‘Lord of the Rings’ Film Turns 20: The Making of the Timeless Trilogy

Lord of the Rings (LOTR) fans waited all of 2001 for the release of the first of three films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1,300-page novel.

The first trailer appeared in January and promised an exorbitant fantasy spectacle complete with dragons, monsters and battles.

In June, a 26-minute preview was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, providing more impressions of the upcoming epic that would portray the quest of a small human-like creature, hobbit Frodo Baggins, to destroy an incredibly powerful ring to save the fictional world of Middle-earth.

He must fight the evil necromancer Sauron as well as the pull of the magic ring. For half a year, the picture of the hobbit holding a golden ring in his hands was the film’s advertisement, and it had a more lasting impression than mythical fire-breathing beasts.

Superlatives galore

On December 10, 2001, The Fellowship of the Ring, the trilogy’s first film, premiered in London, hit theatres worldwide in the days that followed, and grossed $897 million.

The Two Towers followed a year later, bringing in $947 million at the box office, while The Return of the King brought in another $1.15 billion in 2003.

The quest continues in part two, ‘The Two Towers’.

According to Box Office Mojo, only four films made more that LOTR part 3: The Lion King, Jurassic Park, Star Wars Episode 1 and Titanic.

With 30 Oscar nominations and a total of 17 trophies, the trilogy is the most successful in film history and has inspired other fantasy productions that were no less popular, including the three-part Hunger Games and the long-running series Game of Thrones.

Early attempts

Author J.R.R. Tolkien never expected anyone to turn his epic story into a film. Nevertheless, he sold the rights for a small sum to an independent production studio by the name of United Artists, because he didn’t want them to go to the powerful Disney corporation — he was not fond of the Disney versions of fairy tales and legends.

United Artists passed on the rights to Saul Zaentz, a successful producer (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus), who supported the first attempt to film the Lord of the Rings trilogy, an animated film directed by Ralph Bakshi.

But the film stopped virtually in the middle of the book and was not continued due to lack of interest.

Two years later, a television version of the second part was made as a Japanese anime, for the Japanese and US markets.

A film adaptation ran on Soviet television in 1991. The film Chraniteli was shot in a Leningrad studio, based on part one of the story, The Fellowship. The film was lost for a long time, only to be rediscovered this year, and put on YouTube.

Fans can watch the Soviet adaptation on YouTube.

Disheveled guy from New Zealand

But then director Peter Jackson showed interest.

The oddball from New Zealand with unkempt hair and a scruffy beard was keen on special effects.

Experimenting with Super 8 cameras since he was a child, he would drag friends and family in front of the camera to make short films.

His first full-length production was a horror film called Bad Taste, complete with chainsaws, aliens and cannibals, which won several fantasy and science fiction awards and achieved cult status.

His Oscar nomination for best original screenplay for the psychological drama Heavenly Creatures (1994) was his breakthrough in the mainstream film industry.

The film world took notice of the oddball after his genre films screened at prestigious festivals like Cannes and Venice.

In the early 1990s, Jackson and his wife had drafted a script that he handed in to the New Line Cinema production company, who were convinced of the idea and gave him a budget of about $150 million.

Jackson began filming in his native New Zealand, where he found the landscapes that brought Middle-earth to life: lovely countryside hills and fertile valleys, as well as icy mountain ranges and rugged rock formations, volcanoes and forests.

A competitor: Harry Potter

Shooting for the three films took place between October 11, 1999 and December 22, 2000, with additional scenes being shot later — a very ambitious and unprecedented project.

At the time, Hollywood would only shoot a sequel following the success of the original film, including for the Terminator, Indiana Jones, and even George Lucas’ Star Wars films.

When it was released, part one of Lord of the Rings was in competition with the first Harry Potter film adaptation, which had been released a few weeks earlier and enjoyed overwhelming success.

Guarantee for success

In the end, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which ultimately tallied up about $270 million in production costs, recouped its expenses at lightning speed.

Peter Jackson’s next Tolkien adaptation was no less successful. From 2012-2014, he filmed the Hobbit trilogy, which is set about 60 years before the events in Lord of the Ringsand tells the tale of how Bilbo Baggins came into possession of the mighty ring in the first place.

These three films grossed just under $3 billion.

Beginning in September 2022, Amazon plans to stream a related TV series that goes back even further, about 1,000 to 3,000 years, involving familiar characters and an even more evil villain than Sauron.

Mount Ngauruhoe, better known to many as Mount Doom.

Camping trip to Mount Doom

Merchandising, from Gollum plush toy dolls to tour maps, is another source of income that has become indispensable to the film business.

The films triggered a boom in tourism in New Zealand. To this day, enthusiastic fans book tours to, for instance, the hobbit village set of Hobbiton near Matamata on the North Island, which has been preserved since it was built for the film.

Mount Doom is also a tourist magnet: Mount Ngaurohoe towers above Tongariro National Park, also on North Island.

South Island also offers many tourist attractions for Lord of the Rings fans. The fascination for the story, its filming and the locations has not faded even 20 years after the premiere. Lord of the Rings is simply timeless.