J. R. R. Tolkien's fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, set in Middle-earth, have been the subject of various film and TV adaptations, chiefly six feature films produced, written and directed by Sir Peter Jackson from 2001 to 2015.

There were many early failed attempts to bring the fictional universe to life in screen, some even rejected by the author himself. The first depictions of Middle-earth on film were realized in 1966 as a short cartoon film. In 1978 the first big screen adaptation of the fictional setting was introduced in The Lord of the Rings. After 1980, teleplays produced in Eastern Europe formed the only adaptations of Tolkien, and were the first to adapt his works for live-action and for serialized TV.

In 2001, writer, director and producer Sir Peter Jackson released The Fellowship of the Ring, the first part of a trilogy based on The Lord of the Rings, distributed by New Line Cinema, which he began concieving in 1995. The later two parts - which were shot concurrently with the first part - were released in the following two years, with extended cuts of each film released later.

Jackson and his creative team would return to produce a prequel trilogy based on The Hobbit, released from 2011 to 2014, with the final extended cut released in 2015. Jackson's six films have grossed over 6 billion dollars at the box office.

A TV series produced by Amazon and New Line Cinema will be set in the same cinematic universe, exploring an early time period glimpsed in the opening flashback of The Fellowship of the Ring. With Jackson set to look over the scripts, it is expected to first air in 2021

Jackson's films for the most critically-acclaimed franchise in Hollywood history. Collectively, it has received a record 38 Academy Award nominations (every entry had secured at least one nomination), winning 17, and one special award, also a record. Along with The Godfather trilogy, it is one of two film series to date to have received three Best Picture nominations. The concluding film of the series, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, was the first (and, by 2020) the only high-fantasy film to win for Best Picture. It is also the second sequel in history to have won such an award (alongside The Godfather Part 2) and one of of three films to have won the most awards. Unlike those other two films - Titanic and Ben Hur - it won all the awards for which it was nominated.

In 2019, The New Line producers of The Lord of the Rings also produced a biopic of Tolkien's life and conception of The Hobbit, Tolkien, for 20th Century Fox.

There have also been fan films of Middle-earth such as The Hunt for Gollum and Born of Hope, which were uploaded to YouTube on May 8, 2009 and December 11, 2009 respectively.

Early attempts

Forrest Ackerman treatment

In 1957, Tolkien and publisher Sir Stanley Unwin received a film proposal from Forrest J. Ackerman,[1] Morton Grady Zimmerman, and Al Brodax. The proposed film, an animated film with some miniature work and live action shot on-location in the American out-of-doors, was to be three hours long with two intermissions. This, along with the concept art, intrigued Tolkien.

However, Tolkien was dissatisfied with the script: Tolkien criticized it for divergence to the tone of the book (such as a "fairy-tale" depiction of Lothlórien, as well as elements cut "upon which [the book's] characteristic and peculiar tone principally depends") and character representation (such as Sam leaving Frodo to Shelob and going on to Mount Doom alone). He also took issue with dialogue changes as regards to the "style and sentiment" of characters, and with intercutting between the storylines of Frodo and Aragorn. He suggested eliminating the battle of Helm's Deep to better emphasize the defense of Minas Tirith, as well as cutting characters out instead of diminishing their roles. Tolkien protested against added "incantations, blue lights, and some irrelevant magic" and "a preference for fights".

Gene Deitch Short

In 1966 William L. Snyder commissioned a 12-minute short, composed of cartoon stills from Gene Deitch. The short allowed Snyder to extend his lease for the rights of The Hobbit, which he later sold back to Tolkien.

The Beatles Musical

The Beatles planned to do a live-action, musical film based on The Lord of the Rings, with Sir Paul McCartney as Frodo Baggins, Sir Richard "Ringo Starr" as Sam Gamgee, George Harrison as Gandalf, John Lennon as Gollum. Donovan was considered for Merry, and Dame Leslie "Twiggy" Lawson was to be cast as Galadriel. They first approached Richard Lester, who directed them previously. When he was daunted by the scale of the endeavor, they approached Sir David Lean. While interested, Lean ultimately "didn't want to do it" as he was gearing up to filming Ryan's Daughter (1970) with Robert Mitchum and Sir John Mills.[2]

Next they approached Stanley Kubrick.[3] While intrigued, Kubrick not only turned down the project, but tried to dissuade the Beatles from the project alltogether, saying it was not filmable. The Beatles, undettered, went on to approach Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni. When Tolkien learned of their endeavour, he shut it down.

