In his first-ever visit to the University where Tolkien first conceived Middle-earth a century ago, the acclaimed director tells how he’d feel if the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings author could see his blockbusting movie adaptations.
By Edward Elliott (Exeter College, 2011)
In 1914, J R R Tolkien was a student at Exeter College and president of its JCR, the Stapeldon Society. That year the city’s first cinemas were founded, the Phoenix Picture Palace and Oxford (now Ultimate) Picture Palace — both still in use today. But some eyed the new entertainment with suspicion, fearing it would suck people away from reality and gainful pursuits. The Stapledon Society convened on the motion, ‘The cheap “Cinema” is an engine of social corruption.’ Tolkien commented in favour.
‘Haha, really?’ grins Sir Peter Jackson. ‘Well, I’d love to show him our movies. I’d be terrified. I’m sure there would be lots in them he’d not like at all. . . . But hopefully some of what we did would delight and surprise him.’
It’s one moment from a unique Q&A staged on Thursday (25 June) as part of Exeter College’s celebrations of its eighth century, commemorating Tolkien (seen right in a 1914 college photo), one of its most distinguished alumni. An audience thronged the Sheldonian Theatre, perspiring from excitement and not inconsiderable humidity, to level questions at the acclaimed director of The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies. Exeter’s Rector, Sir Rick Trainor, opened proceedings. I was lucky enough to be chosen to conduct the centrepiece interview, with clammy palms and a cold sweat all of my own. Topics ranged from Jackson’s wide filmography to his technical achievements, and, of course, his attachment to Tolkien.
At the box office, each of the two trilogies grossed close to $3 billion worldwide. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of The King alone garnered eleven Oscars and four Golden Globes. Success made Jackson, born and operating in New Zealand, a Knight Companion of his country’s Order of Merit. However, all this might never have come to be.
Middle-earth had not been his initial destination. Closing the shoot on the director’s fifth feature The Frighteners, he and partner Fran Walsh had sought to create an original fantasy adventure in the mould of the Sinbad films or Jason and the Argonauts — movies involving the stop-motion genius of Ray Harryhausen, a major childhood influence on Jackson. Only after recurrent discussions about how to construct their film ‘like Lord of the Rings’ did they decide to try adapting Tolkien’s work itself.
‘We were in a first-look deal with Miramax and Harvey Weinstein. The idea we originally pitched was to do The Hobbit as one movie, and then to do The Lord of the Rings as two movies. We didn’t know who had the rights.’ Weinstein investigated and called them back. ‘He had found out a producer named Saul Zaentz had the rights to The Lord of the Rings and he had the rights to half The Hobbit but not the other half — I don’t know which half it was.’
Zaentz had ‘rejected many offers from lots of filmmakers’, said Jackson. Leverage relied in the end on a Hollywood ‘guilt card’. According to Jackson, it was not until Miramax’s late swoop to save the financially fraught Zaentz production The English Patient that creative control was released.
‘The next call was that [the rights situation with] The Hobbit was too difficult . . . but The Lord of the Rings was ok. So we had to do that one first.’
Initial funders Miramax wanted an ‘Americanised’ project — a desire that led to a creative ‘fight’ and ‘divorce’ from Jackson and team. ‘I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a Tolkien expert — I would never claim to be,’ he said. ‘We tried to respect his work as best we could. We tried not to Americanise. We tried to protect the integrity of his stories. But at the same time we had to make our movie.’
The end result was ‘films I’m very, very proud of’, he said. ‘We try to make the films as good as we can. We keep working on them. There is no such thing to us as a finished script.’
Self-critical scrutiny can continue long after release. Watching King Kong this year for the first time since its 2005 release, he and his partner drowned out the soundtrack with conversation of ‘sloppy edits’ and scenes in need of ‘tightening’.
‘The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, I’m sure I’ll see them one day,’ he reflected. ‘It’s a strange thing. You’re making a film you want to see, but when it’s finished you don’t want to see it.’
Asked what projects he might want to pursue next, Jackson stated he was in ‘no rush’ to recommence filming. Nor indeed, to return to Hollywood.
‘At the moment . . . a lot of the films there are not the sort of films I particularly enjoy. So what Fran and I are probably going to do is make some smaller movies, make some New Zealand movies.
‘I’ve got The Dam Busters too: I’ve been working on a script with Stephen Fry over the last few years on and off. But whatever we do over the next few years, it will be quite a lot smaller.’
Following the Q&A, at dinner at Exeter College, Jackson admitted he and Fran had been to Oxford once before: a brief deviation from the Lord of the Rings press tour for a quick drink in The Eagle and Child, Tolkien’s old retreat — a ‘sneak in, sneak out’ enjoyed most because it was incognito. Comfortable with movie epics and Sheldonian Theatres, the director — who can only be described as warm, modest and charming — is yet more at home with the homely.
At the college, he chatted with the volunteer helpers for the event (pictured above) and was given the opportunity to scrutinise Exeter’s Tolkien-related archives, including a report card, his signature in the college register, and the minutes to a Stapeldon Society meeting which Tolkien — secretary at the time — depicted as a battle. Jackson appeared sincerely moved, saying it was the first time he had been able to connect directly with the memory of the man whose work helped him to such success.
Read more in Oxford Today:
Farewell, Tolkien’s tree: the demise of the author’s favourite pine, with video of its fall
Hooray for Hobbitwood: Edward Elliott goes to the final Hobbit premiere
All images © Exeter College, Oxford, reproduced with permission.