The Beatles' Attempted Lord Of The Rings Adaptation: What It Was And Why It Never Happened

The Beatles in The Beatles: Get Back
(Image credit: Disney+)

More than 20 years ago, Peter Jackson pulled off the impossible when he gave the world a live-action adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, a massive fantasy trilogy that would go on to win scores of awards and remain one of the biggest cinematic experiences of all time. Decades before Jackson took audiences on an unexpected journey with a group of hobbits, humans, elves, dwarves, and wizards to destroy the “One Ring,” a group of musicians tried, and failed, to make their movie dreams come true. That band? Oh, just The Beatles. 

Years earlier, before Jackson added the trilogy to his list of accomplishments, the  “Fab Four” – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr – were dead set on turning Tolkien’s work into a movie of their own. So, what happened? Let’s tell the tale…

The Beatles rooftop concert in 1969

(Image credit: Disney+)

In The Late 1960s, The Beatles Were Looking For A Way To Fulfill A Three-Movie Contract

In the years following their unprecedented success on the global scene, The Beatles did what any successful pop culture entity would do in their position: they, or at least their record label and management, did everything they could to expose The Beatles to as many people as possible. This included a three-film deal with United Artists, according to US News, which would eventually lead to 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night, and Help! the following year.

Following the success of the first two movies, The Beatles were looking for a way to fulfill the three-film project. Though the group would eventually sign off on the 1968 animated musical comedy, Yellow Submarine (based on the 1966 track of the same name), the legendary rock outfit initially set their sights on a project that wouldn’t have taken them to the bottom of the ocean but instead to the heart of Mordor.

The Fellowship in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

(Image credit: New Line Cinema)

The Beatles Were Given Copies Of The Lord Of The Rings Book For Their Famous India Trip

In early 1968, just months after announcing they would no longer be a touring band, The Beatles traveled to Rishikesh in northern India to study Transcendental Meditation under the supervision of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a trip that would become consequential in not only the final years of the band, but also the personal lives of its members for years to come.

When speaking with the BBC ahead of the release of his 2021 three-part Disney+ documentary, The Beatles: Get Back, Jackson talked about the group’s attempt to adapt The Lord of the Rings into a movie and what went wrong. During the conversation, Jackson recalled asking McCartney about the whole situation, revealing that Apple film producer Denis O’Dell sent a copy of the books to the band during their retreat with the idea of turning the trilogy into their next movie project. After reading the books, the members reportedly grew excited about the idea of turning the work into a movie, but this was just the beginning of the story.

Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

(Image credit: New Line Cinema)

Paul McCartney Reportedly Wanted To Play Frodo Baggins While John Lennon Wanted To Play Gollum

One would assume that The Beatles would have wanted to play the four Hobbits at the center of The Lord of the Rings, but that would only be half correct. In March 2002, hot off the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Jackson told Wellington’s Evening Post newspaper (via CNN), that while McCartney and Starr reportedly set their sights on playing Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, respectively, the other two members would have taken much different roles: Lennon would have reportedly played Gollum and Harrison would have taken on the role of Gandalf. 

Nearly 20 years later, when appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Jackson, who was promoting The Beatles: Get Back at the time, was asked to come up with his ideal casting, saying he would stick to the group’s original plan:

Paul is obviously Frodo. And Sam is obviously Ringo, isn’t it. … Look, they cast themselves and they did it right. Take Gandalf, George, the mystic magician, it’s perfect – you’d have to age him up a bit. And I guess if you had to have Gollum, and you had the four Beatles, John Lennon is the obvious one. Absolutely. Slam Dunk.

Though the band reportedly had their sights on who each of them would be playing in their Lord of the Rings movie, they would also need to bring on a director capable of turning a trilogy that was in the ballpark of 1,200 words into a single movie. Nevertheless, Lennon had the perfect candidate, or so he thought.

Keir Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey

(Image credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

John Lennon Approached Stanley Kubrick To Direct The Adaptation, But He Wasn’t Interested

At some point after The Beatles decided they wanted to make LOTR into a movie, the band reportedly approached Stanley Kubrick to see if he had any interest in directing the sprawling epic. In a 2018 interview with Metro, Kubrick’s former right-hand man, Leon Vitali, was asked about the long-standing rumor and if there was any truth to the matter:

That was true. That was true. They came to Stanley’s office to talk about it. I don’t think it was quite in Stanley Kubrick’s ballpark, that idea. Yes, it was something that they came up with. But it didn’t get very, very far at all. It was just an exchange of information and people were interested in doing it. But Stanley wasn’t. Let’s put it that way.

When asked who it was that was leading the campaign, Vitali responded:

The person behind that was Lennon. John Lennon. He was crazy about that story and he was nuts about 200[: A Space Odyssey]. He said that he’d watch 2001 sometimes once a week. He was so fascinated by it. I can see why he would have connected the dots.

Judging by Vitali’s comments regarding Lennon’s obsession with 2001: A Space Odyssey, this would put the talk sometime in the summer of 1968, since the all-time great sci-fi movie had a U.K. release in May of that year. And who knows, maybe it’s for the best, as Kubrick’s next picture was A Clockwork Orange, one of the late filmmaker’s best movies.

Bilbo and Frodo in The Lord of the Rings.

(Image credit: New Line Cinema)

Why J.R.R Tolkien Rejected The Pitch, According To Peter Jackson

Not having a director to helm the project wasn’t The Beatles’ biggest concern. In fact, the whole thing fell apart when the books’ author, J.R.R. Tolkien, who still had the film rights at the time, rejected the pitch. In the 2021 BBC interview mentioned earlier, Jackson explained the situation and what led to it falling apart:

Ultimately, they couldn't get the rights from Tolkien, because he didn't like the idea of a pop group doing his story. So it got nixed by him. They tried to do it. There's no doubt about it. For a moment in time they were seriously contemplating doing that at the beginning of 1968.

The Lord of the Rings would eventually be adapted, first as Ralph Bakshi’s nightmarish 1978 animated film, and then, more famously by Jackson himself, as a trilogy starting in 2001. He would also go on to make The Hobbit into another successful trilogy. All of these adaptations, however, were produced after Tolkien passed away in 1973.

Though we will most likely never get to see what The Beatles had in store for the landmark fantasy trilogy, there are more Lord of the Rings movies in the works. While we shouldn’t expect to see the new adventure on the 2023 movie schedule, we do have The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power Season 2 coming sooner or later. 

Philip Sledge
Content Producer

Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop yelling at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.