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How Lord of the Rings came to the Big Screen

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is the most iconic fantasy ever written. It spawned a whole sub-genre of fantasy, and set the stage for much of what we recognise today as fantasy ‘tropes’, or clichés. It formed the basis of Dungeons and Dragons games, and it seems that almost every fantasy novelist of the last fifty years is, or was, the ‘New Tolkien’.

Early on in the fame game, Lord of the Rings was recognised for its cinematic potential. But the actual physical reality of bringing this three book epic to the big screen was a daunting prospect. The characters were only human in some cases – otherwise they were elves, orcs, talking trees and other creatures that would be difficult to cast, to say the least. The sprawling theatre of Middle Earth took the reader from the friendly Shire to the terrifying reaches of Mount Doom with ease, but the movie goer would expect to use the movie’s imagination, not his own.

Nevertheless, as early as 1958, Tolkien received a script treatment of his epic which he summarily dismissed. In the late 60s, there was even talk of the Beatles making a live version with Stanley Kubrik as director, but the project fell through because Kubrick reportedly felt it was unfilmable.

In the early 70s, United Artists acquired the film rights from a wary Tolkien, and approached director John Boorman - of Emerald Forest fame – to bring it to life on the screen. The resulting script was an extraordinary departure from the books and included the seduction of Frodo by Galadriel. Not surprisingly, this attempt failed. It wasn’t until 1978 that Hollywood tried again to film what appeared to be the unfilmable.

By now, Tolkien was dead and director and animator Ralph Bakshi managed to persuade United Artists to let him make a movie version, in spite of Bakshi’s most famous previous work being an X-rated version of Felix the Cat. In a bold concept, Bakshi combined live action and animation using the technique of rotoscoping, in which animators drew over each frame in a live action sequence. The result was eye catching but it didn’t please everyone, and while it made respectable returns at the box office, and won awards, United Artists weren’t encouraged enough to fund a sequel. Bakshi’s film covers only half the trilogy.

Next to try were the animators Rankin Bass. Animation still seemed to be the way to go with this huge property, and a live action version seemed a distant possibility. It was – it had to wait until the end of the 20th Century.

New Zealand director Peter Jackson was the daring soul who swept aside all the familiar objections and persuaded New Line Cinema that the time and the technology was right for the impossible to happen. But it wasn’t just special effects and the incredibly variegated scenery of New Zealand standing in for Middle Earth that made the magic – Jackson handpicked a formidable cast of acting talent and wrung performances from them that made Lord of the Rings one of the few fantasy franchises to get a nod from the Academy Awards.

The last film in the trilogy, The Return of the King, made Academy history by winning Jackson the award for Best Director, along with 10 other awards. For a fantasy film, this was an earth shattering development.

It took almost half a century to finally bring Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece to the screen – and its triumph may never be equalled in the fantasy genre.

The books:
The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary, One Vol. Edition

The movies boxed set:
The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy (Platinum Series Special Extended Edition)


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