Peter Jackson, the director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, was born in New Zealand in 1961, on Halloween. When Jackson was eight years old, his parents bought an 8mm camera, and in just a few years he was making short movies with his friends. He often used innovative special effects techniques for his very low-budget films, paving the way for his work with special effects later on in his filmmaking career. He began making his first feature film, the low-budget Bad Taste (1987), when he was twenty-two, and it became a cult classic. Eventually, he made a name for himself as a director of gory horror movies, including Meet the Feebles (1989) and Dead Alive (1992), then branched out a bit with Heavenly Creatures (1994), a film based on a real-life murder perpetrated by two young girls in New Zealand.
Jackson had been a longtime fan of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and he first approached Miramax with the idea of making two films based on the novels. Despite the studio’s initial support of the project, the budget proved too daunting for them, and Jackson brought his idea to New Line Cinema in 1998. Jackson’s plan to film the movies in New Zealand and employ his own special effects studios pleased New Line, and they increased the project to three films. In an unprecedented move, they agreed to let Jackson direct all three films at one time. His budget was $270 million, and filming took nearly fourteen months.
In 2004, The Return of the King (2003), the third film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, won the Oscar for Best Picture. The award was hardly a surprise. The first two films in the series, The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, had both been nominated but lost, and the trilogy seemed to be due an award. Few critics, however, considered the third film better than the first two, and, like its predecessors, the film was praised but not celebrated. However, the fact that The Return of the King concluded the trilogy seemed to make it more worthy of an Oscar than the previous two installments had been. Unlike the films that make up other famous trilogies, such as The Godfather, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones, the films in The Lord of the Rings are not complete in and of themselves. The Fellowship of the Ring might as well have a To Be Continued . . . sign before the credits, and The Two Towers actually has neither a real beginning nor a real end. Even The Return of the King, though it indeed has an ending, starts in media res, and anyone who has not seen the first two films will be a bit lost. The Best Picture award is, in effect, a single award for the entire trilogy, which itself might be more accurately described as one very long movie than as three separate films.
The trilogy’s unity is perhaps its most distinguishing characteristic. Its consistency is largely due to the circumstances of its production. For two years, from 1999 to 2001, Jackson filmed in New Zealand, creating the footage used in all three films. Though the movies were edited and released separately, the fact that the entire trilogy’s footage was filmed at one time and in one place goes a long way toward explaining the unity of the entire trilogy. The congruity of the trilogy can also be ascribed to the fact that the films closely follow Tolkien’s novels. Movies, which are collaborative, tend to be influenced by many different people—writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, and actors—while books tend to represent the vision of one writer. Because the films stay close to the novels, they benefit from the consistency of Tolkien’s vision.
While critics generally praised the films, few considered them to be anything more than very well-done big-budget extravaganzas, but the films’ popularity has made them very influential in the filmmaking world. For example, The Lord of the Rings trilogy has influenced the length of motion pictures. Each of the three films is approximately three hours long, and the entire trilogy lasts well over nine hours. For many years the standard Hollywood film length was an hour and a half. The average feature film had already begun to grow before the release of The Lord of the Rings, but the trilogy’s success partly explains the increasing number of two-and-a-half to three-hour movies, as well as multifilm epics, such as Quentin Tarantino’s two-part Kill Bill.
The trilogy also helped to reintroduce a forgotten genre: the war epic. For many years, most war films concerned the Vietnam War, and these films invariably approached the war with cynicism and aimed to present a balanced picture that documented the human suffering on both sides. Even war films, such as Glory and Saving Private Ryan, which seem to celebrate the heroism and sacrifice of common soldiers fighting just wars, never hide the fact that war is hell. Even if a war is just, these films suggest, it is still pure hell for the soldiers fighting it. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, however, seems to have helped reintroduce the notion of war as an aspect of coming of age, one way that a man can mature and make his name.
Neither Tolkien nor Jackson intended their work to be classified as “fantasy,” and instead viewed their work as a form of history-making. Many aspects of Jackson’s films, however, are indeed fantastical and follow a line of other films that portray worlds far different from the one we know. Movies have always taken place in both recognizable and alternative worlds, and for many years, the dominant genre in this alternate tradition was science fiction. Films like The Terminator portray futures in which cyborgs walk the earth and space travel is common. Science fiction eventually produced cyberpunk, a subgenre that includes such films as The Matrix, in which the virtual world of the computer becomes the new frontier. Fantasy, like science fiction and cyberpunk, portrays worlds that differ radically from both the present and the past, but the alternate world in works of fantasy is not defined by technology. Science fiction and cyberpunk most often concern an imagined future, while fantasy generally concerns an alternative past. Middle-earth, the setting of The Lord of the Rings, resembles a legendary, rather than historical, conception of the Middle Ages, where warriors wear shining armor and ride off to battle on horseback. Moreover, Middle-earth is a world of mystery, populated by elves, dwarves, magicians, and evil spirits, a fantastic land in keeping with the religiosity of the Middle Ages. Science fiction and cyberpunk are rooted in both the modern and the futuristic worlds, and to some extent, The Lord of the Rings signals a return to more conservative Hollywood films, a step back from the technology-centric, socially critical movies that have been the norm for the better part of the past thirty years.