to the elven kingdom. He was also averse to the script's use of sorcery, referring to it as "irrelevant magic." Probably the biggest sticking point was a major change that saw the noble Sam Gamgee leave Frodo to die with Shelob before pocketing the ring and heading off to Mount Doom himself. In this version Sam could carry the ring, but had no interest in carrying Frodo. Best to just leave him to Shelob.

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1969 - KUBRICK AND THE BEATLES

Tolkien sold the film rights to United Artists in 1969, and very quickly a very different adaptation began to take shape ... this one featuring the Beatles. The famous group was very interested in being part of a live adaptation, and the plan was for Paul McCartney to play Frodo, Ringo Starr to play Sam, George Harrison to don the hat and staff of Gandalf, and John Lennon to dig deep as Gollum.

They took the idea to filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, who eventually turned it down. It was Kubrick who deemed the book as being "unfilmable," and that description would follow the project from that point forward. It wasn't Kubrick's departure that sank this attempt, however — it was Tolkien. He didn't want the Beatles, so he sent them off to the Grey Havens and into that hard day's night.

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1970 - JOHN BOOROMIR OF GONDOR

John Boorman (Deliverance) was brought on by United Artists in 1970, and the director began to work on a script adaptation with Rospo Pallenberg. Of all of the varying drafts and scripts, this one has some of the craziest changes. They include but are not limited to:

- Turning Arwen into a teenage spirit guide and shifting her love story with Aragorn fully over to Eowyn.

- Having the Fellowship bury Gimli in a hole outside the Mines of Moria before proceeding to beat him ... all in an effort to jog his memory about how to enter the mines.

- A sex scene between, wait for it, Frodo and Galadriel. This was to be a necessary step in activating Galadriel's mirror.

Doubtlessly these changes turned Tolkien off, and once again he shot the project down. Boorman would go on to use much of the ideas and art that he had developed for his own film, Excalibur.

1977 - THE GREATEST ADVENTURE IS WHAT LIES AHEAD

Professor Tolkien sadly passed away in 1973, and once he did, it was open season again. Without his strictures and preferences, The Lord of the Rings (and his other works) could suddenly venture in directions that he had never wanted them to.

Case in point: The Hobbit was adapted in 1977 as an animated television movie. Done in a medium that Tolkien had no interest in, the film was made by the team of Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass. Orson Bean voiced Bilbo Baggins, while esteemed filmmaker John Huston gave voice to Gandalf the Grey. The most remembered part of this version, however (aside from the songs), is likely to be the insanely creepy vocal performance of Brother Theodore, playing Gollum.

The artwork that Rankin and Bass used was very much modeled on, once again, the work of Arthur Rackham. As Tolkien had enjoyed that approach when it was a part of Ackerman's pitch, perhaps he would have liked it here. What he may not have liked is the copious number of songs that the film includes. Only some of them appear in his book, and most of them having lyrical changes. Down, down to Goblin town indeed ... tra la la lally!

Though this is technically The Hobbit and not The Lord of the Rings, it is notable because its success showed that an animated take on these works could prove worthwhile ... and that paved the way for what came next.

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1978 - BAKSHI IN BUSINESS

Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat) had been trying to get the rights to The Lord of the Rings since 1957, and he finally achieved his quest when United Artists gave them to him in 1978. Following the fiasco that UA had undergone with the Boorman version, Bakshi was able to convince them that it could be turned into three animated movies. A new fellowship of Bakshi, United Artists, and producer Saul Zaentz was formed, and ultimately they decided to make two animated features.

Bakshi's approach was hardly that of traditional animation. Using experimental blends of live-action rotoscoping combined with traditional hand-drawn animation, he put together something that's memorable, if not suitable. The experimentation shortly got out of control, and expenses skyrocketed.

Though it was supposed to be the first of two films, the result of his labors was simply released as just The Lord of the Rings. There's no subtitle, there's not even a "Part 1" or anything of that sort. Bakshi himself was against adding such things, as he didn't want audiences going in expecting only half of a movie. Instead, audiences got a movie that abruptly ends right after the Battle of Helm's Deep, with a hurried voiceover closing out the film in a royally anticlimactic fashion.

