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Alternative Universe Movies: John Boorman's Lord of the Rings

By David Konow

John Boorman is the director of such masterpieces as Point Blank, Hell in the Pacific, Deliverance, Excalibur, and more. He also almost directed Lord of the Rings, and to think what he could have done with the classic Tolkien tale absolutely boggles the mind.

John Boorman is the director of such masterpieces as Point Blank, Hell in the Pacific, Deliverance, Excalibur, and more. He also almost directed Lord of the Rings, and to think what he could have done with the classic Tolkien tale absolutely boggles the mind. At that point, there was no way a major studio would have backed three movies that told the whole story. It was a miracle New Line Cinema went ahead with three movies when Peter Jackson tackled the trilogy decades later. Still, with a brave and experimental filmmaker like Boorman, you get the feeling it could have been a hell of a movie if he had the opportunity to make it.

Boorman wrote a bit about his opportunity to direct Lord of the Rings in his autobiography, Adventures of a Suburban Boy. Boorman had just made Leo the Last for United Artists, and David Picker, who was then the head of the studio, approached the director about potentially adapting the Tolkien epic. The first problem was, you guessed it, trying to cram the entire story into one movie. “To compress the three volumes into a three-hour movie was a hugely ambitious undertaking,” Boorman wrote. “But I was grateful to have the chance to try. I was interested in the central metaphor, that the One Ring is of such power that it corrupts whoever possesses it.”

To help him, Boorman hooked up with Rospo Pallenberg, an Italian architect living in New York who wanted to be a screenwriter. Pallenberg first became aware of Boorman’s work when one night he had an argument with his wife, and walked out into the rain in a huff. Seeking shelter, Pallenberg ducked into a movie theater, which was playing Point Blank, Boorman’s classic crime thriller starring Lee Marvin. Pallenberg loved the film so much, he sat through it twice that night.

Eventually Pallenberg was introduced to Boorman, who was in New York staying at the Sherry Netherland, having a meeting in his suite about Leo the Last. After the meeting, Boorman took Pallenberg into the suite’s closet, turned on the light, and thrust the three Lord of the Rings books at him. “Do you know them?,” Boorman asked. “Maybe we can write a screenplay together.”

It was clearly going to be a big challenge, and Boorman was absolutely up for it. (Pallenberg was a newcomer as a screenwriter, and had only written one previous script.) “I once described the film-making process as inventing impossible problems for yourself and then failing to solve them,” Boorman recalled. “I relished the magnitude, the danger. I was ready to do battle. This could be the one, the ultimate movie.”

"I once described the film-making process as inventing impossible problems for yourself and then failing to solve them."

Six months later, Rospo came over to Ireland, where he and Boorman wrote the script together. In crafting the screenplay, Boorman covered the walls with breakdowns of scenes from all three books, and he also drew a map of Middle Earth. Boorman recalled he would write a scene, then Rospo would write one, and so on.

Pallenberg confirms it was indeed “a 50/50 affair. We met, we talked all day, and gave ourselves homework. We’d both write, see each other in two, three days, exchange drafts, revise each other, and onward. As for the order of the writers credits, it was a coin toss, which I lost!” Pallenberg recalled the screenplay was written in about three months, certainly under four. “We went pretty fast.” The screenplay was dated 1969, and as Pallenberg says, “I don’t even remember if we had a revised draft.”

This incarnation of Lord of the Rings was going to be a three-hour movie with an intermission. Special effects of course were still pretty primitive for the time, and Pallenberg says, “We were going to use old fashioned techniques to render it. I thought it would have come out even better, because the constraints really pushed us to think how to do it, and how to pull it off.”

To make the actors look Hobbit size, Pallenberg recalled the plan was to contrast them with everyday objects that were going to be oversized, like tables, plates and forks, etc., much like they did in The Incredible Shrinking Man. Boorman’s recollection was he was going to “cast ten-year-old boys” as the Hobbits “give them facial hair and dub them with adult voices!”

Pallenberg says there were no flying dragons in the story. “I advocated this,” he says. “I was worried that film could come across as too fantastic, like a Ray Harryhausen flick. Although dragons are mentioned that they belong to the fairy stories of the Lord of the Rings world as told by Bilbo, a previous generation.”

"The executives at United Artists thought Lord of the Rings was a caper about a jewel thief!"

