The Lord of the Rings trilogy turns 20, and we have so much to say

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring debuted around the world on Dec. 19, 2001. And over the last 20 years, the trilogy, adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien’s sprawling work by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, has held the attention of our collective cultural consciousness. With so much that could have gone wrong, so much about the films went right, making them perfect subject for a year-long deep dive. There’s no one way to talk about The Lord of the Rings movies, and in celebrating The Fellowship of the Ring’s anniversary, the Polygon staff dared not try. Instead, we set out to tell a story a week, sizing up the fantasy triptych from every angle.

Spearheaded by Polygon’s resident Tolkien expert Susana Polo, “Year of the Ring” is a collection of stories meant to enhance the viewing experience — even more so than the Extended Edition special features. There are behind-the-scene stories, critical reconsiderations, and answers to questions that have continued to burn like Sauron’s eye for the last two decades. Below, find the near-complete journey (and watch out for two more stories at the end of December).

Lord of the Rings: Sam looks up at Mt. Doom, carrying Frodo on his back Image: New Line Cinema

It is a quirk of history that we didn’t lose J.R.R. Tolkien to a global flu pandemic. In the plague year of 1918, the author was 26, with a recurring illness keeping him in and out of the exact place the virus was at its hottest: army hospitals. He was an orphan married to another orphan, father to an infant son born in, as he would write in 1941, “the starvation-year of 1917 […] when the end of the war seemed as far off as it does now.”

Tolkien didn’t catch influenza. He lived to see the Great Depression and a second devastating global war before he put the final touches on The Lord of the Rings, a sword and sorcery epic where hard-fought victories turn on the smallest choices. The story’s thousands of pages endured in the minds of readers for half a century before Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Fran Walsh’s painstakingly adapted smash-hit film trilogy brought it to moviegoers.

Bilbo Baggins at his party in Hobbiton Image: New Line Cinema

The popular subreddit “Am I the Asshole?” is, as mods put it, “a catharsis for the frustrated moral philosopher in all of us, and a place to finally find out if you were wrong in an argument that’s been bothering you.” Unfortunately, the community strictly bans any posts involving walking out on loved ones. So, without a better place to post it, Polygon has allowed one anonymous user to publish their AITA here on the site. Judge accordingly.

Stan Lee as Tom Bombadil in Lord of the Rings Image: Matt Patches/Polygon | Source images: Warner Bros. Pictures, Marvel Studios

There are two kinds of Lord of the Rings book fans. The ones who despise Tom Bombadil, hands down the weirdest character in The Lord of the Rings, and the ones who have memorized every word of his silly rhyming songs.

Then there are Lord of the Rings movie fans, who may know nothing of the character, as Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Fran Walsh couldn’t find room for him in their three-picture adaptation — even in the Extended Editions. Anyone who hasn’t read the books has likely encountered Bombadil Discourse, but may never fully understand how one character can inspire such strong emotions.

I have an answer for movie fans. An answer that might even turn some Bombadil skeptics into Bombadil boosters.

Frodo looks at Sam suspiciously in The Return of the King Image: New Line Cinema

It’s in this spirit that we take a microscope to one particular sequence I’ve obsessed over since I was an impressionable Hobbit-lad in 2003, bursting with anticipation in my theater seat as The Return of the King unfolded before me. The parting of Sam and Frodo, where the bond between our two lovable leads shatters due to irreconcilable differences (assisted by a third-wheeling Gollum), best represents the singular dichotomy at the heart of these cherished adaptations. Again and again, bold swings of blockbuster filmmaking crash against Jackson’s B-movie storytelling quirks.

Frodo and Gandalf talk about how many who live to see such times wish they had not in the Fellowship of the Ring. Image: New Line Cinema

Of all the tasks before Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens in bringing the epic trilogy to the screen, preserving that essence may have been the most challenging. But the adaptation worked because the trio didn’t stop at translating Tolkien’s concepts; they also took his prose word for word. Even scenes that were cut for time made it into the final cut through dialogue. These little Easter eggs reward readers, but never leave behind those coming to the story fresh.

An orc from Lord of the Rings covered in hearts llustration: Petrana Radulovic/Polygon | Source images: New Line Cinema

Vicious foot-soldiers of the Dark Lord Sauron, the orcs’ description by author J.R.R. Tolkien as being “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes” hasn’t necessarily aged like a fine wine, leading many to question whether they were an inherently racist creation. (The current answer is more complex.) And while director Peter Jackson can’t necessarily escape that cringey context, he does his best to render these creatures (and their “thicc with two C’s” brethren the Uruk-hai) into gloriously old-fashioned movie monsters, as indebted to his earlier horror-comedy splatter films as they are to the Ray Harryhausen sword-and-sandal flicks and George Miller’s feral Mad Max villains.

