The Lord of the Rings is regularly voted as being one of the favourite books of all times by readers all over the world, but it has dominated the fantasy world in all its major incarnations (we're going to ignore Ralph Bakshi''s cartoon because the saga was not finished in that format and because we want to).
JRR Tolkein's book is a mammoth undertaking in the reading just from its sheer size, but it gets harder and harder the closer towards the end that you get. What starts off as a fairly clean romp through a thoroughly detailed imaginary world with likeable characters (Tom Bombadil aside) gets darker and darker as the characters all descend into their own personal hearts of darkness. Nobody returns from this particular saga (assuming that they return at all) untouched by the darkness and the evil that is portrayed.
The scale is epic and the story splinters with the major characters going off in all directions and encountering so many minor characters that you need to be committed to the reading to keep them all straight.
The writing also becomes less clean and narratively pleasing as Tolkein's style becomes more flowery and even pretentious as he becomes more and more overcome by the gravitas of the story that he is portraying. By the end of the mammoth tome don't be surprised if you're skimming whole sections looking for the continuation of the story rather than huge chunks of description and increasingly tedious elven songs.
By this point, however, you're hooked and need to get through to the end to find out what happens, so you will keep going no matter what.
At risk of being controversial, the Lord of the Rings is not the greatest book ever written, but it might possibly be the best story ever told and that story is the secret of the book's successs, popularity and longevity.
The Radio Show
In 1981, the BBC produced a 26 part dramatisation the saga that is one of the few radio productions that any fan of science fiction and fantasy should own (The Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy and Orson Welles' production of The War Of The Worlds being amongst the others). With the likes of Ian Holm as Frodo, Michael Hordern as Gandalf, John Le Mesurier as Bilbo, Simon Cadell, Sonia Fraser, David Collings, Peter Vaughan and many other familiar UK names amongst the impressive voice cast the performances are excellent to brilliant (Peter Woodthorpe's Gollum) and they have a script to serve them in Brian Sibley and Michael Bakewell's adaptation.
The characters are well rounded, the action is stupendously created despite the lack of visuals and some of the sequences bring chills to the heart even now.
Every aspect of the production is given the benefit of the BBC's undeniable expertise and this was the absolute definitive version of the tale until
Peter Jackson would have been nobody's first choice as director of the film trilogy if asked before the release of The Fellowship of the Rings in 2001, which just goes to show how nobody knows anything in the film business because the the trilogy complete by The Two Towers and The Return of the King is the ultimate in cinematic fantasy. No attempt to capture fantasy on the big screen before or, crucially, since has even come close to matching Jackson's films for imagination, scale, scope, drama, action, character or acting.
With a cast that beats even the BBC radio version including Elijah Wood, Ian McKellan, Christopher Lee, Viggo Mortensen, Cate Blanchett and Ian Holm (though as Bilbo now rather than Frodo) for stellar names and all of them perfectly cast, the heart and the soul of the movies are assured. Onto that human element is heaped huge action sequences, CGI creatures that are flawlessly integrated into the whole and sweeping vistas of New Zealand, effortlessly doubling as the worlds of Middle Earth.
Though Jackson's films play around with the plot of the book, every change is justifiable and improves the flow of the story which combines the huge scope of the war that encompasses whole nations and the intimacy of two friends on a quest that will threaten their very souls.
Whether you're reading, watching or listening to The Lord Of The Rings the one thing that you can be assured of is that you are experiencing the greatest fantasy story ever told in the best example of the media involved.
The Lord Of The Rings truly is the one ring to rule them all.