Three Rings for Hollywood: Scripts for The Lord of the Rings by Zimmerman, Boorman, and Beagle
By Janet Brennan Croft
University of Oklahoma
Adapting The Lord of the Rings for film has been a tempting prospect for screenwriters since the book was first published. Tolkien’s epic is a treasure-trove of dramatic and highly cinematic images. It has exciting action and battle sequences, exotic locations and monsters, and even a few touching scenes of romance. At first glance it seems made for the movies. But it also presents the scripting challenges of an unorthodox structure, a complex and many-stranded plot, and a confusing multitude of characters. There is much unavoidable exposition, and a certain subtlety of theme and philosophy difficult to translate to a medium that leaves less to the audience’s imagination. Not to mention its sheer length! Add to this a vocal fan base familiar with every nuance of the book and its background legendarium, and in many cases very unforgiving about any deviation from the original, and the task of adapting The Lord of the Rings becomes quite a test of the scriptwriter’s skill.
Before Peter Jackson’s recent blockbuster three-film series, released 2001-2003, there were a number of other efforts to develop a Hollywood movie based on The Lord of the Rings. The Tolkien collection at Marquette University in Milwaukee holds materials relating to three of these attempts: the 1957 Zimmerman treatment, which Tolkien read and annotated, the 1970 draft by John Boorman, and three revisions of the Chris Conkling-Peter Beagle script for the 1978 Ralph Bakshi film.
Tolkien called drama “naturally hostile to Fantasy” and felt that rewriting narrative fantasy for a performing medium was nearly impossible to do successfully ("On Fairy-Stories" 49). Can a work of written fantasy be filmed effectively at all? How well did each of these early scripts capture the essence of Tolkien’s work? How do they compare to the efforts of Peter Jackson’s scriptwriting team?
The earliest serious attempt to write a screenplay for The Lord of the Rings occurred in 1957, when Tolkien received a proposal for a motion picture from Forrest J. Ackerman, Morton Grady Zimmerman, and Al Brodax (Carpenter 226). The production notes indicate that the producers planned to use a mix of animation, miniature work, and live action, and to make a three hour film with two intermissions (Zimmerman, Production Notes). Tolkien told his publisher he was “quite prepared to play ball, if they are open to advice” (Tolkien, Letters 261). He thought the pictures he had been shown were “really astonishingly good,” reminiscent of Arthur Rackham rather than Walt Disney (Tolkien, Letters 261), for whose works Tolkien had a “heartfelt loathing” (Tolkien, Letters 17). But Tolkien found the script itself “hasty, insensitive, and impertinent” (Tolkien, Letters 266), and this, in addition to the fact that the project would have brought in very little cash for the author, caused Tolkien to turn it down (Carpenter 226).
The script starts promisingly enough, but Tolkien soon complains of the addition of “incantations, blue lights, and some irrelevant magic” (Tolkien, Letters 271). When Gandalf hypnotizes and psychically frog-marches the eavesdropping Sam into Frodo’s study, rather than hauling him bodily over the windowsill, it is a taste of things to come (Zimmerman, Story Line 3). The company is attacked at the Gates of Moria by wolves, which Gandalf dispatches with a few lightning bolts, and in Moria he magically opens a chasm to swallow up the attacking orcs. During Denethor’s suicide scene, Gandalf levitates the body of Faramir from the pyre. In a final act of wizardry, he turns the Ringwraiths to stone one by one at the Battle of the Black Gate while the assembled armies watch in silence.
In his response to the script, Tolkien quoted C.S. Lewis’s complaint about a film adaptation of King Solomon’s Mines. In H. Rider Haggard’s book, the climactic scene saw the heroes facing slow death trapped in the tomb of the mummified kings. But “[t]he maker of the film version, however, apparently thought this tame. He substituted a subterranean volcanic eruption, and then went one better by adding an earthquake” (Lewis 5). Similarly, Zimmerman often succumbs to this temptation to “up the ante,” for example adding several armed attacks on Strider and the Hobbits as they flee from Weathertop to Rivendell, and sending them over Rauros Falls in their flimsy rowboats.
But in the most bizarre twist to this script, Sam actually abandons Frodo to Shelob and carries the Ring to Mount Doom himself. He realizes Frodo is still alive, but his duty to Middle-earth triumphs – as Tolkien testily noted in the margin, “opposite of book” (Zimmerman, Story Line 50). At the Cracks of Doom he is about to toss the Ring into the fire when he is attacked by a crazed Frodo, who in turn is attacked by Gollum – with no indication of where either of them has been hiding since Shelob’s lair. The weakly written ending has Frodo awakening in Minas Tirith after Aragorn’s wedding, and immediately sailing away with the Elves.
