"I am interested in themes about friendship and self-sacrifice. This is a story of survival and courage, about a touching last stand that paved the way for the ascent of humankind."
When J.R.R. Tolkien published the first volume of The Lord of The Rings, The London Sunday Times stated that the world would forever more be divided into two types of people: "those who have read The Lord of The Rings and those who are going to." The praise extended beyond mere reviews. The publishing world was taken by storm. Never before in contemporary times had an author dared to create an epic quest that rivaled the classic legends of Homer and Chaucer in scope, yet was utterly accessible to readers of all ages and nationalities. The book stoked hungry imaginations across the globe.
Tolkiens Middle-earth struck a chord because it seemed at once to take readers into a fantastically magical realm far, far away, while remaining grounded in urgently real human themes. The book immediately developed a following that went beyond mere appreciation to obsessive devotion. In 1965, the paperback version came to America and was taken to heart, becoming a runaway best-seller. By the late 1960s, The Lord of The Rings was considered classic literature, a must-read for a new generation starting to believe in the notion of limitless imagination. It also became a counter-cultural symbol because of its prescient themes of environmental conscience and battles against the forces of corruption and war. The trilogy joined Arthur C. Clarkes 2001: A Space Odyssey as a literary icon of its time. Tolkiens work also became the godfather of a new entertainment genre fantasy which led to a burgeoning, lucrative market in books, videos, role-playing games, computer games, comic books and motion pictures.
Another person influenced by Tolkien in his formative years was director Peter Jackson, who became known for his own ability to visually evoke the world of dreams, fantasies, and nightmares in such films as Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners. Jackson had long felt that The Lord of The Rings was ripe for its first complete cinematic telling, but he also knew that to do it justice would take perhaps the most ambitious production ever attempted in history. There was a chance, he felt, that visual effects technology had just about reached the point where it could tackle the legends and landscapes of which Tolkien dreamed and do his brilliant imagination justice.
Jackson waited for someone else to take on the behemoth, but when no one dared, he decided to put his own burning passion behind bringing Tolkiens modern myth to the screen. He began with his own ambitious quest: "I started with one goal: to take moviegoers into the fantastical world of Middle-earth in a way that is believable and powerful," he explains. "I wanted to take all the great moments from the books and use modern technology to give audiences nights at the movies unlike anything theyve experienced before."
From the start, it was clearly a mammoth undertaking, but Jackson felt that if he was going to go for it, he had to give it everything and then some. "Ive spent seven years of my life on this project so far," he notes, "pouring my heart into every single aspect of it. But I think thats the least we owe to Tolkien and the legions of fans around the globe. They deserve our very best efforts."
Jackson began by working on a trilogy of screenplays with fellow writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, a process that in itself took three years. For the first installment, The Fellowship of The Ring, they paid particular attention to Tolkiens many vivid descriptions of characters and places, hoping to build a viscerally true and vibrant world that would pull audiences into the adventure as participants and draw them into the suspense of waiting to see what happens next.
"From the beginning I didnt want to make your standard fantasy film," comments Jackson. "I wanted something that felt much, much more real. Tolkien writes in a way that makes everything come alive and we wanted to set that realistic feeling of an ancient world-come-to-life right away with the first film, then continue to build it as the story unravels. We constantly referred to the book, not just in writing the screenplay, but also throughout the production. Every time we shot a scene, I reread that part of the book right before, as did the cast. It was always worth it, always inspiring."
"That being said," Jackson adds, "it has been equally important to us that the films amaze, surprise and delight people who have never read the books or know anything about hobbits, dwarves and elves. Tolkiens world holds an appeal for anyone who comes ready to experience something special."
Jackson knew he could not translate every single line of Tolkiens epic trilogy into imagery, and that certain changes to the beloved novel would need to be made, but he committed himself to remaining faithful to how he had responded to Tolkiens work as one enchanted reader.
He explains: "When there was a question about how to proceed, I would just shut my eyes and imagine the characters in my head, the same way a million readers around the world have shut their eyes and seen these books come alive as personal movies in their heads. From doing that, I felt I already knew the characters and the scenes before we started shooting."
The more the screenwriters read Tolkien, the more nuances it seemed they discovered about the characters, the lands and adventures which they traverse. "The more time you spend in Tolkiens world," says Philippa Boyens, "the more complex it grows. It was all there for us, but the scope was tremendous."
Within that scope, Jackson wanted to bring front and center Tolkiens themes of good versus evil, nature versus machines, and friendship versus the forces of corruption. "All the major themes are introduced in The Fellowship of The Ring," he notes. "The most obvious one is good versus evil but this story is also about how friendship endures and overcomes even in a world of tremendous upheaval and change. We really tried to make these themes part of the fabric of the first film."
"What we are trying to do, as we adapt The Lord of The Rings into a film medium is honor these themes; and whilst you can never be totally faithful to a book, especially a book over 1,000 pages, we have tried to incorporate the things that Tolkien cared about when he wrote the book, and make them the fabric of the films."
For Boyens, the key to adapting Tolkien was imagining the characters and their individual quests as being those of real beings who actually once lived on earth, albeit 7,000 years ago in a world of talking trees, powerful elves and fading magic. "Each character in Tolkien has a wonderful personal story and a wonderful journey to go on," she says. "We looked at each one individually and tried to bring their personal growth to the fore."
The completed screenplays took even Tolkien fans by surprise. "They had brought to these characters so much warmth and emotion that you really identify not only with the tale but with the personalities in it," states producer Barrie M. Osborne, who previously broke new ground with the special-effects thriller The Matrix. "It reminded me of the Godfather saga in that there were so many different characters you could identify with. Some fall while others become heroic."
Jackson also embraced another decision in the early days of the trilogys development: to shoot all three films at once, something which had never been done in filmmaking history. "I felt that in order to do the tales epic nature justice, we had to shoot it as one big story because thats what it is. Its three movies that will take you through three very unique experiences but it all adds up to one unforgettable story," he explains. "I look forward to the day when audiences can sit down and watch all three films in a row, because it is one big story and adventure."
Jacksons decision resulted in a record-breaking commitment of time, resources and manpower for a single massive production shoot. The logistics might have been staggering to many, but the notion was thrilling to Jackson. "As a director, it has given me an enormous canvas on which to try all sorts of things. The story has so much variety to it. In each installment there is intimate, heart-wrenching drama, huge battle scenes, intense special effects, sudden changes for the characters, every emotion in the realm. It was a continual challenge for me and hopefully will be an enduring delight for audiences," he says.
In the end, there were those who thought Peter Jackson might have been closer to the project than was "humanly" possible. "The cast often referred to me as a hobbit," admits Jackson. "Im sure its a joke but to tell the truth, the hobbit lifestyle -- good food and a comfy chair in front of a fire -- sounds pretty good to me! Especially after making three movies at once."