Happy birthday, Frodo. J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” debuted July 29, 1954; the next two books were published separately in the next 15 months. Tolkien’s popularity in the U.S. climbed significantly in 1965, when Ballantine printed a revised paperback edition.
When United Artists acquired film rights to “Rings” in 1969, Variety explained that the books’ success was fueled by students, adding that the trilogy “preceded marijuana and LSD in making the younger generation flip.” For years, “Rings” continued to fascinate but frustrate filmmakers. Among those who flirted with film adaptations were Walt Disney, John Boorman and the Beatles; Ralph Bakshi did a 1978 animated version. But a live-action version went nowhere until 1998, when Peter Jackson made a successful pitch to New Line’s Bob Shaye.
On Aug. 31, 1998, Variety announced that New Line would commit $130 million to perhaps the biggest gamble in the history of movies: Jackson would make three films simultaneously. If the first one flopped, it would doom the next two as well; this would be a financial disaster, especially for the overseas distributors who put their money on the line. The Variety story by Benedict Carver detailed the complex legal issues that had developed over the intervening four decades, as well as the artistic challenge of translating the scope of the three books.
Jackson told Variety that his vision for the films was both epic and personal. “My philosophy is that these are historical films, not fantasies or fairy tales. It’s a story with heart and soul, but also one that’s romantic.”
Carver added “Jackson acknowledges that he’s stepping into a potential firestorm by taking on a property as beloved as ‘Rings.’ ”
Shaye and New Line’s Michael Lynne and Rolf Mittweg committed to the project, but a key was studio exec Mark Ordesky, who was a fan of both Tolkien and the early films of Jackson. Ordesky made frequent trips between New Zealand, Los Angeles and New York as he oversaw 274 days of principal photography.
The first film opened Dec. 19, 2001, and was such a success that the post-production budget was increased for the other two, “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King.” The production budget (before marketing costs) was finally estimated at $330 million, and the three films earned nearly $3 billion at the worldwide box office. (Jackson’s subsequent “The Hobbit” trilogy minted an additional $2.9 billion at the box office.)
Tolkien’s masterpiece proved that there were enormous audiences for fantasy works, far beyond the American students who embraced the books. The Tolkien trilogy paved the way for subsequent fantasy works in literature (e.g., the George R.R. Martin book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” aka “Game of Thrones”), videogames (“Dungeons and Dragons”) and films/TV works. In addition, Jackson’s storytelling and technology influenced legions of projects in the 21st century.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was 45 when he started writing the first “Rings,” as a sequel to his 1937 “The Hobbit”; he was 63 when the third novel was published. Though Tolkien died in 1973, his legacy continues; a posthumous novel, “The Children of Hurin,” was published in April 2007, and “Beren and Luthien” debuted June 1, 2017. The Toronto Star estimates that the Tolkien books have sold 150 million copies.