Making Middle-earth – United Airlines Horizons

by Aug 28, 2001Lord of the Rings (Movies)

During my recent travels, I picked up a copy of the July issue of United Airlines Hemispheres magazine, which has an extensive article about the Lord of the Rings books and films, and transcribed it for your reading enjoyment.

by Scott S. Smith

One Movie to woo them all. One movie to find them.
One Movie to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

If New Line Cinema and director Peter Jackson have their way, millions of people across the globe will soon be bound to theater seats by movie images adapted from one of the most influential and beloved series of books in history — J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

The saga of how the legendary land of Middle-earth is coming to theaters as a series of three films is no less an epic – and a quest – than the Tolkien story it tries to tell. All of the perils and pitfalls of the creation of these movies, and their ultimate success or failure, will resonate through the coming years.

On December 19, The Fellowship of the Ring, the first of the three Lord of the Rings movies, will be released – the next two to premiere in successive December holiday seasons. Million of loyal readers are expected to turn Tolkien’s three-volume fantasy novel into the most successful movie series in history – Star Wars notwithstanding.

When New Line made a short preview available at its web site ( in Aril 1999, 1.7 million eager fans downloaded it on the first day. By comparison, Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace garnered just a million downloads in a comparable period. During the first three days after The Ring’s Web site relaunch in January, it received 41 million visitors, with more than 300 million more during the following three months.

For 438 days, director Jackson and a crew of more than 2,500 turned parts of New Zealand into Tolkien’s Middle0earth, spending a reported US$270 million to accomplish the unheard-of – making all three films at one time. There are over 70 speaking parts in the three movies and a cast that includes such heavyweight names as Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Liv Tyler, Elijah Wood, Sir Ian Holm, and Sir Ian McKellen.

For those who wonder what all the fuss is about, imagine a series of books so creatively crafted and spellbindingly popular that they hold readers – new and old – in thrall decades after their initial publication. Even the current Harry Potter craze looks like child’s play by comparison. The Lord of the Rings has topped half a dozen British reader and bookstore surveys for “novel of the century,” and‘s visitors voted it the best book of the millennium. (Screen legend Christopher Lee, who plays the corrupt wizard Saruman in the film, says he has read it 25 times.)

Tolkien’s creation, first published in 1964, not only established many of the symbols and archetypes that fantasy books and movies would borrow and adapt over the next half-century, but also provided the psychological settings for a generation’s coming of age in the 1960s. And as readers have discovered, the deeper you dive into Tolkien, the more detail you find that supports the world he created.

Just listing some of the cast of fantasy characters is enough to give goosebumps to the faithful: Bilbo and Frodo Baggins (Hobbits: pint-sized, furry-footed beings); Gandalf, the wizard who leads a fellowship to destroy the One Ring; Aragorn, rightful heir to the throne of Men; and Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor, who seeks to rule all of Middle-earth.

There are also memorable creatures, such as Ents, the treelike forest shepherds; Orcs, the evil race of Sauron’s minions; and the slimy, pitiful Gollum, a fallen Hobbit. The scope of the story is vast and deep, as the forces of cosmic and earthly good and evil approach in a final conflict that has been millennia in preparation. And the haunting inscription written on the One Ring of Power is a touchstone for all Tolkien fans -whether written in English or Tolkien’s invented Elvish script:

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

Tolkien crated an astonishingly real world — so detailed that the maps, calendars, genealogies, alphabets, and cultural anthropology that fill more than 100 pages of appendices are seamlessly integrated and quite necessary for true aficionados, not to mention scholars. The Silmarillion, which provides the mythological/historical background, and dozens of volumes of scholarly commentary – all devoured eagerly by fans.

The Improbable Bestseller

A more unlikely person to have written something so commercially successful is hard to imagine. John Ronald Ruel Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892, and his family moved back to the midlands of England when he was 3. His father died shortly thereafter; his mother died when Tolkien was only 12.

He and his cousins began making up play languages as children, a hobby that led to Tolkien becoming fluent in languages as challenging as Welsh, Greek, Gothic, Old Norse, and Anglo-Saxon (Old English) – the tongue of his distant ancestors. Love of language infuses every aspect of the creation of Tolkien’s fantasy world.

The Oxford-educated Tolkien began composing the background mythology for The Rings while recovering from trench fever contracted in 1917 during World War I. Later, as professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, he became famous in scholarly circles for his groundbreaking paper “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics,” a landmark analysis of the first great English poem.

