Between on-set injuries, extensive script changes, and one whopper of a casting process, at various points in the life of The Lord of the Rings trilogy it seemed as if director Peter Jackson might have bitten off more than he could chew. The trilogy that changed the face of fantasy films tackled a number of challenges along the way, but it all worked out in the end. In celebration J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthday, here are 20 facts about the Oscar-winning trilogy.
1. IT WENT THROUGH A TON OF SCRIPT REVISIONS.
When The Lord of the Rings started out, it was originally going to be two movies. Later, concerned about the ballooning budget, producers tried to persuade Jackson to condense the movie into a single film. At various points in the scripting process, Arwen, not Éowyn, was the one to dress up as a man, ride into the Battle of Pelennor Fields, and kill the Witch-king; and Rohan and Gondor were combined into one kingdom. Miramax also suggested that the one-movie version be presented as a flashback, with an older Frodo “covering [the entire Mines of Moria sequence in Fellowship] by saying something like, ‘So then we went on a dangerous journey through the Mines of Moria and lost Gandalf!,’” recalled Jackson.
2. SEAN CONNERY DIDN’T UNDERSTAND THE SCRIPT.
Sean Connery read for the role of Gandalf but admitted that, “I never understood it. I read the book. I read the script. I saw the movie. I still don’t understand it … I would be interested in doing something that I didn’t fully understand, but not for 18 months.” Connery’s deal, if he had taken the role, would have been for a small fee plus 15 percent of the films’ income. Incidentally, the entire trilogy went on to earn just shy of $3 billion worldwide.
3. ARAGORN WAS AN EXTREMELY DIFFICULT ROLE TO CAST.
Nicolas Cage was offered the role of Aragorn, which he turned down due to “family obligations.” Famously, the role then went to up-and-coming Irish actor Stuart Townsend, who you probably don’t remember seeing in the final trilogy: “I was there rehearsing and training for two months, then was fired the day before filming began,” the actor later recalled. In need of an older actor, Jackson went to Viggo Mortensen, who took the role at the urging of his son Henry, who was a fan of the books.
4. RUSSELL CROWE WAS A POTENTIAL BACKUP FOR ARAGORN.
Had Mortensen turned down the role of Aragorn, there were two other actors Jackson had in mind as replacements: Jason Patric and Russell Crowe. “We sent [Crowe] a script and he did read it and was fascinated,” said Jackson. “I remember getting the phone call from his agent and being told that he had just finished another film which involved him having to have a sword and armor—Gladiator! Russell was flattered by the approach, but he had other films he was committed to and it obviously wasn’t going to work out.”
5. VIGGO MORTENSEN TOOK SEVERAL BEATINGS.
A variety of injuries beset the cast during production, but Mortensen had it particularly hard: in The Two Towers, that scream he let out upon kicking a helmet after discovering the burnt corpses of the Orcs who abducted Merry and Pippin might have something to do with the fact that he had just broken two of his toes. “Normally, an actor would yell ‘Ow!’ if they hurt themselves,” noted Jackson. “Viggo turned a broken toe into a performance.” Elijah Wood remembered Mortensen “getting half of his tooth knocked out during a fight sequence, and his insistence on applying superglue to put it back in to keep working.”
6. JAKE GYLLENHAAL AUDITIONED TO PLAY FRODO.
Jake Gyllenhaal had a less-than-successful audition for the role of Frodo. “I remember auditioning for The Lord of the Rings and going in and not being told that I needed a British accent. I really do remember Peter Jackson saying to me, ‘You know that you have to do this in a British accent?’” Gyllenhaal later recalled. “We heard back it was literally one of the worst auditions.”
7. VIN DIESEL, LIAM NEESON, AND UMA THURMAN WERE UP FOR ROLES.
Among other could-have-beens in the casting department: Vin Diesel auditioned for Aragorn; Jackson called his performance “very compelling” but said that it didn’t “feel like Aragorn.” Jackson approached Richard O’Brien, best known as Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which he also wrote), for the role of Gríma Wormtongue, but his agents turned it down, believing the films would be unsuccessful. Liam Neeson passed on the role of Boromir.