United Artists

With the rights in possesion by United Artists,[4] Sir Peter Shaffer (writer of future Best-Picture winner Amadeus) was commisioned to write a treatment for a single, three-hour film, which was deemed "elegant" but never got off of the ground.

In th 1970s, writer/director John Boorman pitched a film based on the legends of Merlin to the studio, and was reassigned to adapt The Lord of the Rings instead. Boorman got Tolkien's blessing in writing - he was intrigued by the prospect of a strictly live-action adaptation - and began writing the script with Rospo Pallenberg. However, a change of management in United Artists led to a disinterest in the project, which fell out.[5]

Rumoured George Lucas adaptation

It is rumoured that George Lucas wanted to adapt The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the 1970s, but was turned down.[6] Whatever truth is in this, the influence of Tolkien's works on Lucas' other projects is undeniable, and seems to suggest the rumours being true. An early draft of Star Wars (1977) features dialogue which is clearly a paraphrase of a conversation from The Hobbit:

"Kenobi approaches with a “good morning!” “What do you mean, ‘good morning’?” Luke responds. “Do you mean that it is a good morning for you, or do you wish me a good morning, although it is obvious I’m not having one, or do you find that mornings in general are good?”
“All of them at once,” replies Kenobi."
Tolkien influence also informs the film sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. Lucas, who wrote the treatment to the film and co-wrote several drafts, clearly had the Mirror of Galadriel in mind when he concieved of Luke's vision in the cave. This is especially appearant in the preceding exchange between Luke and Yoda: "What's in there?" Luke asks. "Only what you take with you", Yoda answers.

While working on the Original Star Wars, Lucas considered making a similar film in a high-fantasy medieval setting, either instead of alongside his space opera. Lucas would later write a treatment based on this story and produce it for Ron Howard, a film titled Willow, which was heavily indebted to The Hobbit.

In fact, while Lucas was concieving his Star Wars film, there was (by chance or not) a renaissance of high-fantasy films, all closely modelled after Tolkien, including Dragonslayer (1981) with Peter MacNicol and Sir Ralph Richardson; John Boorman's Excalibur, and Sir Ridley Scott's Legend with Tom Cruise.

First versions

Rankin/Bass The Hobbit

In 1977, Rankin and Bass produced a 70-minute animated TV Special based on The Hobbit. In 1978, Romeo Muller won a Peabody Award for his teleplay. The film was also nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, but lost to Star Wars.

The Lord of the Rings (1978)

Animator Ralph Bakshi approached United Artists for the rights. They offered him Boorman's script, which he turned down. He turned to MGM to buy the rights from UA so that he could develop a new script. After they refused, he turned to independent producer Saul Zaentz, who purchased the filming rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, while United Artists maintained distribution rights to the former.

Bakshi's film, starring William Squire, Sir John Hurt and Christopher Guard, was released in 1978, was the first theatrically-released feature based on Tolkien's works. It was based on the first half of The Lord of the Rings: The entirety of the Fellowship of the Ring and half of The Two Towers. Bakshi shot it as a live-action film, having the footage then rotoscoped or - for crowd scenes - solarized.

The film was a moderate commercial success: earning 30$ million against a budget of 4, but not enough to merit the promised sequel. Peter Jackson saw this film in his youth, being puzzled with its second half and the absence of a resolution, but was inspired to seek out the book because of it.

Rankin/Bass The Return of the King

In 1980, Rankin and Bass released another TV Special based on the second half of The Return of the King. Maintaining continuity with the character design, style and voices of their Hobbit, the film featured a brief framing device to bridge the two disparate entries.

Aftermath of the "Animated Trilogy"

Throughout the 80s and 90s, these three films - the unofficial "animated trilogy" - were the only major adaptations of Tolkien for the screen, outside of several telplays produced in Eastern Europe. Starting with a 1985 teleplay produced in the Soviet Union and continuing in a live-action television miniseries title Hobitit from Finland in 1993. These formed the first adaptations of Tolkien to live-action and to serialized television.

In the early 1990s, there was an attempt to adapt The Lord of the Rings into two films, but the producers were unable to acquire the rights. The project went as far as casting ideas - such as Peter O'Toole for Denethor and Max Von Sydow for Theoden - were thrown around. [7]

Peter Jackson's film series

Peter Jackson, an independent New-Zealand film director, was riding the success of his 1992 psychological drama, Heavenly Creatures. The fantasy dream sequences required Jackson to build a special effects workshop with friends Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger. Together, they would create Jackson's next film, The Frighteners, for Robert Zemeckis.

At Miramax

While promoting The Frighteners, Jackson and partner Frances Walsh started toying with the idea of making an original fantasy film, based on Jackson's love for Ray Harryhousen Argonaut films. As they started to develop a story, they kept referring back to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit as a touchstone, to the point that they opted to try their hand at adapting those, instead.

