The Great Unmade? John Boorman’s The Lord of The Rings

lord of the rings john howe

If you think John Boorman’s Zardoz was bat-shit weird, take a moment to consider how his unmade adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings would have turned out. By his collaborator Rospo Pallenberg’s own admission, “We were propelled by what we liked, and invented as we went along.”

The film would have opened on Tolkien working in his study, before a Kabuki theatre style presentation on the background history of Middle-Earth, at Rivendell. There was a brief possibility The Beatles would have played the four hobbits. Boorman’s co-writer Rospo Pallenberg said “It was presented to me as, “Lets see if we can try and keep the four hobbits as a sort of equal basis”- obviously Frodo was the protagonist – so we did that.” Pallenberg envisioned Paul McCartney as Frodo. Wouldn’t Ringo’s finger adornments have confused the issue of “the one, true ring“? And would he have sang “When I’m Eleventy-One”?

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When we first meet Aragorn in Boorman and Pallenberg’s script, he uses the two shards of Narsil as twin bladesOn the road to Moria, he has a vision of Arwen, which prompts him to give one shard to Boromir. Later, the three of them kiss the swords and each other. Boromir gives his sword back to Aragorn as he lies dying. On the field of battle outside Minas Tirith, Narsil magically reforges before Aragorn is proclaimed King of Gondor -shades of the legend of King Arthur, which Boorman originally wanted to adapt, and eventually did, as Excalibur. Arwen the elf maiden is a thirteen year old, and removes the Mordor-blade fragment from a naked Frodo, covered with leaves, in a ceremony at Rivendell after the dark riders are swept away at the Ford of Bruinen. She does this under Gimli’s threatening axe blade, while Gandalf dares Boromir to take the ring.  Aragorn does not get together with Arwen – instead he marries Eowyn, after delivering some blatantly sexual, divine King healing  powers to her on the battlefield. And poor Shadowfax? He ends the film as a symbol of reconstruction, pulling a plough on Pelennor Fields.

Here John Boorman elaborates on his attempt to film The Lord Of The Rings, from his autobiography, Money Into Light:


“After I made “Leo the Last” for United Artists, they asked me what I wanted to do next. I gave them a treatment I had written about Merlin. David Picker, then in charge of production, did not respond to Merlin, but asked me instead to make “The Lord of the Rings,” the film rights of which they had bought without having any idea what to do with it. Tolkien’s work stirs a great brew of Norse, Celtic and Arthurian myth, the “Unterwelt” of my own mind. It was a heady, impossible proposition. If film-making for me is, as I have often said, exploration, setting oneself impossible problems and failing to solve them, then the Rings saga qualifies on all counts.

I had met Rospo Pallenberg in New York, where he was working as an architect. He was trying to write scripts. I recognized a fellow spirit. I brought him to my home in Ireland and we spent six months delving with dwarfs, wallowing with the Gollum, tramping Middle-Earth with Bilbo, but, most of all, Gandalf filled my life. He was, after all, Merlin in another guise.

Apart form the prodigious and daunting task of making a two-and-a-half-hour script from the three enormous volumes, many technical problems had to be solved as we went along, especially ways to render the magical effects. This was long before the Star Wars saga, a time when optical special-effects practice had wasted away through lack of usage all over the world. I had always had a fascination for the magic and trickery of the cinema from Georges Melies onwards. During this period I studied the techniques of the past and then experimented with modern technology to see how it could be applied.

Rospo pasted every page of “The Lord of the Rings” on to four walls in a room in my house in Ireland. We worked in that room, literally inside the book. He made charts of characters, chronologies and elaborate cross-references. We also devised a map of Middle-Earth and we had counters to represent the movement of characters across it. After six months of intensive work we had a script that we felt was fresh and cinematic, yet carried the spirit of Tolkien, a spirit we had come to admire and cherish during those months. It was a good and wondrous time. The valley in the Wicklow hills outside of Dublin where my house sits is as close to Middle-Earth as you can get in this depleted world.

During these six months, United Artists had suffered setbacks, a string of commercial failures including my own Leo the Last. It was 1970. The latest crop of British films had failed in the States. Hollywood’s love affair with swinging London was over. American producers were packing their bags and looking for stories set in Denver and Philadelphia.

 “The Lord of the Rings” was an expensive project dependent on innovative special effects. By the time we submitted it to United Artist, the executive who had espoused it had left the company. No one else there had actually read the book. They were baffled by a script that, for most of them, was their first contact with Middle-Earth. I was shattered when they rejected it. Marty Elfant was my agent at the time. We took it to Disney and other places, but no one would do it. Tolkien had sold the film rights, reluctantly, to set up a trust for his grandchildren. He wrote asking me how I intended to make the film. I explained that it would be live-action and he was much relieved. He had a dread that it would be an animation film and was comforted by my reply. His death spared him the eventual outcome: UA gave it to Ralph Bakshi, the animator (To gain full artistic control for Bakshi’s approach, Boorman’s script was purchased by UA, for a reputed $3 million) . I could never bring myself to watch the result.

