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…

Part one and part two.

We covered Boorman’s brand of strangeness extensively in parts one and two. You get it. Well, you probably don’t get it. But you get it. There is a hilarious dynamic between Boorman and Ralph Bakshi, the force behind the 1978 animated Lord of the Rings film. But before we get there, we need to go back to the very first adaptation.

In June of 1957, Tolkien responded to a letter from his publisher, Allen & Unwin, about the inquiries of an unnamed American filmmaker (likely Forest J. Ackerman or Al Brodnax), in regard to producing an animated film. Tolkien welcomed the idea, speaking of his retirement, though he understood the potential for “vulgarization.” He weighed the bastardization of his book against a comfortable retirement and found that he could live with the money, stating, “I think I should find the vulgarization less painful than the sillification achieved by the B.B.C.” Sadly, “sillification” is the perfect term to describe several of the adaptations that were to come.

The first correspondence between Tolkien and Forest J. Ackerman occurred in June 1958. It appears that Zimmerman did not have any documented involvement in the film industry, leading to the assumption that he was either a novice writer or the credits that he had were simply lost to time. Based on Tolkien’s notes, it appears highly probable that this was Zimmerman’s first script, but that’s just speculation.

Marquette University has pieces of Zimmerman’s script, but unfortunately, they’re unavailable online. We were able to uncover some of the major points of this script thanks to Tolkien’s letters and Janet Croft’s essay, Three Rings for Hollywood. The nonsense begins in the very first scene. An Eagle, whose home is hundreds of miles away in the Misty Mountains, lands in the shire. On the subject of the eagles, this was only the first gratuitous use of the Eagles. In Rivendell, after Elrond declares the Fellowship, “the Nine Walkers,” the Eagles arrive, and they “immediately go up into the air.” Tolkien takes particular issue with the latter point, and rightly so. The Eagles are a plot device that he used carefully. If they are tossed in superfluously, then the plot falls apart. The characterization of Gandalf was completely botched as well.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Trailer, Screenshot Created by Patrick Hackney for The Game of Nerds, Warner Brothers/New Line Cinema/Wingnut

Zimmerman’s treatment of The Grey Wanderer reduced him to a cliché sorcerer. Gandalf’s fireworks explode into Hobbits and Flags. Zimmerman may have meant “banners,” but there are no flags in LOTR because there are no nations. Gandalf splutters in rage at jokes made by partiers, which is entirely out of character. When the wizard catches Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s gardener and companion, listening as Gandalf explains the peril of the ring, he hypnotizes Sam and forces him into Bag End. According to Tolkien, Gandalf uses “incantations, blue lights, and irrelevant magic,” throughout. At the gates of Moria, the Fellowship is attacked by a pack of wolves, which Gandalf kills with lightning bolts. As Denethor attempts to burn himself and Faramir alive on a funeral pyre, Gandalf uses the force to hover Faramir into the air and away from the flames. Oh, and Gandalf is also Medusa. In the final battle at the Black Gate, The Wizard turns all of the Nazgul into stone.

For those unfamiliar with the source material, Gandalf the Grey is a pivotal figure in the tale, among the most important. He is one of the Maiar, the angelic figures that serve the Valar, a pantheon of Gods who live on an island comparable to Mount Olympus. Gandalf has the power to manipulate light and fire, but his true power is in hope. He travels about the world, fostering bravery and resistance in the people he meets. Gandalf’s sacrifice in his fight against the Balrog—protecting the Fellowship and keeping Sauron from gaining a powerful ally—mirrors the sacrifice of Christ. Gandalf is reborn as Gandalf, “the White,” more powerful and, above all, a symbol. Aragorn sums it up here, “…you are our captain and our banner. The Dark Lord has Nine. But we have one, mightier than they: the White Rider. He has passed through the fire and abyss, and they shall fear him. We will go where he leads.”

Tolkien complained that the Zimmerman script compressed the battle of Helm’s Deep and the assault on Isengard by the Ents so much that both sequences became incoherent and senseless. Tolkien suggested cutting the battle of Helm’s Deep in favor of the march of the Ents. When the victors arrive at Isengard to do justice on Saruman, they find Merry and Pippin “munching ridiculously long sandwiches,” which is a farcical indicator of Zimmerman’s indifference to the source material. More hypnosis is used, this time by Saruman, which Tolkien hotly objected to. 

The worst crime that the Zimmerman script commits is the betrayal of Samwise Gamgee’s character. In the book, the only way into Mordor for The Hobbits is to follow their slippery guide, Gollum, into a tunnel inhabited by a giant spider. Frodo is stung by the spider, and Sam fights it off. Thinking Frodo is dead, Sam takes the ring, only to discover his friend is paralyzed when a group of orcs come and carry him away. Sam then marches into a tower of orcs to get Frodo back. This is the most important aspect of the story, what makes the quest to Mount Doom possible at all. The simple, loving, loyal nature of Hobbits and the selfless courage that this loyalty inspires—true friendship. This gives the hobbits the will to hold out against evil. In the Zimmerman script, Sam realizes Frodo is still alive and leaves him anyways—taking the ring to complete the quest alone. Sam is ready to cast the ring into the fire at the Cracks of Doom when Frodo appears and attacks him, followed by Gollum, who then attacks Frodo and falls into the fire with the ring.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Trailer, Screenshot Created by Patrick Hackney for The Game of Nerds, Warner Brothers/New Line Cinema/Wingnut

One of the prominent themes of The Lord of the Rings is that good may not be able to win, but if it can hold out long enough, evil will destroy itself. Zimmerman clearly did not grasp this theme. This is understandable, as he had no other writing credits. The plan was to shoot the film as a combination of animation, miniatures, and live-action. This mish-mash seems appropriate, as it matches the incoherence of the plot and the inconsistencies of the characters and themes of the script.

Stay tuned for part four, where we’ll be delving into the most hilarious discovery yet.