There were also “discussions,” recalls Jackson, about then-married couple Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman playing Faramir and Éowyn; “Ethan was a huge fan of the books and was very keen to be involved. Uma was less sure and rightly so, because we were revising how we saw Éowyn’s character literally as we went. In the end, Ethan let it go—with some reluctance.”
8. IAN HOLM HAD PLAYED FRODO BAGGINS YEARS EARLIER.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy marked a return to the Shire for Bilbo actor Ian Holm, who played Frodo in a 1981 radio dramatization of The Lord of the Rings, which was broadcast on BBC Radio 4. His performance in that factored into Jackson’s decision to offer him the Bilbo role.
9. CHRISTOPHER LEE WANTED TO PLAY GANDALF.
The late Christopher Lee was a The Lord of the Rings superfan who actually met J.R.R. Tolkien (“I was very much in awe of him, as you can imagine,” he told Cinefantastique) and wanted to robe up as Gandalf, a role that eventually went to Sir Ian McKellen. (Lee himself admitted that, by the time the movies came around, he was “too old” for the action-heavy role.) Lee even played a wizard in the TV series The New Adventures of Robin Hood specifically “to show anyone who was watching that I could play a wizard and that I would be ideal casting for The Lord of the Rings.” He sent Jackson a picture of himself in wizard duds, though “it was more in the nature of a joke, really. It wasn’t me putting myself forward at all, because I think Peter had already made up his mind” to cast him as the wizard Saruman.
10. THE PRODUCER REALLY WANTED TO KILL A HOBBIT.
Early on in the development process, before it found its eventual home at New Line Cinema, The Lord of the Rings trilogy was being made at Miramax. As Peter Jackson would later recall, Bob Weinstein really, really thought one of the four main Hobbits should die: “‘Well, we can’t have [all of them surviving],’ he said, ‘we’ve got to kill a Hobbit! I don’t care which one; you can pick—I’m not telling you who it should be: you pick out who you want to kill, but we’ve really got to kill one of those Hobbits!’ In situations like that, you just nod and smile and say, ‘Well, that’s something we can consider.’”
11. SEAN BEAN TREKKED UP A MOUNTAIN IN COSTUME.
Sean Bean typically opted against taking a helicopter up to some of The Fellowship of the Ring’s mountain filming locations, instead climbing to sets himself in full Boromir gear. “I used to be a bit terrified of flying,” he said, so “I had to walk the whole way, really. I was two hours behind everybody else on top of this mountain because I just didn’t want to get into any helicopters.”
12. FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS’S BRET MCKENZIE MADE A CAMEO.
Flight of the Conchords’s Bret McKenzie makes a brief appearance in The Fellowship of the Ring, playing an unnamed Elf during the Council of Elrond scene. Fan Iris Hadad latched onto the extra, naming him Figwit (short for “Frodo is great… who is that?”) and creating the fansite Figwit Lives in his honor. Peter Jackson, responding to the grassroots support for the character, added him to The Return of the King as “Elf Escort” and even gave him a line, “just [as] fun for the fans.” (In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, McKenzie plays an elf named Lindir. He’s not the same character as Figwit, the actor noted, because the two have “slightly different ears.”)
13. AN ENTIRE ACTION SCENE WAS DESTROYED BY A FLOOD.
The end of The Fellowship of the Ring originally featured a scene where the heroes are ambushed by a band of Orcs as they row through rapids on the Anduin river. “We had all kinds of action planned with boats flipping over … and Legolas’s boat afloat as it bucks and tosses, while the Elf—standing with a foot on each of the gunwales—would be firing arrows at the attackers,” Jackson shared. But Mother Nature had other ideas, and a massive flood—in addition to causing a state of emergency in Queenstown, New Zealand—washed the entire ambush set down the river.
