Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is considered a masterpiece of fantasy cinema, changing the landscape for the genre and leaving a legacy that lasts up to the present day, with Amazon Prime’s new Middle-earth series on the horizon.
However, it could all have been very different had disgraced media mogul Harvey Weinstein not been forced off the project early in the film’s development.
While history will regard Weinstein as a sexual predator, in the 1990s, his company Miramax was on the rise, and so was he. Miramax scored a massive hit in 1994 with Quintin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and when a young Peter Jackson came calling about making The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in 1995, Weinstein may have seen the potential for something even bigger.
Jackson wanted a trilogy from day one, suggesting that the series comprise The Hobbit followed by two Lord of the Rings films, if the first was a hit. Weinstein began securing the rights to The Hobbit from legendary producer Saul Zaentz, and Jackson began the first stages of production, rereading the text and commissioning concept art.
From Trilogy to Duology
Writing for Polygon, film journalist Drew McWeeny reveals that Weinstein had a negative relationship with Zaentz thanks to their time making The English Patient. That delayed negotiations, much to Peter Jackson’s displeasure. Weinstein eventually failed to secure the rights to The Hobbit, putting that project on the backburner. Weinstein rejected outright the idea of just making The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy, and Jackson now had only two films to work with.
Production proceeded apace on The Lord of the Rings duology, and Jackson began working on the scripts alongside Fran Walsh and Stephen Sinclair. Meanwhile, Weta Digital and Weta Workshop were brought in for software and special effects concepts, and everything looked rosy. However, Weta had a problem: nobody would tell them the budget. Jackson had no idea what it was either. It ends up that Miramax wouldn’t tell anyone what the budget was because it was only $75 million.
While $75 million is obviously a lot of money, it’s grossly inadequate for two summer blockbusters, even in 1996. In comparison, that year’s biggest film was Independence Day, which cost $75 million by itself. Due to distribution deals, Miramax was unable to increase the budget, but Weinstein didn’t tell Jackson because he wanted to maintain a relationship with him, even though the movies could not be made — or at least, not made well — for that little money.
Writing in the book Anything You Can Imagine: The Making of Middle-Earth, author Ian Nathan says that Weinstein was by this point increasingly displeased by the amount of money that had already been spent, angered by Jackson “wasting” $12 million during scripting.
By this point, it was becoming clear that Weinstein was a detriment to the project, so the people working on it decided to do something. Someone contacted McWeeny, who was writing for Ain’t It Cool News at the time, and leaked the scripts for Fellowship of the Ring and War of the Ring. Who exactly it was remains unknown, with McWeeny only saying that they didn’t come “directly from anyone,” but it certainly wasn’t Jackson or Walsh.
A Trilogy Diminished
Codenamed “Jamboree,” McWeeny describes the scripts as containing most of the major elements that still exist in the released Lord of the Rings trilogy, but lacking the characterization and quieter moments so essential to its success. Instead, the scripts fly through the story at a breakneck pace, with little time spent fleshing out locations like the Shire, or the other iconic elements of Middle-earth.
Meanwhile, Weinstein was still making things difficult, demanding that the director cut the second film and adapt The Lord of the Rings as a single movie, even threatening to fire the director and replace him with his friend Quintin Tarantino if he disagreed. A Miramax memo dated June 17, 1998, put it in more diplomatic terms, asking for “a more radical, streamlined approach.” It was a ridiculous suggestion and Jackson rejected it outright. It had become increasingly obvious to everyone involved that Weinstein and his company didn’t understand Tolkien nor anything about the movie beyond how it could inflate their bank accounts. Jackson was done.
The leak was designed to attract the attention of other studios, and it worked, with New Line Cinema being particularly intrigued. With relations souring between Jackson and Miramax, the studio put the film into turnaround, meaning Jackson was free to pitch it to new studios so long as they paid Miramax for their existing financial outlay. McWeeny says Weinstein was highly offended at not being treated with the respect he believed he deserved. New Line soon came calling, committing to the original vision of a trilogy and the budget required by Weta. The rest is cinema history, with Harvey Weinstein’s role now largely forgotten.
It’s not hard to envision a Miramax version of The Lord of the Rings that’s nowhere near the classics that the New Line movies became. That film would have been much reduced in scope and emotion, with characters it was harder to connect with.
As proof of the enduring popularity of Jackson’s movies, 4K remastered versions are being released into cinemas. To celebrate, Lord of the Rings superfan Stephen Colbert will host a series of cast reunions for The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, starting with Sean Astin, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan and Elijah Wood on March 25; Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Viggo Mortensen and Liv Tyler on April 1; and Peter Jackson, Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis on April 8. Check out the teaser:
Fans can submit questions for the panel through March 10 on Twitter using the hashtag #LOTR20.