BookNotes: A cinematic history of Lord of the Rings

Mike Selby

“It is impossible to film.”

This was Stanley Kubrick’s verdict in 1970, after United Artists approached him to adapt ‘The Lord of the Rings’ into a feature film. A work of epic fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was first published in 1954. It would grow in stature throughout the years, eventually being crowned the number one novel of the 20th century.

Its popularity lead to Hollywood and others seeking to film it almost immediately. In 1957 Tolkien was visited by Forrest J. Ackerman, the editor and frequently the sole writer of the magazine ‘Famous Monsters of Filmland.’ Ackerman presented Tolkien a brief outline and production schedule, explaining how he would make a live-action film combined with stop-motion. Tolkien initially warmed to the idea, until Ackerman delivered a script, which made far too many and often bizarre changes for his liking.

United Artists purchased the film rights from Tolkien in 1969, approaching Stanley Kubrick soon after. Initially casting the Beatles in the lead roles, Kubrick soon backed out of the project, believing the book (which is 200 pages longer than ‘War & Peace’) to be “unfilmable due to its immensity.”

At about the same time, Walt Disney was working behind the scenes. While United Artists owned ‘The Lord of the Rings’ rights, nobody owned rights to ‘The Hobbit’ — another work by Tolkien and the prequel to ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ They presented Tolkien with a story treatment and some sample artwork. Tolkien turned them down.

A mystery begins somewhere around this point. For some reason, numerous books about cinema and animation published in the ‘70s and ‘80s state that Disney owned the films rights to all of Tolkien’s works. Possibly rumours, wishful thinking or a combination of both are to blame for this frequently reprinted error.

In the mid-1970s, British filmmaker John Boorman is hired by United Artists to pick up where Kubrick left off, this time minus the Beatles. Boorman completes a full script and begins to build sets and costumes before realizing that he will need much more money than initially planned for. The expense grew too much for United Artists, and this effort was also scrapped (Boorman would reuse the sets and the costumes for his 1981 film ‘Excalibur’).

This was probably for the best. Boorman had the characters wearing a type of Nike running shoe, which he planned to merchandise during the film’s run. His script also strayed quite a bit from the book, including explicit sex and violent torture scenes, two things definitely not to be found in ‘The Lord of the Rings.’

Explicit sex scenes brings us to the 1972 film ‘Fritz the Cat.’ Based on Robert Crumb’s underground comic strip, ‘Fritz the Cat’ was the first X-rated animated film (not XXX-rated though), Directed by Ralph Bakshi, the film was a huge hit with the counter culture.

Raised in the poorest part of Brooklyn, Bakshi was about to drop out of high school until he came across ‘Complete Guide to Cartooning’ in the Brownsville Public Library. That book changed everything (he never did return it). He was soon attending art school, and then animating television shows such as ‘Rocket Robin Hood’ and the original ‘Spiderman.’ In 1969 he stumbled upon Crumb’s ‘Fritz the Cat’ book while shopping in Manhattan’s East Side Book Store. It was the perfect vehicle for him to break into feature films. ‘Heavy Traffic,’ ‘Coonskin’ and ‘Hey Good Looking’ all followed, as did the 1977 epic fantasy film ‘Wizards.’

It was while he was in post-production on ‘Wizards’ that he found out United Artists had abandoned their second attempt at ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ A huge Tolkien fan, Bakshi sprinted to their offices and told them to he could do it. Properly. An animated version, faithful to the book, and spread over three films. The head of UA told Bakshi he didn’t want to make this film at all. He didn’t understand Boorman’s script, no one at UA had read Tolkien’s book, and all he wanted was his 3 million dollars back he had lost with Boorman.

Bakshi runs down the hall to the MGM offices (luckily in the same building) and explains the situation to them. The head of MGM’s production—a fellow Tolkien fan—agrees on the spot to buy the rights from UA and fund Bakshi for three feature films. Bakshi then goes back down the hall and give the head of UA a cheque for 3 million for the rights, (who breaks down crying, he was probably going to be fired for losing so much, and now his job is saved). Bakshi then sprints back to his own office to begin pre-production on ‘The Lord of the Rings.’

Not a week goes by when Bakshi reads in the paper than the head of MGM has been fired. The animator goes to meet with the new head, who tells him he doesn’t understand this film, the book, or Bakshi’s proposal. MGM cancels the whole thing and wants its money back.

Not one to give up, Bakshi calls record producer Saul Zaentz, who had earned $70 million from the ‘Fritz the Cat’ soundtrack. Zaentz was thrilled (another fan of the book) — he pays MGM back and gives Bakshi the capital he needed to proceed. United Artists agrees to distribution rights, feeling somewhat in debt to Bakshi.

Another bonus came when Tolkien’s daughter, after viewing an outline and sketches of Bakshi’s work, invited to him to Oxford to show him her father’s studio (Tolkien himself had passed away in 1973.)

With an $8 million budget per film, it took Bakshi just under a year to finish the first entry. With no CGI, computers, or even motion control cameras, Bakshi would use rotoscoping to achieve certain effects as well as heightened sense of realism. Rotoscoping is the process in which characters are animated over their live counterparts. After filming a live-action version of the story in Spain, Bakshi and his crew would then animate over it; painstakingly hand painting each frame a film, which runs 24 frames per second.

By his deadline, Bakshi still needed a few more months, but Zaentz told him no. The theatres are all booked, distributors are waiting, etc. With no money to pay his employees, Bakshi asked that they work round the clock, which all of them did. He delivered the film on time, and was once again hit with the worst news possible.

Wanting to see how much money the first film made before proceeding with parts 2 and 3, Zaentz and UA had removed the “Part One” from the film. Filmed as a “part one” however, the film ends in a cliff-hanger. Presented as a complete and standalone film, audiences would be confused and feel ripped off.

‘The Lord of the Rings’ hit the theatres in 1978, leaving critics and viewers feeling confused and ripped off. It did however earn $30 millions dollars, more than enough profit to begin the sequels. But there wouldn’t be any. Feeling betrayed, Bakshi told Zaentz and UA to “go something-something themselves.”

It would be another 23 years before another try at adapting ‘The Lord of the Rings’ to film. This time an unknown New Zealand director would take 8 years to make 3 live-action films, winning 17 Academy Awards out of 30 nominations.

(I was fortunate enough to speak to Bakshi in the late 90s, who—no longer angry—would be happy to finish his animated trilogy. As of 2018, he still feels this way.)

Mike Selby is Information Services Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library

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