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

“We constantly referred to the book,” Jackson said, “not just in writing the screenplay, but also throughout the production. Every time we shot a scene, I reread that part of the book right before, as did the cast. It was always worth it, always inspiring."

Ian McKellan, who plays the wizard Gandalf in all of Jackson’s Middle-earth films, even went so far as to call their version “perhaps the most faithful screenplay adapted from a long novel.”

This is all the more remarkable considering how the project started. As Jackson, who cut his teeth with Z-grade horror comedies, originally pitched a “Lord of the Rings” adaptation to Miramax, Tolkien’s opus would have been pared down to two movies with a combined budget of only $75 million — less than most recent Adam Sandler comedies.

When Miramax suggested that one medium-length movie would be enough to cover all the major plot points, though, Jackson wisely took the project to New Line. There, he was encouraged to expand his vision.

The result? Arguably the most ambitious film production ever attempted at that time.

Shooting all three films simultaneously, Jackson had up to 20,000 people working under him, including more than 10,000 extras, making him at some points the single largest employer in all of New Zealand, according to The Economist.

Production included more than 48,000 pieces of armor, 19,000 costumes and 1,800 pairs of Hobbit feet created by the now-world-famous New Zealand effects company Weta Workshop.

Bringing a sense of legitimacy to the production, Jackson also hired two of the most successful Tolkien illustrators, Alan Lee and John Howe, to guide the design of every facet of Middle-earth.

In all of this, the filmmakers listened attentively to fans.

“Jackson himself interacted with movie webmasters and fans on a regular basis,” noted Garth Franklin of the movie news site Dark Horizons back in the early 2000s. “He’s extremely aware of fans and is making these films with them in mind.”

Underneath all the spectacle and bombast of Jackson’s CGI-enhanced Middle-earth, though, the films are particularly faithful to the books in one key way: Tolkien’s themes are left intact.

Rather remarkably, that includes an unmistakable Christian worldview.

During a press junket for “The Return of the King,” Jackson told one Christian group, "I’m not a Catholic, so I didn’t put any of that personally into the film on my behalf, but I certainly am aware that there were certain (religious) things that Tolkien was thinking of. … We made a real decision at the beginning that we weren’t going to introduce any new themes of our own into ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ We were just going to make a film based upon what clearly Tolkien was passionate about."

In some instances, Jackson highlights the Christian symbolism even more explicitly than Tolkien, like, for example, when Gandalf sacrifices himself to the demonic Balrog, falling with his arms outstretched in the shape of a cross.

“While not equaling the religious vision of the books,” writes Greydanus, “the films honor that vision in a way that Christian viewers can appreciate, and that for non-Christian postmoderns may represent a rare encounter with an unironic vision of good and evil.”

Of course, Jackson’s trilogy isn’t without its detractors. Among them, rather notably, is Tolkien’s youngest son and literary heir, Christopher, who has spent much of his life editing his father’s unfinished manuscripts for publication. In a recent interview with French newspaper Le Monde, the younger Tolkien, who just turned 88 this year, criticized the filmmakers, saying: “They gutted the books, making an action film for 15- to 25-year-olds.”

Jackson’s decision to adapt the slight, 300 or so pages of “The Hobbit” as a full-on prequel trilogy has also been met with raised eyebrows by some who see it as a blatant cash-grab.

Ultimately, though, the “Lord of the Rings” films have been successful for a reason both fans and detractors alike should be able to get behind, namely, the exposure they’ve provided Tolkien’s original masterpieces in the 21st century.

As one critic said shortly after the release of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the world would now be divided into two types of people: “Those who have read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and those who are going to.”

Since the first movie was released in 2001, Tolkien’s books have become more popular than ever. “The Lord of the Rings” has sold an additional 50 million copies and currently ranks as the third best-selling novel of all-time.

At No. 4, with more than 100 million copies, sits “The Hobbit.”

It’s anyone’s guess how many more of Tolkien’s books will sell between now and the conclusion of Jackson’s new trilogy or how many new fans will be created as a result.

A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.

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