Tolkien Before Jackson Part 7: What Changed with Peter Jackson?

Lord of the Rings Peter Jackson trilogy poster
(c) 2001-2003 by Warner Bros

This series has looked at 10 adaptations of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit that preceded Peter Jackson’s trilogy. From ashcan films that were never meant to be seen by the general public to TV specials to unfinished films, they are widely different fare.

But is there anything we can learn from these films? I believe we can learn several things.

First, they show us how much Jackson has informed the way we perceive fantasy films today. It’s hard to make a case that any pre-Jackson take on Lord of the Rings is a classic. Some (Torikka’s miniseries The Hobbits) are surprisingly good. Others are quite fun in their limited way (Deitch’s The Hobbit). Some (Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings) are interesting experiments. Taken together, they show the good and bad of a period where no one had written the epic fantasy rulebook. Since Jackson’s trilogy appeared, filmmakers have had a canonical model for how to make a fantasy epic. Some would argue that many fantasy movies have gotten blander after Jackson’s trilogy (or, at least, that many fantasy movies today look a lot like his movies). On the other hand, the product has become more balanced, even if innovation has decreased.

Second, these projects show that Tolkien is fundamentally a tough author to adapt. His work has a way of transgressing genre lines. The Hobbit reads like a children’s fairytale, but breaks those expectations as the story reaches its finale. Much of that children’s fairytale flavor continues into the early chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring (Tom Bombadil, the party) before it becomes a sprawling epic for adults.

Tolkien was also meticulous about his stories. Like Kenneth Grahame or T.H. White, Tolkien produced vivid stories where incidental details or setting descriptions (poems, how people lived their everyday lives, the history) feel just as important as the plot.

These two factors make Tolkien’s work unusually hard to adapt, meaning that every adaptor has to reshape the material more than they might for another author. Fans may argue that staying true to the story matters most, but change cannot be avoided.

Third, these projects show that having a great director isn’t enough. Film studies enjoy talking about “auteur directors” who orchestrate meticulous visions. Some directors certainly plan more than others, and Jackson has a well-deserved reputation for doing more than just directing. The first feature-length film he ever made was written, produced, and directed by him and featured him acting (in two roles). He would perform many of those roles in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, including cameos in each film.

However, as film writer Bill Warren observes in a disccussion about one of Jackson’s influences, auteur theory was not supposed to mean one director operating like a dictator. As Andrew Sarris and other film critics envisioned it, it was supposed to mean a director who serves as a “guiding force.” A good auteur does not come up with all the ideas: a good auteur gathers a team, takes everyone’s input, decides what input is good, and sculpts the film to meet a coherent vision.

This sensibility, an auteur who shepherds instead of dictates, is especially necessary in speculative films, because those films require larger filmmaking teams: someone to cover special effects, someone to handle the large budget, and so on. There are rare examples where directors produce a speculative fiction movie with just their resources and a few volunteers. To give a recent example, animator Phil Tippett spent over 30 years making his experimental horror film Mad God, completing the stop-motion animation with friends in his garage on weekends. It is one of the most memorable stop-motion films in recent memory. However, few filmmakers have the time or resources for such a single-minded task.

Watched together, these many adaptations of Tolkien’s work show that one good creative mind in the director’s chair only goes so far without good technicians to implement the work. The Keepers has some interesting features that were presumably Serebryakova’s plans—getting a cinematographer to shoot closeup images of the ring and getting an editor to intercut those scenes. However, the cinematography itself (and the costumes, and the sets, and the acting) don’t match the director’s aspirations.

As important as it is to have a talented director coordinating the team, the team has to be well-built to make a good film. Jackson’s great success wasn’t merely the fact that he had a great vision. He had Wingnut Films, a team he’d started building on his first film that expanded and grew over time—gaining special effects experience bit by bit, acquiring talent bit by bit.

Jackson is one of many cases where a well-built team working with a great leader made great speculative fiction movies. Walt Disney coordinated his company’s animated films, but he had “the Nine Old Men” team of animators working under him. During the same period RKO was releasing Disney’s animated movies, their producer Val Lewton used a well-organized filmmaking team to release acclaimed fantasy and horror movies. Ray Harryhausen gets the credit for his monster designs but had an animation studio implementing his designs. Hammer Film Productions had some star directors like Terence Fisher, but “the Hammer Family” of personnel working together made all the company’s impressive sci-fi, horror, and fantasy films.

Making speculative fiction movies is hard. It is especially hard with Tolkien. Especially if the film lacks a true auteur: someone who has a clear vision, acquires the best people and resources, and is willing to guide more than dictate.

Exciting new things are in store for Tolkien fandom. Fans are waiting to see what the next season of Rings of Power and the upcoming War of the Rohirrim will provide. Andy Serkis has announced he will star in and direct a Lord of the Rings prequel about Gollum, with Jackson and his collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens producing. On a larger scale, every new fantasy movie or TV show leaves audiences wondering whether a new fantasy series will come close to accomplishing what Jackson accomplished over 20 years ago. Time will tell. Hopefully, true auteurs will arrive and make something wondrous.

G. Connor Salter

G. Connor Salter is a writer and editor with over 1,300 articles published in a variety of places, including Mythlore, The Lamp-Post, A Pilgrim in Narnia, Fellowship & Fairydust, and The Oddest Inkling. He frequently writes on little-explored figures in Inklings studies, from Nevill Coghill to William Lindsay Gresham.