Jackson contacted his producers, Harvey and Robert Weinstein from Miramax, who tracked the rights to Saul Zaentz.[8] Saul was indebted to Harvey for helping him fund The English Patient with Juliette Binoche and Dame Kristin Scott Thomas, which allowed him to procure the rights for Jackson and Walsh. The filmmakers pitched a trilogy of films based on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.They'd do The Hobbit first and, if that'd prove succesful, would do The Lord of the Rings in two parts, shot back to back. The issue of distribution rights postponed work on The Hobbit and Jackson proceeded instead with The Lord of the Rings, writing a 90-page treatment.

With co-writers Stephen Sinclair and Philippa Boyens, they started expanding the treatment into two 160-page screenplays. WETA Workshop began designing the film, with Jackson calling on two of Tolkien's most renouned illustrators - John Howe and Alan Lee - to join the crew as conceptual designers. The work of a third illustrator, Ted Nasmith, was also used, although he declined to join Peter's WingNut Films production.

Jackson and the Weinsteins had disagreements over the project. In terms of casting, the Weinsteins favoured a largely American cast, or one comprised of stars which would be recognisable to an American audience: e.g. Sir Sean Connery for Gandalf and Nicolas Cage for Aragorn. Jackson wanted unknowns and stage veterans, to be cast from the British Commonwealth, instead.

Another issue was the violence. Jackson - who previsualized the films extensively - wanted gritty realism in the design, and hart-hitting action sequences, citing Braveheart (1995) as a good example. The Weinsteins were worried as to the profitability of a PG-13 fantasy film, citing the low box office returns of previous efforts in the genre.

Most importantly, however, was the issue of shooting the films concurrently. Under orders from Disney CEO Michael Eisner, the Weinsteins asked for the project to be condensed to one film: they proposed to amalgamate similar characters (Eowyn and Arwen, Boromir and Faramir) and places (Gondor and Rohan) and events (Helms' Deep and Pelennor Battles). Jackson refused and was granted a chance to offer his project to other studios, while Harvey Weinstein looked for other directors, namely John Madden (director of Shakespeare in Love with Gwyneth Paltrow and Dame Judie Dench) and Quentin Tarantino.

The Shift to New Line

Jackson eventually secured a meeting with New Line Cinema CEOs Robert Shaye and Michael Lynne. After presenting their two-film pitch, Bob Shaye stopped Jackson: "Why would anyone in their right mind make two movies? Why would you want to charge nine dollars to show this when you could charge twenty-seven dollars?" The film became a trilogy. Jackson, Walsh and Boyens rewrote the piece into a trilogy.

Casting began. Jackson wanted Patrick McGoohan for Gandalf, but when he declined for health reasons, he looked to Sir Nigel Hawthorne, who had unfortunately developed pancreatic cancer. Sir Ian McKellen was the next choice, but was unavailable due to shooting Brian Singer's X-Men. Christopher Plummer, Sir Patrick Steward, Sam Neil, Sir John Hurt were all considerd; Richard Harris, Max von Sydow, Christopher Lee, Bernard Hill and John Astin tried for the part. Eventually, Robert Shaye personally arranged for McKellen to be available for the shoot.

Sir Daniel Day-Lewis was Jackson's first choice for Aragorn, but turned him down. He next approached Kiwi actor Russel Crowe, who turned it down, before trying Day-Lewis again. Stuart Towsned was cast, but let go after four days shooting when Jackson realized he cast the role too young. He approached Day-Lewis again, but was denied and instead went for Viggo Mortensen. The Hobbits were all to be cast from the Commonwealth, but the power of Elijah Wood's audition tape and Sean Astin's audition convinced Jackson to make an exception.

Jackson and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie wanted to shoot the films on large-format film, such as 65mm film, but the need to send the negative to be processed in the US was too cost and time consuming. Not to mention it clashed with Jackson's intention to produce the films solely on New Zealand soil, using his own production company, special effects company, and outdoors locations. He bought an old paint factory, converting it to Stone Street Studios, in order to shoot The Lord of the Rings. The trilogy was ultimately shot on fine-grain Super-35mm, and underwent a comprehensive, cutting-edge digital intermediate process. Lesnie wanted to do a 4K DI, but cost prohibiton limited him to 2K.

The films were shot over 14 months with multiple units shooting. Jackson hired three editors, with the intention of each assembling one of the three films concurrently, with co-producer Jamie Selkirk supervising all other editors. While shooting, Jackson also came up with the idea of an expanded home relase, capitalizing on the more leisurely pace permitted on the small screen, and the advent of DVDs.

