Middle-earth by the Numbers: From ‘Lord of the Rings’ to ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’

     December 16, 2012


The Lord of the Rings trilogy stands as a singular achievement in the history of cinema.  Peter Jackson would have to be crazy to return to this world in the shadow of the enormous financial and artistic success of the Rings series.  Thankfully Jackson is crazy, and just kicked off another Tolkien-based trilogy with the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. To explore the legacy of The Lord of the Rings and how The Hobbit matches up, I tried to capture how the series has evolved over the last decade with Middle-earth by the Numbers.  The feature provides a numbers-based snapshot of each movie and its place in the filmography by looking at the box office, critical reception, and miscellaneous facts.

Hit the jump for a comprehensive review of Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, Return of the King, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.


lord of the rings fellowship of the ring

Fellowship of the Ring

Year: 2001
RT: 92%
Worldwide Gross: $872 million

  • 150 million – Copies sold of J.  R.  R.  Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as of April 2007.
  • 2 – Parts in the original plan to adapt Rings.  Miramax announced in January 1997 they secured the LOTR rights for Peter Jackson to direct.  The project stalled because Miramax purportedly could not find a budget that met the approval of Disney (who owned Miramax at the time).  Jackson recalls: “Miramax asked us to abandon the idea of two films and compress it into one as their way of dealing with the budget.  But you’d be losing so many characters and so many events, anybody who read the book would have a natural disappointment.”
  • 45 – Minutes Jackson spent pitching the two–part version of Lord of the Rings to New Line.  New Line CEO Robert Shaye liked what he heard, but was confused why Jackson pitched two movies when there are three books.  Jackson was amazed: “It was one of those unbelievable moments.  Three films, of course, was our dream.” New Line signed the deal for three movies and paid Miramax a reported $10 million (plus points on the back end) for early development work.
  • 150 – Actors who Jackson auditioned for the lead role, Frodo.  Jackson was convinced that Elijah Wood, then just 18 years old, was the man for the part as soon as he saw Wood’s audition tape.
  • 15 – Months allotted to shoot all three films in Jackson’s home country, New Zealand.  The trilogy budget was $285 million and required a crew of more than 2,500 people, most of whom were Kiwi locals.
  • 9 – Members of the Fellowship of the Ring: Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Gimli, Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas, Boromir.  Before filming began the actors trained for 6 weeks.  Jackson hoped the actors would bond so the chemistry might translate to the screen.  It worked: Each cast member got a tattoo of the Elvish symbol for the number nine.  Except for John Rhys–Davies, whose stunt double took on the tattoo.
  • 4 – Approximate height in feet of a hobbit.  Several tricks were employed to make the actors playing the hobbits appear much smaller than their co-stars.  For instance, certain sets like Bag End were built twice at two different sizes so each character would look the right height relative to their surroundings.  The effect was not always so complicated.  Occasionally the Hobits simply knelt down in the frame.
  • 1 – Ring to rule them all.

Filmmaker: “I can squeeze the books into two movies to save you money.” Studio: “Why don’t you just make three movies?” That anecdote always amazes me.  It is the reverse of everything we expect from the filmmaker/studio relationship.  $3 billion later, it seems like a no–brainer, but there was no precedent for a fantasy series on screen that would justify a $300 million investment, no matter how large the built–in audience who love the book.  By Box Office Mojo’s classification, the only pure fantasy film to gross more than $100 million domestically prior to 2000 is Hook (though admittedly they don’t include mixed–genre fare like Star Wars).  New Line’s support set a new ceiling for what the Lord of the Rings could be on screen, and Jackson proved up to the task.