Director Peter Jackson on location filming The Lord of the Rings movies Photo: Alamy

Hollywood careers are like icebergs, and the movies you actually see are just the tip breaking through the surface.

One of the great painful truths of working inside the system is that filmmakers can build entire careers out of developing material and selling work without having anything to show the ticket-buying public. It’s why so many films get announced then never happen. For directors, it’s a numbers game. Staying afloat means developing 10 things and praying to god at least one of them actually gets made.

Even films that eventually get made can go through several incarnations before that happens. In the case of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it’s amazing how many moving parts there were in the process that eventually resulted in Peter Jackson’s three films — which were nearly a two-movie project. I may be one of the few people outside of Jackson’s production company, WingNut Films, to have ever read that version of the project, which would have compacted the action told in 558 minutes into two-thirds of that runtime. This story, of how Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and Return of the King came to be the films that we know, is the movie business in a nutshell.

Gandalf in close up in Bilbo’s house in the shire in Fellowship of the Ring Lord of the Rings Image: New Line Cinema

The lack of an origin story didn’t stop audiences from falling in love with Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, who studied Tolkien himself in perfecting his award-winning performance, fixing himself in the hearts of millions of fans. Gandalf, the wise, mercurial, mysterious, and occasionally terrifying wizard is arguably more the face of the Lord of the Rings franchise than Frodo, its hero, or Aragorn, its long-lost king.

The real power of McKellen’s performance is that you believe wholeheartedly in Gandalf. But his role in the movies is still full of ambiguity. Is he, like, human, or what? What happened when he died? What’s the difference between Grey and White? What can wizards do, anyway? And who appointed Saruman president of wizards?

A map of Middle-earth from The Lord of the Rings books. Image: HarperCollins

If you run a deliciously pedantic Lord of the Rings-themed Twitter account that tweets the events of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy saga on the calendar dates on which they occurred — like I do — you will realize that an enormous chunk of the story takes place in the month of March. The Battle of Helm’s Deep? Began around midnight on March 3. That’s canon.

The beginning of the year is an exciting time for Rings fans. You see, on Feb. 26, the Fellowship splits. On March 25, Gollum falls into the magma of Mount Doom, and the One Ring is destroyed. It’s a very busy month, and running a pedantic Lord of the Rings-themed Twitter account through the March-to-March cycle has been a part of my life for enough years now that it’s familiar, even anticipatory.

Boromir, skewered with huge arrows, in The Fellowship of the Ring Image: New Line Cinema

I’ve got a lot of opinions about media that other fans of it might find controversial. I love Rogue One and The Last Jedi. I can’t stand Damian Wayne. I think The Silmarillion is more readable than The Hobbit.

But if there’s one controversial opinion the most likely to elicit a shocked gasp and an immediate accusation of being no real fan at all, it’s this one: I prefer the theatrical versions of The Lord of the Rings to the Extended Editions in the deluxe boxed set.

Arwen and Aragorn kiss on a bridge in Rivendell in The Fellowship of the Ring. She is wearing a white dress with a flowing train. Image: New Line Cinema

Growing up, I wanted no part of my dad’s love of fantasy books. He was always trying to get the family to watch the Rankin/Bass version of The Hobbit, which frightened me more than it interested me. I never understood what he loved about wizards, or J.R.R Tolkien. It wasn’t until after he died that I discovered my own love of fantasy through The Lord of the Rings movies and online fandom.

I was one of many, many fans of the Lord of the Rings movies who found a home in spaces built by fans of the Lord of the Rings books, that made it easy for a new generation to understand Tolkien. In an era when the internet, and internet fandom, looked very different than it does now, a worldwide community stepped up to help newcomers bring the Lord of the Rings into their everyday lives — and for me, into a painstaking recreation of Arwen’s dress.

Merry, played by Dominic Monaghan, smiling as he’s about to get into some mischief. Photo: New Line Cinema

Have you ever heard Elijah Wood laugh? Like, really laugh? Straight-up bust a gut in shock and delight? It’s great. He doesn’t really do it much in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but you can still see him do it on the Lord of the Rings DVDs if you dig carefully through the scene selection menus on The Return of the King to find one of two hidden Easter Eggs there. That’s how you’ll find one of the best jokes in the entire film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

Frodo smiles like a goof while looking up at Gandalf who is steering the cart and smoking weed in The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings Image: New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures

The half-capacity audience couldn’t stop applauding during a recent screening of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in Austin, Texas. The lights went down in the theater. Applause. The title card appeared. Applause. Sam took the farthest step he’s ever been from home. Some giggles and a couple of knowing claps from the crowd’s more online members.

