‘The road goes ever on and on’: Looking back on the Lord of the Rings trilogy and its cultural impact

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost 20 years since the first Lord of the Rings movie was released in theaters. The franchise became such a critical and commercial success that sometimes I forget what a creative risk it was in the beginning.

The Lord of the Rings novels by British author J.R.R. Tolkien have been popular since they were published back in the 1950s, but a film series based on these books was still a risky gamble.

Director Peter Jackson was given leeway to shoot all three movies in the trilogy at one time, with no guarantee the first one would even be a success. This was also at a time before geek culture became more mainstream — would general audiences respond to a story about Elves, Hobbits, Dwarves, and a mysterious Ring with the power to destroy the world?

Thankfully, the answer was yes, and the Lord of the Rings films dominated pop culture conversation in the early 2000s. Even though the follow-up Hobbit movies weren’t as successful, the LOTR trilogy remains well-regarded to this day.

My husband and I rewatched the Lord of the Rings movies about a year ago, and it was amazing how well they’ve held up over time. Sure, there are a few scenes/special effects that feel a little dated now, but overall the films have aged incredibly well.

Part of this is due to the fact Peter Jackson was able to shoot on location in New Zealand, which pretty much is a real-life Middle-earth. The gorgeous landscapes truly look like they emerged from the pages of a fantasy novel. The cinematography has this wild, otherworldly quality that helps immerse you in the story (and I’m sure the locations really helped the actors get into character, as well).

The costuming and creature work are amazing (the Orcs are still scary!), and the battle scenes are thrilling. We definitely wouldn’t have HBO’s blockbuster Game of Thrones series without the groundwork laid by the LOTR trilogy.

For me, the Lord of the Rings movies will always hold a special place in my geeky heart, because they were one of my first forays into the geek fandom experience. I devoured every magazine article I could find on these movies, and I purchased movie guides and action figures. I even made my own fan art and wrote LOTR-inspired poetry. Granted, none of this art or poetry were very good, and I’d pretty much die of embarrassment if they ever saw the light of day. But for teenage Ashley, it was a great way for me to start expressing my creativity. LOTR sparked my imagination, and made me want to create my own fantasy content.

As pretty much everyone who knows me knows, Star Wars is my favorite thing in geek culture, and I talk about it more than any other franchise. But Lord of the Rings is deeply important to me as well. Even if I go a while without talking about or thinking about LOTR, whenever I see a clip from one of the movies or the series comes up in conversation, I’m reminded again of just how much I love it.

As mentioned previously, without LOTR, it’s possible the Game of Thrones TV series never would have been made. I also believe that other popular modern film franchises, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, benefited from the LOTR model. People fell in love with these characters, and couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.

To coincide with the Story Geeks’ Lord of the Rings podcast series, I’m going to spend the next couple weeks digging deeper into these films, starting with my favorite characters from the trilogy and then also looking at some of the deeper themes found in the movies.

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The Story Geeks blogger Ashley Pauls responds with an additional perspective to the Story Geeks Star Wars podcast series. [Listen Here: AppleStitcherPodbean]