From Magic Mushrooms to Morannon: The John Boorman Script of The Lord of the Rings (1970)

As you might have noticed, I have a peculiar fondness for the more obscure Tolkien adaptations. Partly, this is a matter of paying tribute to efforts that would otherwise be forgotten. Partly, this is about trying to get the story out from underneath the shadow of Peter Jackson. It’s not that I consider these adaptations superior to Jackson (though in some areas they arguably are), but merely that I think it healthy to point out that Jackson is not the only way of envisaging Tolkien’s work in a different medium.

Today, I thought I would address an adaption that never was. Specifically, the John Boorman script for a live-action Lord of the Rings from 1970. In light of the rediscovery of the script of the BBC’s 1950s radio adaptation (and wouldn’t it be great if we could get an audio reconstruction of that), I thought I’d tackle another script – one far more notorious than the BBCs.

As background, one of the leading figures at United Artists, who bought the film rights in 1968, approached Boorman with the idea of adapting The Lord of the Rings. Boorman had previously wanted to do something on Merlin, but proved interested. He accordingly came up with a draft script for The Lord of the Rings.

It got nowhere, because of the hypothetical cost of the special effects, and because by the time Boorman submitted the script, the current United Artists executives were no longer familiar with The Lord of the Rings. Boorman would wind up putting his Arthurian passion into Excalibur (1981) instead. For more details on the background of the script, see here:

But it’s the actual content of the Boorman script that interests me. I have had the fun of going through all 178 pages of it, and, well, it is quite something. It really is.

For those of you who want to read it yourself:

To be honest, I feel Boorman misreads The Lord of the Rings. He wants to read the Celtic and the Arthurian into the text in a way I do not think the text actually supports. Gandalf is not Merlin, and Galadriel is not the Lady of the Lake. Sure, I am sufficiently revisionistic in my preferences that I would not inherently mind an Arthurian-flavoured take on Tolkien, but as presented here, the story simply becomes too incoherent. Boorman’s ambitions are hampered by his limitations – and trying to put the entire Lord of the Rings into a single three hour film is one hell of a limitation.

What do I mean by incoherence? Well, one need look no further than Gandalf. We actually see Boorman’s Gandalf tauntingly encourage Boromir to take the Ring at one point. We see him psychologically bullying Bilbo. We see him literally abusing Gimli before the Doors of Moria to awaken “ancestral memories”. And yet we (and the other characters) are supposed to feel the same way about this wizard as we do with Tolkien’s original. It’s all very well to make Gandalf a magical trickster with a malevolent streak, but you can’t do such fundamental surgery on the character and hold everything else ceteris paribus. Change one thing, and something else will need to change further down the line.

It tends to get worse as the story goes on. The first half of the script more or less aligns with The Fellowship of the Ring. I say more or less, in that while the earlier sections are still recognisably The Lord of the Rings, there are copious divergences – Gandalf for some unknown reason does not have a single excuse not to accompany Frodo to Rivendell. The hobbits’ consumption of mushrooms takes on a clear psychadelic twist. It is Sam, not Tom Bombadil, who sings the Willow to sleep. The Ringwraiths literally dissolve in water, a la the Wicked Witch of the West. And that’s before ignoring the characterisation – Merry of all people is the overweight and clueless comic relief (I kept visualising Boorman’s Merry as Bakshi’s Sam. Now there’s a nightmare).

There’s also some strange stylistic choices in terms of Exposition. Rather than a Prologue, a la Bakshi or Jackson, we are treated to a Expositional Symbolic Play at Rivendell. And by Symbolic Play, I mean something that is just too stylised and self-consciously weird for its own good.

Boorman (as per his directions) is explicitly thinking Kabuki Theatre here. The problem is that this means putting weird stuff into the very scene where he’s explaining things to the hapless audience. Which is just asking for audience confusion. The Play has the Ring as a ball for some reason, and Fate is a dog. Sauron is supposed to resemble a mash-up of Mick Jagger and Punch.

The bearer of the Nine Rings is a female juggler who combines belly-dancing with a sort of Norse Hel costume (one half of her is withered). Punch-and-Jagger Sauron dances seductively with her, and makes off with the Nine Rings…

Yes, it’s that sort of weird. The sort of thing that might actually be interesting in another setting, but which sure as hell does not work as exposition.

(Arwen, meanwhile, is thirteen. Don’t worry, she’s not supposed to be Aragorn’s love-interest – that honour goes to Eowyn. Instead, Boorman ramps up the magical element of the Elves, so Arwen and Elrond are able to keep track of the Fellowship and provide voice-overs. The exception to the magical Elves? Legolas. Whom the script seems to forget actually is an Elf sometimes – he refers to the last of the fair people leaving at the Grey Havens, when he’s not going anywhere).

On from Rivendell, we get a fair bit of Magical Gandalf, and not in the sense of Tolkien’s original. Whereas Original Gandalf is thematically associated with fire (he kindles hearts…), Boorman has him rescue the Fellowship from the Wargs via encasing himself and his companions in ice. And before the Doors of Moria? He physically forces poor Gimli into a hole to get the password out of him. This is not a nice wizard. Not at all. Oh, and since Narsil is not re-forged until Minas Tirith, Aragorn and Boromir wind up sharing the shards until Boromir’s death, which is not something I could ever imagine Tolkien’s Aragorn contemplating (c.f. his lines in The King of the Golden Hall).

