Can a unicorn movie be as successful as a hobbit or boy wizard?

December 28, 2001
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Now that Harry Potter and "The Lord of the Rings" have found so much success on the big screen, can a movie deal for "The Last Unicorn" be far away?

It might happen, says Davis resident Peter Beagle, author of "The Last Unicorn."

In a recent interview, he said a film might be made of his classic fantasy, judging by the success of the two other films.

But that's a story still unfolding. Yet Beagle, who has lived in Davis for most of the '90s, has connections to an earlier version of the current hit movie about hobbits and other magical creatures.

If you have a copy of the new Ballantine paperback edition of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit," take a look at the introduction printed in front of the title page.

There you'll find a message from Beagle, which he wrote in 1973 when he was living in Watsonville. In it he describes where he first learned of the Tolkien's magic world (in a New York Times review by W.H. Auden) and where he first found a copy of "The Lord of the Rings" (in the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, Pa., when he was going to college).

At first, he says, Tolkien's work was known by only a relative handful of hard-core fantasy enthusiasts. But when the culture softened somewhat in the late '60s and early '70s, "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy found a huge audience. That's when the mysterious message "Frodo lives!" began to appear in New York City subways. (Frodo being the main character in the trilogy).

Beagle ended his 1973 introduction to "The Hobbit," which is the prelude to the trilogy, by referring to Tolkien and his readers as "colonizers of a dream."

He probably never dreamed that less than five years later he would be asked to save director Ralph Bakshi's screenplay for an animated version of "The Lord of the Rings." But that's what happened.

"I was hired as a consultant on the existing script," said Beagle, who was paid a flat fee of $5,000.

"I threw out that script and rewrote it three times, the last time on the plane to London where the voices were being recorded," he said. The actors whose voices were used included John Hurt (Aragon), Christopher Guard (Frodo), William Squire (Gandalf), Michael Scholes (Sam), Dominic Guard (Pippin) and Peter Woodthorpe (Gollum).

"It was a maddening job," he recalled. "I never thought you could make a movie of it. (Director Peter) Jackson has done it the only way possible, by making three different movies, for good or ill."

Beagle describes the animated version of "Lord of the Rings," released in 1978, as a disaster. He says it was supposed to be released as two movies but was chopped up and released as one.

" 'Lord of the Rings' has so much back story that the animation has to stop while whole civilizations are introduced. It was a nightmare. But I remember some very nice things about the experience overall - I met some wonderful people," he said.

"In this country the film didn't do well, but it did well in England," he added.

Beagle was born in New York in 1939 and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1959. He was a creative writing major.

When he first read Tolkien's work he was struck by the incredibly detailed world the writer had created.

"(Tolkien) created a work of genius without being a genius," he said. "He created something that was one of a kind."

Beagle was previously interviewed and his work reviewed by Elisabeth Sherwin for her February 25, 1995 column, September 21, 1997 column, and her October 18, 1998 column.

Picture of Peter Beagle before Dancing With God Peter S. Beagle is the author of
"Giant Bones"
( Roc, 1997, $9.95)
"The Innkeeper's Song" and
"The Last Unicorn"

Elisabeth Sherwin interviews Peter Beagle in
"'Giant Bones' marks Beagle's return to a familiar fantasy land,"
the September 21, 1997 Printed Matter column.

Photo -- G. Richard Yamagata
Taken at Beagle's September 1997 reading at
The Next Chapter bookstore in Davis, CA

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