In 1963, when the Beatles agreed to make A Hard Day’s Night, the film, they signed a three-picture deal with United Artists. In 1964, they made A Hard Day’s Night. In 1965, Help! By and large, though, they didn’t like making films. Too much work. And so, when the idea was floated of an animated film as a way of possibly fulfilling the terms of their deal with UA, the band was quite receptive, especially when they didn’t have to do any work themselves — or even write any new songs.
That was not the only option the Beatles considered for the third film. Story pitches were taken. They considered a script for a western titled “A Talent for Loving.” They considered an art house-esque movie where the Beatles were four aspects of the same personality. John Lennon was briefly interested in The Three Musketeers (and Dick Lester, who directed A Hard Day’s Night and Help! would later go on to direct three Musketeers films). By early 1968, the Beatles had come around to an interesting idea, which Abby McGanney Nolan explained in Slate back in June:
It’s widely known that the road to filming Lord of the Rings — first published in 1954 — was nearly as long and torturous as Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom. Early on, [J.R.R.] Tolkien stated a preference for the “vulgarization” of an animated version over the “sillification” of a dramatization. According to Roy Carr’s The Beatles at the Movies, talks were once in the works for a Beatle-zation — with John Lennon wanting to play Gollum, Paul McCartney Frodo, George Harrison Gandalf, and Ringo Starr Sam. Collaborating with director John Boorman, screenwriter Rospo Pallenberg thought the Beatles should play the four hobbits (and agreed with McCartney that he would be the ideal Frodo). It’s difficult, but entertaining, to imagine the Fab Four subsuming their personas to Tolkien’s storytelling, but United Artists decided not to move ahead on the project, with the Beatles or without them.
This is an interesting summary. It is also rather wrong. Yes, in 1968 the Beatles did consider acquiring the rights to The Lord of the Rings. Boorman, however, was not attached to a Lord of the Rings film project until 1970, long after the Beatles had abandoned the idea of fulfilling their three-film contract with United Artists with an LOTR film. But Tolkien was more than a little appalled at the idea of the Beatles sullying his great work, and the Beatles themselves, casting about for something to do, glommed onto Transcendental Meditation.
But what if…
Early 1968. The Beatles have discovered Transcendental Meditation. As the band makes preparations to spend some time in India studying with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, they set their lawyers on the difficult task of acquiring the film rights to The Lord of the Rings from Tolkien.
Tolkien, in our history, refused to sell the Beatles the rights. But what if he needed money? What if a pink flashlight shined upon his forehead? What if he just really liked A Hard Day’s Night? Suffice it to say, in our hypothetical, Tolkien sells the Beatles the film rights to The Lord of the Rings.
The Beatles return from India. Their creative spark was reawakened among the Himalyas, and they begin work on what is to be the “White Album.” At the same time, they commission a screenwriter to condense down Tolkien’s thousand-page opus into an eighty-minute runaround with the casting as cited above:
- John — Gollum
- Paul — Frodo
- George — Gandalf
- Ringo — Samwise
Dick Lester passes on helming the film. Stanley Kubrick is busy. John Lennon, a Doctor Who fan, decides that Douglas Camfield is the right person to direct.
Paul likes the film; he gets to be the lead. John likes the film; he gets to play a loathsome bastard. Ringo likes the film; he’s easy going. George, however, is not as sold on the film, but he goes along with it.
Obviouly, given that the film is going to be an eighty-minute runaround, it’s going to be a very condensed version of the novel. Patrick McGoohan is cast as Aragorn. Victor Spinetti is an obvious casting choice. Perhaps the Beatles convince Christopher Lee to appear as Sauron.
Filming commences in August 1968. The “White Album,” as we know it, won’t exist; the recording sessions would have ended in July, not long after “Hey Jude” was recorded, and before “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was recorded.
The “White Album” has the following possible tracks:
- Cry Baby Cry
- Don’t Pass Me By
- Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me and My Monkey
- Good Night
- Helter Skelter
- Hey Jude
- Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
- Revolution (Single Version)
- Revolution 1
- Revolution 9
- Sexy Sadie
Though it’s possible that, with the start of filming bearing down on them, they wouldn’t have lollygagged so much during the initial sessions, and would have started other tracks, like many of those demoed at George’s house after the band returned from India, including songs like Paul’s “Junk” and John’s “Child of Nature.” Plus, several tracks may have different lyrics, reworked to fit the film’s soundtrack.
