One ring to rule them all. One ring to bind them. One film franchise that took the world by storm. In 2001, the first installment of Peter Jackson‘s long-awaited adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novels hit theaters worldwide. It enthralled audiences and proved doubtful critics wrong. And it changed how studios think about fantasy films and franchises forever.
The Lord of the Rings was a gamble, for sure. Many — including Tolkien himself — thought that the lengthy story was unfilmable. But Peter Jackson’s commitment to bringing the story to the big-screen paid off. The first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, was an unqualified critical and financial success. The two subsequent films, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, were equally huge. All told, The Lord of the Rings trilogy made over a billion dollars. They also proved that if it’s done right, fans will stick around to see a great fantasy story told in multiple parts — even if they have to wait years for its conclusion.
The biggest Lord of the Rings fans can tell you all about the series’ storied production. It involved thousands of players, went on for years, required massive reshoots, and so much footage was cut from the theatrical versions that each film got its own extended cut. However, there are a lot of fascinating details that sometimes get forgotten. Here are 10 things you probably didn’t know about the making of The Lord of the Rings.
1. It was originally going to be only two movies
It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a point in time in which The Lord of the Rings’ success seemed like a long shot. During pre-production, the franchise’s distribution and production rights were up in the air, bouncing from Universal to The Weinstein Company, before landing with New Line Cinema. And the budget was tight — so much so that the project started out as two films. At one point, Bob Weinstein even suggested that they trim the story down to a single two-hour film — which meant that they would have cut key sequences like the Battle of Helm’s Deep.
It wasn’t until LOTR landed with New Line that director and screenwriter Peter Jackson and co-screenwriter Philippa Boyens got the chance to expand the story back out to three films. While it was often reported that New Line’s Robert Shaye thought there should be three movies to match the number of books in the series, it seems that he was just thinking of the studio’s bottom line: more movies mean more money.
2. Aragorn was almost played by someone else
Though so much of The Lord of the Rings depends on its fantastical beings — hobbits, elves, dwarves, and orcs — one of the most memorable characters is, in fact, a human. Aragorn, (aka Strider) (aka King Elessar) is as heroic as he is kindhearted, as skilled with a sword as he is at leading an army to fight against ultimate evil.
Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of Aragorn in the LOTR films has been widely praised — but believe it or not, he almost didn’t play the part at all. Another actor, Stuart Townsend, was cast to play the Ranger and even filmed some scenes. Peter Jackson quickly realized, though, that Townsend was too young to play Aragorn, and moved quickly to find a replacement. Mortensen was initially reluctant to take the role because it was such a huge commitment, but his son was a huge fan of Tolkien and convinced him to give it a shot.
3. Frodo almost killed Gollum
Devout Tolkien fans know that there are plenty of places in which The Lord of the Rings film series diverges from its source material — don’t even get us started on Tom Bombadil. However, there’s one big change that would have fundamentally altered Frodo’s journey as a hero. In Peter Jackson: A Film-Maker’s Journey, the director revealed that when they originally shot Return of the King‘s climactic sequence in Mount Doom, Frodo “straight-out murdered” Gollum by throwing him into the fiery chasm. While it seemed like a good idea at the time, Jackson admitted that having the hobbit take such an active role in another’s death would have changed who he was as a character. The footage was left on the cutting room floor, and in the end, Gollum was responsible for his own demise.
4. Christopher Lee is a Lord of the Rings superfan
Before he was Saruman, Christopher Lee was a Hollywood legend. The actor was known not only for his distinctive, deep voice but for playing iconic roles like Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster for Hammer Horror. He was also a lifelong Tolkien fan, who re-read the series at least once a year. So when he was cast in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it was likely a dream come true.
Lee had longed to play Gandalf, but he was too old by the time Jackson’s film series got off the ground. In the end, his portrayal of Saruman the White was a true standout in the series — and though he didn’t get to play his dream role, he did have the distinct honor of being the only LOTR crew member to have ever met Tolkien.
