Three years ago, and more than a year before the first Lord of the Rings movie showed up, David Gardner thought it might be something special. This column originally ran on Sept. 27, 2000.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
What books do you love? Any book you've read twice is a good place to start. I'll tell you a book I love. Three of them, actually. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien. I first read them in an epic literature course taught by the distinguished Dr. Kenneth J. Reckford at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose famous tree lecture (in which he came dressed as a tree in order to discuss the significance of trees in Tolkien's books) was attended additionally each year by many who were neither taking nor auditing the course.
(On a side note, Dr. Reckford -- whom I was very proud to have attend my wedding 10 years ago -- was the only professor I ever had who donned a jester cap while presenting an entire lecture.)
I love Tolkien. I love the epic in Tolkien, his heroes great and small. His erudition, and love of language. His delightful sense of humor. A quick example at hand from chapter one of his first book is this line from Bilbo Baggins's farewell party toast, "I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve." (Say it aloud and have whoever's near your computer puzzle that one out.)
Yes, I believe every one of us would be better off if we read this trilogy once a decade throughout our lives. To walk the walk, I'm just beginning to reread the trilogy for, er, the third time in twelve years. (OK, maybe it's a sickness.) It is therefore with some hesitation but mostly extreme anticipation that I mention something you might not know yet: The Lord of the Rings is going Hollywood.
You didn't know?! You heard it here, first.
OK, OK, you're wondering what exactly this is doing in a Rule Breaker column. After all, you're used to us demystifying companies like Priceline, Ariba, Human Genome Sciences, or WebVan. Which we enjoy doing. But any long-time reader of this column knows we occasionally write about relevant Rule-Breaking things in the world at large when we're sufficiently compelled, whether it's the U.S.A. as a Rule Breaker, or the beauties of board games, or even just the importance of warm socks with the coming of autumn.
And given that I've spotted -- more than a year before it's out -- what I consider to be one of the great Rule-Breaking movies of all-time, adapted from literature I love, I'm going to let you know about it! Because, like all Rule Breakers, this will either be something quite spectacular or an amazing-to-watch-and-have-known-about flop-o-rama. Either way, we shall be educated and amused... and let us hope enriched.
It's time to Break Down The Lord of the Rings, the movie.
Top dog and first-mover in an important, emerging industry
What's the important, emerging industry, here? Let's call it "cost-effective epic Hollywood cinema with a bang." Look at the phrase again. We've all seen "Hollywood" before, we may know "epic," and most movies are looking to create a bang of some sort: The key phrase here is cost-effective. New Zealand director Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema have opted to film all three full-length films at once. Despite running a budget that is Titanic in its proportion -- which will make for a conversation topic of its own just as was the case for Titanic -- this money is being spread across the continuous multiyear filming of all three movies. I call that smart, I know it's important, and... yoo-hoo, Hollywood... let's hope that's emerging.
Conclude this article and then take a look at the trailer. (OK, I confess it, I have watched it 22 times.) And then you tell me this isn't a top dog.
A sustainable advantage
No one is going to do this again anytime soon. By "this" I mean both adapt one of the 20th century's most original and beloved works and do an epic series like this all at once, spreading out the fixed costs. Any fantasy epic -- possibly, any epic -- from now on will have to face the inevitable comparisons between it and The Lord of the Rings. (What already happens in literature, that is, will happen in cinema now, too.) And we talk of demanding that our Rule Breakers sustain their advantage for at least two to three years; the present plan is for The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King to debut respectively Christmas 2001, Christmas 2002, and Christmas 2003. Bingo-bango-bongo. That good rhythm and spacing will make for 2-3 solid years of unstoppable, lingering buzz.
Excellent past price appreciation
How many millions of copies of Tolkien's books have sold? Does anyone know? Further, most of our fantasy literature today -- and large portions of our interactive gaming industry, which last year grossed more than all Hollywood combined -- draw inspiration, language, and concepts from Tolkien's original works. The relative strength behind J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings has run in the steady low 90s for years, and is near getting turbocharged.
Good people (excellent management and smart backing)
While I did not see his most acclaimed movie Heavenly Creatures (1994), director Peter Jackson's tribute to Tolkien is by all accounts authentic, richly imaginative, and masterly. Of course, when we look for "good people" within a movie, we can usually get a pretty good indicator of quality by a look at the cast. I am delighted to see Ian McKellen playing Gandalf, Elijah Wood looks the part of Frodo, Cate Blanchett adds further dignity to the project as Galadriel, and Sean Bean is an excellent choice as Boromir. Plus, John Rhys-Davies? I'm a huge John Rhys-Davies guy. Gimme a break. I'm there.
Potential for a household brand
This is in many ways already achieved, and will only be more so. Instead, I shall only use this space to publish a brief bit of original free verse entitled "Ode to the Once Innocent Me":
The merchandising tie-ins
should be Star-Warslike, so
it must be admitted that
my love of Tolkien
and wishes for success of this project
will be ever so slightly undermined the first time I yank out
A plastic Frodo Baggins
from its sealed plastic baggy
in my children's McDonald's Happy Meals.
Grossly overvalued, according to the media
Do you remember the mockery that James Cameron's Titanic faced down for its mammoth budget? For many in the media, it seemed, that alone was enough to doom the movie to a mini-Ishtarlike shrine in the Valhalla of The Overhyped. The idea that the Titanic was well longer than three hours was also, according to the Wisdom of the time, another excellent sign that the American public would not show up in anywhere near sufficient numbers to get it near black ink.
What a great lead indicator of that movie's success as a Rule Breaker.
For RB attribute #6, the point is moot; it is too early to assert. Other than a Vanity Fair feature in their October issue, I have yet to see much hype about The Lord of the Rings. No cynical articles yet ("The Lord of the Budgets," say), and in fact when I straw-poll my friends who are themselves at least casual acquaintances of Tolkien's works, most of them have no idea that the nation of New Zealand is presently overrun by Hobbitmania, with calls for thousands of extras, expensive sets built into gorgeous mountain crags, and Internet fan sites on permanent Liv Tyler watch.
You just wait. Said veteran bad-guy actor Christopher Lee (once Dracula, now here Saruman) to SFX Magazine, "It's just going to be... I'm trying to think of the right word -- without making it sound like the usual fashionable superlative. I think it will create film history. I think it's going to have the biggest impact, on screen, of anything of the last 40 or 50 years."
My friends, I hear those Breaker war drums pounding, like those of the smoky orcish hordes. Wax we too rhapsodic? We shall see. If I'm wrong, just read the books! That's what I'm doing for now, anyway. Tolkien's pen is a magic wand.
Go J.R.R., and go Jackson.
David Gardner is co-founder of The Motley Fool.