On Aug. 31, 1998, Variety reported that New Zealand filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh would transform J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy of books into three films. Reporter Benedict Carver added that the books are “a highly prized literary property that has eluded filmmakers for years.”
It was the culmination more than three decades of trying to adapt Tolkien’s work for the screen, after the world of visual effects had finally caught up to the British author’s fantastical storylines.
But three decades before, the Beatles had tried to get a “Lord of the Rings” film off the ground. After playing themselves in “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!,” the Fab Four was ready to play fictional characters. Apple Films executive Denis O’Dell spearheaded the hunt for material, and Lennon reportedly loved the idea of “Rings.” Lennon would play Gollum, Paul McCartney would play Frodo, George Harrison would be Gandalf and Ringo Starr would play Sam.
Stanley Kubrick, fresh off “Dr. Strangelove,” was approached to direct, while the Beatles would provide the music. Kubrick said no — he considered it “unfilmable” and, more importantly, Tolkien turned them down. Other directors who were considered included Michelangelo Antonioni, David Lean and Richard Lester. Kubrick went on to make “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and the Beatles turned to animation with “Yellow Submarine.”
The next attempt came in 1969, when Variety reported that United Artists would try an adaptation. The unsigned story said, “With the possible exception of J.D. Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ the writer who has captivated the most college and even high-school students in the past decade apparently is J.R.R. Tolkien.” The item said his works “preceded marijuana and LSD in making the younger generation flip with its fantastical adventures.”
“Point Blank” helmer John Boorman was attached to direct and the film would shoot in Ireland. But though Boorman was able to make use of some locations for “Excalibur,” the project never went anywhere, nor did proposals for a Disney version.
An animated version of “The Hobbit,” directed by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr., aired on NBC, but its childlike approach was not seen as fitting the complex material.
On Dec. 26, 1975, MGM announced it had acquired “LOTR” rights from United Artists.
Adult animation pioneer Ralph Bakshi was developing an animated “Lord of the Rings,” it was reported Jan. 11, 1977. Record/movie mogul Saul Zaentz and his Fantasy Films joined the project, which was released in 1978.
Though it suffered from clumsy animation and trying to pack too much into one film, Bakshi’s attempt is still appreciated for striking the right dark tone with the material.
Finally, the trilogy had a shot at being realized effectively when Jackson, Walsh and their WingNut Films — who had a first-look deal with Miramax after “Heavenly Creatures” — persuaded Harvey Weinstein to pursue rights to the Tolkien books in the late 1990s.
Zaentz still had film and merchandising rights and he owed a favor to Weinstein and Miramax; they had saved Zaentz when it looked like “The English Patient” was going to shut down.
Miramax developed it with WingNut to make two films from the three books. In June 1998, after $10 mil in research and development, Weinstein decided that instead it should be one three-hour film. Jackson and Walsh resisted, so Weinstein put it into turnaround: They had three weeks to find an alternate distributor.
Jackson came to L.A. in 1998 to pitch two “LOTR” films. According to Variety, “Jackson gave a verbal presentation for ‘LOTR’ followed by a 30-minute video showing how technology had advanced enough to create huge army battles, a digital lead character like Gollum and convincingly show a 6-foot-tall actor next to a small Hobbit. New Line’s (then-chairman and CEO) Bob Shaye was so impressed that he proposed three films instead of two and the company made a series of deals with overseas distributors to fund the trilogy.”
The trilogy went on to make nearly $3 billion at the global box office, and is now about to become an Amazon series premiering in 2022.