What kind of soundtrack album would they have recorded? Might John have taken his demo for “Child of Nature” (as an example) and reworked it into something like:
“On the road to Rivendell,
Where the Elf Lord Elrond dwells…”
Or might George have finally gotten John to take “Isn’t It A Pity?” seriously? He’d first floated the song during the Revolver sessions, and while it lay fallow until the Get Back/Let It Be sessions in 1969, it’s possible that, like the Beatles did for Yellow Submarine, they might have recorded a few of their cast-offs for the film. Curiously, “Isn’t It A Pity?” seems like a very Gandalf song.
Would the band have survived the filming?
How would history have looked upon their comedic and stoned take on The Lord of the Rings? Would Tolkien’s books be as beloved today had the Beatles gotten their hands on them and created an incredibly non-serious film? Did literary history, did film history, did music history all dodge bullets when Tolkien didn’t sell the rights to The Lord of the Rings to the Beatles?
Several years ago, James Ryan wrote a short story, “One Ring To Rue Them All,” about the aftermath of the Beatles’ Lord of the Rings film. Ryan isn’t optimistic for the band’s — or the film’s — chances.
I’m a bit more hopeful.
The India experience revealed some of the internal cracks in the Beatles. Ringo Starr, for instance, was not taken with India or meditation at all, and he quickly decamped back for England while the other three remained. Ringo, as is well known, felt that he didn’t really “fit” the band any longer, and midway through the “White Album” sessions quit.
Why would a movie (and not necessarily a Lord of the Rings movie) change this?
What the Beatles lacked in 1968 was direction. They lacked it in the latter half of 1967 as well, but they were able to mask over that to some extent. Without a grueling touring schedule, the Beatles, who had always been a working band, didn’t really have a job any longer. They didn’t have to be focused. And this allowed Ringo, and later George, to feel things like “I’m not needed here any more, I don’t fit here any more.” In short, they lost their communal sense.
I picture A Doll’s House coming out in autumn 1968 in place of the “White Album,” with Yellow Submarine (since it would have been well advanced by the time the Beatles began making LOTR) at the end of the year.
Filming finishes in November 1968. The Beatles recorded eight new songs for the film, among them John’s “Child of Nature,”George’s “Isn’t It a Pity?,” and Paul’s “Frodo’s Lament” (“Junk,” but with different lyrics). The band still has to finish up an album — filling the album out with George Martin’s orchestral score, as was done for Yellow Submarine, strikes the band, especially Paul, as too mercenary, and there are rumors of an interesting project The Who are in the midst of recording over at IBC Studios, a project called “Tommy”…
The Lord of the Rings, film and album, debut in early 1969, probably March or April. Rock historians compare the Beatles’ Lord of the Rings to The Who’s Tommy as the two prime examples of rock music’s ability to meld music and story. Like Tommy, The Lord of the Rings tells a full story spread across both sides; rather than put the film songs on one side and non-film songs on the flip side, the Beatles recorded linking tracks to create a seamless song suite, telling the story of the One Ring, across the entire album.
Following the release of The Lord of the Rings, John suggests the band take a “back to basics” approach. Without cameras recording the band’s every move, the Beatles release Get Back in late 1969 and perform, on short notice, at a rock’n’roll revival show in Toronto, followed by Everest in summer 1970.
Everest, like the mountain, represents the band’s summit, and they split harmoniously; having scaled all the peaks they could scale, they go out on top. Everest opens with a John Lennon song, “Imagine,” and closes with a Paul McCartney song, “Maybe I’m Amazed.”
And that’s how the Beatles’ story ends, if they made The Lord of the Rings in 1968.
Maybe their film would have ruined Tolkien’s book for a generation, but damn if we wouldn’t have had a fascinating concept album in Let It Be‘s place, and it might have held the band together well enough that they would part on amicable, not acrimonious, terms.
That’s my story. And I’m sticking to it.