Chris Connor looks back at The Lord of the Rings as The Fellowship of the Ring celebrates its 20th anniversary…
Epics have traditionally been big business for Hollywood, with biblical and historical epics like Spartacus, Lawrence of Arabia and Ben Hur enjoying huge popularity throughout the 1950s and 1960s. However, the fantasy epic had been a somewhat niche genre prior to Peter Jackson’s monumental adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings novels. The trilogy of movies, released between 2001 and 2003, spanned nine hours in total and saw almost unprecedented box office and awards success.
Coupled with the premiere of Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone, 2001’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring saw renewed interest in fantasy on screen. Condensing the denser parts of Tolkien’s lore and making it accessible to modern audiences, the film helped make its daunting source material a truly breathtaking spectacle. Gone are the wandering segments with Tom Bombadil and instead a greater emphasis was placed on the narrative and sense of jaw dropping wonder, with New Zealand’s landscapes more than looking the part of Middle-earth and bringing the Tolkien universe to life in breathtaking fashion.
The success of The Lord of the Rings made studios take note and push more towards fantasy in their tent-pole franchises. Recent films like Dune especially owe Jackson’s trilogy a debt of gratitude, paving the way for their existence. Would Denis Villeneuve have even contemplated adapting Frank Herbert’s novels if not for Peter Jackson’s Rings series? We’ve seen in the years since The Lord of the Rings that other previously-thought unfilmable novels have been turned into successful films from Cloud Atlas to the staggering visuals of Life of Pi.
It is perhaps also fair to argue that HBO’s epic fantasy series Game of Thrones owes its existence to the success of The Lord of the Rings movies and while not all fantasy series that followed were successful, the demand stemmed from the colossal success these films enjoyed and the hole they opened in the market. We had never before seen fantasy captured in the way Jackson managed to with these three films.
The sheer sense of scale these films possessed may now be taken for granted but in 2001 it was unlike much that had come before it. The battle sequences in The Two Towers and Return of the King, particularly Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith, remain monumental undertakings and visual delights.
Perhaps the biggest strength of these films is their durability. 20 years on and they still seem incredibly fresh. The commitment to practical effects, similar to the original Star Wars trilogy, make them seem authentic, something other blockbusters of the early 2000s were at times lacking. In some ways these are more visually impressive than Jackson’s The Hobbit films which leaned more heavily into CGI.
The three films are of course gargantuan but perhaps the true success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy is how earnest and heartfelt they are while simultaneously managing to be so vast. We get a sense of the character of all of our key heroes and even many of the more fleeting players. Relationships are at the films’ core and make them all the more affecting, adding to the stakes and ensuring we care about the fate of the Fellowship and those they encounter on the road.
As we prepare to return to Middle-earth once again in 2022 with Amazon’s mammoth live-action TV series take on the Tolkien universe it is worth basking once more in the colossal achievement that was Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is clear to see the impact these films had on contemporary fantasy and science fiction even two decades later with the likes of Dune, and there is still much to unpick and savour as viewers immerse themselves in the adventures of Frodo, Gandalf and company.