Should I really be surprised that, in 2021, folks are ecstatic to be watching movies together again? Of course not. Movie theaters are therapeutic. For a couple of hours, we can sit in a dark and air-conditioned room, have a beer or a decaf coffee, and share a communal experience without having to actually do the anxiety-inducing labor of chatting with strangers.

John Noble as Denethor, Steward of Gondor in The Return of the King. Image: New Line Cinema

As Sauron’s vast orc army faces off against a shaky coalition of human nations in the most consequential battle of the entire Lord of the Rings film trilogy, Lord Denethor II burrows himself deep within the burial grounds of the mountainside city of Minas Tirith. Portrayed chillingly by Fringe actor John Noble, the ruler of the declining and king-less nation of Gondor abdicates his role mid-conflict and prepares both he and his definitely-not-dead son for self immolation.

“Better to burn sooner than late, for burn we must,” he mutters. In the book, his dialogue expands the vision behind this rhetoric: “Soon all shall be burned. The West has failed. It shall all go up in a great fire, and all shall be ended.” In the film and in the book, he encourages Pippin to piss off and die in whatever way seems best to him.

Graphic featuring seven different Frodo action figures from the Lord of the Rings movies Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

From the day he leaves the Shire to the moment the Ring is cast into Mount Doom, Frodo Baggins does not change his outfit in the Lord of the Rings movies. And yet, between 2001 and 2005, Toy Biz managed to produce 13 clearly distinct and movie accurate Frodo figurines. 13 different Frodo action figures is a lot of Frodos. Arguably, too many Frodos to have in one toy line based on one movie trilogy.

But that was very much the point. Those 13 Frodos redefined the action figure just in time for a new crop of toyetic blockbusters to dominate the minds of collectors and kids alike. That’s right: Lord of the Rings toys even taught Star Wars a thing or two about action figures.

When we talk about the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Academy Awards, The Return of the King’s triumphant Oscar tally and Best Picture win from 2003 dominates that conversation. The Peter Jackson film is the ceremony’s biggest clean sweep, winning in all 11 of its nominated categories, tying Titanic and Ben-Hur for most wins in the ceremony’s history. But by that point, the series had become something of an award inevitability. The real groundwork was laid when The Fellowship of the Ring netted a historic 13 nominations and broke through the Oscars’ genre-film ceiling.

The different stages of Legolas as he climbs on to a horse in the most difficult and frantic way possible Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon | Source images: New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures

In the warg attack sequence of The Two Towers, Legolas has gone ahead to observe the oncoming foe, and as the Rohirrim catch up to him he senses Gimli approaching on horseback. Legolas turns, grabs his galloping steed by the breast collar, and then he swings in front of the horse, rotates in the air, and lands in the saddle in front of Gimli.

It’s a spectacular stunt, showcasing the elf’s agility and strength. And it’s a magnificent feat of visual effects work from Weta Digital. But why on Middle-earth was it necessary to have him get on a horse that way? And is there any chance that it’s a physically possible thing to do, by man or elf?

Surely, a scientist and the folks at Weta Digital had answers.

Sketch of Viggo Mortensen from Lord of the Rings: Return of the Kings end credits Image: New Line Cinema

On paper, at least, the idea is a sound one. There is a long history for comic book adaptations of classic genre literature, stretching all the way back to 1941’s Classics Illustrated — a series which added pictures and speech balloons to the likes of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and The War of the Worlds for decades. And though the trend for transforming words into words-and-pictures has waxed and waned throughout the years, the literary adaptation remains a potent idea for comics success, demonstrated by last year’s critically acclaimed Slaughterhouse Five from Boom! Studios.

It’s not just the Kurt Vonnegut classic that’s been pulled into comics lately; titles like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series — better known to most as Game of Thrones — and Frank Herbert’s Dune have received multi-volume adaptations from mainstream book publishers in recent years, providing publishers with what would appear to be evidence that such an adaptation was possible, and likely had an in-built market, especially if the property had a movie or television show behind it.

Three giant eagles arrive in Mordor to carry Frodo and Sam to safety in The Return of the King. Image: New Line Cinema

Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy contains one of the great mysteries of our modern age. It’s a question that has been asked among friends, on Reddit, on Quora, on Stack Exchange, and on the dearly departed Yahoo Answers. It’s been memed, video-essayed, and even immortalized in stop motion Lego. It will never die.

That is, if Gandalf can ask a moth to bring him a giant eagle to rescue him from Saruman in The Fellowship of the Ring or pick Sam and Frodo up from the lava fields of Mount Doom in The Return of the King, why couldn’t he summon some giant eagles to carry the One Ring to Mordor itself, shortening the Ring Quest by months?

This question haunts me. Nay, it tortures me. So I’m going to answer it, and prove once and for all that it doesn’t fucking matter why they didn’t just ride eagles to Mordor.