The last major bit of weirdness out of the first half of the script – probably the most famous aspect of the Boorman treatment – is Galadriel. Boorman’s Galadriel has very little in common with the character Tolkien actually wrote, but since alterations to her character don’t set off as many story-ripples as Gandalf’s, I don’t inherently think it’s as bad. Don’t get me wrong though. It’s bad. Galadriel is a seductive lakeside-dwelling sorceress, whom the Fellowship are… interested in. Yes, in that way.

Despite the best efforts of everyone else, including Boromir… she fucks Frodo.

Not on-screen, thankfully, but let’s just say that the Virgin Mary aspects of Tolkien’s Galadriel are decidedly lacking the ‘Virgin’ component in Boorman. Boorman wants this to be Celtic/Arthuriana so hard…

(Incidentally, Pippin revealing to Denethor that Galadriel fucked Frodo and not Boromir does not help the Steward’s mood later on).

Once past the Intermission, we’re into the half of the script where Boorman has to wield the hatchet in order to keep the run-time down. The entire Isengard plotline is cut, so it’s goodbye to the Ents and Helm’s Deep. I actually thought initially that this meant that Saruman would only feature as an unexplained side-allusion in Rivendell… but no. Here, Saruman takes the place of the Mouth of Sauron at the Morannon.

The ‘Western’ component of the action is really about getting all the defenders to Minas Tirith. Theoden – freed from the hunchbacked Wormtongue via Gandalf – leads the Rohirrim down. Legolas brings Tree-Elves. Gimli brings Dwarves. Aragorn? Apart from fighting with the two shards of Narsil in each hand, he’s a straight-out Necromancer, summoning the Dead from a Graveyard with no explanation. There is no Faramir, so Denethor’s fixation on the loss of Boromir is arguably more understandable, but poor Denethor really does go full Ophelia here… and rather than burning himself alive (which one would surely consider highly cinematic), his suicide involves him holding a dagger to his heart as he embraces Aragorn. Having Mad Denethor impersonate Theoden’s corpse is a bit bad-taste, even for this script.

(Oh, and the Aragorn-in-the-Corsairs-ships scene? That’s replaced with Aragorn and his forces camouflaging themselves as a giant snake. For some reason. Honestly, the first half of the Boorman at least tries to give us Tolkien’s story, even if mashed-up and mixed with magic mushrooms. The second half is just mad, and lacks whatever intelligence Boorman thought he was bringing to the story).

The ‘Eastern’ component of the story plays merry hell with geography. And with practically everything else. The Orcs are part-reptilian and part-bird-like apparently. The Ent demolition of Isengard is sort-of paid tribute here, when a random tree decides to take down the wall of Mordor by itself, granting Frodo and Sam a way in. Frodo is stung by Shelob, and then captured by Orcs… and let’s just say that the usage of the Ring within Mordor (and the secretive nature of the Quest) is treated in somewhat relaxed fashion. Frodo swings the Ring on its chain like a ball-and-chain flail, and Mount Doom is close enough to the Morannon that Orcs are able to swarm up it in a last ditch effort to stop the destruction of the Ring.

(Meanwhile, after the destruction of the Ring, everyone, including the Orcs, basically decide to go home. Saruman pursues a career as a small-time con-man. Sam’s girlfriend is explicitly buxom. Frodo and Gandalf wade out to a small boat laden with Galadriel, Elrond, Arwen, and Bilbo. Does this mean Frodo gets to fuck Galadriel again, on Tol Eressea? No. Don’t think of that. And Legolas and Gimli are the ones to say farewell beside the Sea, not the other hobbits).


So yeah. The Boorman script. Utterly ludicrous in practically every way – even when it shows flashes of intelligence or ingenuity, it somehow manages to mess things up. I think we’re safe in saying that we’re very, very lucky that this thing never got into production. It might well have scared a generation off the books in a way that even Ralph Bakshi never did. And seeing as Tolkien himself was still alive at the time, goodness knows what he would have thought.

On the other hand (and I cannot believe I am saying this), there are some points of interest. Primarily, it at least tackles the non-trivial question of how you would actually fit The Lord of the Rings into a single three-hour film. Cutting Isengard and moving Saruman to the Morannon might not be the stupidest move ever, in terms of saving time. Assuming you can construct an appropriate replacement reason for Gandalf not being on the journey to Rivendell, of course. And – much like Peter Jackson – it is actually not afraid to re-purpose Tolkien’s own lines for use in dialogue elsewhere in the story. It’s just the incoherence that bugs me, and the failure of Boorman to properly allow for how his Arthurian vision of the text might change things. Well, that, and practically everything else.

4 thoughts on “From Magic Mushrooms to Morannon: The John Boorman Script of The Lord of the Rings (1970)

  1. Great find. Maybe Boorman should have pitched Bored of the Rings. Maybe he WAS pitching Bored of the Rings. (The Harvard Lampoon parody novel from 1969). The opening come-on is about one “Frito” and an elf-maiden, sadly not quotable in a family blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Tolkien Adaptations that aren’t Jackson or Amazon: A Compendium | A Phuulish Fellow

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