This cinematic story begins just three years after the book was originally published back in late 1954. Forrest J. Ackerman, then a literary agent, visited J.R.R. Tolkien at Oxford, where he was Merton Professor of English Language and Literature. Ackerman approached him with the idea of an animated feature, providing early sketches of what Mordor could be.
At first, Tolkien was reported as being quite open to the idea. At the time, the largely unknown Tolkien was worried about the long term royalty prospects for his book – a mouth dropping prospect when you consider the book has sold over 150 million copies – so a movie deal would have certainly helped boost his annual professor’s wage. However, with no deal seemingly coming to fruition, Ackerman abandoned ship in and became the world renowned legend in science fiction, fantasy and horror. Ackerman’s magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland inspired the likes of Steven Speilberg, George Lucas and countless others. Amongst the inspired was Peter Jackson, who reciprocated his thanks by giving Ackerman a cameo in his third feature film Braindead. Small world.
The project lay dormant till 1967 until producers Sam Gelfman and Gabe Katzka set out to obtain the precious rights to the series on behalf of United Agents. The negotiations would take two years, involving a monumentally sized 50 page contract. However, there was another who sought the glory of the ring. As Tolkien’s status grew in the 1960s, as did that of a certain fabulous foursome from Liverpool.
Apple Films had seen The Beatles dominate the box office for them in films such as A Hard Day’s Night, Help! and Yellow Submarine, so the prospect of the band involved in the adaptation of a bestselling book was obviously tantalising. However behind it all, the central driving force was John Lennon. Lennon had set his sights on the role of Gollum, whilst Paul McCartney would be assigned Frodo, Ringo Starr would take on Sam, and George Harrison would beard up for Gandalf. Apple went so far as to approach a pre-2001 A Space Odyssey Stanley Kubrick. However, as we all know this didn’t come to fruition.
The best summarisation about how this ended comes from Peter Jackson on a press tour for the original trilogy: “It was something John was driving, and J. R. R. Tolkien still had the film rights at that stage, but he didn’t like the idea of the Beatles doing it. So he killed it”. Now, that’s not really much of a surprise but it does ask the question “what if?”
The perfectionist Kubrick honing his grand visual craft, and The Beatles were energetic and rambunctious chaps with the world at their feet meaning that joy could have transferred itself into the Tolkien’s word. In particular, the privilege to witness George Harrison’s portraying Gandalf would be worth the ticket price alone yet on a more serious note, Ringo Starr would have been a genuinely interesting prospect. As the narrator of my childhood through the Thomas the Tank Engine programme, his warm Merseyside tones would have provided the necessary warmth and noble spirit for Samwise Gangee. Yet, a pre-CGI Lord of the Rings is a tough one to imagine. With the band splitting in 1970, the Beatles Lord of the Rings dream/nightmare was over.
So, what do you think? Would it have been pure evil or one film to rule them all? Shout your comments down low. (Credit to: Tales from Development Hell by David Hughes and The Frodo Franchise by Kristin Thompson for the info).