Galadriel transforms as she is tempted by the ring in The Fellowship of the Ring. Image: New Line Cinema

The Fellowship of the Ring scene in which Galadriel is tempted by the Ring radiates a transgressive, intoxicating camp aesthetic in an immediate way. Cate Blanchett, whose ethereal beauty transcends mere humans, rises up into the air, her figure transformed by the light bending around her, her cheeks turned sallow and masculine, complicating her gender presentation. Her voice becomes deeper and modulated, roaring, “In place of a Dark Lord, you would have a queen, not dark but beautiful and terrible as the dawn!”

It is terrifying to see this avatar of kindness and power mutate and shriek, “All shall love me and despair!” It is also kind of funny — and very campy.

pippin gives merry the stink eye in Lord of the Rings Image: New Line Cinema

How do you share your love of all things Lord of the Rings? You could gently entice your friends and loved ones to watch the films with you, or read aloud the books. You could schedule cozy marathons with friends who are already hooked on the story of Frodo Baggins and the One Ring.

But even then … how will you ever know that they’re enjoying the movies on the same level that you are? Will they know how much Sean Bean hated helicopters? Will they know how long it took to film the scene where all the hobbits say goodbye? I ask you, will they know that Viggo Mortensen really broke his real toe kicking that helmet for real?

Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King Premiere At The Odeon Cinema L In Leicester Square, London, Fans Photo by Dave Benett/Getty Images

In December of 2002, I knew one thing: The things I liked were not cool, and almost nobody wanted to hear about them. Star Trek, not cool. Batman, for babies. Which is why it was so personally terrifying when a girl — a, like, normal girl with deliberately chosen clothes, hair, and makeup — stuck her head around the changing room lockers after gym and yelled in my direction “HEY! That new Lord of the Rings movie coming out this week?”

I must stress that she and I had never spoken before — my high school had a couple thousand students in it — and we never spoke again. She had simply looked at me and thought: “That girl knows the release date of The Two Towers off the top of her head.” I stammered an affirmative response and she disappeared around the lockers, leaving me alone and half-clothed, in the wreckage of an instant, precise, and devastating read on my entire deal as a person.

A collection of images of Gimli the Dwarf’s stunt double in The Lord of the Rings movies Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon | Source images courtesy of Brett Beattie

Peter Jackson and the creative team behind the Lord of the Rings trilogy assembled a Fellowship on screen and on set. The experience of nearly two years of filming was so deeply felt by the ensemble that, after completing filming, the actors of the Fellowship got matching tattoos to cement the bonds they’d forged together in New Zealand. Only one member of the core cast doesn’t bear the elvish “nine” on their person: John Rhys-Davies.

Since bringing Gimli the dwarf to life, Rhys-Davies has joked that he doesn’t have the tattoo because “whenever there’s anything dangerous or that involves blood, I sent my stunt double to do it.” But the true story is much more complicated and impressive. Another actor spent a great deal of time playing Gimli alongside the other actors of the Fellowship, albeit without much credit. Stunt double and size double Brett Beattie has never spoken to the media about his time playing Gimli in the Lord of the Rings films until now, but in his own humble way, he’s ready to share the full extent of how much he put into the role, recall some old battle wounds, and reveal why he was chosen to become a member of the tattoo fellowship.

It would have been easy, following the lead of other early 2000s blockbusters, for the Lord of the Rings trilogy to have catered to the times, and taken a turn for the self-aware, self-embarrassed, and glancingly-to-overtly homophobic. But with the quiet power of Boromir’s death scene, Jackson and company gave the hardened mainstream audience of 2001 a different idea of what masculinity could look like — an older idea. Drawing on a potent mix of Arthurian legend, Tolkien biography, and the onscreen mannerisms of the Golden Age of Hollywood, the filmmakers crafted one of the most heart-wrenching moments in the Lord of the Rings series. More than that, they delivered an expression of profound masculine vulnerability and, well, fellowship, that had become all but extinct in the surrounding big-budget landscape.

Sam puts his hand on Frodo’s shoulder as he works as his writing desk. Frodo’s own hand is laid over Sam’s. Image: Molly Ostertag

I listened to The Lord of the Rings before I knew how to read. It’s written on my creative DNA as the first book I really loved. But for a long time I avoided it, for the same reason that I learned not to talk about the movies at school: The accusations of queerness somehow tied into a story about elves, hobbits, and looming evil.

The essayist Italo Calvino defined a classic as “a book that has never finished what it has to say,” and The Lord of the Rings is certainly a classic. Revisiting the book in the last year, as someone who has been out for many years and who is deeply engaged in making and consuming queer stories, I was amazed to find a same-sex love story at the heart of the narrative.

