The Cinema Behind Star Wars: The Lord of the Rings

Discover the many connections between these two epic sagas, including the influence of Gandalf on Ahsoka and much more.

Peter Jackson’s films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s master work, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, were released in 2001, 2002, 2003. They tell the story of a fellowship of men, elves, dwarves, and hobbits, led by the mysterious wizard Gandalf, and their quest to destroy the ring of power before the absolute symbol of evil, the dark lord Sauron. Each installment of the trilogy, both in the books and the films, contains the same sort of adventure, politics, and archetypical heroes and villains of Star Wars. We’ll explore in this column the trilogy’s parallels with the original films and the impact its had on the Star Wars saga.

Before Peter Jackson’s films would inspire the more recent installments of Star Wars, George Lucas certainly took inspiration from Tolkien’s work in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In early drafts of the Star Wars screenplay, Luke even has a line of dialogue lifted directly from the books, thought it never made it to the final film.

A New Hope - Luke and Ben Kenobi in Ben's house on Tatooine

Luke Skywalker and Frodo Baggins share many aspects of their journeys together. Both are reluctant to leave, but are prodded into action by a mentor (Obi-Wan Kenobi and Gandalf the Grey, respectively) and both must face the most evil creatures their worlds can throw at them. Along the way, they become heroes who face many challenges and have to rely on their friends for help.

A New Hope - Han Solo in the Mos Eisley Cantina

In fact, both Luke Skywalker and Frodo Baggins meet their most roguish allies in bars. Han Solo can be found at the cantina on Mos Eisley and Strider can be found at the Prancing Pony in Bree. These characters whisk our heroes away to the next part of their adventure, and have to heed their own calls to the journey, as well.

A New Hope - Ben Kenobi in the Mos Eisley Cantina

The most direct comparison, though, is in the mentor characters. The scene where Obi-Wan Kenobi sacrifices himself aboard the Death Star so that our band of rebels can escape with their lives can be seen as an almost direct parallel with The Fellowship of the Ring and Gandalf’s fight with the Balrog. Vader makes sense as the Balrog, as Gandalf explains to the fellowship, “This foe is beyond any of you,” and Vader had certainly proven that the same could be said of him by that point in A New Hope. But Obi-Wan is, just like Gandalf the White, able to come back in some form with new power to help at a later point in the series.

Revenge of the Sith - Anakin on Mustafa

Moving back to the prequel trilogy, Anakin is Frodo in totality, leaving on a quest for good, corrupted by the power of the dark, and brought back by the love of his companions. It might not be a coincidence that the ending of Revenge of the Sith and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King both occur around lava and volcanoes. This metaphor of hell and deals-with-devils is universal to the stories.

Return of the Jedi - Darth Vader destroying Palpatine

Taking this a step further, you can draw a connection between Vader tossing Palpatine into the pits of the Death Star to Gollum tossing both himself and the ring of power into the lava of Mount Doom. Like Gollum and Smeagol, Vader was also a character of split personality, of good and evil between the poles of Anakin Skywalker and his Darth Vader persona.

Attack of the Clones - Count Dooku on Geonosis

There are many more connections between Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, but none may be as direct as Sir Christopher Lee. He played Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and Count Dooku in the second and third episode of the classic Star Wars saga. Both characters he played in these two series were good characters who are corrupted by evil some time before the events of the movie begin. Both characters maintain a ruse of being good until it is no longer expedient and both are forced into wizard’s duels when their true nature is revealed. Both get the upper hand on their opponents; Dooku against Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Yoda, Saruman against Gandalf.

He wasn’t the only actor to cross over from Lord of the Rings to Star Wars. Bruce Spence, who played the mouth of Sauron was Tion Meddon in Revenge of the Sith. See-Threepio’s Anthony Daniels even got a shot at playing Legolas, providing the voice for the elvish warrior in the 1978 animated version of The Lord of the Rings.

Star Wars Rebels - Ahsoka

But another direct connection and inspiration from The Lord of the Rings on Star Wars is Ahsoka Tano.

At New York Comic-Con last year, Star Wars Rebels executive producer Dave Filoni says of Ahsoka: “She serves the story, because you can’t just bring Darth Vader into this crew. Because he’d kill them. They need a Gandalf. [Ahsoka] shows up when necessary. She’s dealing with bigger, darker problems.”

And when the former Jedi arrives to help, it is in very much the same way as Gandalf. In the middle of Season Two, Ahsoka arrives to save Kanan and Ezra from the Inquisitors in a moment that certainly echoes a light side version of Darth Maul’s arrival in The Phantom Menace, but the blinding light of goodness behind her is just as reminiscent of Gandalf’s arrival at Helm’s Deep with the Rohirrim with the blinding sun to his back, blinding the army of Saruman.

And Gandalf the Grey’s resurrection as Gandalf the White bears similarities to Ahsoka, as well, though hers was much more metaphorical. During her time with the Jedi, Ahsoka bore green lightsabers, but after her exile and return, she acquired sabers that glow white. It all fits with Dave Filoni’s description of her as Gandalf.

Yoda and Gandalf by Dave Filoni

Filoni and crew have long been inspired by the work of Peter Jackson, too. In 2012, on the eve of the release of the first installment of The Hobbit trilogy, Filoni wrote a piece explaining the back and forth inspiration between the crew of The Clone Wars and The Lord of the Rings. You can read it here.

Kylo Ren

The most recent influence from Lord of the Rings on Star Wars might be seen in The Force Awakens, though. In the Lord of the Rings films, each time the ring of power is dropped, it’s accompanied by a thud and hits the ground with a weight that belies its size. There’s a moment in The Force Awakens where Kylo Ren drops his helmet, and it feels just like the dropping of the ring of power in everything from the angle of the shot, the weight of the object, to the sound. And really, both Kylo Ren’s mask and the ring of power represent much the same themes in the stories, right?

Each film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy is rated PG-13 by the MPAA for battle sequences and some scary images. They are beautiful films and worth watching with the whole family if you’ve never seen them. They’re wonderful compliments to the hero’s journey myths presented in the Star Wars films and perfect for everyone, so long as the younger members of the family aren’t scared too badly by the Orcs and fighting Uruk-hai, anyway. I would say that the theatrical editions are the better experience for first time viewers, but once you’re more familiar with the lore, you might want to dive into the longer, extended editions.

Availability: The Lord of the Rings films are widely available on DVD and Blu-ray, both in theatrical and extended versions. The books are just as readily accessible. They’re also available for a modest rental fee from most streaming services.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmaker, journalist, and the editor in chief of BigShinyRobot.com! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of Sith.

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