5. The actors got hurt doing their own stunts
Part of the magic of movie-making is convincing the audience that a film’s stars are really doing all those dangerous stunts. And in Lord of the Rings, there was plenty of action to go around. Though the actors had stunt doubles to cover for them in the most death-defying sequences, they also did quite a bit of work themselves. As a result, the actors ended up with some pretty gnarly injuries.
Orlando Bloom broke several ribs after falling off a horse while filming The Two Towers. And Viggo Mortensen broke two of his toes when he kicked a helmet and chipped his tooth during a fight sequence. For the latter injury, he simply asked that it be superglued back on so that filming could continue.
6. Viggo learned Elvish
At this point, it’s pretty obvious that Viggo Mortensen was seriously committed to being the best Aragorn he could possibly be. He was so concerned about doing right by the character that he immersed himself in learning Tolkien’s Elvish language to make sure that he was convincing when he spoke it. It’s impressive, yes, but Mortensen has a long history of being bilingual. He speaks six languages, including Dutch, French, and Spanish, he also learned Lakota for Hidalgo. Still, given how little time Mortensen had to prepare for the role, it’s wildly impressive that he was able to pick up a new dialect and speak it so convincingly.
7. John Rhys-Davies is the tallest member of the Fellowship
When you think of the Lord of the Rings cast, chances are you picture them all standing together. The men and elves are tall while the hobbits and dwarves are on the shorter side. In order to achieve that effect, Peter Jackson used different scaled sets and scale double actors to create the illusion that the main characters were all significantly different sizes. That gave Jackson the ability to cast whoever he wanted in key roles, regardless of their size — and as a result, the tallest main actor in the Fellowship plays one of the shortest characters. John Rhys-Davies, who played the dwarf Gimli, is 6-foot-1 — a full two inches taller than Viggo Mortensen. How’s that for Hollywood magic?
8. The fellowship actors got matching tattoos
The Fellowship at the center of the first Lord of the Rings movie is made up of a cross section of species from Middle Earth. Men, elves, dwarves, and hobbits are all represented and all play an essential role in making sure Frodo can get the One Ring to Mount Doom. The actors that made up this ensemble became very close while filming The Fellowship of the Ring, bonding over long days on set and the unique experience of filming in the middle of New Zealand.
To commemorate their journey as actors and characters, many of them chose to get the same tattoo. As Viggo Mortensen explained, “We all got the same one – the word “nine” in Elvish – because that’s what we are, nine.” The only actor that didn’t get inked for Lord of the Rings was John Rhys-Davies. Instead, he sent Brett Beattie, the actor who played him as a scale double for the wide shots, to represent him.
9. The Return of the King made history at the Oscars
When The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King hit theaters in 2003, fans were largely thrilled with the series’ epic conclusion. It was celebrated in Hollywood as well, and Jackson and his crew were showered with accolades across the globe. At the 2004 Academy Awards, ROTK was nominated for 11 Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture. It won in every category it was nominated for, tying for the most wins ever with Ben-Hur and Titanic. It was also one of just three films to sweep its categories — and the first fantasy film to take home the coveted Best Picture trophy. Many saw the late-stage award haul as a way for Hollywood to recognize the achievements of all three films. Regardless, it was the perfect way to culminate a truly remarkable run for The Lord of the Rings.
10. Hobbiton is a real place
One of the most exciting parts of The Lord of the Rings films was watching J.R.R. Tolkien’s most fantastical locations come to life. Peter Jackson and the LOTR creative team worked diligently to make sure that places like the Shire and Mount Doom looked as real as possible.
After finding the perfect location for Hobbiton — Alexander Farm in New Zealand — they spent months transforming it into something that looked like it could really exist in Middle Earth. The work they did was so successful that that the filmmakers chose to keep some of the film’s sets in place permanently. You can visit Hobbiton today, and see the Shire in all its lush, tranquil beauty. Just keep an eye out for meddling wizards.
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