Every now and then an idea comes along that put to film, on TV or into a book which has every reason to fail. Perhaps those involved never showed an aptitude for what the idea was, perhaps there was a history of similar ideas failing or perhaps the whole thing was just too crazy. These kinds of ideas get tried all the time and most rightfully fail, and fail big. However sometimes, when the fates align and serendipity lends a hand, all the pieces can fall into place and those crazy ideas work despite the odds. This is an article series that will examine the workings of projects that should have been doomed but managed to triumph. An examination of why the particular idea should have failed and why it didn’t.
The Lord of the Rings films have become the new epic trilogy, for some even supplanting the once hallowed Star Wars trilogy (the original, not the prequels) for it’s fun, epic scale and visual inventiveness. It turned Peter Jackson, once a cult director best known for his off the wall low budget horror movies into a cinematic powerhouse. It made fantasy films not only respectable but in fact Oscar worthy (The Return of the King is tied for the record of most Oscar wins for a film.) For much of the world it was the first real look at the unspoiled landscape of New Zealand where the films were shot. The books that the films were based on had been deemed “unfilmable” by fans and movie studios alike. They were just too big, too detailed and too literary to translate to the screen. A massive fantasy trilogy without a single A-list star, directed by a low budget horror director, filmed in a country most people can’t find on a map and based on beloved and treasured books considered far too dense to ever do justice on film. There’s no way that should have worked.
It’s hard to know where to even start with this one, the whole thing is just so crazy. Perhaps it’s best to start with the mind behind the madness: Peter Jackson. Jackson first crossed paths with the story when he saw Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated version (which actually only covered the first book and halfway through the second.) Jackson would then later read the books themselves and find a love for the story and characters. Jackson would go on to break into the movie making business in his native New Zealand with his comedic horror films Bad Taste and Brain Damage (released in the US as Dead Alive) as well as an obscene puppet film called Meet the Feebles. Up to that point Jackson was very much a cult film maker, producing fairly odd yet enjoyable movies on tight budgets. His career took a shift with his somewhat more toned down and somber film Heavenly Creatures (which also served as the breakthrough role of Kate Winslet’s career.) Showing that he could reign in his madcap instincts enough for more mainstream work Jackson we onto make 1996’s The Frighteners which was his first encounter with digital effects. After completing work on that film Jackson felt that the technology was finally far enough that books like The Lord of the Rings could be made into movies. He then set about pitching the idea to various studios and trying to sort out who actually owned the film rights.
Jackson initially set up the project as two films to be produced by Miramax (which was still run by the Weinstein brothers at that point.) Jackson and his writing partners (Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) toiled away on the two part scripts while simultaneously making sure the film rights were properly in place. The project nearly derailed several times (including when Universal offered Jackson the chance to direct a King Kong remake in 1997) but ultimately it was Miramax’s actions that would ensure that they wouldn’t release the film. Miramax was a studio of note but only limited means. They had budgeted $75 million for both films and it was beginning to appear that the project would easily cost double that. When the Weinstein’s proposed condensing the entire thing into one two hour film Jackson realized that this was not going to work. He had a limited window to get the project moved to another studio and was extremely fortunate when New Line Cinema head Bob Shaye showed interest in the two film project, though with one adjustment. It was Shaye who suggested that since the books had three parts that there should be three films as well (something Jackson hadn’t proposed simply because he never thought any studio would approve it.)
It’s important to bring attention to how big a risk this was for New Line to undertake. The studio had made it’s name on the back of the Nightmare on Elm Street series and was not considered a real major player on the Hollywood stage. For New Line to agree to allow Jackson to do the major filming on all three movies at the same time meant that Shaye was effectively gambling the entire studio on this trilogy. The amount of money that had to be invested before a single frame of footage would even be glimpsed by the public was staggering. It’s the kind of financial commitment that would have been impressive for a studio twice the size of New Line, so for them it was almost unthinkable. Had the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, been a box office flop that would have left the studio with having paid for two films that they couldn’t use and almost certainly would have sunk them for good. Sadly this is more or less what did happen later on when the domestic box office failure of fantasy film The Golden Compass lead to New Line being absorbed into parent company Warner Bros (up to that point New Line had been allowed to operate independently.)