So why did this incarnation of Lord of the Rings never get made? As Pallenberg recalls, “We handed it in, and the management at United Artists had changed completely. They were excited because somehow they thought that Lord of the Rings might have been similar to a movie they had a lot of success with a thriller called Topkapi. They thought Lord of the Rings was a caper about a jewel thief! It would have been wonderful to have been a fly on the wall while they were reading it! Obviously it wasn’t anything close. I think the executives were clueless. They didn’t know what the market was for it.”

Not only had no one in the new United Artists regmine read the books, they didn’t have the money to make such a big epic story, and even worse, they weren’t interested in making it. Boorman took the project to other studios, and no one else bit either. Years later, Boorman almost got Lord of the Rings set up at Tri-Star. The head of the studio, Mike Medavoy, who was also a former executive at UA, agreed to give producer Saul Zantz a million dollars for the rights, but he wouldn’t give up the merchandising, and the deal fell apart.

Lord of the Rings was also shown to Disney, but Pallenberg thought it would have been a catastrophe if the project wound up at the Mouse House. “It would have been disastrous to the aesthetic of the piece,” he says. “Disney lends itself to cuteness.”

As we saw with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, it took a long time for studios to get their heads around three lengthy movies in the fantasy genre. It was heartbreaking for Boorman to see the movie fall apart, and as he wrote, “I have spent more time on movies I have not made than on ones that I have. The deeper the emotional involvement, the greater the sense of loss. I was steeped in Middle Earth and letting it go was painful, but there was also relief, because we had devised an almost unmakeable script.”

But all was not lost: “It prepared the ground for the script Rospo and I eventually wrote, Excalibur. Many of the special-effects techniques I developed at that time were put to good use in Exorcist II: The Heretic, Zardoz and Excalibur.”

Boorman admired that the series was made “wisely, as three films, by another director as brave and foolish as I was. Had I made my version the world would have been denied the magnificent spectacle that Peter Jackson created. My concept shrivels by comparison.”

Yes, it’s amazing to think what Lord of the Rings could have been with Boorman directing, so now try to imagine it as a Yellow Submarine style musical with the Fab Four.

“Because there were four Hobbits and four Beatles, the idea was suggested that the Beatles would work well in Lord of the Rings.”

As former head of UA Steven Bach wrote in his book, Final Cut, there were nebulous plans “for a multimedia musical extravaganza” that would star The Beatles, and they would of course provide the soundtrack. The Beatles made all their movies with United Artists, but plans for a musical Lord of the Rings fell apart when the band broke up in 1970.

“I believe that idea originated with us,” Pallenberg says, although after all these years he can’t recall much else. “Because there were four Hobbits and four Beatles, the idea was suggested that the Beatles would work well in Lord of the Rings.”

Bach recalled it was producer David Picker’s idea, but whoever came up with the concept of bringing Tolkien and the Beatles together, it was certainly one of those nutty proposals that only could have been made back in the ‘70’s. And who knows, maybe it could have worked. “This particular lalapalooza idea was well ahead of its time and might have been inspired showmanship,” Bach continued. “The idea of Ringo Starr, say, as Frodo, has an irresistible appeal.”

Now for a few more pieces of unmade movie trivia to boggle your mind even more, who were Boorman and Pallenberg considering for their Frodo? Al Pacino. It should also be mentioned that Pallenberg had written the screenplay for another big epic story that was partly inspired by Lord of the Rings, Stephen King’s The Stand.

Back in the eighties, George Romero was up to direct the big screen adaptation of the epic King best-seller, but he couldn’t get a screenplay down to a reasonable length, and no major studio was going to back a horror film that could potentially run over three hours, and could cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million, which was a lot of money in those days. (Guillermo Del Toro had this exact same problem with At the Mountains of Madness, because Universal was wary about backing a $150 million dollar R-rated horror film.)

If you love the original Dawn of the Dead, you know Romero could definitely deliver an epic, and Pallenberg also mentioned that Dario Argento (Suspiria) was up to direct The Stand as well. There’s still effort to make a big screen adaptation of The Stand going on at Warner Brothers, with David Yates (Harry Potter) and Ben Affleck up to direct, but for horror fans like myself, a version by Romero or Argento is definitely one of the great ones that got away.