While Bakshi's experimental approach makes the Ringwraiths the stuff of nightmares (and John Hurt does a wonderful job as the voice of Aragorn), audiences didn't like the very goofy approach to Frodo and the other hobbits. Samwise in particular is kind of a bumbling moron, and it is a take that Tolkien almost surely would have hated. Due to the film's rushed ending (Gandalf throws his sword up in the air and it ... just kind of vanishes), Frodo, Sam, and Gollum were left in the wilderness with not another word said about it.

As far as the script goes, it's more in line with the original books than previous versions had been, aside from the insanity of the ending. Though the ending voiceover promises that this is just the first part of the story, for Bakshi and company, it was the only part. The film was a failure and the second part was canceled.

Animated Frodo and Sam would have been stranded in the wilderness forever, if another team hadn't come along to rescue them.

1980 - WHERE THERE'S A WHIP THERE'S A WAY

Fans of Bakshi's film who were wondering whatever became of Frodo and Sam would soon find out, because wouldn't you know it, Rankin and Bass came along to finish the story in 1980. Coming in the form of another television movie, their adaptation of The Return of the King brought back the art style that they used on The Hobbit, as well as the voices of Orson Bean, John Huston, and Brother Theodore.

Also returning? Lots and lots of songs. Half of the book's story is thrown out in favor of songs, with Legolas and Gimli nowhere in sight and Aragorn barely being a footnote. The Battle of the Pelennor Fields, the final stage of Frodo and Sam's quest, and Eowyn's stand against the Witch King are all thankfully here, but so is a band of singing orcs, seen above. Other highlights include the introductory song called "Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom" as well as a 17-hour-long number that features Sam trying to decide whether or not to use the ring.

Changes and cuts aside, it's still charming. If you began the epic with Bakshi and were left in the dust, you were grateful that it was made, especially because there was no reason to think any other version would ever come along. If the story can't be done in animation, how would live action ever be possible? Who could possibly be up to the task? The outlook didn't look good.

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1999 - THE ARRIVAL OF THE KING

Just when all hope seemed lost, a hero emerged. Just who in the Sea of Rhun was Peter Jackson? The world would soon find out.

In 1999, New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson was mostly known for making independent horror films, and the brilliant 1994 film Heavenly Creatures. His follow-up project was a movie called The Frighteners, a ghostly romp that required Jackson and his company to bring on a ton of new equipment to manage the visual effects. Because they now had the technology, Jackson and his crew (including his wife, producer Fran Walsh) decided that the time might be right to make a fantasy film.

The conversation kept coming around to "something like Lord of the Rings," to the point where someone finally suggested just inquiring about the Rings rights themselves. Could it be done? What was once considered "unfilmable" might be possible now, as Jurassic Park in 1993 opened up all-new gateways in the worlds of visual effects. Tolkien's epic scale was possible now, but all of the effects in the world wouldn't matter if they couldn't crack the adaptation. What would make things even more pointless would be the situation with the rights, but it turned out that they were not completely out of reach. Jackson and his team decided to join with Miramax to get the rights from Saul Zaentz.

After a period of fluctuation (when the rights were in dispute, and a Jackson-directed remake of King Kong was going to take precedence before it was canceled), a three-film cycle was conceived. The initial plan was to make The Hobbit, and then two films based on Rings. Somewhere along the way The Hobbit was jettisoned and a two-film adaptation of Rings was set to get a treatment.

In this version, the first film (aptly titled The Fellowship of the Ring) would have gone through the book events of Fellowship, Towers, and the very beginning of Return. It would have ended with Saruman's death, and was set to include appearances from Farmer Maggot, Glorfindel, Radagast, and the sons of Elrond — all of whom were eventually cut out. This version also included things like Bilbo being present at the Council of Elrond, and Sam being present at Galadriel's mirror. The second film would have been called The War of the Ring, and Tolkien would probably have at least approved of that.

Once these treatments got the green light, the almighty quest of screenwriting began, with Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh writing with Philippa Boyens and Stephen Sinclair. Sinclair would eventually become the Boromir of their writing fellowship, as he had to exit in the middle of the quest, though the eventual film of The Two Towers still credits him.