Jackson started to incorporate music into his vision early on, wanting an intricate, operatic score. He contacted Doctor James Horner while writing the script, in 1997, but was declined. Wojciech Kilar was approached next, before Howard Shore (whose music was used in a lot of the temp-track choices) was chosen in early 2000. He wrote The Shire Theme before he was shown a single piece of film.

The Lord of the Rings

The Fellowship of the Ring was released to universal acclaim and large box office returns in December 2001. During post-production work on The Two Towers, Jackson released a three-and-a-half-hour extended cut for TV. The film was honoured by the Acamdey with 14 nominations (one short of the record for most nominations), including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay - one of very few blockbusters to have done so. It won for cinematography, Makeup, Original Score and Visual Effects.

The Two Towers, released the very next year, was also highly acclaimed while bettering its predecessor's profits - one of very few sequels to have do so. It was again nominated for Best Picture (a rarity for a sequel) and film editing, but won for Sound Editing and Visual Effects. While working on post-production for the Return of the King, an extended cut of The Two Towers, 223-minutes in length, was released.

The Return of the King, even at a length of 200 minutes, would become the most succesful film of the frachise. It is among the highest-grossing films of all time, having grossed over 1 billion at the box-office. Buliding on the strength of its predecessors, it won for best film an director at both the Golden Globes and BAFTAs before winning all eleven Oscars it was nominated for during the 76th Acadmey Awards. In the biggest clean sweep in Oscar history, the film won all eleven award, tying the record for most wins with Titanic and Ben Hur. Among the awards were Best Picture (the second sequel and one of few genre pictures to have won this award), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Editing. An Extended cut, the shooting for which extended until after the winning of the award, was released at a length of 263 minutes: one of the longest commercial films ever produced.

With The Hobbit in the back of his mind, Jackson proceeded to other projects in the interim, including a remake of King Kong, and returning to a smaller story with The Lovely Bones. He also produced District 9 for Neil Blomekamp - for which he was nominated for Best Picture yet again - and The Adventures of Tintin for Steven Spielberg. Jackson and Richard Taylor were both knighted in 2010, with Fran Walsh following in 2018.

The Hobbit

In 2006, Peter Jackson opted to write and produce The Hobbit for director Guillermo Del Toro. It would be broken down into two installments.

With Del Toro joining the screenwriting team, the breaking-off point of the two screenplays was a subject of some changes: it was first thought the first film would portray anything from the beginning to the opening of the Hidden Door, but this resulted in a disproportionally long first script. Del Toro mused on the idea of a bridge film to The Lord of the Rings, but soon abandoned the idea. Del Toro was a proponent of the idea of adding a female character, insisting she'd be a fighter.

With Jackson and DP Andrew Lesnie, it was decided The Hobbit would be shot on large-format digital cameras, in 3D. Tests were done on shooting at higher frame rates to reduce strobing in 3D, and a frame rate of 48 frames per second - twice the industry's standard - was decided upon. The films were to be shot at a taller aspect ratio of 2:1 for digital IMAX, but also composed for the wider 2.41:1 and cropped for standard theaters, matching The Lord of the Rings.

By 2010, ongoing issues surrounding the rights meant the project - which already had a script, concept art and effects work - was not yet green-lit, forcing Del Toro to leave and pursue other projects. After other directors refused to step-in, Jackson took the role himself.

Given the short pre-production time, Jackson had principal photography - which again extended over a year - divided into three "blocks", and used the downtime to revise concept art, supervise visual effects, fabricate new sets and so on. Nevertheless, he was unable to polish the last chapters of the script - those pertaining to the course of The Battle of the Five Armies and some of its aftermath - during production. The majority of the footage to do with the battle was therefore postponed into pickups, which were to commence in 2013.

Editor Jabez Olssen was assembling the footage onset during shooting, and while reviewing the assembly between blocks 2 and 3, Jackson and his co-writers felt the ending of film one and beginning of film two were misplaced. They started to consider the idea of splitting the work into three films. They spent the reminder of the shoot constructing a three-film version, only showing it to studio executives when they came to congradulate them on the finishing of the shoot. Warner Brothers were, per Jackson, "stunned. They couldn't quite believe what they were hearing."[9]

As with The Lord of the Rings, the two-film schedule allowed for a period of pickup photography of six weeks to be conducted during spring of 2013. The split to three-films allowed Jackson a few more days of pickups during 2012, as well as to extend the 2013 pickups by two weeks. In the months leading up to pickups, more screenwriting and previsualization work was performed. This allowed Jackson to come to terms with the battle sequences on the page, and indeed the bulk of the pickup shoot had to do with the contents of the third film, rather than the second.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was released to mixed-to-positive reviews. Its central performances and story were praised, but the pacing and some of its visual style was scrutinized. The high-frame rate version, shown in Digital IMAX, was a point of particular contention, with some critics deeming the footage too "hyper realistic". Nevertheless, the film drew a big box office return, and was able to secure three Academy Award nominations, as well as a win for a special technical award. An Extended Edition was released in November 2013.

