If anything can be learned from Peter Jackson’s celebrated trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s most famous work, it is that one does not simply adapt a 1200-page novel for the big screen overnight. The road to the unveiling of 2001’s The Fellowship of the Ring is littered with the detritus of broken dreams and missed opportunities. Talk of a proposed film adaptation emerged as far back as 1957, but it was not until 1970 when, having recently purchased the rights to the book, United Artists commissioned a young British director, John Boorman (who had rose to prominence following 1967’s Point Blank starring Lee Marvin), to bring a live-action version of The Lord of the Rings to the big screen at last.
Boorman had long cherished an ambition to make a film about the legend of King Arthur, but found the opportunity to tackle Tolkien’s work too tantalising to turn down. Having accepted the gig, Boorman enlisted the help of writer Rospo Pallenberg and together they embarked on a yearlong quest to find a way to condense the novel into a single feature-length film.
Right from the start, the project was beset with difficulties. “At the time, they [United Artists] produced long movies with an intermission,” Boorman explained. “[The script] is 176 pages with an intermission on page eighty-one, after the fellowship goes down the rapids, and you have a sense that they have reached a great landscape as the river widens.” After the intermission, “we accelerated as we continued the story, and dropped things out. We were propelled by what we liked, and invented as we went along.”
And invent they did. To open the film, Boorman and Pallenberg planned to have the camera invade Tolkien’s study, disturbing him at work, before flying off to Rivendell where the story of Sauron and the creation of the rings would be explained. But this was by no means the furthest departure made from the Tolkien canon over the course of the mammoth script.
The two writers altered character arcs in ways which today’s audiences can scarcely imagine. In what is perhaps the most provocative change, Pallenberg constructed a scene whereby upon meeting Galadriel in Lothlorien, Frodo must become intimate with her before gazing into her enchanted mirror. In contrast, love is most definitely not in the air between Aragorn and a supposedly 13-year-old Arwen (is that 13 in Elf years?). Instead, the rightful King of Gondor gets hitched with Eowyn (presumably after providing her with some much-needed sexual healing on the battlefield). What became of Gandalf’s noble steed Shadowfax, I hear you cry? The poor fellow is seen pulling a plough across the fields of Pelennor, a symbol of reconstruction. Not the lifetime supply of sugar cubes he surely felt was his due.
While all this was going on, there was talk of casting The Beatles as the four hobbits, with Paul McCartney Pallenberg’s choice to play Frodo. On the role of the hobbits in the film, Pallenberg said “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’.”
Yet for all their innovations in the script, Boorman and Pallenberg still had to contend with some daunting technical challenges if they were to succeed in bringing their vision to life. The duo planned to solve the issue of making the hobbits appear smaller than they were by creating oversized props and locations. Boorman’s preference to do things ‘on the cheap’ had a number of consequences; not least of which was that the Witch King’s winged steed was ditched in favour of a horse with no flesh. Furthermore, principal photography, had it gone ahead, would most likely have taken place in Ireland, as this would have opened up tax incentives for the production.
In spite of all their efforts, however, Boorman and Pallenberg’s script had barely been submitted to United Artists before the studio decided the whole venture was too risky and pulled the plug.
Although an animated version of The Lord of the Rings would make it into cinemas in 1978, courtesy of Brooklyn-born animator Ralph Bakshi, Tolkien fans would have to wait another 23 years to see a live-action vision of Middle Earth realised on the big screen. The story did not end there for Boorman and Pallenberg, however. In 1981, using the knowledge they had gained a decade earlier, the pair succeeded in making Excalibur, the film about King Arthur which Boorman had set his heart on making before being enticed by United Artists to helm The Lord of the Rings.
When considering a subject such as the ‘Best Films Never Made’, it is customary to imagine what might have been had the project remained on course and made it onto our screens. Alas, we will never know. From the script, we can glean that Boorman and Pallenberg planned to make some fairly radical departures from Tolkien’s text and given the fondness with which Peter Jackson’s trilogy is held, perhaps we should be thankful that this particular vision was never realised. Still, the prospect of Galadriel getting it on with Frodo would have been quite a sight.
What do you think? Would Peter Jackson never even attempted his version with such a grandiose version already pre-existing or did this project’s collapse save us all from a horror beyond Mordor’s terrors?