One trilogy to rule them all. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that The Lord of the Rings trilogy was voted the best movie trilogy of all time: having high Metacritic scores, winning 17 academy awards and earning just shy of $3 billion at the box office. New Zealand director Peter Jackson had a monumental task in bringing J.R.R Tolkien’s beloved series of fantasy books, and the world of Middle-Earth, alive on the big screen but clearly pulled it off. The writers had to condense 1,241 pages of story into three films that audiences could follow and engage with, all the cast and crew had to undergo a gruelling fourteen months of principal photography and post-production essentially spanned the whole release window of all three films. From the screenplays being written in 1997 to the project wrapping up in 2003, producing The Lord of the Rings was as epic a feat as trekking from The Shire to Mount Doom. What made the epic adaptation so successful and still massively popular to this day? Stock up on some lembas bread and get ready to embark on an epic adventure as we venture through the different production elements that made The Lord of the Rings the greatest trilogy of all time.
Where do you even begin? Most people relate to the trilogy for the epic story, quotable dialogue, intense battles and sublime visual effects but there are so many other aspects that help elevate each film into more than just a fantasy adventure romp. “It might be clearer if I described it as an historical film”- this approach from Jackson helped pave the way for a magical but believable visual aesthetic in its production design. There is rich, fictional history within each frame as each culture has distinct features. The Shire harkens back to 18th century English countryside with farmlands and rolling green hills. Elves have glowing, majestic garments with architecture that is clean but reminiscent of natural forms in nature. The Dwarves, with their mining history, exclusively use straight, blocky lines in their designs. Even between the different realms of men, the Rohirrim culture is clearly influenced by Anglo-Saxon and Norse features whilst Gondorians have a more medieval europe aesthetic. Subtle details like these help make Middle-Earth feel less like fantasy and more a lived-in world. The visual flourishes seen in the art and costume design- the architecture, the armour, weapons, props, sets- can be largely thanked by illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe. Both famed for their artistic interpretations of Tolkien’s work prior to the trilogy of films, Jackson’s vision was heavily inspired by each of their work and brought them on to the project as lead concept artists.
Of course this all needs to pop out within the frame and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie certainly made that happen. He manages to create vast, grandiose shots of different locations in Middle-Earth whilst also bringing the camera up close to see into the eyes of the characters. Lesnie frames the incredible New Zealand landscape in a way that makes Middle-Earth much more epic but it’s the lighting in the more character-driven scenes that stand out more. Eye lights are used extensively, mostly in The Fellowship of the Ring, to let us see right into the characters eyes and adds a whole new dimension to the cast’s performances. Obviously one of the big themes of the trilogy is good vs evil and the lighting, or lack of it, clearly illustrates that conflict both on macro and micro levels. On paper that sounds extremely condescending towards the audience and obvious but Lesnie leans into it and makes it work in this high-fantasy setting.
Talking about performances, Jackson and his team may have assembled one of the greatest ensembles to ever grace the silver screen. The mix of stars and less-known actors worked wonderfully and created some great cast dynamics. There are simply too many to talk about but there are some key players. Viggo Mortensen gave depth and humanity to the stoic Aragorn, Ian McKellen was born to play the wise but intense wizard Gandalf, Andy Serkis made audiences take performance capture seriously with Gollum and praise must go to David Wenham as the tragic Faramir. The heart and soul of the trilogy however are two Hobbits: Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin). Both give warmth and believability to their characters and have a winning bromance over the course of the three film. Wood really sells the heavy toll of bearing The One Ring whilst Astin makes it impossible to not fall in love with the daft but loyal friend. It is a crime that Astin didn’t receive a nomination for Best Supporting Actor in his role. Even with Tolkien famously not including female characters that actually have depth in his work, the writers and cast here have expanded the roles of Arwen (Liv Tyler), Eowyn (Miranda Otto) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett)- giving them more narrative weight and some stand-out moments.
Just like with pre-production and production, the creative individuals who worked on the post-production delivered amazing technical craft and creativity. A huge part of the experience when watching the trilogy is the sound design and mixing- it absolutely deserves to be listened to on the loudest surround speakers one could possibly have. The One Ring tempts not just Frodo but the audience, whispering across the soundscape in the otherworldly tongue of Black Speech. Battles are immersive and intense, with arrows flying past your ears and armies loudly crashing against each other. A stand out sequence though is during the Battle of Pelennor Fields: after the Rohirrim army clash with the Haradrim and Easterling forces atop their gigantic, elephant-like Mumakil, the music stops and the sound becomes focused on flying arrows and crunching stomps of the Mumakil. Even during the heat of battle all sound drops for a split second as a spear strikes through an enemy. It makes for an exhilarating, visceral experience.