lord of the rings two towers

The Two Towers

Year: 2002
RT: 96%
Worldwide Gross: $926 million

  • 40,000 – Toy soldiers Jackson used to plan the Battle of Helm’s Deep.  Conceptual Designer Alan Lee created a miniature of Helm’s Deep at 1:35 scale as one of his first tasks when he joined the production in 1997.  The miniature was eventually used in long shots for filming along with a “big-ature” at 1:4 scale (7 feet tall, 50 feet wide) that was used for the big explosion.
  • 700 – Extras on set for the Battle of Helm’s Deep.  It took 4 months to shoot the massive battle, mostly at night.
  • 6 – Months to build the Rohan capital Edoras on the side of Mount Sunday.  Since the cast and crew spent months living at the site, the thatched-roof buildings doubled as offices and mess halls.  The Conservation Society of New Zealand granted permission to film here, in the middle of a national park, as long as the crew returned the land to its original state once filming was finished.
  • 11,000 – Sandbags used in the construction of the Dead Marshes set.
  • 799 – Digital effects shots, totaling 73 minutes of runtime.  The massive battle scene explains some of the reliance on effects, but the key innovation was Gollum.  Weta Digital started testing animation for Gollum in 1998 to prove to New Line they could make the digital character work on screen.  Then came Andy Serkis, now the godfather of motion capture performance.  Jackson was so impressed with Serkis’ performance that he brought Serkis on to set to interact with the other actors.
  • 15 – Times Gollum says his catchphrase word, “precious,” over the course of the film.
  • 48 – Hours needed to render the most complex frames of Treebeard.  For comparison, one frame of Gollum took about 8 minutes to render.

Two Towers sometimes catches flak for the lulls that come with being the middle chapter.  But it also gave us Gollum, who I see as the signature character of the film trilogy.  And you can’t go too wrong when a giant night battle is your climax.  Two Towers successfully maintained the quality of the first film and with just enough momentum to reach the conclusion of the trilogy with few signs of wear—no easy task.

lord of the rings return of the king

Return of the King

Year: 2003
RT: 94%
Worldwide Gross: $1.1 billion

  • 52 – Takes of the scene where the Rohirrim charge the Pelennor needed before Jackson and the crew were satisfied with what they shot.
  • 1,488 – Visual effects shots in Return of the King.  That is nearly twice what Weta Digital had to create for the effects-heavy Two Towers.  By the last two months of post-production, the effects team often worked until 2am to deliver up to 100 shots per week.
  • 3 – Weeks spent editing the last 45 minutes of the film.  The first cut came in at 4.5 hours in November 2002.  It took a year to pare that down to the theatrical cut of 201 minutes, locked in on November 12, 2003.  Thanks to a hectic schedule, the first time Jackson saw the final cut in full was at the world premiere in Wellington on December 1.
  • 263 – Runtime in minutes of the special extended Blu-ray edition.  The theatrical cut (201 minutes) of Return was the only Rings movie to exceed 200 minutes—both Fellowship and Towers came in a minute or two shy of three hours.
  • $1,119,929,521 – Total worldwide gross.  Return of the King was just the second movie to surpass $1 billion worldwide after Titanic.  Currently Return ranks 6thon the all-time worldwide list and 19th on the domestic list with $378 million.
  • 11 – Oscar nominations and wins.  Return of the King won Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture at the 2004 Academy Awards.  This ties Ben-Hur and Titanic for the most Oscar wins.  The trilogy only landed one acting nomination: Ian McKellen for Fellowship of the Ring.
  • 6 million – Feet of film shot over the course of the trilogy.  That’s over 1,000 miles.  This captured 20,602 background actors; 114 speaking parts; 48,000 pieces of armor; 500 bows; 10,000 arrows; 19,000 costumes; 1,600 pairs of prosthetic hobbit feet; 180 CGI effects employees; 100 New Zealand locations.

It is still up for debate whether Lord of the Rings is the greatest film trilogy of all time, but it is surely the most consistent.  The argument that it is both the best and the most consistent is borne out by the IMDB Top 250, where Return ranks 9th, Fellowship is 13th, and Two Towers is 21st.  The release of one film every December for three years proved to be a master class in event filmmaking.  It is hard to imagine anyone can replicate this kind of success on so many levels in such a compressed time frame.  Yet Jackson, the brave fool that he is, will give it his best with the Hobbit trilogy.



