Retrospect: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

As I write this, I thought it wildly appropriate to listen to the trilogy soundtrack on Spotify, just to create a really awesome experience as I talk about one of the greatest cinematic achievements in film. Of course am talking about Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Filmed back to back, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King boasts a combined budget of around $300 million, a box office of almost $3 billion and being nominated for 30 Academy Awards, winning 17 in total, 11 of those for The Return of the King, including Best Picture. Pretty impressive.

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You must understand that if I were to talk about everything in these films, from the concepts to lasting legacy, we’d be here all day. So this is a bit more streamlined but I will try to be as detailed as possible. It’s also worth noting a lot of the information on the production comes from the special features included with the films as well as Jackon’s biography. The LotR films are based on the literary works of J.R.R. Tolkein, who wrote the trilogy in the 1920s in England while working as a professor in Pembroke College in Oxford. The books and the films follow two main stories, that of Aragon, the elf Legolas and Gimli, the dwarf, set out to fight the forces of evil with the help of the wizard Gandalf and the parallel story of the hobbits Frodo and Sam, who must take the One Ring to Mount Doom in Mordor and destroy it, lest the Dark Lord Sauron cast the land in darkness. The trilogy ultimately is a tale of good versus evil and one of love and friendship.

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Production began on LotR in the mid 90s, when Peter Jackson decided he wanted to turn it or The Hobbit into a series a films. After two years of negotiating the rights, Jackson and his writing team locked in a budget of around $75 million and began pre production. As you may have assumed, $75M isn’t nearly close to what they needed. The studio, Miramax at the time, considered cutting extensive parts of the film and making it one feature. They left Miramax, fortunately retaining the script they already had and pitched it to various studios around Hollywood until New Line Cinema picked it up and the film, which was going to be a duology ended up being a trilogy of films and thus the scope expanded into what we are now familiar with today. In fact, the films are so long that much had to be cut from the theatrical cuts but ultimately was restored with full effects and music into the extended editions. Just to let you know, most of what gets cut would not be fully rendered, scored and colour corrected (etc) but Jackson and his team went out of their way to restore these scenes to film instead of them merely being in a deleted scenes folder on the DVDs. That is some serious dedication to a project and is rightfully commended. These editions increased the run times to over 3 hours each, Return of the King is almost 4 and a half hours. A hard sell for cinemas. But on home video, it’s the perfect marketing and fan service sale.

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The first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, introduces us to Frodo after a brief history of The Ring. As brief as it is in a 3 hour film, the exposition covers a few thousand years worth of history.  The launch of the story starts when Frodo (Elijah Wood) is bestowed the Ring of Power by his Uncle Biblo by the command of Gandalf the Grey (Ian McClellan). It becomes apparent that Biblo’s magic ring is the One Ring to Rule them All and it must be destroyed. Partnered with Samwise, Merry and Pippin (Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd respectively), the hobbits leave their peaceful home of the Shire and embark on a journey to deliver the ring to the Elves for safe keeping while being hunted by the Wraiths of Mordor.

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Still with me? This is only the first 40 minutes. What follows is an epic unlike any other. From the breathtaking cinematography shot on location in New Zealand to the fantastic costumes and Visual Effects, to the jaw dropping set design, the viewer is thrust convincingly into this world, which is rich full of backstory and world details that may even go unnoticed to the causal movie goer or Tolkein novice.  It’s hard to believe that these movies, which came out in 2001-2003 look better than most movies in 2016, including it’s prequel trilogy The Hobbit. Jut take a look for yourself in the picture below. That’s mainly due to LotR’s clear attempt to as much of the film practically, using costumes and props rather than CGI, which often creates an artificial feeling whereas LotR gives the illusion of being tangible. I can only think of one time in three films where the CGI feels dated and that’s the monster guarding the doors to the Mines of Moria. But it mainly feels out of place due to so much of the film being filmed on location and using extras to fulfill the vision. But these dated CGI effects are so insignificant when compared to the real sets that are The Shire or the city of Edoras in Rohan, which are fully realized towns. The Shire set is now a successful tourist attraction that you can visit.

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I opened this post by saying I was listening to the soundtrack at the same time. Howard Shore’s score for LotR, in my opinion, is probably the best score of the twenty first century. Mic drop. Whether it’s the romantic withdrawal of the Shire themes, the majestic theme of the Fellowship, the clanging of evil that rings through Mordor and the Orcs, the sadness of the Bridge of Kaza Dum, or the vocals in May it Bethe score captures all the emotional beats that the films are going for by using musical cues tied to the familiar motifs that run through the trilogy to help in it’s story telling. We know that no matter how far from home Frodo and Sam get, the Shire theme is hope and reasoning for them. When we hear it, we know they’re digging deep and finding that little bit of courage to keep going. There is a fantastic video essay about the music, linked right here which the narrator explains the ins and outs of musical composition and what it is doing within the narrative.

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Another thing the trilogy is well known for is putting Andy Serkis and motion capture technology on the map in his performance as the creature Gollum. Serkis essentially did all his scenes in special pajamas and had his movements, down to every facial twitch, captured and rendered into a CGI creation that was Gollum. The result was one of the most interesting parts of the film. Unfortunately, the Academy to this day does not recognize motion capture as eligible for nomination for acting, otherwise Serkins would have most certainly been nominated and likely won for his work in Return and Two Towers. Great CGI work comes when you don’t notice it and it’s a tribute to WETA for creating an unearthly creature that’s so well realized that it makes you forget it’s a motion captured performance.

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As I mentioned in the intro, The Return of the King cleaned up at the Academy Awards, winning all of it’s eleven nominations. In fact, it is one of three films to have eleven Oscars, (the record for most wins at present) the other two being Ben-Hur and Titanic. The film thus boasts an impressive feat of being in a very exclusive club of award prestige, coupled that with being a financial success as well sees LotR style success being any producer or studio head’s dream. It’s a shame the prequels did not meet the standard, the (admittedly, very high) bar its predecessors set. I believe the level of ambition and hard work work put into these films should be looked at as inspiration for future film makers instead of a Cinderella story. There is so much more to talk about with these films but I’m sure you know it already, Lord of the Rings stands as a timeless classic that will be studied and celebrated for decades to come.

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