Though not as preposterous and enduring as Walt Disney's supposed post-death cryogenic hibernation, there is another Disney-related urban myth that continues to be accepted as fact by many Disney fans and even well-respected academics. It is the claim that Walt Disney held the film rights to J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy for a period of ten years beginning sometime in the late 1950s, and was frustrated in his inability to bring a movie version to realization.
Many sources reference this Disney-Tolkien connection. The Wikipedia entry for Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated adaptation of The Lord of the Rings notes that a young Bakshi first expressed interest in the epic fantasy while working for Terrytoons in the late 1950s, but, "At the time, the film rights to the story were held by Walt Disney." In the book, The Animated Movie Guide, author Jerry Beck states that "Walt Disney held the film rights to The Lord of the Rings for ten years, passing it on to United Artists in 1968."
It seems that these notions of Disney ownership of the property were heavily perpetuated in the late 1970s when Rankin-Bass produced an animated television version of The Hobbit, and Bakshi's film arrived in theaters. In an article about The Hobbit television program, the New York Times noted, "The Walt Disney Studio considered animating The Hobbit, but decided against the project because the work lacked the kind of humor that audiences expect from Disney animation and because any attempt to alter Tolkien's story to inject such humor might result in bad will and vocal resentment among Tolkien devotees." In its review of the Bakshi film, Time Magazine observed that, " . . . the task of translating this ring-cycle to the screen had stymied some of the most formidable names in Hollywood, including Walt Disney."
Dropping references to Walt Disney into these Hollywood-Tolkien discussions certainly made for compelling copy, but these casual, yet seemingly genuine notions of Disney involvement and implications of rights ownership, were ultimately without merit or substance.
That is not to say that Tolkien's creative efforts were not bantered about the halls of the Disney Studios. According to author Charles Solomon, a studio artist described to Walt, in a 1938 memo, an idea for Fantasia that combined Tolkien's hobbits with Wagner's epic The Ring of the Nibelungen. Animator Woolie Reitherman remembered Walt once considering The Lord of the Rings, but abandoned the idea when his own story department determined that it would be too long and unwieldy to be produced as an animated feature. In the end, there appears to be no evidence to suggest that the Disney Studio actively sought to acquire the film rights from Tolkien. And it is a simple fact that Disney never at any point owned the rights to either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings.
Resources from the Tolkien collection stored at Marquette University and citations from Tolkien's own personal letters, document clearly the various attempts to bring The Lord of the Rings to the screen. This documentation serves to severely undermine the Time Magazine notion that," . . . the task of translating this ring-cycle to the screen had stymied some of the most formidable names in Hollywood."
In 1957, Tolkien received a screenplay proposal from Forrest J. Ackerman, Morton Grady Zimmerman, and Al Brodax. After some negotiations, Tolkien ultimately rejected the trio's efforts, dissatisfied with both the treatment and what the author considered poor financial prospects. Twleve years later, Tolkien sold the film rights to United Artists. Filmmaker John Boorman attempted to develop the trilogy as a single live-action feature but never succeeded. Tolkien passed away in 1973. In 1976, the Saul Zaentz Company acquired the rights and ultimately produced Bakshi's animated incarnation.
Even more outlandish statements can occasionally be found that claim Tolkien and Disney were good friends throughout the 1930s, assertions that seem to have no basis in any historical documentation. Animation scholar and Disney biographer Michael Barrier agrees that there is no record of any direct connection between Walt Disney and J. R. R. Tolkien. Barrier suggests that people may be confusing Tolkien with T. H. White, another British author of fantasy-inspired literature. In 1939, Disney acquired the rights to White's bestselling book The Sword in the Stone, but would not produce his Sword in the Stone animated feature until over two decades later. This time frame loosely parallels Tolkien's own Middle Earth publishing history; The Hobbit was first published in 1937 and The Lord of the Rings followed two decades later. Tolkien's initial contacts with movie producers in the late 1950s were not far removed from Disney's production schedule on The Sword in the Stone.
The ultimate irony to the Disney-Tolkien scenario is that Tolkien simply despised Disney's interpretations of fairy tales and fantasy literature. In a letter from 1937 that discussed illustrations for an American publication of The Hobbit, Tolkien stated the he would " . . .veto anything from or influenced by the Disney Studios (for all whose works I have a heartfelt loathing)." In later years, Tolkien would continue to hold in contempt anything he perceived as Disney-fied, and seemed to make it quite clear he would never grant Disney rights to any of his literary properties. But, it could be said that the Disney Company in fact had the last laugh in the matter, albeit briefly, when the film rights to The Lord of the Rings were held by Disney subsidiary Miramax for a short period of time in the 1990s.
Although this may all suggest that Tolkien was an author who fiercely protected the integrity of his literary properties, the good professor's motives were not entirely pure in that respect. While his grudge against Disney was readily apparent, he was not necessarily adverse to his works being artistically compromised, if the price was right. In a letter to his son Christopher in 1957, Tolkien addressed the prospects of that initial movie proposal in no uncertain terms:
"The Story Line or Scenario was, however, on a lower level. In fact bad. But it looks as if business might be done. Stanley U. and I have agreed on our policy: Art or Cash. Either very profitable terms indeed; or absolute author's veto on objectionable features or alterations."
So, in the end, one has to ask, how did the myth of Walt Disney's ownership of film rights to The Lord of the Rings emerge into both Disney- and Tolkien-based popular cultures? It may have been nothing more than an inadverdent combination of wishful thinking and simple logic. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, sensibilites surrounding a Lord of the Rings film adaptation almost always pointed to an animated treatment. During that era, Disney would have have no doubt always been the leading candidate in the public perception to take on such a challenge. When Bakshi's 1978 film generally did not live up to expections both artistically and comercially, many fans of both Walt Disney and J. R. R. Tolkien seemed eager to reflect on a "What if . . ." Walt Disney-Lord of the Rings scenario. The rest is, shall we say . . . mythology.