When we talk about adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal work The Lord of the Rings, the first thing that comes to mind is the early 2000s films by Peter Jackson. Or perhaps it’s the earlier 1978 cartoon adaptation, depending on your age. But before those, there was another.
Per The Guardian, Oxford academic Stuart Lee recently unearthed the scripts for an original radio dramatization of The Lord of the Rings from the mid-1950s, which were thought to be lost. These scripts are notable for a few reasons: They were from the very first dramatization of The Lord of the Rings and the only scripts to actually be finished during Tolkien’s lifetime. The discovery also includes handwritten sheets of notes from Tolkien, who took an active hand in fine-tuning the adaptation.
Here’s Lee’s statement about finding the scripts:
“They said the scripts had been lost, but they have survived—the only professional dramatization of The Lord of the Rings made during [Tolkien’s] lifetime. It was not seen as important by the BBC then. It shows how reception of the book has changed—minor interest in 1955-56, now a global phenomenon, with Amazon reportedly investing more than $1 billion in the latest series.”
As Lee said in his statement, at the time that radio adaptation was planned, the BBC didn’t give it anywhere near the amount of import that Tolkien’s works get today. This radio teleplay was done in two series of 12 radio broadcasts each, which ran in 1955 and 1956. The first series covered The Fellowship of the Ring, with each episode lasting 45 minutes. Things get a bit messier in the second series, which combined The Two Towers and The Return of the King into a mere 12 episodes, and cut the time of each back from 45 minutes to 30.
Tolkien wasn't happy with the truncated episode length, but at the time, no one could have predicted that The Lord of the Rings would go on to conquer popular culture. Keep in mind that The Return of the King had only just been published in 1955, the same year the first radio series aired.
The scripts that Lee discovered will be featured in The Great Tales Never End: Essays in Memory of Christopher Tolkien, which collects essays from academics reflecting on the work that Christopher Tolkien did to carry on his father’s legacy. The Great Tales Never End is expected to release on June 24. Amazon's upcoming The Lord of the Rings TV series, The Rings of Power, debuts on September 2, 2022.