Legolas finishes his slide down the mumakil’s trunk and looks confused. Image: New Line Cinema

It’s easy to find screenshots of Orlando Bloom making strange facial expressions in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In fact, it’s practically a meme. And even if you strip out all the examples that are fleeting mid-movement expressions, or that are actually from Orlando Bloom goofing around on set in behind-the-scenes footage, you still wind up with a lot of very strange expressions from our blonde elf friend.

Then there are the line-reads. Sentences like “A red sun rises. Blood has been spilled this night,” delivered with intensity and a straight face. The Legolas of Peter Jackson’s trilogy gives off vibes of That One Weird Kid, someone who seems perpetually surprised by whatever is going on around him — but also with a layer of curiosity, perhaps even amusement. He projects a sense that he’s aloof from whatever is going on, and also that he has absolutely no idea what is going on.

Boromir curls his hand into a circle as he speaks during the Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring. Image: New Line Cinema

When the first film was released in 2001, memes were just beginning to find their footing online. They had been around for years — one of the first modern memes, a dancing CGI baby, became popular in 1996 — but the landscape was rapidly evolving. At the same time, fandoms were thriving on websites and forums meant to connect members around the world.

Lord of the Rings memes arrived in the digital space at a moment where dedicated fanbases were purposely trying to share as much content with as many people as possible. The fun of making memes attracted people who hadn’t seen the movies, who watched the movies so they could make better memes, which attracted more people and … the rest is history, a symbiotic relationship that has kept the Peter Jackson trilogy front and center in online consciousness for two decades.

Comic grid featuring four images from Comic-Con 2001 Grid Design: Austin MacDonald for Polygon | Source images: The One Ring.net

In 2001, the leviathan (and legendary) Hall H was yet only an architect’s fever dream, so it was the task of the newly minted Ballroom 20 adjacent to the Exhibit Hall to house the big-ticket studio presentations. These huge blowouts in a ballroom were the newest craze. New Line Cinema was ready to unspool that Mines of Moria escape footage it had just screened at the Cannes Film Festival (earning pivotal early buzz in the world press and delight from the studio’s foreign market investors).

Ringers were salivating. I was fit to explode with eagerness. The Fellowship of the Ring was five months from wide release, and the most anticipated meal ever was about to be served in that Ballroom. Assuredly we were all ignoring Gandalf’s famous advice that “those who have laboured to prepare the feast like to keep their secret; for wonder makes the words of praise louder.” It was too late for that.

Aragorn bursts through the doors in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Image: New Line Cinema

Aragorn occupies a unique position in the canon of formative crushes in blockbuster cinema in that he’s absolutely a sex symbol, while the actor who portrays him is absolutely not. This is not a judgment of Viggo Mortensen’s attractiveness (for the record: hot), but an observation in how his career trended before and after he played Aragorn. In years prior, Mortensen was a regular supporting player with a career stretching back to the mid-’80s, and few breakout roles. After Lord of the Rings, Mortensen eschewed blockbusters almost entirely. With the exception of Hidalgo, the actor almost unilaterally preferred arthouse films like A History of Violence or Eastern Promises, and starred in fewer and fewer movies going into the 2010s.

Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring. Image: New Line Cinema

The elves become a fascinating embodiment of this less-is-more approach to exposition. Elves can die — Jackson and Co. give outsize weight to elven deaths during the battle of Helm’s Deep, making sure Aragorn has a good chunk of a moment to honor Haldir’s sacrifice. Elves are strange — they are oddly detached, even campy in their relations to men, dwarves, and hobbits. Elves remember — the great elf-lord Elrond seems to hold a grudge against Aragorn for a weakness he witnessed in his distant ancestor, and puts up a mighty resistance to Aragorn marrying his daughter.

Jackson’s elves are alien in ways that are difficult to articulate, but utterly compelling nonetheless. They seem indifferent and helpful, wise and overly judgmental. And for those who want to know more (and there is so much more), the context for these contrasts — the lore that informed the dialogue, acting, even cinematography of the elves of the Lord of the Rings — is all found in Tolkien’s books, often beyond the main trilogy.

See, elves can die, and when they do, they get to go to heaven. They can also come back any time they want to. But the real key to understanding elven immortality is understanding that elven heaven is a place.

Photo montage of Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings movie with hand drawn hearts and stickers Illustration: Petrana Radulovic/Polygon

Though the three books in the Lord of the Rings trilogy have some fancy horses, and even a very prominent horse-loving girl, it never quite puts the pieces of a Horse Girl Story together — because Horse Girl stories aren’t just about horses and a girls.

They are a romantic fantasy genre of their own, about unbreakable, tantamount-to-psychic bonds between a wild or unruly or simply misunderstood animal and the one special person who takes the time to earn its trust.

Unfortunately, J.R.R. Tolkien was no Horse Girl. Fortunately, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Viggo Mortensen, Jane Abbot, and a small legion of local New Zealand equestrians changed all of that forever.

