Peter Jackson’s epic movie adaptations of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings stories are among the most popular, most successful, and most critically acclaimed films of the 21st century. Despite popular opinion, however, they are not the first movie adaptations of Tolkien’s magnum opus.
In 1978, the controversial filmmaker and animator Ralph Bakshi, a former Terrytoons artist, whose career included working on such characters as Deputy Dawg, Mighty Mouse, and Spider-Man; adapted the first book-anda-half of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy into a grand two-and-a-half-hour animated fantasy movie. Featuring the voices of numerous high-profile British stars (including John Hurt and Star Wars’ star Anthony Daniels), the movie covered the events of Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring and the first half of the second story, The Two Towers, but stopped short of completing the tale and so left the concluding events of The Return of the King untold. Nevertheless, the movie has since proved hugely popular with Tolkien fans and fanatics. It is now considered the earliest Tolkien adaptation ever to make its way onto the silver screen.
It was, however, very nearly the second.
In 1963, the Beatles signed a three-film deal with movie production company — United Artists. Their first film, the comedy mockumentary A Hard Day’s Night, proved such a success that it was quickly followed by a second, Help!, that parodied the early James Bond movies and saw the band fight off the influences of a mysterious cult while traveling the world. Thwarted by production issues, Help!, was less well-received than its predecessor, and as the decade wore on—and the band itself began to drift apart, ahead of their breakup in 1970—securing a third and final movie to complete their contract began to prove difficult.
1967’s Magical Mystery Tour was made for television by the BBC, and so did not meet United Artists’ contractual obligations. 1968’s animated adventure Yellow Submarine likewise did not tick the right contractual boxes, as the Beatles did not appear on screen until the very end of the movie and had their voices in the animation recorded by actors. (John Lennon, for instance, was voiced by acclaimed English stage actor and future best-selling author John Clive, while Paul McCartney was voiced by comic actor and star of the popular sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, Geoffrey Hughes.) Clearly, to fulfill their obligations with United Artists, the Beatles needed a film in which they could all appear on screen, for the full length of the story—and by the end of the 1960s, they had set their sights on a truly epic saga.
The Beatles decided that their third and final movie with United Artists would be a psychedelic musical adaptation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, with Paul McCartney as Frodo, Ringo as his sidekick Sam, George Harrison as the wise wizard Gandalf the Gray, and John Lennon as the monstrous and duplicitous Gollum. As if that weren’t enough, the movie, the Beatles decided, would be directed by one of cinema’s rising stars at the time: Stanley Kubrick.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on what you might think!), this insanely extravagant project never truly got off the ground—not in the least because Kubrick himself quickly turned the idea down as soon as he was approached, claiming that the stories were too grand and ultimately unfilmable. Tolkien, too, wasn’t too keen on the idea of having his greatest books adapted by a pop group and refused to grant the rights to the producers because he hated modern music. (“In a house three doors away dwells a member of a group of young men who are evidently aiming to turn themselves into a Beatle Group,” Tolkien once wrote to a friend of his. “The noise is indescribable.”)
With a director not keen to get involved, no negotiation over the movie rights forthcoming from Tolkien, and a band on the brink of splitting up, the Beatles’ adaptation of the Lord of the Rings sadly never materialized. But there was, it appears, a silver lining.
When the first of Peter Jackson’s films finally arrived in cinemas in 2001, Sir Paul McCartney himself approached the director to say that he was glad his and the other Beatles’ movie had never made it to the cinema, as it would have made Jackson’s adaptations unlikely ever to have been made. We may not have the Beatles’ version of the stories, then, but we do at least have one.