Now that Jackson finally had the studio backing he needed to make the films all the elements of pre-production came into play. Most of the responsibility for the look of the film can be attributed to the Weta Workshop and Weta Digital, two branches of a New Zealand based effects company that Jackson himself had helped start. Despite they fact that they were hardly a brand new company the notion of Weta taking on these films was a bit of a wild one. Weta was known for fairly low budget effects such as the monster effects in some of Jackson’s earlier films or the effects in the Hercules and Xena television series of the 1990s. But their lack of prestige didn’t hold the company back as they set about fabricating thousands of garments, weapons and buildings and dedicated years to the visual effects. Special attention should be given to the character of Gollum. The pitiful little creature was played by Andy Serkis but was also a completely digital creation as he appeared on the screen. The history of all digital characters wasn’t all that glowing at this point in history. By the time the first film hit theaters the best known all digital human like character was Jar Jar Binks from Star Wars Episode 1 and he had left a bad taste in viewers mouths for many reasons. So for Serkis and Weta to overcome not only the technical challenge but also the fact that audience had yet to truly accept completely digital characters was quite an impressive feat.
The casting of the films was obviously an immense undertaking and wisely Jackson and his producers made a point of avoiding immediately recognizable names or faces. The one exception that they made turned them down. The role of the wizard Gandalf was originally offered to Sean Connery, who turned it down because he felt he didn’t understand the story. The part would then be offered to Patrick Stewart, who passed as well. It ultimately went to Ian McKellan who received an Oscar nomination for his efforts. Most other roles were cast more smoothly with one major exception: Aragorn, the ranger who would ultimately become king of Gondor. It was originally Stuart Townsend who landed the role and it wasn’t until principal photography had already started that Jackson realized he had cast the role too young. A hasty call for a replacement went out and at the behest of his son Viggo Mortensen answered it. Following a very quick crash course in sword fighting Mortensen joined the fray and didn’t miss a beat.
As shooting commenced New Line and Jackson made the very wise move of reaching out to the fans of the book. By working with various fan-site (most notably theonering.net) the production was able to assure the fans of the novels that they had every intention of doing the books justice, not just cash in on them. This sort of practice has become much more commonplace, particularly with movies tied to comic books, as it has generally been accepted that if the fans reject the film the chances of success are severely hindered. However at the time studios and filmmakers rarely bothered to develop a dialog with the fans and just counted on their money at the box office. Given the size of the project it was very important that the fans of the novel be on Jackson’s side and he accomplished that extremely well even before the release of the first trailer. Had Jackson not drummed up such fierce enthusiasm it’s an open question if the films would have achieved the same level of success.
The first film was released near Christmas of 2000, another unusual choice. Expensive tent-pole films are almost always released in the summer months, December is reserved almost exclusively for Oscar bait and holiday movies. Releasing the film at that time (and the subsequent sequels around the same time in the following years) was a calculated move that paid off tremendously. By putting the film out at the same time as most Oscar contenders it was seen as a vote of confidence in the quality of the movie by New Line. Also releasing in December avoided direct competition with the other blockbuster releases of the year (which had mostly been in the summer.) While the fans were excited it was still unclear for a while if the success would spread to the mainstream. There had not been a financially successful fantasy film in some time and the genre had been virtually ignored by major studios since 1989’s Willow.
The films proved successful beyond any expectations. The final film, Return of the King, would go onto tie Titanic and Ben Hur for the most Oscar wins for a single film (11.) A refusal to simplify the material or story proved to be an asset and audiences were not put off by the films’ complexity but rather entranced by it. The amount of faith that New Line put in the property and in Peter Jackson in particular is still staggering. On a project of this size being headed by a little known film maker one would have expected a great deal of studio oversight. That didn’t happen here, New Line simply stood back and let Jackson weave his magic for three unique films. Many other films have tried to replicate the success of these movies but none have yet succeeded. In fact most (such as the aforementioned The Golden Compass) didn’t even make it past a single entry when they were meant to be franchises. The Lord of the Rings films seem to have benefited from a perfect storm of talent and enthusiasm brought to the right studio at the precise right moment in time. There may never be another trilogy quite like it. There was no way that should have worked, but it did.