14. BILL THE PONY WAS TWO PEOPLE IN A HORSE COSTUME.
Sam’s pony Bill was, in Fellowship’s Midgewater Marshes scene, actually a “panto pony,” due to the difficulty of working with a live animal in a swamp. Not sure what a “panto pony” is? Well, that’s a fancy way of saying Bill was a pony suit with one person in the front half and one person in the back. It wasn’t exactly easy to work with, either. “We had a terrible struggle to get the pony to walk through the marshes because the performers were completely blind, buried in this costume and up to their waists in a real swamp,” shared Jackson. “Bill would try to walk and then would start to wobble and everyone would have to rush in and catch him before he fell over! There was one hilarious moment where the front legs moved without the back legs and Bill got stretched into a sort of long sausage dog!”
15. SEAN BEAN WAS READING HIS SCRIPT DURING THE COUNCIL OF ELROND SCENE.
Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens were constantly in the process of revising the script, even during production; the actors would frequently get new dialogue to memorize the night before a particular scene was scheduled to shoot. That was the case with Boromir’s famous speech in The Fellowship of the Ring’s Council of Elrond scene. Look closely and you’ll see the actor occasionally lowering his eyes to look at the new script page, which was taped to his knee.
16. WOMEN IN BEARDS WERE USED AS EXTRAS.
A good chunk of the Riders of Rohan in The Two Towers and The Return of the King were actually women outfitted with fake beards. “There are some very good women riders in New Zealand, and it’d be silly not to take advantage of them,” Mortensen said in The Two Towers Extended Edition extras.
17. THE URUK-HAI AT HELM’S DEEP ARE NEW ZEALAND CRICKET FANS.
In the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers, the chanting of the vicious Uruk-hai army was provided by a stadium full of New Zealand cricket fans. “There’s this Black Speech battle cry the Uruk do,” said executive producer Mark Ordesky. “We wrote it out phonetically on the Diamond Vision screen and Peter [Jackson] directed 25,000 people going ‘Rrwaaa harra farr rrara!”’
18. A SCENE WHERE ARAGORN FIGHTS SAURON IS IN THE RETURN OF THE KING … SORT OF.
Jackson filmed a scene for the end of The Return of the King where Aragorn goes toe-to-toe with the physical version of Sauron, in a sort of updated version of the Sauron-Isildur battle from the prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring. “By the time we had got to post-production,” Jackson remembers, the scene “no longer felt right,” so they cut it. But they did still use the footage: In the final battle, Aragorn can be seen battling a giant cave troll that was digitally superimposed over what was originally meant to be Sauron.
19. ONE OF THE MOST EMOTIONAL SCENES WAS SHOT OVER THE SPAN OF ONE YEAR.
It’s well known that all three Lord of the Rings movies were shot in one long stretch. As with most movies, the shoot wasn’t consecutive, meaning on any given day the schedule included scenes from all over the trilogy. Possibly the most extreme example of this has to do with the scene in The Return of the King where Frodo, urged by Gollum to think Sam has betrayed him, orders his loyal sidekick to go home. First Sam’s part was filmed, then Frodo’s … a year later. “Every time we cut to and fro between Frodo and Sam we are actually jumping back and forth across a year-long gap,” Jackson explained.
20. FRODO ORIGINALLY “STRAIGHT-OUT” MURDERED GOLLUM.
The final confrontation between Frodo and Gollum in The Return of the King was originally going to end with Frodo pushing Gollum off the ledge into Mount Doom; “straight-out murder,” Jackson admitted, “but at the time we were OK with it because we felt everyone wanted Frodo to kill Gollum. But, of course, it was very un-Tolkien, because it flew in the face of everything that he wanted his heroes to be.” Years later, the scene was re-shot as it ended up in the film.
Peter Jackson: A Film-Maker’s Journey, by Brian Sibley
Peter Jackson: From Prince of Splatter to Lord of the Rings, by Ian Pryor
This article originally appeared in 2016.