In December, Peter Jackson will return to deliver his final instalment in the Hobbit trilogy. Regardless of whether you prefer the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings films, it has been a phenomenal achievement by Jackson and his team to bring Tolkien’s world to such tremendous life. As many know, they were not the first to attempt an adaptation of Tolkien’s literature, with John Boorman‘s 1970s approach presenting some fascinating and frankly bizarre twists. However, it is the first cinematic attempt to which our attentions turn. It begins just three years after the book was originally published in late 1954, and saw The Beatles, Stanley Kubrick and an author’s hatred of loud noises headline.
The journey towards the silver screen begins with literary agent Forrest J. Ackerman, when he visited J.R.R. Tolkien at Oxford, where the author was Merton Professor of English Language and Literature. Ackerman arrived to deliver the first suggestion of an adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. Ackerman proposed an animated feature and had provided his own early sketches to what Mordor could look like. At first, Tolkien was reported as being quite open to the idea.
The largely unknown Tolkien at the time was worried about the long-term royalty prospects for his book. A successful animated adaptation of his materials would certainly have boosted his menial professor’s wage. However, with no deal seemingly coming to fruition due to unenthused major studios, Ackerman abandoned ship and became a world-renowned legend in science fiction, fantasy and horror. Ackerman’s magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland inspired the likes of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and future Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, who reciprocated his thanks by giving Ackerman a cameo in his third feature film Braindead. Small world.
The project lay dormant till 1967 when producers Sam Gelfman and Gabe Katzka set out to obtain the rights to the series on behalf of United Agents. The long negotiations would take two years and would conclude in a monumental 50-page contract. However, during these negotiations, Apple Films saw the opportunity to capture the rights for their most prized asset. As Tolkien’s status grew in the 1960s, so did that of a certain boyband from Liverpool.
Apple Films had seen The Beatles dominate the box office for them in films such as A Hard Day’s Night, Help! and Yellow Submarine. As the production company searched for the next project for the musicians to take on, John Lennon delivered his suggestion in the form of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Lennon was the lead driving-force on the project with sights set on the role of Gollum. Meanwhile Paul McCartney would be assigned Frodo, Ringo Starr would take on Sam, and George Harrison would be Gandalf. The Beatles themselves went so far as to approach a pre-2001: A Space Odyssey Stanley Kubrick to direct their ambitious feat. Sadly, the director passed on their offer as he felt the trilogy was impossible to film, due to the immensity of the source material.
The best summarisation of how this saga ended comes from Peter Jackson on a press tour for his original trilogy: “It was something John was driving, and J.R.R. Tolkien still had the film rights at that stage, but he didn’t like the idea of The Beatles doing it. So he killed it.” Tolkien’s rejection of The Beatles’ offer is hardly a surprise to either fanbase – yet recently-revealed letters from the author suggest a personal dimension to his opposition to the project.
In 1953, Tolkien had relocated to a quiet new house in a cul-de-sac in Oxford based on a doctor’s ultimatum to, in his words, find a house on “high dry soil and in the quiet” to support his ailing wife Edith. However 11 years later, his cul-de-sac had been opened up to traffic and Tolkien was not best pleased with the council’s decision. In a letter to Christopher Bretherton, the author complained about “radio, tele, dogs, scooters, buzzbikes, and cars of all sizes but the smallest [making noise] from early morn to about 2 a.m.” In particular, his anger’s key outlet came three doors away. Tolkien wrote, “In a house three doors away dwells a member of a group of young men who are evidently aiming to turn themeselves into a Beatle group. On days when it falls to his turn to a have a practice session the noise is indescribable.”
The likelihood of The Beatles actually adapting The Lord of the Rings was highly unlikely due to United Agents’ striking the all-important deal, yet the prospect of The Beatles taking on Sauron is a fascinating one. For the best send off on this project, we turn once more to Peter Jackson who said, “there probably would’ve been some good songs coming off the album”.