clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Frodo holds up the One Ring on a chain that has been scribbled out Photo illustration: James Bareham/Polygon | source image: New Line Cinema

Filed under:

What if Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies never happened?

It’s hard to imagine the cultural landscape without them ... but let’s imagine it

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 left Americans awash in anger and grief, and the rest of the planet dreading the wars to come. So people did what they’ve always done in times of crisis: They sought solace in art. They threw their favorite LP in the CD player and lost themselves in melancholy memories of their pre-9/11 lives. Most critically, when the world around them collapsed in a cacophony of rage, despair, and cable news, they escaped to the movies — for hope, for humanity and, on Dec. 19, 2001, for hobbits.

2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies' 20th anniversary, and we couldn't imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we'll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon's Year of the Ring.

Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy was far from a cultural cure-all. The wars happened, hundreds of thousands of people perished, and fascism gradually made a disquieting comeback all over the globe. But three months after a jarring foreign assault on American soil, Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic immersed viewers in a world where one small adventurer with the kindest of souls could make a difference.

This was a classic hero’s journey stuffed with all the rousing and tragic elements that made George Lucas’ original Star Wars a sensation in the devastating wake of the Vietnam War. Along with co-writers Fran Jackson and Philippa Boyens, Jackson slashed out the saga’s extraneous elements (kick rocks, Tom Bombadil) and transformed Tolkien’s dry prose into an invigorating blockbuster for the ages.

Books flew off the shelves as those new to Middle-earth excitedly read ahead to find out what happened next. Hollywood marveled at Jackson’s seamless blending of practical New Zealand locations and digital hordes marching into battle. The filmmaker’s Weta Workshop and Weta Digital visual effects companies became the darlings of the industry. New Line, which acquired the project from Miramax in a risky bout of Hollywood dealmaking, made the leap from mid-major studio to bonafide behemoth. The immediate impact was overwhelming, and the long-term impact — cultural, economic, technological — was equally staggering.

It is impossible to imagine the last 20 years of movies without Lord of the Rings, which makes it all the more enticing to do precisely that. What if Jackson’s billion-dollar-worldwide-grossing trilogy never happened? How radically different would today’s cinematic landscape look? Far more different than anyone could possibly imagine, but it’s worth a try.

It’s 1996, and Peter Jackson is struggling. The envelope pusher who made a name for himself swinging between splatter horror (Bad Taste, Braindead) and human drama (Heavenly Creatures) just watched his first big studio movie, The Frighteners, bomb at the box office. The misfire prompted Universal Pictures to kill his in-development dream project, a remake of King Kong, leaving Jackson with one hope to keep his directing career going: An adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

The high quality of work being turned out by Weta Digital, vouched for by no less a technical perfectionist than The Frighteners producer Robert Zemeckis, would’ve kept that company dealt in for years to come. But Jackson didn’t spend four years slugging it out on Bad Taste to become a visual effects contractor for the major studios. He could go crawling back to Harvey Weinstein, who insisted on making a four-hour, $75 million version of The Lord of the Rings, but with Weta’s pre-visualization predicated on getting a nine-figure budget, there was a hope that someone else could pick up the project.

Jackson looked to Bob Shaye, head of the scrappy, risk-taking New Line Cinema, who had dreams of owning a major franchise after Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the early 1990s, might gamble on his vision for a full trilogy of films. But the answer to an all-in request was simple: “Sorry, Peter. I can’t.”

Early in his career, Jackson toyed with an adaptation of Paul Chadwick’s Eisner Award-winning Concrete, about a man who becomes encased in the body of a stone-like creature. By ’96, the emotional isolation of this character sounds appealing to the filmmaker after being rejected by audiences with The Frighteners and the studios with King Kong and The Lord of the Rings movies, but it’s also in the rearview. Jackson owed Weinstein for the opportunity to make The Frighteners, develop King Kong and shop the Lord of the Rings to rival studios.

The most pragmatic option would be to shelve Tolkien and develop a mid-budget genre programmer that would show off Weta’s versatile effects expertise and give Jackson his first mainstream box-office hit. A best-case scenario would be for Jackson to reteam with Zemeckis under his new Dark Castle shingle at Warner Bros., perhaps on a remake of Thirteen Ghosts that delivers on more than a design level. But no matter what, the Weinsteins would be cut in on some level.

