John Boorman's The Lord of the Rings

From Tolkien Gateway
"I shan't call it the end, till we've cleared up the mess." — Sam
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In the mid-1970s, director John Boorman planned a film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, collaborating with his colleague Rospo Pallenberg and the current film rights holder and producer Saul Zaentz. Produced by United Artists, it would have been one long movie with an intermission.

In the script, written by Boorman and Pallenberg, many things were changed and/or added. The first half is largely based on The Fellowship of the Ring. Following the intermission, the writers "dropped things out" and "invented as they went along".

Among other things, Frodo and Galadriel have sex, the Witch-king rides a horse whose "live, raw, bleeding flesh is exposed" in lieu of a flying fell beast, and Aragorn uses both shards of Narsil with the hilt-less half having a makeshift leather handle (before they are reattached).

The project ultimately proved too expensive to finance at that time. Boorman ended up making the Arthurian epic Excalibur instead, also with Pallenberg's help - where in a draft for that movie’s script they use similar concepts.

A copy of the script currently resides in Marquette University's Tolkien collection.


After I made “Leo the Last” for United Artists, they asked me what I wanted to do next. I gave them a treatment I had written about Merlin. David Picker, then in charge of production, did not respond to Merlin, but asked me instead to make “The Lord of the Rings,” the film rights of which they had bought without having any idea what to do with it. Tolkien’s work stirs a great brew of Norse, Celtic and Arthurian myth, the “Unterwelt” of my own mind. It was a heady, impossible proposition. If film-making for me is, as I have often said, exploration, setting oneself impossible problems and failing to solve them, then the Rings saga qualifies on all counts.

I had met Rospo Pallenberg in New York, where he was working as an architect. He was trying to write scripts. I recognized a fellow spirit. I brought him to my home in Ireland and we spent six months delving with dwarfs, wallowing with the Gollum, tramping Middle-Earth with Bilbo, but, most of all, Gandalf filled my life. He was, after all, Merlin in another guise.

Apart form the prodigious and daunting task of making a two-and-a-half-hour script from the three enormous volumes, many technical problems had to be solved as we went along, especially ways to render the magical effects. This was long before the Star Wars saga, a time when optical special-effects practice had wasted away through lack of usage all over the world. I had always had a fascination for the magic and trickery of the cinema from Georges Melies onwards. During this period I studied the techniques of the past and then experimented with modern technology to see how it could be applied.

Rospo pasted every page of “The Lord of the Rings” on to four walls in a room in my house in Ireland. We worked in that room, literally inside the book. He made charts of characters, chronologies and elaborate cross-references. We also devised a map of Middle-Earth and we had counters to represent the movement of characters across it. After six months of intensive work we had a script that we felt was fresh and cinematic, yet carried the spirit of Tolkien, a spirit we had come to admire and cherish during those months. It was a good and wondrous time. The valley in the Wicklow hills outside of Dublin where my house sits is as close to Middle-Earth as you can get in this depleted world.

During these six months, United Artists had suffered setbacks, a string of commercial failures including my own Leo the Last. It was 1970. The latest crop of British films had failed in the States. Hollywood’s love affair with swinging London was over. American producers were packing their bags and looking for stories set in Denver and Philadelphia.

'The Lord of the Rings' was an expensive project dependent on innovative special effects. By the time we submitted it to United Artist, the executive who had espoused it had left the company. No one else there had actually read the book. They were baffled by a script that, for most of them, was their first contact with Middle-Earth. I was shattered when they rejected it. Marty Elfant was my agent at the time. We took it to Disney and other places, but no one would do it. Tolkien had sold the film rights, reluctantly, to set up a trust for his grandchildren. He wrote asking me how I intended to make the film. I explained that it would be live-action and he was much relieved. He had a dread that it would be an animation film and was comforted by my reply. His death spared him the eventual outcome: UA gave it to Ralph Bakshi, the animator (To gain full artistic control for Bakshi’s approach, Boorman’s script was purchased by UA, for a reputed $3 million) . I could never bring myself to watch the result.

Despite my disappointment at the time, it was a rich and valuable experience. It certainly prepared the ground for the script that Rospo and I eventually wrote and filmed as “Excalibur.” It was also a big influence on Zardoz. Many of the special-effects techniques I developed at that time were put to work on “The Heretic,” “Zardoz” and “Excalibur,” and some of the locations I intended for “The Lord of the Rings” found their way into “Excalibur."