An approach was made to J R R Tolkien for the film rights to Lord Of The Rings, in a version to star The Beatles – here’s the story, and how it happened.
Britain in the late 1960s saw revivals of Art Nouveau and fantasy literature, given a psychedelic twist to match the experimental, consciousness-expanding times. Into this creative epoch (dates vary between 1966 and 1969, though 1967 seems most likely) a Beatles film project to adapt J R R Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings was mooted. It’d be fair to say that had it come to fruition, it may well have enjoyed quite the cult following to this day.
Is it such a stretch to imagine The Beatles in Tolkien’s Middle Earth? Paul McCartney as the wide-eyed Frodo Baggins, Ringo Starr as his chummy sidekick Samwise Gamgee, George Harrison as a (very) mystical Gandalf and John Lennon as a sour and sarcastic Gollum? A glorious musical fantasia populated by 60s icons like Twiggy, Donovan, Peter Sellers and a host of great British character actors giving it their all?
What then might a Beatles take on Tolkien have looked like?
I could readily imagine the film’s fantasy style as potentially akin to Joshua Logan’s Camelot released in 1967, which featured Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave and David Hemmings.
Perhaps even taking stylistic elements of Roger Vadim’s Barbarella, the Jane Fonda vehicle from 1968, which also featured Hemmings, Anita Pallenberg and Marcel Marceau.
The television of the era, though still largely monochrome, could provide some further visual clues: Jonathan Miller’s acclaimed, dark and gothic version of Alice In Wonderland made by the BBC in 1966, which notably eschewed extravagant costumes, set the template for an outré Christmas drama.
It would be followed by the Fab Four’s own The Magical Mystery Tour transmitted in a Boxing Day slot in 1967. The latter taking full advantage of the nascent 625 line colour system enjoyed exclusively by BBC Two.
Or perhaps something resembling ‘The Land of Fiction’ witnessed a little later in 1968’s The Mind Robber from the Patrick Troughton era of Doctor Who? Significantly, the fantasy films and television of the era asked a lot of their audiences imagination, something that perhaps wasn’t seriously considered when the idea was originally pitched.
The Beatles had been contracted by United Artists to film three features. A Hard Day’s Night and Help! had been the first two. However, the animated feature Yellow Submarine wasn’t considered to be part of this deal.
With Apple Corps keen to pursue the rights for The Lord Of The Rings, it was decided Richard Lester, who had directed the aforementioned films, perhaps wasn’t the best fit for a more fantasy-based approach. The Beatles thus asked Denis O’Dell to approach a variety of directors who could handle the potential cinematic epic suggested by the source material.
It was O’Dell, the head of Apple Films (The Beatles’ own label) had originally hatched the idea of adapting The Lord Of The Rings with the Beatles being ‘the four Hobbits’ in what he hoped would be a “musical extravaganza”. He recalled the idea hit him when the Beatles were touring India.
John Lennon was also instrumental in this direction for the group, being a huge fan of Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories. Obviously, to perform such a potentially major rewrite of Tolkien’s work, The Beatles needed both the rights and approval of Tolkien himself, who it was fair to say didn’t share a mutual admiration.
The pop star Donovan had also expressed interest in the books and was seen as a potential guest star, and he was especially keen on the role of Merry. Donovan suggested the Beatles divide the books between them and give the project some serious thought. Realising they needed a female character and someone iconic enough to attract sufficient press attention, Twiggy was considered for the role of Galadriel.
O’Dell thus contacted Stanley Kubrick. The film director hadn’t read the books but showed interest in the project. Some time later however Kubrick, despite having read and enjoyed the books, expressed serious reservations, declaring the books were ‘unfilmable’.
O’Dell arranged for Kubrick to meet with Lennon and McCartney for a working lunch to discuss the project. While McCartney felt Kubrick showed a “vague interest” in the project and was charming, Lennon found him somewhat inflexible to certain ideas and generally “very negative”.
Kubrick told O’Dell later that any director would have said the same. The truth was that the effects work required to really do the film justice just weren’t available at the time. Lord Of The Rings was very successfully filmed by director Peter Jackson at the start of the 2000s in the end (and Ralph Bakshi had overseen an animated version, released in 1978) but even then the effects technology was only just capable of transporting the audience. 35 years earlier that certainly wouldn’t have been the case.
Kubrick had issues with the sheer size of the novel too. The Lord Of The Rings is 481,103 words long, just over 100,000 words shorter than that benchmark of lengthy books – War And Peace (587,287 words). Kubrick didn’t enjoy making films longer than three hours and sequels were both rare and notoriously risky in the 60s. The idea of filming three movies back to back wasn’t even a thought.
Kubrick was also aware that literary adaptations were keenly scrutinised by those who loved the source material and an abridged version – necessitated by the medium – would have been both a difficult pitch and potentially a thankless task. He’d actually been approached to direct after David Lean, who arguably was better suited to the project, turned down the offer as he was busy making the later much acclaimed Ryan’s Daughter.
Lennon was a big fan of Kubrick’s work on Doctor Strangelove and subsequently, despite not seeing eye to eye with the director, particularly enjoyed 2001: A Space Odyssey. That film was on Kubrick’s radar when The Lord Of The Rings offer came in.
O’Dell’s other directorial choice was Michelangelo Antonioni, then riding high on the success of Blow-Up, a David Hemmings vehicle, which also featured Vanessa Redgrave. An intriguing mystery thriller, Blow-Up also captured the rather hedonistic zeitgeist and showcased the music of The Yardbirds (an uncredited Michael Palin is glimpsed in a scene watching the group). It’d also gained notoriety for the first glimpse of female pubic hair in mainstream cinema.
When approached, Antonioni seemed more engaged by the project than Kubrick but ultimately he also saw the limitations of creating a live-action version of such an intricate fantasy.
The Beatles gradually lost interest in the idea, unsurprising as in truth it was one of several film projects under consideration. Others included a western, A Talent For Loving, written by Richard Condon, best known for his novel The Manchurian Candidate. There was also The Three Musketeers, which would have retained Richard Lester as director and was considered but rejected.
Lester would, of course, go on to film his own version of the story, albeit without The Beatles.
Another idea was Up Against It, a script from celebrated playwright Joe Orton. Paul McCartney had given financial backing to the staging of Orton’s play Loot and he and Beatles manager Brian Epstein discussed the idea with Orton over dinner. Epstein enjoyed the script but felt it a “little too risqué”. An animated version of The Lord of the Rings akin to Disney’s Fantasia may have been the way to resolve things at that point in time. In fact Heinz Edelmann, who would art-direct Yellow Submarine, pitched just such an idea, originally with The Rolling Stones in mind as potential star voice artists.
Ultimately, the man who had the final say on the project was the author of The Lord Of The Rings – J R R Tolkien. He had serious reservations about The Beatles’ involvement. He wasn’t the greatest fan of the group or the music scene they had influenced. He had bought a house in Oxford some years before, ostensibly to provide some much-needed tranquillity for his wife, only to have the peace shattered by a local would-be ‘Beatles-style band’. Tolkien’s lack of enthusiasm scuppered the project as he was unwilling to sell the rights to the book and the idea was dropped.
Peter Jackson eventually brought the trilogy to the screen, starting in 2001, with the blessing of the Tolkien estate. Jackson recalls meeting Paul McCartney at the premiere and asking him about the aborted Beatles film project. Paul recalled “it was something John was driving and J R R. Tolkien still had the film rights at that stage but he didn’t like the idea of the Beatles doing it. So he killed it,”
Paul also graciously conceded “it was a good job we never made ours because then you wouldn’t have made yours and it was great to see yours”…
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