On this day in 1973, J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the best-selling fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings–the source of the award-winning blockbuster movie trilogy directed, co-produced and co-written by Peter Jackson–dies at the age of 81 in Bournemouth, England. With legions of fans worldwide, The Lord of the Rings has had a significant impact on pop culture in the last century. It has also been adapted for radio, television and theater and has inspired video games, music and even a housing development. (Located in Bend, Oregon, and dubbed The Shire, the planned community of homes featuring unique stonework and artificial thatched roofs reportedly faced foreclosure in 2006.)
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892, in Blomfontein, South Africa, and raised primarily in England. He graduated from Oxford, served in World War I and went on to become a linguist and professor at his alma mater. One day when Tolkien was grading exam papers, he reportedly was inspired in a moment of boredom to write across the top of one page, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” From there, he began developing the story into his novel The Hobbit, which was first published in 1937. A sequel, The Lord of the Rings, was published in three volumes between 1954 and 1955. The books are set in a place called Middle Earth and revolve around the adventures of a hobbit named Frodo Baggins who must destroy a powerful ring and save the world from evil.
In December 2001, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the highly anticipated first film in Jackson’s big-screen trilogy, debuted in theaters; it was followed by The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). The three films received a combined total of 30 Oscar nominations and 17 wins, including Best Picture for Return of the King. Shot in New Zealand, the movies starred Elijah Wood as Frodo, along with a large ensemble cast that included Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett. The Lord of the Rings is one of the highest-grossing franchises in movie history.