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The struggle to make The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and the LotR trilogy collectively had one of the most complex productions in film history. The visual effects required technology that did not exist then and filming schedules were strenuous. But the biggest problem of them all was the writing.

Written by Kshitij Rawat | New Delhi |
August 2, 2019 7:25:40 am
lord of the rings fellowship of the ring Here is how The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was made.

This is the first edition of ‘Struggle to make’ which reveals how a film or TV show was brought to the screen — what were the difficulties in the production, how the casting was done, and tidbits.

English author JRR Tolkien is said to be the father of fantasy fiction. The title is not unearned. With his The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, he would come to establish fantasy as a literary genre. Nearly all the subsequent works in fantasy have at least partly been inspired by his writings and the fictional world that has captured the imagination of millions around the world. His elves, dwarves, orcs, goblins, Dark Lord, staff-wielding wizards are fantasy staples today.

Peter Jackson was not exactly a nobody when the idea of making live-action Lord of the Rings (it had been made in 2D animation by Ralph Bakshi in 1978 to mixed results) occurred to him, but he was not too well-known outside his native New Zealand either. The sole highlight of his career before he dabbled in Middle-earth was Heavenly Creatures, which introduced the world to Kate Winslet.

Jackson was fascinated by emerging computer-driven filmmaking technologies. He had used some of that at his own company Weta Digital’s work on his averagely received horror comedy The Frighteners (1996). He wanted to do something big.

Contrary to popular belief, The Lord of the Rings was written as a large single tome. It was divided into three volumes by Tolkien’s publisher. But even today, some editions combine the work into one single book.

Making one film on the book would have meant leaving a great chunk of the story and characters out. Tolkien fans were horrified at the very idea of a live-action adaptation of the works of the late author.

Peter Jackson had 2 films in mind before he took his idea to Robert Shaye of New Line. New Line, which later became Warner Bros’ sister studio, was founded by Shaye in 1967. Shaye said he would fund the project only if Jackson made three films. He allocated 90 million dollars to each film, the total amounting to 270 million dollars. In the end, the total production costs became 93, 94 and 94 million dollars for each film of the trilogy, respectively.

The Lord of the Rings features a story that has become an archetype for its genre. The archetype roughly goes like this: a farm boy (or a seemingly powerless person) becomes entangled in a quest to defeat the Dark Lord and in the end, he does so thanks to the skills he gains after being mentored by a wizard and/or a warrior. If not defeated, the Dark Lord will either destroy the world or enslave it. So, the stakes are as high as can be. There is a clearly delineated black and white mortality here.

Frodo Baggins is one of the hobbits, who are furry-footed, diminutive creatures living in bucolic Shire, an idyllic place which Tolkien modelled on the English countryside. Frodo is given the responsibility of the One Ring, a MacGuffin that is a character in itself, by his uncle who also leaves his entire wealth to him.

He is visited by Gandalf, a gruff wizard and an old friend to Bilbo (the story of that friendship is told in The Hobbit), who says he should destroy the One Ring, for it holds the spirit of the Dark Lord Sauron. While Sauron was vanquished when wise elves and mortal men came together in a rare alliance to defeat him some 3000 years ago, he won’t perish for good until the One Ring is destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom, where it was forged.

The film required a British cast as Tolkien had based Middle-earth on medieval England with a smattering of Norse mythology. The casting for the film looked odd at first glance if you have read the book, but once you are done watching the movie, it proves to be decidedly perfect. The slot for the main character Frodo Baggins and his trusted gardener, friend Samwise Gamgee remained vacant after 150 young Englishmen were auditioned. A certain Elijah Wood from Los Angeles sent a self-filmed audition in make-do hobbit getup, and the makers had found their unlikely hero. Another American Sean Astin was cast as Samwise.

Theatre and film veteran Sir Ian McKellen was cast as the leader of the fellowship, Gandalf, Viggo Mortensen (another American) as Aragorn, a warrior and heir to the throne of a major kingdom, Orlando Bloom as elf Legolas, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd as Merry and Pippin, the other two hobbits from the Shire, Sean Bean as brave but ambitious son of a steward, Boromir, and finally Welsh John Rhys-Davies as the dwarf Gimli. This became the Fellowship on which the film is named.

In a preview story in Empire magazine before the first film released, Peter Jackson admitted the toughest part about making these films was writing. “The most difficult thing has been the script. Without any doubt, the scriptwriting has been a total nightmare,” he said.

The Lord of the Rings is a work of prodigious proportions. It stretches to more than 1000 pages, and that is excluding really quite copious appendices, maps and prologue. Even in three 3-hour films, not everything could be shoehorned into the final cuts. And in Tolkienism, this was sacrilege. The screenwriting team included Jackson, his partner Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens and her partner Stephen Sinclair.

Tom Bombadil, a character that is one of the fan-favourites in the book, was chopped off for while it would have been entertaining, Bomadill ultimately does not have any significance on the overarching quest to destroy the One Ring. The relationship between Aragorn and Arwen was more developed as it is the sole love story in LotR. Long stretches of walking and conversation were eliminated to extend more meaningful scenes.

Some characters and scenes were altered and made more “cinematic.” For example, Council of Elrond is a long scene in the book and filming it in its entirety would have left the fans bored. It was made more dramatic in the film and the entire scene ran for less than ten minutes without missing out on any of the important bits. The dialogue was given more punch.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring became an instant global success. It combined great writing, stunning visual effects and pitch-perfect casting to tell an emotion-heavy tale of the eternal struggle against evil. It is considered by many as one of the greatest and most influential fantasy films ever made. It was nominated for 13 Oscars at the 74th Academy Awards ceremony, out of which it won four – Best Cinematography, Best Makeup, Best Original Score and Best Visual Effects.

The film also renewed interest in Tolkien’s works, and introduced them to millions more. For all its success, it was just the beginning. The succeeding two films outdid it.

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