The Desolation of Smaug was released the next year. It was better recieved than its predecessor, with Jackson taking care for complaints of pacing from the previous film, as well as grading down the image so as to avoid the "HD-look." An extended version of that film was released the next year.

The third film - with the new title of "The Battle of the Five Armies" was released in December 2014. It retained the large box-office draw of its predecessors, as well as continuing to secure Academy Award nominations, but didn't sustain the superior acclaim of the previous entry. An extended cut was released in October 2015, with an R-rating, the only film of this series to achieve it.

In the following years, Jackson had released an acclaimed World War One documentary, They Shall not Grow Old, and produced Mortal Engines for his longtime collaborator Christian Rivers. He is set to consult and look over scripts for Amazon's upcoming TV series, which is set to be in the same cinematic universe as his films.

Future projects

Amazon Studios, in co-operation with Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema, are producing a multi-season TV series based off the stories of the mid-Second Age, which were briefly glimpsed in the prolouge to The Fellowship of the Ring. According to Conceptual designer John Howe, the series is set to be in continuity with the live-action adaptations, in a shared cinematic universe.[10] Sir Peter Jackson is said to be looking over the scripts, with Jurassic World director J.A. Bayona directing the first two episodes. The show will be shot principally in New Zealand, like the feature films.

Lord of the Rings exeuctives, Robert Shaye and Michael Lynne, produced a biopic of the author's life, Tolkien, for 20th Century Fox, starring Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins and Sir Derek Jacobi.

Fan films


Box office performance

Public and critical reception



  1. Forrest J. Ackerman, whom Peter Jackson knew, was a producer, journalist and writer who established contemporary film fandom. He was determined to produce The Lord of the Rings.
  2. David Lean was a natural choice, being that almost all of his projects were adaptations of some sort: including two acclaimed Dickens adaptations. Furthermore, Since the mid-50s, Lean had established himself as an international director, winning twice in a row for Best Director and Best Picture, with a string of epic productions, themselves adaptations: Bridge on the River Kwai, based on a Pierre Boulle novel, and starring William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Sir Alec Guinness, and Sessue Hayakawa. Lawrence of Arabia, base off of Colonel Lawrence's autobiography, starring Peter O'Toole, Sir Anthony Quayle, Guinness and Omar Sharif. Doctor Zhivago, based off of Boris Pasternak's Nobel-winning book, starring Sharif, Julie Christie and Sir Tom Courtenay.
  3. Kubrick was another natural choice, being that he too worked on adapted screenplay, was situated in England, and has experience with large-scale productions. At this point, Kubrick had already directed the epic Spartacus (1960) with Kirk Douglas and Lord Lawrence Olivier, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, based on Sir Arthur C. Clarke's short stories, featuring innovative special effects. He was next gearing for a biopic of Napoleon before making Barry Lyndon.
  4. The studio, which was established by the filmmakers Sir Charlie Chaplin, David W Griffiths, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, was already behind several of the biggest epics of the 1950s and 1960s. These included the African Queen with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, Alexander the Great with Richard Burton and Sir Stanley Baker; Best-Picture winner Around the World in 80s Days; John Wayne's The Alamo, and The Greatest Story Ever Told.
  5. Boorman tried to pitch his script to Disney before recylcing several narrative elements, lines, locations and casting ideas for his Arthurian film, Excalibur (1981) with Nigel Terry and Dame Helen Mirren. His Merlin strongly echoes Gandalf at the close of the story: "Its a time for Men."
  8. Zaentz had recently became the most accoladed producer in cinema history, having won four Oscars: three Best Picture Oscars for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus and The English Patient, and the Irvin G, Thalberg Memorial Award in 1996.
  10. "he show runners are determined to remain faithful to the existing trilogies."
v - e - d
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit logo
Live-action films: The Lord of the Rings Logo The Fellowship of the RingThe Two TowersThe Return of the KingThe Hobbit logo An Unexpected JourneyThe Desolation of SmaugThe Battle of the Five Armies
The Lord of the Rings:

The Hobbit:
Mystical Animals:

See also
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