In the early 1930s, Tolkien helped found The Inklings, a discussion group for writers who wanted feedback for their works-in-progress. The group was soon hearing chapters of a fantasy work by Tolkien that he called The Hobbit.

“Hobbit” was a name Tolkien concocted for a race that could best be described as half-size members of the rural English middle class but who also have shoeless furry feet and lived in elaborate hillside holes. One of them, Bilbo Baggins, is drafted to go on a quest with Dwarves for treasure and on the way meets the twisted creature Gollum, from whom he inadvertently takes a golden ring that makes its bearer invisible.

One of Tolkien’s students saw the draft and convinced her employer, publisher Allen & Unwin, to look at it. The firm’s chairman, Stanly Unwin, thought the best judge of a children’s book would be his 11-year-old-son, Rayner. The boy earned a shilling for reporting back that it was “very exciting,” and The Hobbit was published in 1937.

It sold so well that Unwin asked Tolkien for a sequel. It took more than a dozen years to produce, and the result was not the expected children’s fantasy but The Lord of the Rings, which is set 75 years after events in The Hobbit, as a power struggle begins over Bilbo’s ring.

The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of the trilogy (followed by The Two Towers and The Return of the King), opens with Bilbo’s decision to give the magic ring to his nephew, Frodo, and retire to the land of the Elves. Gandalf realizes this is actually the One Ring, which can give the wearer control over the minds of others. It was forged by Sauron, the Dark Lord, who lost it in battle; if regained, he would be able to make the residents of Middle-earth his slaves. The only way to prevent this is to destroy the ring where it was forged, a volcano in the midst of Sauron’s kingdom. For a variety of reasons, the task falls to Frodo.

When C.S. Lewis (a member of The Inklings) first read the manuscript, he wrote to Tolkien that its “steady upward slope of grandeur and terror… is almost unequalled in the whole range of narrative art known to me.”

The Monster and the Critics

When the Fellowship appeared in 1954, some eminent critics shared the view of reviewer Bernard Levin, who hailed it as “one of the most remarkable works of literature in our, or any, time.” But there was a vicious response from many in the literary establishment. As the poet W. H. Auden wrote, “Nobody seems to have a moderate opinion; either, like myself, people find it a masterpiece of its genre, or they cannot abide by it.”

The chief complaint was that the work was escapist fantasy. But in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrestles, metaphorically, with such modern matters as addiction, the destruction of the environment, and the perils of realpolitik. As essayist W.A. Senior notes, The Ring’s central theme of loss “may well encapsulate the defining ethos of the first half of the twentieth century.” Hardly escapism.

Regardless of the grand themes, much of the novel’s success can be attributed to its compelling story. Tolkien was able to construct this, argues Erica Challis, cofounder of, because by reading to his colleagues “he gained a fine sense of how to pace the story, and his audience of Oxford intellectual writers was exacting.” And, he was writing “with utter freedom, thinking that in all likelihood nobody would ever read it except friends and family.

Few authors in history have been equipped with the linguistic insight to create entire worlds and the language spoken in them. Tolkien had “a poet’s understanding of how language is used,” says Humphrey Carter, author of J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. Indeed, Tolkien’s knowledge of languages was so great that he later explained that The Rings was designed primarily to provide a world in which his made-up languages would exist logically. In the trilogy, he created 600 names that would come from the speakers of these tongues. Tolkien also used his mastery of language in building a narrative of enormous complexity, with a series of story lines that continually alternate between small and epic events.

The novel stretches literary convention in some of its more unusual storytelling approaches, such ass the 15,000-word Council of Elrond sequence, a discussion among a dozen characters about the fate of the ring. But readers become so caught up in the exchange that they don’t notice the lack of action. (The movie, of course, greatly abbreviates the conversation.) Tolkien is able to pull this off because he uses “interlacing,” a technique that relates narrative threads to each other in often subtle ways.

Sorcerer’s Apprentice

To bring Tolkien’s fully realized world to the screen takes a kindred spirit who is a wizard of another sort. Enter director Peter Jackson, who seems to have been born to direct The Lord of the Rings A childhood fan of the novel, he will have given the mammoth project a decade of his life when the third movie is unveiled in 2003.

