TCS Daily

Why Lord of the Rings Will - and Must - Be Remade

By Douglas Kern - July 16, 2004 12:00 AM

More Lord of the Rings movies -- oh, yesss, preciousss, we wantsss them.

And within the next twenty or thirty years, we'll get them. Children who watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy will take their own children to a complete remake of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It's inevitable.

Most great movies will never be remade. We will never see remakes of The Godfather, or Gone with the Wind, or even Star Wars. But Lord of the Rings is different.

Why? Consider these five reasons.

The pre-existing fame of the LOTR novels prevents the actors in the LOTR trilogy from dominating the roles they played.

No sane actor would dare to recreate the role of Vito Corleone; the role is bound up too tightly with the performance of Marlon Brando. Similarly, what actress can hope to compete with Vivian Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara? But in the current LOTR trilogy, no actor consumes his role so completely. The finest performance in LOTR (Gollum notwithstanding) may have come from Ian McKellan as Gandalf. Yet, much as I enjoyed his performance, I can think of several actors who could have done as good a job portraying Gandalf: Sean Connery, Brian Blessed, Derek Jacobi, Anthony Hopkins, Michael Caine, Patrick Stewart -- the list goes on. The major characters in LOTR are so densely textured in the books -- and yet so indelibly etched into the minds of Tolkien's fans, after decades of reading and re-reading the novels -- that the performances of the leads in the current trilogy seem like interpretations of the characters, rather than definitions. Moreover, Peter Jackson's direction emphasized plot, rather than characterization, thus allowing room for future actors to place their own imprints on the characters in a way that would be impossible in other remakes.

Tolkien's novels are so richly detailed and his plots so intricately crafted that future directors will be able to re-tell the story from their own unique vantage points.

Star Wars could be remade, but the story could only be retold -- not re-imagined. Cinematically, there is nothing more to the Star Wars world beyond what George Lucas has chosen to show us. Star Wars offers no themes to balance, no nuances to explore, and no room for a director to craft a new vision. A remake could only imitate the original. It could not create, but only re-create.

By contrast, a remake of LOTR could be art. Tolkien's novels teem over with themes, motifs, and plot notes that a thoughtful director could explore in ways that Peter Jackson didn't. For example: my favorite aspect of the LOTR novels is the pervasive and melancholy sense of loss that permeates every page. All the wise characters realize that the world they knew is slipping away, and even victory cannot prevent the great ships from sailing into the West. The heroes fight less for their own dying world than for a world yet to come; strength and vitality ebb from all things great and marvelous, and the stain of evil is not easily erased, if indeed it is erased at all. Jackson touches only lightly upon this dolorous theme; a different director could make that theme the center of the movie, thus changing the trilogy completely. Then again, one could imagine a lighter, more childlike LOTR told from the point-of-view of the Hobbits -- or a LOTR that focuses more explicitly upon the religious overtones of the novels -- or a LOTR told from the perspective of the One Ring itself. One LOTR trilogy cannot come close to telling the story in every way that it can and should be told.

Computer graphics will continue to improve, allowing the inexpensive creation of a new trilogy with spectacular visual effects. 

Twenty-two years ago, the summit of computer-designed movie effects was Tron. The recent video game, Tron 2.0, has vastly better graphic effects than the movie upon which it is based. A low-end home computer can now produce more sophisticated special effects than state-of-the-art computers from twenty-two years ago. In a decade or two, the dustiest, most obsolete computer abandoned in the darkest corner of a Middle American basement will have more graphics-generating power than every computer used to create the effects for the current LOTR trilogy. Future audiences will sneer at crude, quaint graphics from the days when a Pentium IV was considered high-tech. Imagine the kind of visual miracles that the cutting-edge computers of 2026 will be able to create! The temptation to produce a new trilogy with super-modern special effects will be irresistible.

Consider, too, that advanced computer graphics will make the production of a new LOTR trilogy cheaper than the first one. Who needs to rent the New Zealand army, once a computer can create hordes of orcs indistinguishable from makeup-clad extras? And who needs New Zealand mountains, when a computer can make a Burbank backlot look just as good?

The cost of actors won't go down in the future, and their quality won't improve. But computer graphics will get cheaper and better -- thus making a LOTR remake cheaper and better, and thus more likely to be made.

Every fanboy who watched LOTR is privately convinced that he could do a better job directing. One day, one of those fanboys will be in a position to do so.

Admit it, geek. Maybe it was in the middle of your second viewing of The Two Towers: Special Edition, or maybe it was when you were savoring ending #37 of Return of the King, but at some point you thought to yourself: "This is great, but if only they had let me direct -- if only I could have filmed my vision of the Council of Elrond and Tom Bombadil and the Scouring of the Shire and an Aragorn with broader shoulders and a deeper voice -- it would've been perfect."

I had that moment. So did you. So did a future director. Somewhere in America, a kid with a bad complexion and a limited social life is busily filling a secret notebook with plans for "Lord of the Rings -- The Right Way." And after he wins his second Oscar, the details of that notebook will be coming to a theater near you.

Cha-ching. LOTR = $$$.


Total worldwide box office receipts for the LOTR trilogy fell just short of three billion dollars, and that number doesn't reflect DVD sales, movie rentals, or merchandising. At a production cost of $300 million, the LOTR trilogy turned a 10:1 profit - a phenomenal achievement! If a LOTR remake sells only half as many tickets as the first trilogy, it still earns 1.5 billion dollars (in 2004 dollars). Considering that the cost of making a new LOTR trilogy will go down, not up, it's certain that some studio somewhere will want another ride on this gravy train.


As the LOTR movies air endlessly on cable and regular TV, and as the DVDs take up residence in every American home, LOTR will become a fixture in our pop cultural landscape. Every person who could conceivably enjoy LOTR will see the original movies sooner or later. And everyone who enjoyed the original movies will want to see the remakes. The market for a LOTR remake will expand, not contract. This growing LOTR enthusiasm explains why the most popular LOTR movie was the last one -- not the first.


Ask yourself: if, tomorrow, somebody released an old forgotten version of the LOTR trilogy shot in Argentina or China in the seventies, would you pay eight dollars to see it at the Cineplex? I'd pay eighty dollars. And the first trilogy hasn't even been out for a year! Imagine how eager we'll be for a first-class Hollywood-style Hobbit reload after twenty lonely, questless years. Some movie studio will make a fortune treating our elf-withdrawal pains.


Both the novels and the movies of the Lord of the Rings are assuming a canonical position in Western culture. In twenty years, a remake of LOTR will seem as obvious and natural as a new movie of Hamlet, or a new operatic performance of Wagner's Ring cycle. The Hobbits are here to stay, and Jackson's masterpiece is only the first grand cinematic exploration of Tolkien's epic. When it comes to Middle-Earth, the movie road goes ever on.


The author is a frequent TCS contributor. He recently wrote for TCS about The Best Bar... None.


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