More changes were made at this stage, with Jackson, Boyens, and Walsh cutting Lothlorien completely and placing Galadriel (and all her material) in Rivendell. They also had Denethor sitting right next to Boromir at the council, and they came up with the notion of Arwen saving Frodo at the Ford of Bruinen. While the Arwen change stayed consistent from that point forward (apologies to Glorfindel fans), greater expansion of Arwen's character did not. At one point she almost took over Eowyn's character completely, but this aspect was abandoned.

With a budget of $75 million, Miramax suddenly realized that the films would need as much as $150 million. A Miramax representative visited New Zealand, and his report back to the company led to "suggestions," such as cutting both Bree and Helm's Deep entirely, making Rohan and Gondor the same place, and turning Eowyn into Boromir's sister.

These "suggested" cuts continued, and eventually it was demanded that Jackson and company remake the entire thing into one film. Nobody had any interest in that, and thankfully they were given the option to shop the project around to see if any other studios were interested. After multiple rejections, the team came to New Line Cinema, which was their last stop and final hope. New Line executive Bob Shaye looked at what they had, and he agreed that it shouldn't be two films. He didn't think that it should be one, either. He thought it should be three — three films for three books.

The rest, as they say, is Middle-earth history.

With the backing of New Line, Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens set about adapting their ever-changing epic into three films. This is where the project began to resemble something like the films we all know and love today, as the scripts finally had the chance to breathe and explore more characters more fully. Because of the initial investment, Miramax and the Weinsteins are still credited, but their involvement was pretty much done.

Deciding on a Frodo-centric approach (with Aragorn's story as the B plot), the script evolved as plans to shoot all three films at the same time took place, which was (and still is) the most ambitious film project ever attempted. Even after filming began (with Elijah Wood playing Frodo, Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf, and an army of actors alongside them), the script continued to get rewrites.

The character of Arwen underwent the greatest number of changes, as initial drafts featured her more as a warrior princess and present at the Battle of Helm's Deep. Liv Tyler actually shot a good amount of that material before the decision was wisely made to rewrite Arwen more in line with who she is in Tolkien's books. Though she barely appears in the books, her new cinematic storyline was more faithful overall, and the Helm's Deep material that included her departed for the Valinor of DVD extras.

Though the three films do make certain changes (Faramir as an obstacle, Frodo and Sam falling out), they remain fairly close to Tolkien's storyline. They may take certain liberties when exploring Gollum's psyche, going to Osgiliath, and depicting the massive battle sequences, but when you look at the radical changes that some of the attempts listed above were planning, these changes seem downright pure.

The epic gamble paid off in an epic way. Three books, three films, three blockbuster hits, with a host of Academy Awards thrown into the mix. Never before had the academy recognized fantasy in the way that it did in 2003, when it awarded The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King its 11 awards ... not least among them a Best Adapted Screenplay Award to Boyens, Walsh, and Jackson.

With the wild success of the trilogy, Peter Jackson and his fellowship had their pick of projects. King Kong suddenly became very much un-canceled, and eventually they returned to the world of Tolkien with The Hobbit trilogy. While the adaptations of those films take far more liberties than Rings does, there is still more based in Tolkien (the White Council, Dol Guldur) than is not (Alfrid ... may Manwe bless him).

At the end of the day, when we put up our feet and blow smoke rings in our cozy hobbit parlors, it's something of a minor miracle that we ended up with the films that we got. A perfect storm of failure, experimentation, and plain old New Zealand brilliance all combined to give audiences three films that maybe, just maybe, Professor Tolkien would have approved of. Probably not, but one can dream.

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2018 - UNFINISHED TALES

Does the story end there? Apparently it doesn't. Announced in 2017, Amazon has bought the rights to all things Tolkien and is planning a television project based on his work. They have said that it is not a remake of Rings. The Hobbit films are not that far behind us, so that also seems unlikely.

So what will this new attempt at a Tolkien adaptation be? They have said that it will be firmly based in Tolkien's writings, and if it doesn't involve Rings or The Hobbit, then there's really only one place left to go. If Amazon is planning on tackling Tolkien's The Silmarillion ... well, that's a challenge on a whole new level. The process of adapting that book would make Rings look like an autumn in Rivendell, so if that is where their intentions lie, may the grace of the Valar protect them. The road goes ever on and on.