While Jackson is picking his poison at Miramax, the lukewarm reaction to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in 1999 creates an enthusiasm vacuum among moviegoers. The first Matrix sequel isn’t due until 2003, so two newfangled franchises, Harry Potter and Spider-Man, are under the microscope. With nothing else terribly exciting due over the 2001 holiday season, Pottermania takes hold.

People need a big, hopeful, escapist fantasy in the wake of 9/11, and this more than fills the bill; older geeks who viewed the series as kids’ stuff hit the bookstores to get up to speed. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone plays to packed houses through Christmas, raking in close to $2 billion dollars worldwide, making it the second highest grossing movie of all time next to Titanic. Dreamworks’ troubled adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, salvaged by Gore Verbinski (stepping in for the overwhelmed Simon Wells), holds onto its Christmas 2001 release date in the hopes that there’s room for another four-quadrant fantasy hit. Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down buries it. The big takeaway in Hollywood: The old sci-fi/fantasy novelists are not relevant in the post-9/11 era; now is the time for Rowling, the Wachowskis, and Marvel Comics. The zeitgeist also leads Clint Eastwood to win unprecedented back-to-back Picture and Director Oscars in 2003 and 2004 with Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. Bob Shaye breathes a sigh of relief.

harry gasping as he holds his wand Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Studios infer that audiences prefer their four-quadrant, FX-heavy spectacle light and peppy. As the Iraq War transforms into a bloody misadventure, Warner Bros. Pictures leans on their partners-in-Potter to accentuate the positive as a response to the darkening Star Wars saga. When the likes of Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro, and Kenneth Branagh profess no inkling of how to make an upbeat Prisoner of Azkaban, Brett Ratner, hot off a quickly churned out Rush Hour 3 for franchise-deficient New Line, tells Hogwarts Inc. exactly what they want to hear.

Thrilled to have a paint-by-numbers hack at the head of their critic-proof cash cow, WB inks an overall deal with Ratner to direct the rest of the films in the Potter series. Miffed at their parent company for poaching the maestro of their kung-fu comedy franchise, New Line takes Jackie Chan’s advice and hires Hong Kong’s Sammo Hung to direct. When Chris Tucker becomes disenchanted with the rote formula, Mike Epps steps in and becomes a massive movie star.

Pleased with the box-office performance of Insomnia, WB takes Christopher Nolan’s pitch for a Batman revival that grounds the Caped Crusader in a realistically dystopian Gotham City. But with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man tearing up the box office and the first round of dark, Iraq War-inspired dramas and actioners failing to catch fire commercially, WB wants something tonally consistent with its new, profitably upbeat take on Superman from J.J. Abrams, in which Krypton never blows up.

Nolan passes, but, aware of his leverage, pitches an original sci-fi flick about a group of thieves that purloins highly valuable information from their targets. WB balks until Nolan gets the new Man of Steel, Josh Hartnett, attached. The studio bites, and, flush with success thanks to the Potter, Superman and Ocean’s franchises, lavishes Nolan with a $100 million budget and final cut. Alas, the marketing campaign selling a “bold new vision from the director of Memento and Insomnia” falls flat with moviegoers. Though critically acclaimed, Inception becomes synonymous with Heaven’s Gate and Ishtar as one of the biggest bombs in film history.

The performance-capture revolution officially begins in 2004 with the release of Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express. Critics are horrified by Sony Imageworks’ dead-eyed designs for the latter, but most audiences have never seen anything like it. The curiosity factor boosts the $165 million production over $200 million at the domestic box office, which is sufficient to whet the studios’ appetite for further use of this nascent technology (it isn’t so nascent in the visual effects world, because everyone’s seen or heard about Joe Letteri’s performance-capture test footage for the character of Gollum in Peter Jackson’s scrapped The Lord of the Rings).

The success of The Polar Express is a slap in the face to Weta Digital, which was on the cusp of spearheading this technology when the entire industry passed on Jackson’s ambitious production. The company is thriving thanks to becoming the go-to effects house for Fox’s Marvel movies (now under the steady supervision of Matthew Vaughn, who took over for Bryan Singer after he took up permanent residence on a yacht 300 nautical miles off the coast of Tahiti). But there’s a sense that more established rivals like ILM and Imageworks keep getting credit for their pioneering work.

