From Hell: Lord of the Rings With The Beatles


[This week we’ll be looking at a few movies mentioned in Tales from Development Hell by David Hughes (Titan Books). The book chronicles the arduous and at times absurd development process that films go through, often leading to that unfortunate limbo known as “development hell.” Tales from Development Hell comes out tomorrow. Look for our spotlight on the book this Friday.]

In Tales from Development Hell, David Hughes mentions a few intriguing early attempts to bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s work to the big screen. One is the 1966 animated Hobbit by Gene Deitch, which we’ve showed you at the beginning of the year. Another is an adaptation of Lord of the Rings starring The Beatles. John Lennon expressed interest in playing Gollum, with Paul McCartney as Frodo, Ringo Starr as Sam, and George Harrison as Gandalf. United Artists acquired the film rights for this in 1969.

Heinz Edelmann (art director of Yellow Submarine) became interested in an animated adaptation of Lord of the Rings with The Beatles. He says in Tales from Development Hell that the animation style would have been less colorful than Yellow Submarine, and he would have blended the operatic storytelling sensibilities of Fantasia with the visual aesthetic of an Akira Kurosawa film.

United Artists passed on the animated adaptation and brought on director John Boorman (Excalibur, Deliverance, Zardoz) and screenwriter Rospo Pallenberg for a live-action adaptation. This time the Fab Four would be playing the four hobbits, and the entire story would have been condensed into a single film with an intermission. The movie would have been shot in Ireland, and would have featured a duel of words between Gandalf and Saruman (a la Sandman #4, Hughes notes) as well as a model of Middle-Earth that filled an entire studio.

Neither of these came to pass, of course. The Beatles were on the rocks through 1969. The band officially called it quits in 1970, and the production on Boorman’s project fell into shadow. David Hughes shares a few thoughts with us after the cut.

When Gandalf is vanquished, the text is ‘He fell beyond time and memory.’ We puzzled about how you put that on film.

— John Boorman (quoted in Tales from Development Hell)

How serious do you think The Beatles were about doing Lord of the Rings together, especially since the end of the band was looming by the time United Artists got the film rights? Could the One Ring have bound them all?

David Hughes: I very much doubt it! (I also doubt that I can resist a “One Ringo to Rule Them All” pun.) It was probably one of dozens of film projects they flirted with during their anything-not-to-get-bored phase. But you cannot read the chapter of the book without picturing John as Gollum saying “Me precious.”

Any idea who Yoko would have played?

I suspect she would have told John not to be so silly and that would be that.

If Lord of the Rings With The Beatles did get made, would you rather have seen the animated Heinz Edelmann version or the live-action John Boorman version?

Where films are concerned that’s usually a good question, however I look at it like this: would I rather have seen Timothy West’s King Lear, or the Croatian-language production with Rade Serbedzija (the costume shop proprietor from Eyes Wide Shut), or the new revival with Gladiator‘s John Shrapnel? The answer is, of course, I’m glad all of those productions, and many more, existed — I wouldn’t even consider Peter Jackson’s version to be definitive.


more tales from Hell to come…

*          *          *

David Hughes is the author of Tales from Development Hell, The Greatest Sci-fi Movies Never Made, The Complete Kubrick, and The Complete Lynch. He is also co-author of Farscape: The Illustrated Companion with Paul Simpson, and has written about film for The Guardian, Empire, GQ, and numerous publications.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.