The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Year: 2012
RT: 66%
Worldwide Gross: TBD

  • 1995 – Year when Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh first expressed interest in The Hobbit as the first part of a trilogy leading into their two-part adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.  The Hobbit rights were still tied up at United Artists, though, so Jackson moved on to Lord of the Rings, King Kong, and The Lovely Bones before returning to The Hobbit more than a decade later.
  • 766 – Days Guillermo del Toro spent as the official director of The Hobbit.  Del Toro officially signed on to direct in April 2008 and started prepping for a 370–day shoot.  He would have shaken up the Lord of the Rings aesthetic and mythology a bit.  Most notably, in contrast to Jackson’s approach to Tolkien, Del Toro wanted to rely on animatronics over fully CGI characters: “We really want to take the state-of-the-art animatronics and take a leap ten years into the future with the technology we will develop for the creatures in the movie.  We have every intention to do for animatronics and special effects what the other films did for virtual reality.” But production was continuously stalled amid MGM’s financial troubles.  After two years waiting for a green light, Del Toro regretfully decided to move on to other projects and left The Hobbit in May 2010.
  • 48 – Frames per second.  Feature films have been shot and projected in 24fps since the 1920s.  Jackson is a big proponent of doubling the frame rate to 48fps, citing “hugely enhanced clarity and smoothness.”
  • 1000 – Weight in pounds of the IMAX print of The Hobbit.  The print is 6 feet wide.
  • 13 – Dwarves: Thorin, Dori, Nori, Ori, Balin, Dwalin, Fili, Kili, Oin, Gloin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur.
  • 60 – Years between the events of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.  Because Tolkien characters of different race and magical fortitude have longer lifespans, there is some overlap in the characters that can be played by the same actor from the Lord of the Rings, like Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Saruman (Christopher Lee), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and Gollum (Andy Serkis).  With some creative screenwriting that incorporates other Tolkien works about Middle-earth, the writers found ways to bring back Frodo (Elijah Wood), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) , and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) as well.
  • 7 – Words uttered by Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie in his one line in An Unexpected Journey: “My Lord Elrond, the dwarfs, they’re gone.”  [Edit: Looks like I missed McKenzie’s first two lines.  I am disappointed in myself.]

the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journey-posterThe Lord of the Rings trilogy stands as one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all time: artistically, technologically, and commercially.  Especially since Peter Jackson returned to direct The Hobbit (albeit somewhat reluctantly after Guillermo Del Toro left the project), we cannot help but compare The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings.  Under that comparison The Hobbit will undoubtedly come up short.  But make no mistake, An Unexpected Journey is a good film on its own merits.

Tolkien’s story is episodic quest, which gives the film the opportunity to jump from set piece to set piece as Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and a company of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) encounter a number of different creatures on the way to reclaim the Lonely Mountain for the dwarven kingdom.  The creature design, however digital, is stellar with virtually every new species.  I mean it as a compliment when I say the trolls and goblins in particular are so grotesque that I found them difficult to look at.  Gollum is rendered better than ever, as the technology has clearly advanced in the decade since he first appeared on screen.  My favorite, though, is the stone giants that enormous boulders around for sport—I hope to see a Transformers-style spinoff in the near future.  (I was dying to get a clear look at the dragon Smaug, but we just see a couple teasing glimpses.)

There is an inherent appeal to the variety in the Fellowship of the Ring: a few hobbits, a couple men, an elf, a dwarf, a wizard—something for everyone.  Bilbo (a generally surly hobbit) and thirteen dwarves aren’t quite so inviting.  I eventually separated the dwarves into two categories: Thorin and the other twelve.  However, Thorin is the ideal third lead thanks to a well-developed backstory and a captivating performance by Armitage.  The intense passion of Thorin and the balanced amiability of the other dwarves lead the viewer to invest and their cause and buy that Bilbo does too.  This is a crucial accomplishment, since the filmmakers decided to stretch this story out over three films.

I do not believe An Unexpected Journey has sufficient reason to approach three hours when the current cut stalls too often between set pieces.  And while I will try to hold out judgment until I see the finished product, I think the story of The Hobbit fits best into one long movie, or maybe two per the original plan.  But if the story ever leaves me behind, there is always value in spending so many hours in Jackson’s exquisitely designed Middle-earth, so I look forward to the next chapters.


Note: If you are curious about my take on 48fps, I will post a long feature on the frame rate debate soon.  The quick take: I am a believer.

Unless otherwise linked, all information comes from Wikipedia or IMDB.

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