A lifelong film bug, Jackson began making movies with his parents’ Super 8 camera at age 88. Dropping out of school at 17 to try to get a job in the budding New Zealand film industry, he spent much of his time from age 22 to 26 making a science-fiction short film, Bad Taste, which grew in the making to a feature-length film and developed a cult following. He won 16 science-fiction festival awards for 1992’s Braindead before winning an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay for 1994’s Heavenly Creatures. Two years later, Michael J. Fox starred in his The Frighteners, which put Jackson’s special effects skills on display.

Jackson’s devotion to Tolkien’s masterpiece drove the project forward from the start, notes famed Tolkien illustrator John Howe, who, along with legendary fantasy artist Alan Lee, worked for over a year as a conceptual artist on the film, creating the environments of Middle-earth.

“Peter Jackson’s always had the most incredible respect for and knowledge of The Lord of the Rings books,’ Howe says.. “I think he knows them back to front; he knows the history of Middle-earth inside-out. And he’s read and looked at everything that’s ever been published on it and remembers it all.”

No one has ever attempted to crate a single story in three motion pictures, filming them all at the same time. And Jackson is the first to admit the process drove him crazy, filling his sleep with nightmares and making him eager to wake up and get back to work.

He and his two collaborators,, Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens, labored for three years on the original script, modifying it significantly during another year as filming was taking place (often with feedback from the movie’s equally passionate cast).

“Way back in the beginning, we thought there was quite a bit we were going to have to alter to turn this into a film,” Jackson admits. “But just about every time we think we’ve found a clever way to improve upon how the story can be told, we find ourselves going back closer and closer to the books.” The dialogue in the movies, he notes, is often Tolkien’s exact words.

Tolkien fans have given Jackson’s movie unprecedented scrutiny, lobbying for the films to stay true to the books. Jackson has demonstrated to the Tolkien cognoscenti that he knows Tolkien’s works as well and as passionately as they do.

There will, however, be necessary changes that fans will notice. The first book suffers the most cuts. Perhaps the most significant deviation is leaving out Tom Bombadil, a mysterious and powerful character in the novel. (Jackson argues that the Hobbits’ encounter with him is not relevant to the main storyline.) Also stirring a bit or controversy is the beefing up of the love story between Aragorn, heir to the throne of Men (played by Viggo Mortensen), and the Elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler).

“We had endless discussions about what really was in the spirit of Middle-earth,” says Howe. “It’s very difficult to stay as close to the books as many people would like because it’s just not quite cinematographic. The bits that aren’t directly related to moving the story forward were dropped.”

Fans have made it known that they’re particularly pleased that Howe and Lee were chosen as the conceptual artists for the film since they have already been immensely popular as artists for Tolkien books and calendars. Their detailed visions have been realized through the use of state-of-the-art computer-generated graphics, 24,000 square feet of miniature figures, more than 100 shooting locations throughout New Zealand, and metalsmiths in India who beat out 900 sets of chain mail. Only within the past several years have digital special effects become capable of visually approaching the magic of Tolkien’s imagination, The results are sure to leave the audience stunned.

“Every film genre has been done well in the last 100 years,” says Jackson, “but not this type of fantasy story. No filmmaker could ask for a greater challenge.”

Tolkien’s Rings trilogy stimulated the market of fantasy books so much that now several hundred novels in the genre are published in English each year. That makes it the dominant genre of fiction, generating a tidal wave of traffic at fantasy websites like The film version is likely to have a similar effect on movies if it hits moviegoers as Jackson and his cohorts fervently hope.

The irony of this Tolkien frenzy is that the publishers of The Lord of the Rings expected to lose money on its tiny initial print of 3,500 copies. To date, an estimated 45 million copies have been sold in more than 25 languages. But even that astounding success will surely pale in comparison to the multibillion-dollar merchandising juggernaut being prepared to complement the movies.

Mind-boggling sales statistics may be what blockbuster books ad movies are all about, but, in this case as in few others, all that’s refreshingly reside the point. Tolkien didn’t create Middle-earth for profit, and his passionate fans, be they readers or movie directors, see much more than dollar signs in accurately bringing his imaginary world to the screen. The films may indeed become classics, but long after they’re relegated to cinematic history, Tolkien’s books – the world of Bilbo and Gandalf, Frodo and Aragorn – will be as immediate and inspiring as they are today.


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