This Day In History: December 17

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On December 17, 2003, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the final film in the trilogy based on the best-selling fantasy novels by J.R.R. Tolkien, opens in theaters. The film was a huge box-office success and won 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, for Peter Jackson. The Lord of the Rings trilogy became one of the highest-grossing franchises in movie history, netting billions of dollars worldwide in box-office proceeds and related merchandise.

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 Oxford. 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.

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels produced legions of fans around the world and were was adapted for radio, television and theater. He died at the age of 81 on September 2, 1973, in Bournemouth, England, almost three decades before his work was adapted into the blockbuster big-screen trilogy directed, co-written and co-produced by Peter Jackson. Shot in New Zealand, the trilogy 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.

On December 19, 2001, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the highly anticipated first film in the trilogy, debuted in theaters around the world. The film received 13 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (McKellen)and collected four Oscars, for Visual Effects, Cinematography, Makeup and Music (Original Score). The second movie in the series, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, opened in theaters on December 18, 2002, and received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was released in theaters on December 17, 2003; it swept all 11 Oscar categories in which it was nominated.

Peter Jackson, born on October 31, 1961, in Pukerua Bay, New Zealand, first gained notice in Hollywood as the director and co-writer of the 1994 true-crime drama Heavenly Creatures, which co-starred Kate Winslet. In addition to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson directed and co-wrote 2005’s King Kong, with Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody and Jack Black, 2009’s The Lovely Bones and 2012's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (as well as its two sequels). 

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