The whole script exhibits a certain brash carelessness about both the source material and the craft of scriptwriting. Annoying spelling errors are repeated throughout. The entire Treebeard sequence and the meeting with Faramir are both truncated to the point of unintelligibility. The intercutting of the separate story lines of The Two Towers and The Return of the King is disorienting, switching from Mount Doom to the Black Gate every few seconds at the climax. Tolkien is astute enough about film to note a particularly clumsy fade between scenes, where we go directly from one group of people in a tunnel (The Paths of the Dead) to another group in another tunnel (Shelob’s Lair), which would be very confusing to an audience unfamiliar with the original (Tolkien, Letter to Ackerman, Draft).
It is perhaps indicative of the group’s attitude towards this adaptation that Ackerman jokingly called the project “Operation Ringslord” (Ackerman). Tolkien thought at first that the script could be rewritten in a way which would satisfy him, and his agent gave Ackerman a promise that the film rights would not be offered to anyone else for six months (Unwin). But Ackerman asked for a year, and Tolkien’s publisher was unwilling to go beyond six months without some payment. The matter was referred to Tolkien’s Hollywood agent, who forwarded the author’s June 1958 criticisms to Ackerman and company, but there is no reply in the file, and there the materials at Marquette leave it.
In spite of his grave doubts about the suitability of The Lord of the Rings for the movies, Tolkien sold the film and merchandise rights to United Artists in 1969 for just over £104,000 (Harlow and Dobson 16). In 1970, the studio asked John Boorman, later known as the director of Excalibur and The Emerald Forest, to make The Lord of the Rings. With his collaborator Rospo Pallenberg, he condensed the work into a single two and a half hour script which he felt was “fresh and cinematic, yet carried the spirit of Tolkien” (Boorman 20). Boorman says he received a letter from Tolkien during the writing process, asking how he planned to make the film, and wrote back reassuring him that he planned a live action version. However, by the time Boorman had finished the script, the executive who had asked him to take on the project was gone, and the new management was unfamiliar with the book. Boorman said, “They were baffled by a script that, for most of them, was their first contact with Middle Earth [sic],” and rejected it (Boorman 21). He tried taking the script to other studios, including Disney, but with no luck. Boorman eventually used some of the special-effects techniques and locations developed for The Lord of the Rings in other films, most notably Excalibur in 1981.
But there is another side to the story. Ralph Bakshi, in a recent interview, talks about taking on the project several years later, and clearly exaggerates a bit for effect:
And here comes the horror story, right? … Boorman handed in this 700-page script … [The studio executives said] ‘[H]e’s changed a lot of the characters, and he’s added characters. He’s got some sneakers he’s merchandising in the middle. … [W]e don’t understand a word Boorman wrote. We never read the books.’ (Robinson 4)
It was only 176 pages, and there weren’t any sneakers, but it wouldn’t have helped to have read the books, because Boorman took off in his own direction quite early in his treatment.
To put it bluntly, Boorman’s script has only the vaguest connection to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Considering Tolkien’s appalled reaction to the much lesser liberties taken by Zimmerman, it is unlikely he would have appreciated Boorman’s script at all. Characters, events, locations, themes, all are changed freely with no regard for the author’s original intent. Situations are sexualized or plumbed for psychological kinks that simply do not exist in the book. (Tolkien would not have approved of Frodo’s seduction by Galadriel, for example, and Aragon’s battlefield healing of Éowyn is so blatantly sexual it’s not surprising Boorman marries them immediately.) Ideas that later worked brilliantly in Excalibur, Boorman’s retelling of the King Arthur legend, are here as out of place as a dwarf in Lothlórien.
Boorman was simply too full of his own creative spark to limit himself to what was in Tolkien’s book. For example, consider this strange sequence of events. After the destruction of the Ringwraiths at the Fords of Bruinen, Frodo is carried into the sparkling palace of Rivendell, where in a vast amphitheatre full of chanting elves he is laid naked on a crystal table and covered with green leaves. A thirteen-year-old Arwen surgically removes the Morgul-blade fragment from his shoulder with a red-hot knife under the threatening axe of Gimli, while Gandalf dares Boromir to try to take the Ring (Boorman and Pallenberg 28-32).
Sound familiar? How about this sequence outside the Gates of Moria? Gandalf leads Gimli through a primitive rebirthing ritual, making him dig a hole and crawl into it, covering him with a cloak and violently beating and verbally abusing him, until he springs forth with recovered memories of his forgotten ancestral language and speaks the Dwarvish words needed to open the doors (Boorman and Pallenberg 59-60).
