With Amazon’s new TV series based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings now out, many people are looking back at adaptations already made. At the top of the list is, of course, Peter Jackson’s trilogy. Next down is the more obscure, half-finished cartoon directed by Ralph Bakshi in 1978.
However, it’s recently come to light that the world nearly got another adaption – one starring The Beatles and directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Unexpected documentary reveal
This revelation came up as part of a conversation between Peter Jackson and Paul McCartney while Jackson was working on his new documentary Get Back.
Backed by Disney+, Get Back is a documentary about The Beatles that was released in three parts. With a runtime of almost eight hours, Jackson worked to restore more than 50 hours of outtakes from the 1970 documentary Let It Be, which focused on the iconic band.
For Jackson, a fan of The Beatles since he was a child, this documentary was a real-life achievement. It also gave him the opportunity to ask whether it was true that there had once been a possibility of The Beatles filming an adaptation of Tolkien’s trilogy. McCartney confirmed that it was true.
Pop bands take over the movies
While today the worlds of music and film are mostly separate, in the past that wasn’t always the case. Bands might be asked to do the complete soundtrack to a movie, the way Queen did the Flash Gordon soundtrack. Singers might also appear in movies or become actors themselves. For example, Elvis Presley had a booming acting career that ran alongside his music career. Pink Floyd and The Who also released films.
When they were approached about doing a Tolkien film, The Beatles had already starred in two movies: A Hard Day’s Night and Help! Both films were released by United Artists and were produced by Denis O’Dell.
It was O’Dell who came up with the idea of a Lord of the Rings adaptation at the beginning of 1968. The plan was to film it as a musical. Since there was still one film left on a three-movie contract between The Beatles and United Artists, the band approached the studio with the concept. By a stroke of luck, United Artists was already quite interested in making a Lord of the Rings movie, and the project was given the green light.
The casting call
As it started looking like the movie might be made, the band members began to pick the parts they wanted to play. Paul McCartney would have been Frodo while Ringo Starr would have taken the part of his constant companion, Samwise Gamgee.
Fans of the book will be aware that there are four main hobbits in the Lord of the Rings, but rather than taking on the lesser roles of Merry and Pippin, the other Beatles had different roles in mind. George Harrison was to be Gandalf while John Lennon was to be Gollum.
Peter Jackson asked Paul McCartney if this was correct, and Jackson reported that “Paul couldn’t remember exactly when I spoke to him, but I believe that is the case.”
Lennon goes in search of Kubrick
While all of The Beatles were keen fans of the books, it was Lennon who was the driving force behind the movie. For him, there was only one choice for director: Stanley Kubrick. At this point, Kubrick had directed Spartacus (1960), Lolita (1962), and Dr. Strangelove (1964), so he was hot property in Hollywood.
Rumors suggest that Kubrick wasn’t averse to the idea of making a Lord of the Rings movie, but he didn’t think it would be feasible to do a live-action film. This wasn’t just to do with the era’s special effects but also because, according to Screenrant, Kubrick thought “the scope of the book was too vast and dense to be adapted for film in the 1960s.”
The Beatles were on board, Tolkien was not
When Kubrick turned down the offer, The Beatles began to lose interest in the project. This was just as well because the author himself was about to put an end to the enterprise for good.
In 1968, J.R.R. Tolkien still held the rights to the books, and he wouldn’t release them to United Artists for the band to use. Apparently, he wasn’t a particularly big fan of The Beatles and didn’t want a pop band interpretation of his beloved books.
Jackson has mixed feelings about the project
Speaking to the BBC, Jackson has mixed feelings about the abandoned project. Since the film would have been a musical, Jackson mused: “What would The Beatles have done with a Lord of the Rings soundtrack album? That would have been 14 or 15 Beatles songs that would have been pretty incredible to listen to.”
“So I’ve got two minds about it. I would have loved to hear that album, but I’m also glad I got the chance to do the films,” Jackson said.
However, Paul McCartney had a different opinion. As he told Jackson: “I’m glad we didn’t do it, because you got to do yours and I liked your film.”