Just Like Heaven's Gate: Why Didn't The Lord Of The Rings Series Fail?S

Next week, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens, setting in motion another Tolkien trilogy from director Peter Jackson that will end in the summer of 2014. Everyone's wondering whether these Hobbit movies can live up to the Lord of the Rings films, whose combination of commercial and critical success is just about unparalleled. That's a tall order, especially since the early reviews haven't been so glowing. But even if The Hobbit ends up being a letdown, it was always a long shot that these new films could match the cultural adoration for the original trilogy. It just underlines how incredibly unlikely those first films' success really was. Seriously, look back at the whole thing: How did this happen?

Producers had to go through plenty to get the series made. The rights issues took years to straighten out. (Even then, there were a few different lawsuits after the movies came out.) That often happens with iconic source material. (Spider-Man was a nightmare as well.) But New Line Cinema, faced with this predictable struggle, stuck with Jackson, their unpredictable leader.

Before Jackson got involved with Tolkien's world, he was a cult New Zealand filmmaker. He had made low-budget horror-comedies (Dead Alive, Bad Taste). He had done a dark true-life drama (Heavenly Creatures) about two uncomfortably close friends played by then-unknowns Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey. That earned him a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination (along with his longtime partner Fran Walsh), which led to him directing The Frighteners, a Michael J. Fox horror-comedy that bombed. (He also made the little-seen mockumentary Forgotten Silver, about the history of a made up, supposedly legendary Kiwi filmmaker.) Looking at that résumé, it suggests an ambitious up-and-comer, but is this the person you'd want to risk with a trilogy of films that would be shot back-to-back and cost around $285 million? (This was more than 10 years ago, when blockbuster budgets were around $140 million at most.) It wasn't totally out of the ordinary to hire a low-profile filmmaker for a big studio picture—Sam Raimi had never made anything on the scale of Spider-Man—but they hired him for three big studio pictures.

But the story of the making of the Rings movies, which began in late 1999, is filled with such bold moves. For the role of Frodo, Jackson went with Elijah Wood, a respected dramatic actor but hardly a box-office star. In fact, of the film's large cast, the only people who had ever been in a $100-million-plus hit were Ian McKellen (X-Men) and Liv Tyler (Armaggedon). And Viggo Mortensen was a last-minute addition, after Jackson decided during shooting that his original Aragorn, Stuart Townsend, wasn't right. A day after Mortensen was contacted, he was on set filming. ("I was afraid I'd always feel cowardly if I had said no," Mortensen told Entertainment Weekly before the first Rings movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, came out. "I had more than enough reasons not to do it, but in the end it was a challenge I'd always know I'd backed away from.")

Plus, they were trying out untested technology. For the second film, The Two Towers, Jackson hired actor Andy Serkis to do voiceover work for the demented character of Gollum. As Serkis has mentioned, it was only supposed to be a three-week gig. It turned into a full-body performance digitally created through motion capture, which was then a relatively new technique. (It didn't help that the first really prominent motion-capture character was this abomination.) Uncharted territory, and for one of the trilogy's most crucial characters, too.

Where most potential franchises start with a first installment and then see how audiences respond, New Line rolled the dice and ordered three movies at the beginning. If the The Fellowship of the Ring had tanked, the studio could have been in serious financial trouble at a time when they really couldn't afford it. Despite some nice tax incentives from New Zealand, New Line was still taking a huge financial risk just when they were dealing with bombs like Little Nicky. Though their executives swore they weren't concerned, one could imagine Fellowship flopping and sinking New Line the way another colossally ambitious, expensive project, Heaven's Gate, doomed United Artists two decades earlier. New Line was one bad movie away from being a new generation's cautionary tale about the perils of Hollywood excess.

But that didn't happen. The Fellowship of the Ring became 2001's second-biggest hit, and in the following years, The Two Towers and The Return of the King made even more money. The trilogy snagged 17 Oscars, including 11 for the Best Picture-winning Return of the King. And it paved the way for several trends of the next decade of blockbuster filmmaking. The Rings' emphasis on a dark fantasy tone would be felt in later Harry Potter films and the Twilight series. Performance capture is now much more prevalent, used in everything from Avatar to The Adventures of Tintin to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. (Serkis might as well be the official spokesman for the technology, since he's now been involved with it so much.) And Jackson's helming of all three installments showed that having the same person overseeing an entire franchise can have its benefits, as was more recently proved by Christopher Nolan with his Batman films. (There are exceptions to this rule, of course.)

But Jackson's breakthrough has also brought with it some drawbacks. For Jackson personally, his follow-up films have struggled to live up to Rings' legacy, what with King Kong's spectacle overload and The Lovely Bones' ridiculously pumped-up visuals and melodrama. And the industry as a whole has learned some bad lessons from Rings' success. With their three-hour running times, the trilogy helped popularize the notion that audiences will sit for longer movies, which has resulted in more and more event movies—think Transformers or the first two Chronicles of Narnia films—pushing the 150-minute mark. And with their serial-like structure, Rings also encouraged other franchises to turn their movies into years-long events, giving us two-part final chapters of Harry Potter and Twilight. (Of course, George Lucas and his damn prequels also deserve some blame, too.) It may have been nine years since Jackson has been to Middle-earth, but considering the long shadow that the improbable success of The Lord of the Rings has cast across the multiplex ever since, we're all still very much living in his Shire, for better and for worse.

Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.