Despite my disappointment at the time, it was a rich and valuable experience. It certainly prepared the ground for the script that Rospo and I eventually wrote and filmed as “Excalibur.” It was also a big influence on Zardoz. Many of the special-effects techniques I developed at that time were put to work on “The Heretic,” “Zardoz” and “Excalibur,” and some of the locations I intended for “The Lord of the Rings” found their way into “Excalibur.”

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Rospo Pallenberg spoke to Ross Plesset in Outre magazine on their attempt to adapt the books (The full article also covered The Beatles interest in Tolkien, and an attempt by The Yellow Submarine art director, Heinz Edelmann, to do an animated version).


“The chore that was given to us by United Artists was one movie and, at the time, they produced long movies with an intermission. [The script] is 176 pages with an intermission on page 81, after the fellowship goes down the rapids, and you have a sense that they have now reached a great landscape as the river widens.” The musical theme for “The Road Goes Ever On” accompanies this closing scene.

The script’s first half, then, would have depicted most of The Fellowship Of The Ring. Following the intermission, “we accelerated as we continued the story, and dropped things out. We were propelled by what we liked, and invented as we went along.”

The screenplay takes liberties with the book, which would have upset Tolkien purists. Perhaps the most provocative change occurs in Lothlorien where, before gazing into Galadriel’s mirror, Frodo must become intimate with her (this does not cause friction with husband Celeborn because he is not featured.)

The adaption is also highly creative and inventive (ideas which Pallenberg still hopes to use in some other epic project). The history of Middle-earth is told in an interesting way, although the writer would do it differently today. “I devised kind of a Kabuki play in which the story of Sauron and the creation of the rings was explained to a gathering in Rivendell. [Reading the script] ‘A play has begun. The stage is the table (a huge round table). The acting is stylized, emphatic. As in Kabuki Theater, the costumes are flamboyant, and symbolize beings and entities of Middle-earth.’ In other words, with this device, we tried to simplify the backstory. But I think if I were to revisit the scene now, I would think of a faster way of doing it.”

New material for the dwarf Gimli came from Pallenberg’s fondness for the character. “I remember liking him a lot. I knew quite a bit about Wagner’s operas and the German literature. I was sympathetic to him, and I tried to work him in wherever I could. I believe it was I who came up with idea where they bury Gimli in a hole, throw a cape on him, and beat him up to utter exhaustion to retrieve his unconscious ancestral memory.” This ancient knowlege allows Gimli to know the word for entering Moria, and to find insights about the ancient dwarf kingdom.

Pallenberg contributed another original idea to the Moria sequence. “I had a rather fanciful idea involving these orcs that are slumbering or in some kind of narcotic state. The fellowship runs over them, and the footsteps start up their hearts. John liked that a lot.”

He mentioned another change. “There’s a duel between the magicians, Gandalf and Saruman. I was inspired by an African idea of how magicians duel with words, which I had read about. It was a way of one entrapping the other as a duel of words rather than special effects flashes, shaking staffs, and all that. I tried to keep away from that a lot, and Boorman did too. [Reads from script]:
GANDALF: Saruman, I am the snake about to strike!
SARUMAN: I am the staff that crushes the snake!
GANDALF: I am the fire that burns the staff to ashes!
SARUMAN: I am the cloudburst that quenches the fire!
GANDALF: I am the well that traps the waters!

“John Boorman and I didn’t give too much importance to the Christian component of Tolkien’s work. It came across as a tad heavy-handed at times. It is a story of redemption, and that seemed to be enough.”

{jumping ahead to elswhere in Plesset’s article}
Pallenberg continued, “Because it had to be one movie, and we couldn’t waste time with too many complicated effects, I was an advocate of eliminating all flying creatures. I thought it would make it too rich, and it would depart too much from the ordinary. John Boorman agreed on that. At Minas Tirith, instead of a flying steed, the Nazgul Chief rides a horse that ‘seems to have no skin. Its live, raw, bleeding flesh is exposed.’ I still have this feeling that the dazzle can take away from the fundamental drama. We always tried to do things on the cheap, simply. When you saw a castle in the distance, it could have been made out of anything, even gleaming, high-voltage transmission towers. You saw those in the distance between the trees and then, suddenly, you were inside it. John Boorman is tremendously clever at that.”

{jumping further ahead to the article’s concluding paragraph}
The script ends with Gandalf, Frodo, Bilbo, Galadriel, Arwen, and Elrond leaving Middle-earth on a sailing ship. A rainbow arcs over the vessel. Legolas, who is watching from shore with Gimli, says, “Look! Only seven colors. Indeed, the world is failing.” “I think that’s the ideology of the picture,” said Pallenberg. “That is from me, not Tolkien. From a physics standpoint, it’s incorrect to say that there could be more than seven colors, but what it’s saying is, ‘we live in a diminished world.'”

UPDATE: Here is a link to the script by Boorman and Pallenberg.lord-of-the-rings

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Originally posted 2013-08-02 16:59:25. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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