On the topic of audio there is of course the Oscar-winning soundtrack from Howard Shore. A massive collection consisting of over thirteen hours of music, the range of the score moves from light-hearted to menacing to heroic with ease. The main theme of The Shire is one of the most beloved and recognisable movie tracks of all time, and there are many others like it including the rousing Fellowship theme. What sets Shore’s soundtrack above other famed scores, such as Star Wars and Gladiator, is the amount of leitmotifs (a reoccurring theme using music) used throughout the three films. There are over 100 identified. Several thematic groups were made to represent the different cultures and key objects, which had a key leitmotif, and then numerous leitmotifs were created within each group. This theme-within-theme structure to the soundtrack means every note has subtle but meaningful narrative weight. The Lord of the Rings soundtrack is an intricate web of classic themes.
Weta Workshop is now a household name in the visual effects industry, and indeed in the wider film and television industries, working on the biggest on-screen projects in the world. It was their work on this trilogy that made them a popular special effects and prop company, and helped push the VFX industry forward. The trilogy is often praised for how well the visual effects hold up even to modern standards and that would be because of the mix of practical and digital work. There were several innovations in those two fields: the creation of realistic PVC chainmail for cast and extras (which actually spawned a whole division purely on creating PVC chainmail and armour for film), the use of ‘bigatures’ (read: very big miniature models) with motion-controlled camera rigs, and the development of MASSIVE- a crowd simulation that could automate thousands of characters in large-scale battles, such as the Battle of Helms Deep and the Siege of Gondor. Then there was the creation of Gollum. This wasn’t the first time motion capture was used in film but it was the first time a real-time motion capture system was used- meaning Andy Serkis could actually perform live beside other cast members. It gives the other cast something tangible to act alongside and creates better performances all around.
All of these different creatives and their triumphant achievements have one thing in common: story. A film can have amazing technical and creative craft but will still only work if the narrative is engaging, exciting and meaningful. Tolkien’s trilogy is a typical hero’s journey but one that explores a variety of universal themes: good versus evil, friendship, death and immortality, nature versus technology, father and son relationships and many more. Having three expansive books meant that Tolkien had the time to explore these themes in depth and thankfully Jackson was given the runtime to do the same.
The Free People of Middle-Earth unite to defeat the Orc armies of Sauron: a pretty surface-level analogy of good versus evil, but it goes much deeper than that. Many key figures of Gondor, such as Boromir and his father Denethor, are entranced by power and make antagonising decisions. What helps with this particular theme is how it is tied to another: power. The One Ring is a source of absolute power, but a power that is evil and tempts others to wield the ring. The Gondorians want to use the ring as a weapon, Boromir gives in to the corrupting effect of the ring and even morally good characters such as Bilbo and Frodo fall foul to its power. Everyone is inherently good but can be influenced to do morally bad things. “But I should say, if asked, the tale is not really about Power and Dominion: that only sets the wheels going; it is about Death and the desire for deathlessness. Which is hardly more than to say it is a tale written by a Man!” Tolkien wrote, in one of his many letters, about the desire of humans to escape death- something we all face. The rings forged for the nine men promised immortality but instead took life away from them until they became the Ringwraiths. Elves live with the benefits and downsides of immortality, seen through Arwen as she gives up her immortality to live her life with the mortal Aragorn. In one of the trilogies more spiritual and hopeful scenes on screen, Gandalf talks to Pippin about what comes after death and how it is just the next step in our journey.
Extended editions usually are fun for fans but prove how edits can make for a better film. With The Lord of the Rings however the extended versions of each film add so much depth to the characters and themes- and the already lengthy runtime. One key edition is the poignant subplot featuring Denethor and his relationship with his sons Boromir and Faramir. Unlike the theatrical cuts, we see the strong, healthy relationship between the two brothers and how much they looked out for each other. It makes Denethor’s denouncement of Faramir as his son much more heartbreaking. Relating to Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits seems difficult on paper but with such universal themes explored within these characters, and the time spent with them especially in the extended editions, audiences easily engage with the story and emphasise.
It is a miracle that The Lord of the Rings trilogy is as successful as it is- most projects this big simply crumble under its own weight. Here though the epic scope is utilised to maximum effect: large-scale action sequences, lofty themes and end of the world stakes. Each film made audiences and critics take the High-Fantasy genre seriously but Jackson and his team manage to inject comedy, romance, horror, war and other genres and their conventions. It is the overwhelming amount of content that continues to make us watch over and over again in awe, and each element that makes the whole is perfection in its own right. This is what cinema should be: taking us to a fantastical world beyond anything we could imagine, telling a story that is emotionally, exhilarating and universally relatable. This is why The Lord of the Rings is the greatest movie trilogy of all time.