In early 2004, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King walked away from the Academy Awards with 11 Oscars, matching Ben-Hur and Titanic for the record of most awards won by any film. Return of the King also became the first fantasy film to ever win Best Picture at the Oscars. It was the culmination of one of the most successful and well-received trilogies of all time, and the impact of these movies in the industry can still be felt today.
Based off the iconic books by J.R.R. Tolkien, the Lord of the Rings trilogy – The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King – were directed by New Zealand director, writer and producer Peter Jackson and starred a truly remarkable cast led by Elijah Wood (Frodo), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), and Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn). The series was released in December 2001, 2002, and 2003.
All three entries of the trilogy are some of the highest-grossing movies of all time. The trilogy’s financial success led to one of the most obvious impacts on the industry. In the years after the trilogy ended, a number of copycat films were released. Fantasy sections in bookstores across the world were being pillaged for the next big thing.
Of course, another milestone series was already gaining ground as Lord of the Rings ended. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Fellowship of the Ring were released just one month apart in 2001 and Chamber of Secrets and The Two Towers both came out the following year. Harry took a year off in 2003 but dominated the remaining years of the 2000s until his story came to an end in 2011. Hollywood is still reeling from the impact these two series had. After the success of Lord of the Rings, a number of high-fantasy movies were quickly ordered.
The first movie to follow the Lord of the Rings style was The Chronicles of Narnia; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. While based on a children’s book, the movie was bursting with influences from Lord of the Rings. The most direct influence came from Narnia’s use of Weta Workshop, the same team that made armor, swords and other weapons for Lord of the Rings. More drama was added to the story and the final battle, which takes place mostly “off-screen” in the book, is center stage in the finale of the movie, much like the battles in Middle-Earth.
Dozens of similar movies came out in the following years, each trying to build off Lord of the Rings’ success and become the next big franchise: The Golden Compass, Eragon, Pirates of the Caribbean, Avatar, 300, Stardust, City of Ember, and others.
Lord of the Rings’ influence even made waves in television. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series was already successful as a book series and was adapted into the game-changing HBO series Game of Thrones. There are many similarities (and even more differences) between A Song of Ice and Fire and Lord of the Rings, from the fantastical elements (dragons, etc.) to the visuals and the costumes. Without the success of Lord of the Rings a decade earlier, a show like Game of Thrones would arguably never have been made.
Lord of the Rings as we know it almost wasn’t even made. The original pitch was to condense the three books into two movies. Through negotiations, three movies were eventually green lit – one for each book of the trilogy. To tell the story correctly and faithfully, the filmmakers argued, three movies needed to be made instead of two. In a way, this set the precedent for dozens of blockbuster franchises that followed.
Many franchises later argued that they needed more time to faithfully complete their story. This led to many final franchise installments being split into two movies – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Twilight’s Breaking Dawn, The Hunger Games’ Mockingjay, and the disaster that was supposed to end the Divergent series. None of these series had quite the amount of material to cover in two movies, but to give fans a complete and satisfying end, the filmmakers followed Jackson’s precedent.
Jackson even fell victim to this trend himself when he returned to Middle-Earth to make the Hobbit series. Once again, two movies were originally planned for the adaptation. This time though, the team was adapting one 300-page book instead of three 300-page books. Jackson and his team continued building on the novel’s story and ultimately three movies were released – to much less acclaim than the original trilogy.
Jackson’s filmmaking process on Lord of the Rings also popularized the idea of filming multiple movies at the same time. This process allowed for a greater cohesion throughout the trilogy and for locations that appeared in multiple movies to be filmed at once and not rebuilt each time. Studios had filmed movies back-to-back before, like the second and third Back to the Future movies, but never on the scale as the Lord of the Rings.
The success Jackson had filming multiple movies back-to-back was copied by most series that split their final book into two movies –Deathly Hallows, Breaking Dawn, Mockingjay, and even the final two Fifty Shades movies. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End and Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy were also filmed simultaneously. Marvel Studios even used this method when filming mega-blockbusters Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.
Of all the iconic moments to come out of the Lord of the Rings, none may be as iconic as Andy Serkis’ portrayal of Gollum. This strange creature could have derailed the entire series, but the work by Serkis and the visual effects team created an unforgettable character and built the template for hundreds of computer-generated characters to come.
Three years before Gollum made his debut, Jar Jar Binks became the first completely computer animated major character in a live-action movie for The Phantom Menace. But Jar Jar actor Ahmed Best was more of a stand-in for the character on set and acted his voice in a studio. The “real” Jar Jar was added and animated by the visual effects team later.
For Gollum, though, Serkis physically acted each scene with Elijah Wood and Sean Astin, running around in a spandex onesie. He would then go into a studio and recreate certain scenes in a motion capture stage, and his physical performance was heavily used when digitally creating Gollum. The Two Towers was one of the first movies to use motion capture in such a major way.
The success of Gollum launched Andy Serkis into the spotlight as the leading expert on motion capture technology – he would later be the model for King Kong in Jackson’s 2005 film and Caesar the ape in the recent Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy.
Gollum also paved the way for the onslaught of CG characters (most using motion capture technology) that have become commonplace over the last decade – Rocket and Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy, the Na’vi of Avatar, Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean. CG characters are all over the place, and it’s because of Gollum’s success that fantastic characters and creatures can become real on the silver screen.
The other special effects in the Lord of the Rings are just as impressive as Gollum and still hold up more than 15 years later. Jackson famously used massive miniatures for locations throughout the series. The detail in these miniatures are meticulous and they really add to the realism of the series.
The CGI that was used in the trilogy still looks fantastic. The Watcher and the Balrog from Fellowship are still terrifying and beautiful to look at, Treebeard is an impressive mix of practical sets and CG, and the mumakil charge during Return of the King is one of my favorite moments in the whole movie. The visual effects team even created new programs and techniques to create the massive armies needed for the biggest battles. Without these effects, bringing a story like the Lord of the Rings to life in live-action would not have been possible. And it’s even more impressive that they still look so good when they were made in the early 2000s.
This has already gone on much longer than I expected, so I’ll end by saying the Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the most influential series in Hollywood since the original Star Wars. The detail and thought that went into these movies set the bar for fantasy and science-fiction that are still seen today, and it gave studios the proof that high fantasy movies could be successful with a wide audience. So the next time you watch an episode of Game of Thrones, see the latest Marvel movie, or give the latest “franchise-launcher” a shot, thank the Lord of the Rings.