The Shire. Rivendell. Fangorn Forest. Minas Tirith. Helms Deep. “My precious.” The legacy of The Lord of Rings trilogy is cemented deeply in movie history, and for good reason. Peter Jackson’s trilogy, which was released from 2001 through 2003, has set the standard for fantasy stories ever since. But surprisingly, it’s roots lie in a little-known cinematic failure.
Born in Wellington, Jackon grew up on classic science fiction and fantasy, like the works of practical effects legend Ray Harryhausen. For a child raised in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Jackon developed a somewhat unusual obsession with the 1933 original King Kong.
“I saw the original Kong on TV when I was nine on a Friday night in New Zealand,” he once said in an interview. “That weekend, I grabbed some plasticine and I made a brontosaurus and I got my parents' super eight home movie camera and started to try to animate the plasticine dinosaur.”
Jackson had no particular love for J. R. R. Tolkien's books as a child, first encountering the story through Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated film. He liked the story and imagined it would eventually be made into a movie by someone like George Lucas or Steven Speilberg. A fair assumption, but one that would be proven wrong.
Mostly focusing on horror-comedies, Jackson and his romantic and professional partner Fran Walsh decided to switch course and try a more serious look at a true-crime case, when a teenage daughter killed her mother, in 1994’s Heavenly Creatures. The film showcases a teenager’s fantasy life. For those sequences, Jackson turned to a name that will be familiar to all Rings fans: Weta Digital.
Richard Taylor and his wife, Tania Rodgers, had formed what would become Weta in 1987. Their biggest problem initially was nobody really used effects and animatronics to the extent they imagined. Taylor said in an interview that "the clients that were out there, the potential clients, had never really utilized a great deal of what we had to offer.”
Jackson was ready to utilize what Weta had to offer. He had convinced a Hollywood studio that an American town could be replicated in New Zealand, and worked with Weta (and Michael J. Fox) to create the flop The Frighteners, a sort-of horror take on Ghostbusters. The film failed on pretty much level, but Roger Ebert accidentally realized in his brutal review that Jackson and Weta were onto something, if they could just get a good story.
It's incredible, the amount of work that went into “The Frighteners.” And appalling. Anyone who appreciates special effects, computer animation, or movie makeup will regard this movie with awe. There's not a shot that doesn't suggest infinite pains and patience. (Complex makeup was painstakingly applied to actors for shots that were then married to special effects in order to create a screen filled with gory images.)
But all of that incredible effort has resulted in a film that looks more like a demo reel than a movie — like the kind of audition tape a special-effects expert would put together, hoping to impress a producer enough to give him a real job.
Now involved financially with Weta, Jackson and Walsh were looking for a big project that could keep their effects studio in business. They kept looking for a “Lord of the Rings-type story,” according to Peter Jackson: A Film-Maker's Journey, but everything was just too close to the real thing. In 1995, Jackson began tracking down the rights.
He would have a long, long way to go from that decision. The production of the Rings films would last over 428 days, a massive shoot that reached new heights in fantasy movies. From Liv Tyler's Arwen to Jonathan Rhys-Davis’ Gimli, the movies manage to evoke the massive nature of their fantasy setting while keeping the characters understandable, all while bursting with visual detail in every shot.
From the ruins of a flop, Jackson, Walsh, and a massive cast and crew were able to redefine movies just as King Kong had done so many years ago.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy is streaming on Hulu through January 31 in the U.S.