Neytiri, a blue-skinned alien with big eyes and tight braids in her hair (Zoe Saldana), in Avatar. Image: 20th Century Fox

James Cameron, however, is paying attention. The ultimate perfectionist is looking for the best of the best in all fields for his first feature in over a decade. He knows Letteri from The Abyss. He’s seen the Gollum tests. He believes that all this Weta team needs to deliver game-changing imagery is time and money — and he’s got gobs of both. Weta Digital gets the gig. James Cameron’s Avatar becomes the highest-grossing movie of all time and the first science-fiction/fantasy film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. While accepting his second Best Director trophy, Cameron thanks Peter Jackson. It’s the first time most people watching the broadcast have ever heard his name.

There’s no market for high fantasy in the late 2000s, which means there’s zero commercial interest in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Brett Ratner uses his Potter clout at WB to get John Milius’ King Conan before cameras in 2007, but removes the writer-director from the editing room after test audiences complain about its sluggish pacing. The studio hacks the film down to 90 minutes, and dumps it over Labor Day weekend in 2008.

Comic books, unlike fantasy, are gold, and when Abrams drives his Superman franchise into a ditch with an ill-conceived Superman II knock-off where Perry White turns out to be General Zod, fans of the latter are finally ready for something different. Something dark. And they get it with Darren Aronofsky’s Batman: Year One, which reunites the filmmaker with his Oscar-winning The Fountain star, Brad Pitt.

The 2009 film is the first Caped Crusader adventure since 1997’s disastrous Batman & Robin, and it’s precisely the kind of pissed-off, dystopian superhero flick mainstream audiences want as the country enters a massive recession. The newly formed Marvel Studios counters with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man starring Robert Downey Jr. The film cracks the $100 million barrier as the first summer movie out of the gate in 2008, but the military fetishism falls flat with a war-fatigued audience. There’s something missing, something the country didn’t grapple with in those dire months following 9/11. It turns out a steady diet of pimply wizards and leotard-clad saviors inculcates a certain kind of soul sickness.

tony stark in iron man 1 Image: Marvel Studios

Once this despair takes hold, it’s hard to shake. Fortunately, Marvel finds its footing with Guillermo del Toro’s fanciful Thor and Joe Johnston’s old-fashioned, rah-rah Captain America. The trick, it turns out, is to not foreground ongoing combat quagmires. The creative coup is Kevin Feige’s insistence on introducing the character of plucky teenager Rick Jones (Zac Efron) in Edward Norton’s The Incredible Hulk. Norton’s Robert Bly-like mediation on male rage isn’t a massive hit, but the post-credit stinger where Jones’ internet-savvy Teen Brigade intercepts news of Steve Rogers’ reanimation sparks online speculation about a potential Avengers movie.

Pleased with the quality of Iron Man, but hellbent on bringing the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes together at any cost, Feige hires Downey pal Shane Black, whose hit Fox series The Nice Guys is entering its fourth season, to write and direct Iron Man 2. The Bond-inspired Tony Stark adventure triples the gross of the first installment, and Black becomes the narrative point-man for Marvel Studios. His 2012 Avengers is a carefully crafted, Kaleidoscopic yarn that captures all the colors of a Jack Kirby comic book. And now that Marvel Studios is the biggest brand at the multiplex, Feige takes control. By 2021, the MCU is the world’s favorite franchise. As for Black, he happily segues back to the world of pulp with the continuing adventures of Harry Lockhart and Perry van Shrike, as well as an FX television series based on the antisocial exploits of Richard Stark’s Parker, starring James Badge Dale.

Whither Jackson?

The Lord of the Rings does happen, eventually. After his saving-throw attempt to make a $10 million horror-comedy for Dimension Films died in development in 2001, Peter Jackson swallowed his pride and acceded to Harvey Weinstein’s terms on the Tolkien saga. The budget was hard-capped at $75 million, while the four-hour length was subject to test screenings and the box office of Quentin Tarantino’s split-in-two Kill Bill (which was solid, but not spectacular enough to warrant a bigger spend on Tolkien).

