Remembering the Impact and Legacy of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ Saga

Source: New Line Cinema
Source: New Line Cinema

Back in 2001, the very first Lord of the Rings novel was adapted to the big screen. The Fellowship of the Ring netted over $300 million at the box office and kicked off an epic franchise that combined has made over $1 billion. With the final Hobbit prequel The Battle of Five Armies releasing this week, there’s no better time than now to reflect on the epic saga that’s made Peter Jackson’s career.

The original Lord of the Rings trilogy revolutionized the fantasy epic. For the first time since the original Star Wars, we had a trilogy that lived up to both fan and critical expectations. Jackson took advantage of practical effects, like meticulously built models and the gorgeous New Zealand countryside, to create a world that before had only lived in the pages of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. It sprang to life on the silver screen kickstarting a fandom that extended across the globe, culminating in an Academy Award for Best Picture following the release of Return of the King in 2003.

After it was announced that The Hobbit, the shortest of Tolkien’s novels, would be broken up into three parts, there was some speculation as to how they’d equal their predecessors. Practical effects largely went out the window, replaced by green screens and CGI that were so extensive, according to NME Ian McKellen broke down in tears on set after being forced for virtually the whole shoot to act against 13 pictures of dwarves on light stands next to a green screen.

But the lasting legacy of Peter Jackson isn’t simply in the effects — it’s in the vast universe he brought to life over the course of 13 years. Extended editions were released for each that add hours upon hours onto the run time, all culminating in movie marathons with friends that could last days on end. The fandom is devoted beyond compare, making a habit of lining up on opening night for each installment. Merchandising deals have made for toys, costumes, and everything in between adding to the allure of the franchise. In short, what was considered a series of complex books for one audience became a worldwide phenomenon.

The accomplishments of The Hobbit trilogy are of course less than that of The Lord of the Rings. Rotten Tomatoes has each rating in the 60-70% range, compared to each LOTR film sitting comfortably in the 90s. This is likely due in large part to the natural split of the original trilogy: Three books made into three movies. With movie studios looking to milk every dollar out of their franchises the last few years, The Hobbit became a 300 page novel broken up into three films. The result was a trilogy that the LOTR Project estimates spent almost $1.3 million per page (the original trilogy never exceeded $370,000 per page).

So what sort of effect will this have on the future of fantasy epics? The trail laid down by the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, and subsequently by The Hobbit, paved the way for franchises like The Hunger Games, and in some ways the new Star Wars, to succeed. Audiences have been primed and educated in stories told in lengthy three to six movie parts, something Twilight, while making a ton of money, did to a debatably ineffective degree from a storytelling standpoint.

Jackson’s mastery of the mythos of his franchise is both a lesson and a warning to the filmmakers of future series: Respect the universe you’ve created. The Hobbit lost sight of the practical effects and organic filmmaking aspects of its predecessor, and in turn we’ve gotten inferior movies. The new Star Wars trilogy, already promising less CGI, would do well to learn from that mistake.

Love it or hate it, The Hobbit’s final chapter marks the end of a historical run that’s seen hundreds of millions of dollars made, countless awards hauled in, and audiences everywhere entertained. It remains to be seen what the lasting legacy of the saga will be, but it’s definitely one that will remain for decades to come (or at least until the inevitable grittier reboot that’s sure to come when the studio feels like going back to the Lord of the Rings well for more cash).

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