To give Boorman his due, parts of the script have a compelling brilliance, though they are still unlike anything Tolkien wrote. The sober exposition of the Council of Elrond is recast as a fantastic medieval masque representing the history of the Rings. This highly stylized sequence combines elements of Kabuki theater, rock opera, and circus performance, and could almost be imagined as a later retelling of the legend by a tribe of decadent Dark Elves. It is strangely effective, and gets the necessary back-story across, but it is definitely not a straightforward adaptation of Tolkien’s work.
And that is where the key problem lies. At this point Tolkien was still alive, and as he insists in his introduction to the first authorized American paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings, a certain courtesy (at least) is due to living authors (Hammond 105). This is what he says in response to the changes in the Zimmerman script:
…I am not Rider Haggard. I am not comparing myself with that master of Romance, except in this: I am not dead, yet. When the film of K.S. Mines was made it had already passed, one might say, into the public property of the imagination. The Lord of the Rings … is still the vivid concern of a living person, and is nobody’s toy to play with. (Tolkien, Letter to Ackerman and Others, Draft)
Boorman’s abundant creativity, inspired by Tolkien’s work, needed another outlet than the straitjacket of adapting a living author’s writings. Eventually he found it in Excalibur, returning to the Merlin-centered project he had been working on before he was offered The Lord of the Rings (Boorman 20). Boorman’s imaginative remaking of the story of King Arthur worked because the Matter of Britain is undeniably part of the “public property of the imagination.” He could get away with combining the characters of Morgause, Nimue, and Morgan le Fay, for example, because other artists had taken similar liberties over the centuries. Some might consider Tolkien’s stories “public property of the imagination” now, close to fifty years after their initial publication, but at that time they were relatively fresh from his pen, and he could legitimately claim they were his alone to play with.
In 1976 the Saul Zaentz Company acquired the film and stage rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (Who We Are). Bakshi approached United Artists when he heard about the Boorman project, and told them it ought to be animated instead of live action. He didn’t want to use the Boorman script; his reaction was “Why would you want to tamper with anything Tolkien did?” He says he persuaded MGM to buy out UA, paying Boorman for a script that would never be produced, then got Saul Zaentz and UA to buy back the rights when his MGM producer was fired (Robinson).
Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings was much reviled by many Tolkien fans, primarily for his use of rotoscoping, an animation technique involving drawing over film of live actors. However, there are also many viewers who praise Bakshi for staying true to the spirit of Tolkien’s characters and the original dialogue, and after the liberties some feel Peter Jackson and crew took with their source material, it is instructive to take a fresh look at the script Bakshi used.
Had Bakshi used the first draft written by Chris Conkling it would have been a very different film indeed. This draft is comparable to the Zimmerman script in its departures from the original and cavalier attitude towards its source material. It tells the bulk of a story as a flashback, with Merry doing voiceovers as the younger hobbits try to persuade Treebeard to enter the fight for Middle-earth. The truly disturbing thing about this script is the way the writer almost never uses Tolkien’s exact words, simplifying all dialogue to a level of banality found only in the worst mass-market paperback fantasy. Here, for example, are excerpts from Galadriel’s speeches:
Sam, come here. You’ve wanted to see some elf magic long enough. I have some for you. … The mirror confuses past and future, Sam, all this has not happened yet…. You see, I have long wondered what I might do if I should ever get the ring. (Conkling 107-10)
Compare this last phrase to Tolkien’s original: ”For many long years I have pondered what I might do, should the Great Ring come into my hands, and behold! it was brought within my grasp” (Tolkien, Fellowship 381). Other characters fare no better – Saruman’s attempt to persuade Théoden he is more sinned against than sinning seems likelier to put the assembled troops to sleep than to seduce them to the dark side.
But this draft does include several cinematically effective moments which make it through to the final shooting script. For example, Frodo’s song in the Prancing Pony is intercut with Merry’s encounter with the Black Riders, and the audience does not know Aragorn and the hobbits changed rooms until after the attack on the inn takes place. Later, when Sam is trying to persuade Frodo to take him to Mordor, they are shown paddling the boat in opposite directions as they argue, a subtle touch which shows how action not specified in the original can be used to strengthen a scene without undermining it.
According to a letter accompanying the Bakshi scripts in the Marquette files, fantasy author Peter Beagle was called in to rewrite the script after Bakshi and Zaentz saw the first draft (Villalpando). Beagle immediately improved it by eliminating the flashback frame and plunging straight into the long-expected party. Beagle obviously had a great love for and understanding of Tolkien’s work, and replaced most of Conkling’s dialogue with Tolkien’s original words, but the result was still overly long and had a few rough spots. The third draft adds some opening exposition showing the history of the Ring but prunes other areas. By this draft Galadriel’s gift-giving scene has been dropped, and not only has Arwen been eliminated, but so has all interaction between Aragorn and Éowyn.