Gandalf emerges as the White in Two Towers

First and last impressions are important. Likewise, in movies, the first and last installments of franchises are the ones that often receive the most amount of fanfare and remembrance. This was no different for the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, where the anticipation of The Fellowship of the Ring and the “last hurrah” of The Return of the King were both carried on as two of the strong points of the trilogy. The Two Towers, on the other hand, was met with the industry recognition of “Oh yeah, that one was pretty good too.” Not good enough to garner Peter Jackson a Best Director nomination at the Oscars, like Fellowship and King, nor good enough to receive double-digit nominations like those two. But good enough to be a sturdy bridge between the trilogy’s impeccable bookends.

There may never be a consensus on whether The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is the best of its trilogy. But there’s one thing everyone should acknowledge: The Two Towers is a prime example of how a “bridge film” can exceed its functional purpose — and become a standalone masterpiece.

Actress Cate Blanchett as Galadriel from The Lord of the Rings movie looks on wistfully at music from Howard Shores soundtrack Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

Just before a choir sings “Footsteps of Doom” in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional language of Sindarin, and Cate Blanchett launches into her narration, viewers hear an ominous drone. The dissonant rumble comes from a monochord, played by the late multi-instrumentalist and composer Sonia Slany. In the first measure of Howard Shore’s score, this obscure instrument sets the emotional tone for the trilogy, and the literal tone for the nearly 11 hours of music that follow.

For thousands of years, the monochord has been used for tuning, science, and healing. And like the One Ring, it represents bygone knowledge from our distant past that’s almost, but not quite, lost. The age and history of the instrument make it a fit to open Peter Jackson’s Fellowship, but the first scene nearly looked — and sounded — very different.

Orc waiter presenting a steak dinner Photo illustration: Matt Patches/Polygon

The promise of fantasy fiction like The Lord of the Rings is that the reader will be shown another world. A world with strange creatures (most of the time), magic (usually), and heroes — a palate cleanser, if not simply an escape, from everyday life.

But with one line, the movie trilogy raises a question that can easily jolt someone back to real life: Does anybody in The Lord of the Rings have a job?

Gandalf crowns Aragorn in Return of the King Image: New Line Cinema

The Lord of the Rings made a believer out of me because it was the first story that taught me the power of story to give shape and meaning to our lives. And I saw it do the same for my conservative Christian classmates.

These are the kids who blasted Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” from their Walkman headsets and told me I was going to Hell because I obsessively reread Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Yet their staunch Republican parents took us all to see The Two Towers when it came out, no questions asked. Why did the magic of Middle-earth get a pass from Christians who believed that “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live?” (Exodus 22:18)

One of the reasons I love The Lord of the Rings is its aura of tragic, heroic finality; one that felt comforting and familiar to American conservatives who mourned the loss of a world they once knew. The difference is, conservatives and I are grieving for very different worlds.

Photo of a bedroom wall featuring images and press clippings of Legolas from The Lord of the Rings movie. Photo: Kendra James

In late 2002, right after Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was released, a message board of Orlando Bloom fans compiled a care package to send to Orlando Bloom himself. Assuming that everything that was supposed to make it inside did indeed make it in (and there were questions — and ensuing drama on the board — as to whether that happened), the package contained an assortment of trinkets, tokens, and gifts that the board members had surmised he might appreciate, based on various interviews and teen magazine profiles.

The box was sent to his representation in London, with no guarantee it would ever actually reach him, no expectation of a response, no specific hopes attached to its mailing or its recipient. Later, some participants would claim to take issue with one piece of the box’s contents, finding it a bit gauche to include a card with the message board’s URL, “just in case he wants to visit.” Why would he want to? And, more importantly, why would they want him there?

Balrog attacks Gandalf in the mines of Moria in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings Image: New Line Cinema

Like so many epic films before it, the Lord of the Rings trilogy demanded a level of tonal sincerity and commitment that borders on the superhuman. From the cinematography by Andrew Lesnie to the stirring score from Howard Shore and the indelible performances by Ian McKellan, Liv Tyler, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, and Elijah Wood, every single element of these movies had to make you feel deeply. It’s less a movie and more a miracle.

Great epic filmmaking has graced cinema screens since the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in 2003 — Avatar, The Dark Knight, Avengers: Endgame — but none of them can quite match the emotional honesty and old school “aw, shucks” vibe that Peter Jackson instilled in the DNA of his greatest triumph. The definition of epic is more than just the size of a CG thing blowing up.

The Eye of Sauron sits in front of Mt. Doom in Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Image: New Line Cinema

There is a mystery at the heart of the second installment of The Lord of the Rings, from Peter Jackson’s 2002 adaptation all the way back to Tolkien’s 1954 original. The Two Towers has plagued many a reader who missed the one line of the books that gives the answer, and many a movie watcher who has thought to themselves: “Wait… is there even a second tower in this movie?”

