Long before Peter Jackson brought the world of J.R.R. Tolkien to life, there were four famous men who longed for their own Lord of the Rings movie. At the height of their power, the Beatles made a serious attempt to procure the rights for their own film in Middle Earth. Here’s what happened.
The Beatles In The Movies
In 1964, the Beatles starred in A Hard Day’s Night. The film was unlike any rock movie that came before: It was like the Marx Brothers crossed with Breathless. More than just a cash grab, it was a classic that fetched two Academy Award nominations. The film is still regarded as one of the greatest ever made, and it firmly established the Beatles as players in Hollywood.
Just one year later, the band was on screen again in for Help!. The movie was sillier than its predecessor and it hasn’t had quite the same legacy, but it did make over 10 times its budget. The two music films allowed the Beatles to dabble in a new medium while still promoting their bread and butter. Having played themselves twice, the Beatles longed for a challenge: fiction.
State Of The ‘Lord Of The Rings’
As John Lennon and Paul McCartney were growing up in Liverpool, Tolkien was busy writing. In 1954, he released The Fellowship of the Ring. To call his Middle Earth trilogy successful would be an understatement, for they remain some of the best-selling books ever written. He sold about 150 million copies, plus another 100 million copies of The Hobbit on top of that. The Beatles have him beat with 600 million albums sold, but they’re both at the top of their field.
The film rights for The Lord of the Rings proved popular, and one suitor was Denis O’Dell of Apple Films. He thought the project would work as a musical starring the Beatles. When Jackson began work on his Beatles documentary Get Back, he had the rare opportunity to learn more. He asked McCartney for details. We have to note how cosmically lucky it is that the man who would direct the Lord of the Rings happened to make an official documentary on the men who wanted to star in it.
Speaking to the BBC, Jackson reveals he’s tried to find out as much information as possible. O’Dell sent copies of the Lord of the Rings to the Beatles during their trip to India. Jackson says, “When they (The Beatles) went to Rishikesh and stayed in India, it was about three months with the Maharishi at the beginning of 1968, he sent the books to The Beatles.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like Starr got a copy, but the band was still into it. “They got excited about it,” Jackson says.
The Beatles Version
Details on the Beatles’ version of The Lord of the Rings are spare, but we have a decent idea of how it would look. Paul McCartney would play Frodo Baggins, while John Lennon would be Gollum. George Harrison would take the role of Gandalf, while Ringo Starr would play—who else?—Samwise Gamgee. Harrison and Starr do feel well suited to play those characters.
The Beatles approached Stanley Kubrick to direct. He was one of the biggest directors in Hollywood coming off the success of Dr. Strangelove, but he had no interest. Kubrick outright considered the project “unfilmable.” That didn’t deter the Fab Four. Other directors, including David Lean, were approached.
The reason this version of The Lord of the Rings didn’t get made had nothing to do with feasibility. It was a rights issue. “Ultimately, they couldn’t get the rights from Tolkien, because he didn’t like the idea of a pop group doing his story. So it got nixed by him. They tried to do it. There’s no doubt about it. For a moment in time they were seriously contemplating doing that at the beginning of 1968,” Jackson says.
The ‘Sliding Doors’ Moment
Ponder for a moment just how different history would look if the Beatles got their wish. The film would have been a musical, so that means the Beatles would have spent 1968 making music for Middle Earth. That means no Yellow Submarine, a radically different looking White Album, and maybe no Let it Be or Abbey Road.
If Kubrick was more invested, then he wouldn’t have made 2001: A Space Odyssey. How would science fiction even look without 2001? It’s unfathomable. It’s probably for the best that history played out the way it did.
McCartney evidently agrees. Jackson explains, “Paul said, ‘Well I’m glad we didn’t do it, because you got to do yours and I liked your film.’ But I said to him, ‘Well, it’s a shame you didn’t do it, because it would have been a musical.’”
There’s a world out there where Jackson doesn’t get to make The Lord of the Rings, but we do have a completely different Beatles record with tracks about Boromir. Oh to flash sideways and see how that would sound.