This script is not without its problems. A minor quibble is that Saruman is renamed “Aruman,” apparently to distinguish him from Sauron. There are a few logical holes caused by what was left out, and at the end those familiar with the story might feel Beagle has written himself into a corner; for example, since there was no gift-giving, how will Sam defeat Shelob without Galadriel’s phial? Since we see neither Faramir nor Arwen, what will be done with Éowyn – did they plan to marry her to Aragorn as Boorman did?
There was one major change between the third draft and the final film. The draft cuts from Gollum’s near-redemption scene (“Where were you?” ”Sneaking”) to the Battle of Helm’s Deep, then finishes with a brief scene of Gollum leading Frodo and Sam towards Shelob’s lair. However, the film runs the two Gollum scenes together and ends with the battle instead. According to a letter accompanying the scripts, test screenings convinced the studio that the film needed to end on a more traditionally dramatic note, with the victory at Helm’s Deep (Villalpando). The film was not enough of a commercial or critical success for Bakshi to get studio backing to complete the second part.
How do these scripts measure up to Tolkien’s original words? Zimmerman, as Tolkien found, only saw the action and magic on the surface of his work and didn’t show any appreciation for its depths. Boorman’s script had almost too much depth, but it was Boorman’s themes, not Tolkien’s, that provided the complexity. The Conkling/Beagle script worked well within its limitations, but was too short to allow a truly faithful adaptation. Peter Jackson had more time and resources to work with, but in the opinion of many readers, he still left untouched many of Tolkien’s deeper themes.
In some cases, the authors of these scripts came up with the same solutions to the problems posed by Tolkien’s material. Consider the opening exposition: The viewer is about to be plunged into a totally unfamiliar world, in which the back story is essential to his understanding of current events. In the original, the history of the rings of power is revealed piecemeal throughout the first two books, requiring the reader to be patient and tolerant of ambiguity. But in all three of the Marquette scripts, as well as in Jackson, the opening sequence includes establishing shots of Mordor and varying amounts of the history of the Rings before cutting to the Shire. The reader can easily move around in a book to reread an earlier passage or look up something in an appendix, but the viewer in the theatre does not have this luxury and has more need of an establishing narrative.
Here’s how each script handles Bilbo handing the Ring over to Gandalf after the party. The Bakshi film follows the book fairly closely, with Bilbo sealing the Ring in an envelope, and Gandalf catching the envelope as he drops it. Boorman, as expected, does his own thing and has Bilbo drop it in Gandalf’s hat. But Zimmerman and Jackson both use the opportunity to do something more cinematically interesting – in these versions, Bilbo drops the Ring on the floor and Gandalf refuses to touch it, leaving it for Frodo to pick up. Not only is the Ring a more obvious and visible menace, it allows the director to visually echo Bilbo picking up the Ring in Gollum’s cave.
Perhaps most intriguing is the handling of the female characters in each script. The Zimmerman treatment vastly reduces their importance, cutting Galadriel’s temptation, bringing Arwen onscreen only for her wedding, and dropping Éowyn’s attraction to Aragorn. Boorman followed his own vision: he strengthened and sexualized Galadriel’s role, turned Éowyn into Aragorn’s warrior-queen, and made Arwen an ethereal teenager. The Conkling-Beagle script also greatly reduces the importance of the female characters; by the time we get to the shooting script, there is no Arwen, Éowyn never speaks during the scene at Edoras, and while Galadriel’s temptation is fairly well done, there is no gift-giving scene. One strength of the Jackson films is that they retain Tolkien’s strong female roles, although some of the most crucial scenes only appear on the extended DVDs. Some viewers may feel he went too far in expanding their roles, particularly in his recreation of Arwen as a warrior princess. For each script, time constraints dictated that some characters and events had to be eliminated; the choices they made imply that some writers felt the female roles were the least essential to the plot, while others perhaps felt that strengthened female roles would attract a wider audience.
What is the solution to the problem of writing the perfect adaptation of Tolkien? Would a twenty-hour miniseries be long enough to cover all the nuances of his work, or would readers still be disappointed? Readers may dream about the day when a filmmaker will be daring enough to stick to Tolkien’s unusual structure, dialogue, and original story, yet creative enough to add the touches that make a great movie more than just a literal transcription from page to screen. But it may be impossible, and perhaps even undesirable. Tolkien may have been right in saying that a film can never capture all the nuances of a work of fiction. The film playing in the reader’s mind, after all, is the one that reader really wants to see.
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