Cast into Mount Doom
For many of us, it's hard to imagine a time when Hobbits, wizards, and orcs weren't a major part of motion picture history. Jackson's trilogy captured the imaginations of millions of viewers around the world, taking in nearly $3 billion worldwide. The trilogy also earned the fantasy genre some much-needed respect, winning a combined total of 17 Academy Awards out of 30 nominations. But, prior to Jackson, there were several attempts to bring Middle-earth to the big screen that ended up in Development Hell, the most surprising of which would have starred The Beatles.
According to Hughes, John Lennon was the one who pushed for The Beatles to star in an adaptation of LOTR, but the rivalry between Lennon and Paul McCartney that permeated their relationship caused problems right from the get-go. Paul McCartney told Roy Carr, author of The Beatles at the Movies, that the group "talked about it for a while," but McCartney "started to smell a bit of a carve-up because, immediately, John wanted the lead." Carr disputes this, writing that Lennon was actually intent on playing Gollum, while McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr would have played Frodo, the wizard Gandalf, and Samwise Gamgee, respectively.
A hot property by the end of the '60s, United Artists picked up the rights to make a movie adaptation of LOTR in the fall of 1969. The studio initially intended to make an animated movie, which Tolkien himself preferred over a live-action treatment, writing in 1957, "I should welcome the idea of an animated motion picture, with all the risk of vulgarization and that quite apart from the glint of money, though on the brink of retirement that is not an unpleasant possibility." Heinz Edelmann, the designer and art director of The Beatles' animated movie Yellow Submarine, even pitched the idea of making LOTR "as a kind of opera, or a sort of operatic impression" similar to Disney's Fantasia. Writes Hughes:
Ultimately, United Artists decided that animation was not the best way to proceed, and in June 1970 announced that John Boorman, the young British director who had come to Hollywood's attention three years earlier with his gritty thriller Point Blank, would helm a live-action version. [Boorman and screenwriter Rospo Pallenberg] conceived of several approaches, from a straightforward adaptation, to what Pallenberg later described as "like a Fellini movie in a never-land, or in a big studio, like Moulin Rouge! — sort of all fake." In the end, a more straightforward approach prevailed, with the studio hoping to combine all three volumes of the book into one film — an endeavor which proved challenging to say the least... At the time, the possibility remained that The Beatles might be involved, perhaps even playing the four hobbits, a prospect which Pallenberg relished, despite the fact that it would have been difficult to apply roles to each of the group's members. "It was presented to me as, 'Let's see if we can try and keep the four hobbits on an equal basis — [though] obviously, Frodo was the protagonist — so we did that," Pallenberg added, opining that Paul McCartney would have been his ideal Frodo. "They were the emotional anchor to the whole piece. We also anchored a lot of the film on how the ring corrupts, and we were fascinated by Tolkien's idea of 'stewardship of the land.'"
Boorman spent a year traveling the world looking for locations to shoot his LOTR adaptation and trying to figure out how to overcome some of the technical difficulties of making the Hobbits appear small (oversized props and locations) and the Nazgul fly (they would ride skinless horses instead). Despite Boorman's best efforts to make the movie cost-effective, United Artists "decided it was too risky, too costly, or simply not commercially viable, and put it on the back burner." Boorman's experience would not be a total loss, however. A decade later, he would put much of the experience he had gained in developing LOTR to use in making Excalibur.
United Artists, having spent $3 million developing LOTR with nothing to show for it, ended up selling the rights to MGM. LOTR would once again slog through Development Hell during the making of Ralph Bakshi's 1978 The Lord of the Rings animated feature, which the filmmaker described as "the hardest, most devastating and nerve-wracking two and a half years" of his life. The movie was supposed to be only the first part of a two-part movie adaptation, but the financiers backed out after the first movie was released, casting LOTR back into Development Hell until Jackson, like one of the epic heroes from Tolkien's tales, would arrive to save it from the deep, dark pit where it had been languishing for decades.
Next page: Darren Aronofsky's failed attempt to revive the Batman franchise following Batman & Robin.