In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Marketing
  • Audiences and Fans
  • Technological Influences
  • Aesthetic Analyses
  • Interpretative Readings

Cinema and Media Studies The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
Kristin Thompson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0075


The Lord of the Rings is one of the most successful and influential films ever made. Its three parts, released in December of 2001, 2002, and 2003, respectively, grossed nearly three billion dollars worldwide. New technologies introduced for the epic fantasy were widely adopted in filmmaking. Franchise series were increasingly important to Hollywood’s business approach, and the filmmakers pioneered unprecedented cooperation with the makers of licensed products, particularly video games. New Line was among the first to exploit online publicity; both studio and filmmakers cautiously developed unusually close relations with fans’ sites. Like Star Wars, the trilogy became a model for Hollywood practice. The Lord of the Rings was adapted from J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel of the same name (three volumes, 1954 and 1955). The book gained greater popularity when it appeared in Ballantine Books’ paperback edition in the United States (1965). In 1969 Tolkien and his British publisher, Unwin Hyman, sold United Artists the production and distribution rights to the novel. Abandoning a project to produce the trilogy, in 1976 United Artists sold the rights to independent producer Saul Zaentz. Zaentz produced an animated film by Ralph Bakshi, The Lord of the Rings (1978), based on the first half of the book; its failure scotched plans for a second. In 1995 a New Zealand director, Peter Jackson, had just completed a comic horror film for Universal, The Frighteners (1995). A record number of digital effect shots were created in a new facility, Weta Ltd., which Jackson and some of his colleagues had started in 1994. Seeking a bigger special-effects challenge, Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh hit upon The Lord of the Rings. They had a connection with Miramax Films, which had distributed the pair’s Heavenly Creatures (1994). Miramax head Harvey Weinstein used his connection with Zaentz, whose The English Patient (1996) Miramax had produced and distributed, to acquire the rights to the trilogy. In 1997 Miramax commenced pre-production on a two-part version of The Lord of the Rings. After eighteen months, Michael Eisner, head of Miramax’s parent company Walt Disney, reduced the project to a single feature. Jackson took the project to New Line Cinema, whose co-president, Bob Shaye, bought the project, to be made in three parts shot simultaneously in New Zealand. Principal photography lasted from October 1999 to December 2000. All three parts met with popular and critical acclaim, winning a total of seventeen Academy Awards.

General Overviews

Few sources provide thorough overviews of the Lord of the Rings phenomenon. The subject extends far beyond the production, distribution, and exhibition of the film. The trilogy was the center of an extensive franchise, with hundreds of licensed products made internationally. Its production coincided with the spread of digital technology, and both its filmmaking techniques and its online publicity were highly innovative. The influences of The Lord of the Rings have lasted for years after the 2004 release of the final part in an extended-version DVD. Its economic bolstering of the international independent film market, its developments in special effects, and its long-term financial and cultural impact on New Zealand make this phenomenon a vast topic. Most literature on the film has necessarily been patchy in coverage. Moreover, most information needed for a thorough account was never available in print or online, and in the decade since the final part’s release, many of the more specialized online articles, reports, and publicity relating to the trilogy have disappeared. New Line has kept such tight control over information about the project that no researcher could gain access to all the studio’s records. Participants in the film and its ancillaries were bound by reportedly draconian confidentiality clauses, and access to them was limited largely to journalistic interviews in highly restricted situations. As a result, most of the general information on the film was published in the popular and trade press during the years of its production and release. The only overview written with the cooperation of the filmmakers and of people associated with licensees, distributors, and the publicity campaigns is Thompson 2007, which gives an extensive account of the production, franchising, publicity, and impact of The Lord of the Rings. Miklos, et al. 2007 covers much of the same material in a less comprehensive fashion. Thompson 2014 summarizes the history of film and television adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Robinson 2008 provides an overview of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit from production to reception, as well as a lengthy commentary on the films.

  • Miklos, Lothar, Susanne Eichner, Elizabeth Prommer, and Michael Wedel. Die “Herr der Ringe”-Trilogie: Attraktion und Fascinzation eines populärkulturellen Phänomens. Konstanz, Germany: UVK Verlagsgesellschaft, 2007.

    An analysis of the franchise phenomenon, with sections: “Der Produktionskontext von Der Herr der Ringe” (genre, marketing); “Text und Textualität von Der Herr der Ringe” (mise-en-scene, narration; “Der Herr der Ringe im Kontext bon Kultur under Lebenswelt”’ (reception in Germany) and “Der Herr der Ringe als globales Phänomen” (world audiences).

  • Robinson, Jeremy Mark. J. R. R. Tolkien: The Books, the Films, the Whole Cultural Phenomenon. Maidstone, UK: Crescent Moon, 2008.

    Over half of this lengthy book (pp. 346–785) is devoted to the films. The author draws upon a limited number of secondary sources to summarize their production, release, related marketing, and reception. Pages 537–785 consist of a scene-by-scene description, with the author’s detailed commentary on the adaptation and information about the special effects, along with frequent comparisons to other films.

  • Thompson, Kristin. The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

    Based on interviews with the producers, director, screenwriters, designers, IT personnel, and others directly associated with the film; also with video-game experts at Electronic Arts, professional publicists and fan webmasters, tour operators, and government officials concerned with leveraging off the trilogy. Its sections will be described in the relevant categories.

  • Thompson, Kristin. “Film Adaptations: Theatrical and Television Versions.” In A Companion to J. R. R. Tolkien. Edited by Stuart D. Lee, 514–529. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118517468.ch35

    A chronological overview of the professional adaptations. The last part covers Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but the sections on the 1969 United Artists contract and on Saul Zaentz include background information relevant to these films.

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