(Editor’s Note: This article was written with the intention to publish on December 19th to commemorate the anniversary of “The Fellowship of the Ring.” Technical issues with the website had other plans. Even late, we felt it was still worth publishing this look back on one of our favorite films. We hope you will enjoy this trip down memory lane.)
That title is way too long. I’m sorry about that. Not sure how else to say “happy anniversary” to something without, you know, actually saying “happy anniversary”. December 19th marked the 20th anniversary of the theatrical release for “The Fellowship of the Ring”, the first installment in Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy.
The Fellowship of the Ring did what most people believed was impossible: it brought J.R.R. Tolkien’s vast, complex, and heretofore un-filmable literary masterpiece to life on the big screen. “The Lord of the Rings” was supposed to be too unwieldy and frankly, too big to adapt. Miraculously, Peter Jackson, and his merry band of misfits, found the beating heart of Professor Tolkien’s books and wrestled it to film for the whole world to enjoy.
“One does not simply walk into Mordor.”
I cannot undersell how unprecedented and impossible it all seemed. I tracked the making of the films from the very earliest whispers on the internet. My friends and loved ones can attest to my singular obsession with all things “Middle Earth” during those years. I had notebooks of internet articles printed out. I bought every magazine about the making of these films. Every fansite, every online outlet was scoured for any scrap of information they might have.
The consensus was clear; outside of the die-hard fans, most people in the business believed that the trilogy would be a gigantic box office failure. And, they had history on their side as more often than not, fantasy films were box office poison. Looking back on the trilogy, twenty years removed from its release, it is easy to believe everyone expected a massive success. 17 Academy awards and over 3 billion dollars at the box office would seem to bolster that belief.
Also, the current success of fantasy television and movies (Game of Thrones, The Wheel of Time, Harry Potter to name a few) makes us think it has always been this way. Nothing could be further from the truth. “The Fellowship of the Ring” came out at a time when fantasy films were almost universally reviled. And for good reason. Most fantasy films were terrible.
Adding to this perceived risk, New Line Cinema, the studio that financed and produced the films, opted to have Peter Jackson film all three movies at the same time. To call that decision unprecedented is completely inadequate. That decision was made to reduce costs, as they wouldn’t have to rebuild sets or fly the cast back or a million other things that add to the bottom line when making a film.
Maybe this is too “inside baseball”. Indulge me for a bit. If you finance one film and it bombs at the box office, that is all the financial risk you carry. If you make three films and the first one bombs, you are stuck with two more that have already been shot and there is no audience for them. It is rare to see a studio shoot two films at the same time, though that has happened a few times over the years. No one shoots three at the same time. It’s far too risky. Yet, that is exactly what New Line Cinema and Peter Jackson decided to do.
“One Ring to rule them all.”
We know how this story ends. “The Fellowship of the Ring” was a massive global success. It shattered expectations in every way, earning nearly $900 million worldwide. It was nominated for 12 Academy Awards. The film defied conventional wisdom in nearly every way. To put it simply, it should not have worked. Yet, it did. “The Fellowship of the Ring” enthralled audiences. Fans came back for repeat viewings. (I watched it 13 times in the theater.) Even people who up to that point would have considered themselves fantasy haters ended up loving the film. Critics loved it as well with the film reaching a 92% Rotten Tomatoes rating.
I won’t belabor the point anymore. This is not meant to be an in-depth look at the films. It’s simply our way of acknowledging one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of film. I certainly haven’t done it justice; but, hopefully, this brief look back will suffice. To this day, “The Fellowship of the Ring” stands as my favorite film of all time. “The Lord of the Rings” is my favorite film trilogy, or series, of all time. To be honest, nothing is even close to challenging it. Happy 20th anniversary to a great film and one of the best times of my life.
If you are interested, Rambling Ever On has published many articles focusing on these films as well as the books. Feel free to read those in honor of this auspicious anniversary. May they be a light to you when all other lights go out.