The Lord of the Rings Movie Review
The Fellowship of the Ring - Part 1
The Fellowship of the Ring - Part 2
The Fellowship of the Ring - Part 3
The Two Towers - Part 1
The Two Towers - Part 2
The Return of the King - Part 1

The Lord of the Rings
A film by Peter Jackson
Part I: The Fellowship of the Ring
A review by John D. Rateliff

"Tolkien wrote the book he wanted to read
-- we got to make the movies we wanted to see."

-- Peter Jackson, December 2001

The long wait is over. After nearly fifty years, J. R. R. Tolkien's masterpiece The Lord of the Rings has finally gotten the film treatment it deserves. Join us in this comprehensive review brought to us by John D. Rateliff, who is both a Lord Dunsany and J. R. R. Tolkien scholar. The first of three parts covers the past attempts at bringing this memorable and beloved series to the silver screen.

(i) The Road to Kiwi-Land

The work that created the modern fantasy genre, Lord of the Rings (LotR), has long been considered unfilmable. Tolkien himself had grave doubts, believing as he did that fantasy is primarily a literary phenomenon that did not translate well into other mediums, whether painting, theater, or film.[1] This point of view was only reinforced when his friend C. S. Lewis, in a mischievous mood, took him to see Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves not long after The Hobbit had been published. Tolkien was appalled by the Disneyfication of the old folktale and determined to keep the same fate from befalling his own work.

Not that this stopped him from selling the film rights or prevent filmmakers from trying to find a way to recreate The Lord of the Rings on film. As far back as 1957, only a year after the final volume came out in the United States, sci-fi fan Forrest (Forrie) Ackerman and some friends got an option on the film rights, eventually producing concept art (which Tolkien loved) and a script (which Tolkien hated). His comments on the latter -- reproduced in Letters of JRRT, pages 261, 266-267, and 270-277 -- make his position clear: he did not particularly object to abridgement but he despised condensing. That is, if the story needed to be shortened to make it all fit within the acceptable length for a film, it would be better for scenes and characters to be dropped entirely than for them to be combined, rearranged, or altered.

In any case, the Ackerman effort soon petered out, but the idea of filming the book remained alive. By 1960 the game of imaginarily casting the movie had already begun. That year, the fanzine essay "No Monroe in Lorien" by Arthur "Doc" Weir[2] argued passionately against casting a blonde bimbo like Marilyn Monroe for Galadriel, plumbing instead for someone more dignified and classy (his choice being Greta Garbo as she had appeared in one of her final films, Ninotchka). His nomination for Gandalf -- Alec Guiness! -- was a prescient choice, as George Lucas was to show seventeen years later.

Imaginary casting of fan favorites, however, is a far cry from actual production. Although by the late sixties the film rights had been sold, actual casting and financing were as far away as ever, though the idea refused to go away. John Lennon and Yoko Ono expressed an interest at one point in making a LotR film starring themselves, although mercifully they failed to acquire the rights.[3] Finally director John Boorman began to put together a serious proposal: he acquired the rights, created a script, and prepared to direct it himself. All he needed was studio backing and financing -- but there the project ran aground. No studio would commit to it, no financing was forthcoming, and eventually Boorman moved on to other projects.[4]

Enter Ralph Bakshi, an iconoclast filmmaker whose main claim to fame was having merged pornography and cartoons. He convinced Saul Zaentz, who now owned the film rights, that he was the perfect person to create the required cutting-edge animation to do justice to Tolkien's works. Bakshi's revolutionary new method turned out to be rotoscoping, a favorite technique of the Disney studio since the 1930s, where a scene is filmed in live-action and then traced over frame by frame to create an animated sequence. But whereas Disney's animators used it for specific scenes, Bakshi intended to make the whole movie this way. Essentially this required the entire movie to be made twice; once with live actors, and then again with animation. Unfortunately, Bakshi ran out of money before finishing the film, meaning that he had to leave some scenes live-action (attempting to disguise the fact by using a heavy filter to distort the images). Sometimes it even has live-action and sketchily drawn cartoon characters standing side by side in the same frame, with unintentionally comic effect. To make matters worse, the movie ended half-way through the story, something they hadn't warned audiences about: the viewer only found out when the story abruptly stopped and they began to roll end credits.

Despite a script by famed fantasy author Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn, A Fine and Private Place) and an impressive score by Leonard Rosenman, the movie bombed, and deservedly so. For one thing, most Tolkien fans found the character designs repellant and resented Bakshi's decision to emphasize the humor in the story, having the characters ham it up at the least provocation. For another, the few standout scenes (the Flight to the Ford, the Death of Boromir) are stretched out to inordinate length, with much sinister posturing when the action should flow the fastest. But most of all, the animation itself failed. Bakshi apparently decided not to waste money on the actors, since all the live-action would be replaced eventually anyway. But by its very nature the rotoscoping process captures expressions and fine details of the actors' movements, meaning that we can see all the facial contortions of the ham actors Bakshi got to play the roles, especially of the hobbits (Bilbo and Sam are particularly painful to watch, like a Buddy Hackett marathon or badly dubbed mime). This means that Bakshi's LotR has the dubious distinction of being the worst-acted animated movie ever made. Some in fact credit it with effectively strangling the fantasy film genre at the very time that, in the wake of Star Wars, the science fiction film was undergoing a renaissance.