Jackson buckled to secure the future of Weta Workshop, which had ramped up in anticipation of the trilogy getting greenlit in the late-’90s. Though Weta Digital could do its work remotely, the Workshop needed productions to come to them. They needed to show the industry that they could handle the challenges of a major studio epic. Jackson believed he could save the Workshop and the livelihoods of hundreds of skilled artisans by turning his homeland into Middle-earth.

Even in its compromised state, The Lord of the Rings is a massive undertaking. Volunteers flood Weta Workshop, giddy to play a small part in the crafting of armor and weaponry. The production pulsates with local pride. This film would show off everything New Zealand had to offer, from snow-capped mountains to subtropical forests. Done right, it could bring Hollywood to Hobbiton.

But try as they might, Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens can’t piece together a screenplay that honors the sweep of the novels or their finely detailed characterizations. They correctly identify Samwise Gangee and Smeagol/Gollum as the stalwart heart and anguished soul of Tolkien’s tale, but they lack the screentime to do either arc justice. Wish-list actors like Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Liv Tyler and Sir Ian Mckellen beg the director to expand their roles, but nothing can be done. Jackson budgets and re-budgets the script. Every single penny of that $75 million is on the page. And he hates every word of it.

Weinstein doesn’t care. As Jackson strikes out on third and fourth choices, the mogul offers up his roster of teen-friendly Miramax veterans: Freddie Prinze, Jr. as Frodo, Matthew Lillard as Sam, Rachael Leigh Cook as Arwen, Johnny Lee Miller as Aragorn and, because Weinstein won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Michael Caine as Gandalf. The Lord of the Rings quickly becomes a carnival of Miramax chattel.

stu (matthew lillard) smiles with a closed mouth as he tells sidney his master plan in Scream Image: Dimension Films

Saddled with a tight production schedule with little room for reshoots, Jackson gives up on his plan to miniaturize the hobbits via forced perspective. Most of the storyboards and pre-visualization go out the window; this film will be a mess of hosed-down coverage salvaged in the editing room. Maybe Weinstein should’ve let him erect those hobbit-holes instead of reducing the Shire to an unconvincing agglomeration of mattes and CG.

No one is more aware of this than Jackson, who, two weeks into principal, goes over Weinstein’s head to Disney president Bob Iger. He is making the kind of four-quadrant adventure that Uncle Walt would’ve loved, and these Tribeca tyrants are hellbent on trashing one of the great literary works of the twentieth century. Iger, like the rest of his company, abhors the Weinsteins, but Disney execs are equally indifferent to cinema. Iger says “no,” Weinstein flips out, and Jackson, spiritually destroyed after a decade of despair, quits.

Weinstein replaces Jackson with Shakespeare in Love’s John Madden, who diligently makes his days. Morale sinks at Weta as meticulously constructed props were repurposed and, in many cases, discarded altogether. The MASSIVE-enhanced battle sequences survive, but are never properly finished. The film languishes in unreleased limbo for several years. When the Weinsteins break off from Disney following a dispute over the release of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2005, the Mouse House gazes upon their inherited folly with pity.

The studio dumps The Lord of the Rings in January 2006 on a few hundred screens with minimal promotion. The actors avoid publicity. An inquisitive Vanity Fair journalist flies to New Zealand later that year in the hopes of coaxing Peter Jackson out of hermitage, but according to the locals he is happily habitating in a hobbit hole somewhere in the countryside with Fran and Philippa. “Leave the man alone,” they say.

In 2021, Howard Shore conducts his abandoned Lord of the Rings symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra to rave reviews. It is the first time anyone has heard this much-discussed score, which Harvey Weinstein scrapped in favor of a dashed-off composition from Marco Beltrami. Jackson emerges from seclusion to introduce the performance. In selling Weta for a billion dollars, he’d more than won the war with the now-imprisoned Weinstein. But there is no Director’s Cut. There isn’t enough usable footage to construct an approximation in the vein of David Fincher’s Alien 3. There is only the two-part screenplay reviewed over 20 years ago by the defunct Ain’t It Cool News. Perhaps the Tolkien estate would allow that to be published one day, so fans could imagine what could have been.

For Middle-earthers around the world, it remains an encouraging thought.