The mystery, of course, is: Which towers are the two towers?

It’s a valid question, one that even J.R.R. Tolkien waffled on for the majority of the time he was writing The Fellowship of the Ring. And it came back to plague Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Fran Walsh when it came time for them to convert The Lord of the Rings into three movies.

The One Ring, with its elven script revealed in The Fellowship of the Ring. Image: New Line Cinema

Practical. Strong. Ageless. Unadorned, until heated to reveal the Tengwar script of the Black Speech of Mordor. Able to morph to fit its wearer without losing integrity of shape.

These are Peter Jackson’s “Rules of the One Ring,” recalled by Dan Hennah, supervising art director on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, from his home in Nelson, New Zealand. “It was a reasonably simple brief, but it was very specific.”

Hennah knew exactly who had the skill and aesthetic to forge the most famous piece of jewelry in Western literature: Danish-born artist Jens Høyer Hansen. A physical giant of a man with a larger-than-life personality, Hansen already had a reputation as one of the most influential contemporary artists in New Zealand. Trained as a jeweler but a smith and sculptor at heart, Hansen had been making bold, clean statement pieces since the 1960s.

The Eye of Sauron at the tp of Barad-dûr in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Image: New Line Cinema

If Sauron is more than the evil eye to end all evil eyes depicted in Jackson’s movies, just what the heck is he? Did Tolkien ever describe Sauron’s appearance in the books? And where does the Great Eye come into it? Like a lot of Middle-earth lore, it’s complicated.

Tolkien makes it clear that when Isildur cut the Ring from the Dark Lord’s hand, only his physical body died. His spirit lived on, and (according to Middle-earth’s meticulously detailed timeline) he spent the next thousand years or so recovering until he was able to manifest a new form. From here on out, Sauron is literally a shadow of his former self, but crucially, he’s also decidedly humanoid.

Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin stand at an intersection as Hobbit-heroes. In comparison to the rest of the Fellowship, they’re strange, but in comparison to other Hobbits, they are noble. The audience takes both perspectives, learning through the text and themes that heroism comes from the smallest of places, but they’re eased into an opposite belief at the same time: These Hobbits could only be heroes because of how they look.

The fact is that, for the majority of the time they’ve been on the page, hobbits have been unremarkable, looks-wise, and Tolkien delighted in it. “Their faces were as a rule good-natured rather than beautiful,” he wrote in the prologue of The Lord of the Rings. He even identified himself as “a Hobbit in all but size.” He had the same homebody mindset, enjoyment of life’s small comforts, and physical portliness that he attributed to Hobbits. On the other hand, I have not seen John Ronald Reuel’s feet, but something tells me they are not leathery and covered in thick, curly head-hair.

A white ghost Nazgul floats over Frodo in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Image: New Line Cinema

Unlike The Two Towers or The Return of the King, The Fellowship of the Ring is a horror movie. And that’s exactly why it’s great. Both fantasy and horror require you to believe in monsters for a few hours at a time — and scaring viewers can be the fastest way to make them believe in heroes.

Fellowship’s divergence in tone comes by virtue of its uniquely limited perspective, mostly focused on Frodo or the hobbits. While we may literally see events that Frodo does not, it’s through his eyes and naïveté that we’re watching it all unfold, instead of hopping around to the journeys of several different characters. The other movies occasionally get spooky when we’re back with Sam and Frodo, like when Shelob is hunting them, but Fellowship spends almost every moment in that creepy mode.

TikTok logo superimposed over a screencap of Pippin holding the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings movie Photo illustration: James Bareham/Polygon

Followed by The Two Towers and The Return of the King box sets, the Lord of the Rings trilogy’s catalog of extra content mirrored the films themselves; a massive effort by hundreds of creatives, finally getting the thorough documentation they deserved. The final tally marked a full 43 documentaries, nine image galleries, 12 commentary tracks, dozens of interactive maps, featurettes, original art, and anywhere from 30-50 minutes of additional footage added to each Extended Edition cut of the films.

That was 20 years ago, but the story of the making of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is still being told. On TikTok, sketches, memes, and viral audio clips reference content you would only find if you spent long hours pouring over every cast interview and armor schematic available on the Special Edition discs. Right down to “Do you wear wigs?” memes on your FYP. And as prolific creators of TolkienTok — that is, the Tolkien-loving TikTok community — tell Polygon, the audience’s relationship to the Extended Edition DVDs is changing the way the Tolkien fandom communicates.

