Peter Jackson's trilogy of movies based on the novel Lord of the Rings have introduced a whole new audience to the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. I discovered them at a fairly young age myself, when I was still in grade school.
In 1937 Tolkien's classic children's story The Hobbit was published for the first time. The Hobbit proved somewhat successful, successful enough to warrant a sequel. Encouraged by his publisher, Tolkien started work on the sequel to The Hobbit almost immediately, although it would not be until 1949 that it was finished. Quite simply, the sequel became something other than the children's story The Hobbit was. The Lord of the Rings was an epic in every sense of the word. Tolkien meant for Lord of the Rings to be one novel, published in one volume. Due to post-war paper shortages, however, it was published as three books between 1954 and 1955--Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and Return of the King. Initially, the books did not meet with a great deal of success. All of this changed in 1965. International copyright laws were somewhat looser in the Sixties. As a result paperback publisher Ace Books was able to publish unauthorised editions of the books in the United States. Lord of the Rings not only saw success for the first time, it became an outright fad on college campuses across America. Alongside Stranger in a Strange Land, it was perhaps the most popular novel among America's hippies. Eventually, Lord of the Rings ceased to be a fad and became an established part of Anglo-American culture.
It is perhaps for that reason I do not remember a time when I did not know who J. R. R. Tolkien was. By the time I was able to read, I had already heard of him and his works. For that reason when I was in either fifth or sixth grade I first read both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Initially, I preferred The Hobbit. However, when I re-read Lord of the Rings once I was older, I decided it was the better of the two works. By that time I could better appreciate the complexity of Tolkien's world, not to mention the way in which he drew upon philogy and Germanic and Celtic mythology.
Of course, in those intervening years the phenomenon of Lord of the Rings had grown. There were calendars, artwork, and numerous other items related to Lord of the Rings sold throughout the Seventies. Naturally, there were efforts to film Lord of the Rings. The Beatles had discussed doing a movie version, but nothing ever came of it. Stanley Kubrick investigated bringing the novel to the screen, but decided it would be too difficult to film. John Boorman of Excalibur fame wanted to make films based on the novel, but found the project too expensive. Rankin-Bass, known for such seasonal television specials, as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, adapted The Hobbit as an animated television movie in 1977. In 1978 there would be a Lord of the Rings animated movie. Ralph Bakshi directed J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. In some ways, I suppose that the project was doomed from the start. I remember watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and people were actually booing the float promoting the movie! At any rate, it seems to me that the movie had always received mixed reviews from fans. Part of the problem is that the film combines both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. As a result it leaves a great deal of material from the books out. A greater problem is perhaps that it is uneven in quality, despite having Bakshi at the helm. Some of the animation is quite good, while some of the animation is very poor, especially for a feature film. A second film, based on Return of the King was planned, but Bakshi was never able to get it off the ground. As a result, in 1980, Rankin-Bass did an animated television movie based on the book, The Return of the King.
Of course, since that time, Peter Jackson has directed three movies based on the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings. A few die hard fans have criticised the movies for altering the stories and omitting parts of the novel (the most common complaint I have heard is the omission of Tom Bobadil). Fortunately, critics, film goers, and most fans I know appreciate the movies. In my opinion, while the story was altered, the movies remain faithful to Tolkien's vision in the books. The films are also an incredible achievement in and of themselves. The characters are well developed. The plot involves the viewer. And the special effects are impressive without being obvious. The movies have received more than their share of acclaim, among which is the Academy Award for Best Picture for Return of the King.
I recently re-read Lord of the Rings a few years ago. Now that I am yet older I can appreciate the books even more. I can understand how Lord of the Rings became the cultural phenomenon that it is. Indeed, the books have inspired countless imitators. There is perhaps an entire subgenre of Tolkienesque fantasy that emerged in the novel's wake. And, of course, there are movies, comic books, and role playing games that owe a great deal to Tolkien as well. Indeed, Lord of the Rings was at the top of three different polls conducted in the United Kingdom of the greatest books ever written! It is hard to argue with that. I have often thought that very few novels from the Twentieth Century will be remembered. I rather suspect that Lord of the Rings will be one of them.