The Lord of the Rings is one of those books that for many years people were saying would be impossible to make into a film. Due in part to its length, the amount of detail and attention that would be needed, and the huge budget that would be required, it became one of those books that people thought would never make the leap to the big screen. An attempt was made in 1978 to make an animated film, which did about half the combined three books across its runtime. Despite being a success, a follow-up was never made, leaving the only attempt at an adaptation half finished.
As such, producing a live action version of the story was seen as something of a gamble, one that a lot of directors and studios wouldn’t want to take on. The one person who seemed eager to do so was Peter Jackson, who began pitching to make the films back in 1995. His original plan was to make three films, The Hobbit as the first movie, with The Lord of the Rings split across two to follow it up. As Jackson took the project around, the plan changed, with studios wanting just The Lord of the Rings, and as a single movie.
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Moving from studio to studio as the rights for the project shifted, Jackson eventually ended up with New Line Cinema, who not only loved the project, but insisted that each part of the trilogy get its own film. With the time and budget to tell the story the way that it was meant to be told, work on The Fellowship of the Ring began in 1997. Wanting to make a film that felt real and lived in, Jackson used Weta Workshop to work on the armour, weapons, creatures, and costumes that would feature throughout the trilogy; a decision that would pay off as the film would end up being both believable and realistic even twenty years later.
Despite following the plot of the first book quite closely, several changes were made; most notably the removal of several characters and plot points towards the start of the book as the hobbits made their way through The Shire. The film also expanded on some parts for smaller characters, introduced elements that would pay off in later movies, and provided a primer for the history of the ring at the start of the film.
Gathering together a group of established actors, as well as up and coming talent, Jackson was able to assemble a cast who were not only perfect for the roles, but for most of them defined the characters. The film proved to be turning points in the careers of several of the actors, plucking them out of small television roles and making them Hollywood stars, including Elijah Wood who played Frodo Baggins, Billy Boyd who played Pippin, Orlando Bloom who played Legolas, and Viggo Mortensen who played Aragorn.
Joining these up and comers were several well established actors who helped to give the project notice, such as Sean Bean as Boromir, Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins, Ian McKellen as Gandalf, and Christopher Lee as Saruman. Lee, much like Jackson, was a lifelong fan of the books, having read them every year since their release; he is the only person to work on the film to have actually met Tolkien. With a cast set, the film began production in New Zealand in late 1999. Making use of dozens of locations across the country, the production would film all three entries back to back across three years, including pick-up work.
Once the first film was released in December 2001 it became an instant hit, smashing box office expectations to go on to earn $897.7 million against its $93 million budget. Not only was the film a commercial success, but it received critical acclaim as well, with both long time fans of the book and newcomers alike loving it. The review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes lists the film with 91%. Reviewers gave the film consistantly high marks, praising it for its visuals, pacing, characters, and ability to adapt Tolkien’s work so well.
The following year the film would go on to be nominated for dozens of awards, including Oscars, BAFTA’s, and Golden Globes, eventually winning 98 awards out of its 152 nominations. It was firmly cemented as as hit, and became a film that people were excitedly talking about in the build up to the second movie in the trilogy.
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Over the twenty years since its release The Fellowship of the Ring has become one of the greatest, and most influential movies of all time. Not only was it a smash hit, but it inspired dozens of other projects to try to follow suit, and showed people that fantasy projects could not only be taken seriously, but could be lucrative too. Without The Fellowship of the Ring, and the subsequent two movies, there would likely be less book adaptations over the years. We might not have had The Hunger Games or Harry Potter movies, and shows like Game of Thrones and The Wheel of Time probably wouldn’t have been made.
With The Fellowship of the Ring still being a stunning movie twenty years later, and a legacy that’s still inspiring other productions to this day, this is easily one of the most important and well made films of all time.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was released in the UK on 19th December 2001.