Gandalf brandishes his sword and staff at the Balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring. Image: New Line Cinema

There are countless iconic lines from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but “You shall not pass” sits at the apex of the mountain (of Doom). Ian McKellen’s line reading is oft quoted in doorways, by annoying siblings, or simply when holding a big stick. It’s been parodied innumerable times. More than any other, it is the Gandalf line.

Even McKellen has absorbed “You shall not pass” as is his public catchphrase, just as Leonard Nimoy and “Live long and prosper,” and Mark Hamill and “May the force be with you.” Which is fine. It’s fine.

The thing is: There is a better Gandalf line, one that has all the might of “You shall not pass” and more. It’s a display of the Grey Wizard’s uncanny power, it’s a moment for McKellen to flex his skills, and it’s a point of high tension for the audience. It’s Gandalf at his most puissant and most human. And deep inside of the line is the key to how Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Fran Walsh succeeded at adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

The Lady Arwen from The Lord of the Rings movies Image retouching: James Bareham/Polygon | Source image: New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures

The early aughts were filled with a lot of questionable makeup choices for preteens and teenagers alike, from bold blue eyelids to flavorful Lip Smackers and sparkly lip gloss. But 20 years ago, there was another very specific lipstick that had a chokehold on anyone who found themselves thrown into an obsession with Middle-earth.

In 2001, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring burst onto movie screens everywhere, and a cultural reset began. Liv Tyler’s Arwen wore the perfect shade of lipstick in Fellowship. It was eye-catching, yet understated, and shockingly from a brand synonymous with Macy’s department stores and the bottom of our mothers’ purses. The brand? Clinique. The shade? Black Honey.

Characters sit in Rivendell for the Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring. Image: New Line Cinema

A recent internal poll of Polygon employees found a split editorial edifice: The office was deeply divided on whether Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was best watched as a Thanksgiving movie marathon or a Christmas movie marathon.

The only answer was to dig deeper, weigh the arguments, and then decide in our hearts which late-year extravaganza was truly in the spirit of the Lord of the Rings. Is it the trilogy’s themes of fellowship and cooperation that speak to your turkey-loving heart? Or is it the elves, trees, and bearded old men that really captures your Christmas spirit? Or is there a third, galaxy brain answer that blows the previous two out of the water and infuriates everyone who reads it?

Gollum standing in the brush in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Image: New Line Cinema

Motion capture is the biggest technological advance in the field of screen acting since The Jazz Singer ushered in the era of synchronized sound in 1927, but it’s unclear where the field would be without the performance of Andy Serkis as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and its follow-up, The Return of the King. Jackson was not the first to use motion capture in a feature film, but he was the first to use it well, and Serkis’ work as Gollum is so persuasive that it would help birth a new kind of acting and filmmaking. Still, two decades in, it’s a bit difficult to describe, or understand, what it even means to talk about this new not-quite-live but not-quite-animated form of performance.

“Lord of the Rings” Cast Visits MTV’s “TRL” - December 14, 2001 Photo by KMazur/WireImage

The hype was already real by the time promotion for The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring ramped up. In April 2000, the internet-exclusive trailer for Fellowship was downloaded from Apple Trailers 1.7 million times in its first 24 hours, breaking a record set by Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace. (Compare that, though, to the present-day record: Spider-Man: No Way Home’s first trailer, released in August and viewed 355.5 million times in the first 24 hours.) But by May 2001, the time had come to reassemble the fellowship … for many, many, many step-and-repeat red carpet opportunities.

Photographic evidence of the high-stakes press gauntlet for Fellowship suggests that Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Sean Bean, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, and Liv Tyler (bringing some much-needed femininity to the red carpet bro-out) had a decent time flying around the world to preach the blockbuster word.

Sifting through photos of the contractually obligated Fellowship of the Ring press tour is both a trip down memory lane and a snapshot of a very particular moment in early-2000s pop culture and style. So let’s relive it. What follows are some highlights from the journey to the film’s release on Dec. 19, 2001. One does not simply walk into the annals of blockbuster history …

Photo: Kirsty McGuire

People in Aotearoa, the Māori name for what’s known to much of the world as New Zealand, have a complicated relationship with the Lord Of The Rings movie trilogy. For some, it’s something to be slightly embarrassed about, like a pop star dogged by a novelty record they put out a decade ago. For others, it’s to be fiercely defended — the New Zealand government recently spent millions of dollars in tax breaks to entice Amazon to film its Lord of the Rings series in New Zealand, only for production to move to the United Kingdom for season 2.

This polarized relationship is quite noticeable in Matamata. An hour’s drive from the nearest city, the rural town has a population of around 8,500 people, holds strong connections to the horse racing industry, and is surrounded by rolling hills and farmland. And in 1998, a film director named Peter Jackson used a 1,250-head sheep farm, owned by Ian Alexander, as the filming location for Hobbiton.

Come back this month for two final Year of the Ring pieces…