TAKING ON TOLKIEN:
PETER JACKSON BRINGS THE NOVELS TO LIFE
"I am interested in themes about friendship and self-sacrifice. This is a story of survival and courage, about a touching last stand that paved the way for the ascent of humankind."
- Peter Jackson
When J.R.R. Tolkien published the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, The London Sunday Times stated that the world would forever more be divided into two types of people: "those who have read The Lord of the Rings and those who are going to." The publishing world was taken by storm as the book stoked hungry imaginations across the globe. Critics proclaimed that never before in contemporary times had an author dared to create an epic quest that rivaled the classic legends of Homer and Chaucer in scope, yet was utterly accessible to readers of all ages and nationalities.
Tolkien's Middle-earth struck a chord because it seemed at once to transport readers into an alternate world that existed before life as we know it, while remaining grounded in urgently real human themes. The book immediately developed a following that went beyond mere appreciation to pure devotion. In 1965, the paperback version came to America and became a runaway best seller. By the late 1960s, The Lord of the Rings was considered classic literature, a must-read for a new generation starting to believe in the notion of limitless imagination. It also became a counter-cultural symbol because of its prescient themes of environmental conscience and battles against the forces of corruption and war. The success of Tolkien's epic led to a burgeoning, lucrative market in books, videos, role-playing games, computer games, comic books and motion pictures inspired by the universe he created.
Peter Jackson, who became known for his own ability to visually evoke the world of dreams - and nightmares - in such films as Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners, was himself a fan of Tolkien's works, drawing inspiration from them in his formative years as a director. Jackson had long felt that The Lord of the Rings was ripe for its first complete cinematic telling, but he also knew that to do it justice would take perhaps the most ambitious production ever attempted in film history. There was a chance, he felt, that visual effects technology had just about reached the point where it could tackle the legends and landscapes of which Tolkien dreamed - and do his complexly imagined world justice.
Jackson waited for someone else to take on the challenge, but when no one did, he took a chance on bringing Tolkien's modern myth to the screen. He began with his own ambitious quest: "I started with one goal: to take moviegoers into the extraordinary world of Middle-earth in a way that is believable and powerful," he explains. "I wanted to take all the great moments from the books and use modern technology to give audiences nights at the movies unlike anything they've experienced before."
From the start, it was a mammoth undertaking, but Jackson felt that if he was going to go for it, he had to give it everything and then some. "I've spent seven years of my life on this project so far," he notes, "pouring my heart into every single aspect of it. But I think that's the least we owe to Tolkien and the legions of fans around the globe. They deserve our very best efforts."
While the trilogy of screenplays would take three years to complete, for the first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, Jackson and fellow writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens paid particular attention to Tolkien's many vivid descriptions of characters and places, hoping to build a viscerally true and vibrant world that would pull audiences into the adventure as participants.
"From the beginning I wanted to make something that felt real," comments Jackson. "Tolkien writes in a way that makes everything come alive, and we wanted to set that realistic feeling of an ancient world-come-to-life right away with the first film, then continue to build it as the story unravels. We constantly referred to the book, not just in writing the screenplay, but also throughout the production. Every time we shot a scene, I re-read that part of the book right before, as did the cast. It was always worth it, always inspiring."
"That being said," Jackson adds, "it has been equally important to us that the films amaze, surprise and delight people who have never read the books."
"It is the humanity of the characters that rewards the reader," says producer/co-writer Fran Walsh. "And we hope we've been able to translate that for the film audience."
Jackson knew he could not translate every
single line of Tolkien's epic trilogy into imagery, and that certain
changes to the beloved novel would need to be made, but he committed
himself to remaining faithful to how he had responded to Tolkien's
work as just one of the millions of captivated readers.
He explains: "When there was a question about how to proceed, I would just shut my eyes and imagine the characters in my head, the same way a million readers around the world have shut their eyes and seen these books come alive as personal movies in their heads. From doing that, I felt I already knew the characters and the scenes before we started shooting."
The more the screenwriters read Tolkien, the more nuances they discovered about the characters, the lands and adventures which they traverse. "The more time you spend in Tolkien's world," says Philippa Boyens, "the more complex it grows. It was all there for us, but the scope was tremendous."
Within that scope, Jackson wanted to bring front and center Tolkien's themes of good versus evil, nature versus industry, and friendship versus the forces of corruption. "All the major themes are introduced in The Fellowship of the Ring," he notes. "The most obvious one is good versus evil, but this story is also about how friendship endures and overcomes even in a world of tremendous upheaval and change. We really tried to make these themes part of the fabric of the first film."
"In a sense The Fellowship of the Ring is about understanding that in spite of our differences there is value in standing together," adds Walsh.
"What we are trying to do, as we adapt 'The Lord of the Rings' into a film medium, is honor these themes; and whilst you can never be totally faithful to a book, especially a book over 1,000 pages, we have tried to incorporate the things that Tolkien cared about when he wrote the book, and make them the fabric of the films."
Producer Barrie M. Osborne, who previously broke new ground with the special-effects blockbuster The Matrix, notes: "They had brought to these characters so much warmth and emotion that you really identify not only with the tale but with the personalities in it. It reminded me of the Godfather saga in that there were so many different characters you could identify with. Some fall while others become heroic."
Jackson embraced another decision in the
early days of the trilogy's development: to shoot all three films
at once, something which had never been done in filmmaking history.
"I felt that in order to do the tale's epic nature justice,
we had to shoot it as one big story because that's what it is.
It's three movies that will take you through three very unique
experiences, but it all adds up to one unforgettable story,"
Jackson's decision resulted in a record-breaking commitment of time, resources and manpower for a single massive production shoot. The logistics might have been staggering to many, but the notion was thrilling to Jackson. "As a director, it has given me an enormous canvas on which to try all sorts of things. The story has so much variety to it. In each installment there is intimate, heart-wrenching drama, huge battle scenes, intense special effects, sudden changes for the characters, every emotion in the realm. It was a continual challenge for me and hopefully will be an enduring delight for audiences," he says.
In the end, there were those who thought Peter Jackson might have been closer to the project than was "humanly" possible. "The cast often referred to me as a Hobbit," admits Jackson. "I'm sure it's a joke but to tell the truth, the Hobbit lifestyle -- good food and a comfy chair in front of a fire -- sounds pretty good to me! Especially after making three movies at once."
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