Before Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, before The Rings of Power, there were others—claimants to the title of The Lord of the Screens. But the hearts of Hollywood are easily led astray…
If you’re a fan of The Lord of the Rings, you understand the plot and the character of the main protagonists: Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, Aragorn, and the rest of the company. Now give yourself a high five. You’re already doing better than half of the screenwriters covered in this series. For a long time, LOTR was considered impossible to adapt faithfully, but after researching this piece, I’m convinced that the issue was finding the right person for the job. In this series, we’ll cover every attempt to adapt The Lord of the Rings to film.
J.R.R Tolkien sold the film rights to United Artists in 1969 for $245,000. Adjusted for inflation, this amounts to around five million pounds today. United Artists commissioned John Boorman to script an adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. Boorman would go on to become a successful filmmaker, helming movies like Deliverance, Point Break, and Excalibur. Boorman had a fascination with Arthurian Legend, he’d submitted a Merlin script to United Artists, who were uninterested and instead asked him to write a treatment of LOTR. Boorman apparently didn’t take note of the disinterest in Merlin and shoved half of it into the LOTR script. This led to an incredibly interesting and entertaining adaptation but for all the wrong reasons.
Boorman reports in The Emerald Forest Diary that he and his co-writer Rospo Pallenberg had plastered every page of The Lord of the Rings onto the walls of his cottage in Ireland. The writer claims,
“He [Pallenberg] made charts of characters, 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.”John Boorman, The Emerald Forest Diary
Two paragraphs before this sentiment, Boorman refers to Gollum as “The Golom.” By the time the script was finished, the producer who had requested it had left United Artists, and no one there was familiar with the source material. The script was later rejected by Disney and other Studios Boorman took it to.
The strangeness begins in the first few pages of the script. During Bilbo Baggins’ speech at his 111th birthday party, he and Gandalf get into a cryptic, rhyming argument over whether or not he should leave the Shire. Gandalf then throws a firework which explodes into rings and eyes to intimidate Bilbo. It is clear here that to Bilbo, leaving the Shire means leaving the Ring. The audience could not possibly know this, though. The audience has no clue that he has the Ring or how it affects him, which is simply poor storytelling.
Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin set off on their journey. They come across some mushrooms and begin eating them frantically, and “They begin to laugh and giggle, becoming rather unsteady on their feet. They lurch on their way with contented smiles on their faces; the world looks a little misty, different.” That’s right. The Hobbits have eaten hallucinogenic mushrooms. They come across a field of buttercups, with naked children running around and playing among the flowers, “the Hobbits blink and grin, and Merry belches.” If they are hallucinating this, why? If this was happening in reality, why? It could be that this was meant to represent innocence in the Hobbits. But in six months of writing, Boorman never conceived of a less creepy alternative to this?
Boorman continuously injects this signature strangeness into the script. After Frodo is stabbed by the Morgul Blade, which begins turning him into a wraith, the party reaches Rivendell. Instead of Frodo healing off-screen or anything else that might keep the narrative moving along, Boorman builds an entire pagan ritual around treating this wound. Frodo is laid on a crystal table, and a chorus of elves begin to chant. Elrond summons his daughter Arwen, who is 13 years old. This points to something strange in Boorman. If he had really grasped the concepts of the source material, he would understand a few things: Elves are practically immortal. They look both old and young simultaneously but are never described as children or adolescents. Arwen is 2,779 years old and in a relationship with Aragorn. So either Boorman wrote a character who is 2,779 years old that looks thirteen, or Aragorn is in a relationship with an actual child. If there hadn’t been a scene with naked children earlier in the script, this might not have garnered much thought, but these points together indicate something that is at the least odd and, at worst sinister.
The ritual continues, Arwen wavers a bit, and her father, Elrond, commands Gimli to hack off Frodo’s arm with an axe if Arwen should begin to faint. The chanting grows louder as Arwen digs around in Frodo’s wound with a dagger, looking for a shard that broke off the cursed blade. Boromir is present and complains about “singing hymns over a halfling” since he rode all the way from Gondor to be there. Gandalf tells him that this is a struggle between Arwen and Sauron, and Arwen’s life is on the line. This is Boorman once again taking liberties with the source material.
It should be noted that the director has confessed to writing his films on drugs. When questioned about Zardoz, which was produced directly after writing his LOTR script, Boorman said, “Um, it was the 70s, and I was doing a lot of drugs. Frankly, even I’m not entirely sure what parts of the movie are about.” Given the material, it’s safe to say that this quote also applies to his LOTR script. Boromir says they should take the Ring, and Gandalf challenges him to do so. Boromir leaps onto the table and tries to reach for the Ring but is held back by an invisible force field. Gandalf says, “The hobbit is a pebble pinched between two great rocks.” This entire sequence was preposterous and superfluous, but it only gets worse, which we’ll cover in part two, coming soon!