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Why Peter Jackson's 'Lord of the Rings' succeeded as an adaptation

By Jeff Peterson

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, Dec. 7 2012 6:30 a.m. MST

From left, Dominic Monaghan as Merry, Elijah Wood as Frodo, Billy Boyd as Pippin and Sean Astin as Sam in "Fellowship of the Ring."

New Line Cinema

Before Peter Jackson stepped into Middle-earth, J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1954 epic “The Lord of the Rings” had already changed the world of fantasy, having sold more than 100 million copies and given birth to countless fans over multiple generations.

When it comes to adapting a novel for the big screen, though, fan expectations can be a major obstacle to overcome.

That’s especially true when the fans in question are as numerous and passionate as Tolkien’s.

Given some early attempts at bringing Middle-earth to life on the big screen, including one version that would have starred The Beatles (Paul as Frodo, Ringo as Sam, George as Gandalf and John as Gollum), fans had every reason to expect disappointment circa the 2001 release of “The Fellowship of the Ring.”

It was a movie genre seemingly doomed to mediocrity, with the most successful fantasy movie before “The Lord of the Rings” being 1988’s “Willow". The fact that this would be Jackson’s first foray into big-budget filmmaking was just salt in the wound.

In short, a movie adaptation of “The Lord of the Rings” had no right to be anything other than a disaster.

Instead, though, audiences were met with a sprawling fantasy epic completely unlike anything created before.

One film after another, “The Lord of the Rings” became a massive fan and critical hit, earning altogether nearly $3 billion, more than 250 film awards (including 17 Oscars) and being hailed as the greatest film trilogy of this generation.

Just as miraculously, Jackson’s films seemed perfectly geared towards both the Tolkien neophyte and the devotee alike.

So with the "Lord of the Rings" prequel "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" set to premiere next week, the question is, what made “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy so successful as a literature-to-film adaptation?

Back in 1998, Jackson spoke with entertainment site Ain’t It Cool News. Trying to assuage the fears of diehard Tolkienites up in arms over rumored changes, the director said, “You shouldn’t think of these movies as being ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is, and always will be … one of the greatest (stories) ever written. Any films will only ever be an interpretation of the book. In this case my interpretation.”

No matter how slavishly Jackson had followed the original text, it would have been impossible to perfectly translate all 1,000 pages of Tolkien’s masterpiece to the big screen in a way that satisfied everyone.

After all, as critic Steven D. Greydanus of the National Catholic Register put it in an article on his website, The Decent Film Guide, Tolkien fans are an “almost comically diverse audience, encompassing Oxford literati in the 1950s, tie-dyed flower children in the 1960s, teenage role-playing gamers in the 1970s, conservative Catholics and other Christians in every decade, and countless more besides.”

Instead, Jackson focused on making the story work, first and foremost, as a film.

As any purists can attest, that meant taking major liberties with the source material. Characters are tweaked right and left, big chunks of the story like “The Scouring of the Shire” and Tom Bombadil are excised completely and much of the focus shifts to complex action set pieces like the Mines of Moria or the Battle of Helm’s Deep.

Unlike some movie adaptations, though, that doesn’t mean that Jackson and company used the novels merely as a jumping-off point and then made up their own story from there.

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