It seemed that Bakshi had done the impossible: taken the most popular work of an author who, only the year before, had a book that stayed #1 on the New York Times bestseller's list for twenty-one consecutive weeks (and in the top ten for over a year)[5], and lost money on it. After the disaster of the Bakshi movie, the idea of filming the story again and doing it right seemed only a pipe-dream: Bakshi could not get financing for a second film to complete the story, much to everyone's relief, and his flop convinced studios that it would be impossible to do the story right, even if his film hadn't poisoned the box office on the idea of another Tolkien movie.

If things weren't bad enough, along came Rankin-Bass -- who had already (1977) made The Hobbit as a television special (a chipper, Disney-style musical with poor animation and impressive voice actors[6]) -- who managed the incredible feat of trumping Bakshi's movie with something even worse. The Rankin-Bass television special Return of the King (1979) may be the worst animated film ever made, with dialogue such as "He's gone loony, I tell you" (Casey Kasem's Pippin to Gandalf, telling him of Denethor's suicidal madness[7]). It doesn't help that the story begins in the middle, somewhere after Bakshi's film stopped, with little explanation of what had gone before. And, once again, it's a musical. Some readers of Tolkien's book might have been hard-pressed to imagine Sam and Frodo's hellish journey through Mordor rendered as a musical, but they reckoned without the memorable ditty "Where There's a Whip, There's a Way," sung by sad little orcs to express their wish to just be allowed to be left alone and live in peace with everybody. The early-anime/Japanimation style jars with the mythic Europe of the story, and the changes to the plot jarred even the most inattentive. (Sam and Frodo seem to spend weeks wandering around inside Mt. Doom, while at the end of the movie Gandalf explains that hobbits are getting taller and turning into normal humans -- hardly a happy ending!) If Bakshi had not killed prospects of anyone redoing the story and doing it right, the awful Rankin-Bass film certainly put the nail in the coffin.

Small wonder the Tolkien Estate, and many of his fans, viewed the prospect of yet another Tolkien film with dismay.


[1] See Tolkien's essay "On Fairy-Stories," especially "Note E," where he argues that literature is more interactive than art or films because readers draw directly on their own memories to imagine the scenes they read, while pictures or films can capture only a single vision.

[2] This piece appeared in the British fanzine Triode (Jan. 1960) but is better known through its later inclusion in The Tolkien Scrapbook, ed. Alida Becker (1978, rpt 2001). It is remarkable in that Tolkien himself read and responded to the piece in a later issue (May 1960), agreeing with many of Weir's points.

[3] Some have seen The Beatles' 1965 movie Help! as a good-natured parody of LotR, in which four friends, one of whom is stuck with a cursed ring, spend the entire movie trying to escape from the sinister forces seeking to regain the ring and kill the one who bears it.

[4] Boorman was already famous for directing films like Point Blank (which includes a memorable scene in which Lee Marvin shoots Ronald Reagan) and Deliverance. After the collapse of the LotR project, his next major film was Excalibur, which many Tolkien fans consider a good indicator of how he would have handled Tolkien's story.
Ironically, Ralph Bakshi later boasted of having sabotaged Boorman's efforts to get studio backing; Bakshi claimed to have put a bad word in the ears of various studio executives, convincing them to reject Boorman, so that he could get the chance to pick up the pieces and make the film himself. If true, this is deeply ironic, since Boorman went on to score successes such as Excalibur and The Emerald Forest, while the failure of Bakshi's LotR essentially ended his career.

[5] This was the long-awaited The Silmarillion, Tolkien's "prequel" (a word he seems to have coined himself) to LotR. That The Silmarillion shot to the top of the list could be credited to all the Tolkien fans who had been waiting years for it; that it stayed there week after week, despite uniformly negative reviews (most of which pronounced the book unreadable), shows the word-of-mouth means by which Tolkien's audience share recommendations, much to the annoyance of professional arbiters of taste.

[6] Chief among them the inspired casting of John Huston as Gandalf (he even looked the part), along with Richard Boone (his final performance), Bullwinkle's Hans Conried, Don Messick (best known as the voice of Scooby-Doo), Sir Cyril Ritchard, the bizarrely miscast Otto Preminger, and Orson Bean as Bilbo.

[7] Like the first Rankin-Bass effort, RotK boasted impressive voice actors despite the dreadful animation, sappy music, and poor script. Huston and Bean not just by Casey Kasem (famous as the voice of Scooby-Doo's Shaggy) but a bizarre array of talent: Roddy McDowell, William Conrad (another Bullwinkle veteran), and Theodore Bikel.

Check next week for the second part of three parts to read the review of how well
Peter Jackson and the actors of the film did in bringing the novel to life!

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