LOS ANGELES -- As a movie property, the famed J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy "The Lord of the Rings" showed itself briefly and then, like a hobbit with a magic ring, disappeared, not to be seen again.
Published in the mid-1950s as a sequel to Mr. Tolkien's "The Hobbit, " "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy features vivid tales of good and evil in the ancient, mythical lands of dwarfs, hobbits and men. It has sold 50 million copies worldwide and has been translated into two dozen languages.
But it has inspired only one movie, a mediocre animated feature 20 years ago.
Now, in a major gamble, New Line Cinema has committed more than $130 million to produce three back-to-back, special-effects-filled live- action films based on the books "The Fellowship of the Ring," "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King." Filming is to begin next year, and the first installment is expected by Christmas 2000.
The ambitious project is the result of an unusual financial alliance between rival studios: New Line and Miramax Films. It puts at the helm Peter Jackson, the New Zealand director of the critically acclaimed "Heavenly Creatures," a haunting 1994 movie starring Kate Winslet about two teen-age girls whose friendship leads to tragedy.
Choosing Mr. Jackson was a leap of faith for the producers because he is not well-known to the general public and has had no big commercial successes.
But New Line executives, who approved the series in August, were impressed with the long, international popularity of the Tolkien books, the potential for a merchandising bonanza and the commitment of Mr. Jackson.
"There is no question that it has a significant gamble component. We decided to accept the gamble," says Robert Shaye, chairman of New Line, who suggests that the "Rings" movies could reach the success of the "Star Wars" films.
Though reluctant to project film grosses, Mr. Shaye says the studio' s ambition is "to come close to `Star Wars.' "
Mr. Tolkien, an Oxford University professor, wrote his "Hobbit" sequel during and after World War II. The "Rings" trilogy was published in the mid-1950s and became a countercultural, then mainstream, hit when it caught on in the United States a decade later.
The trilogy follows the adventures of Frodo Baggins, a hobbit - a diminutive creature of a race that Mr. Tolkien once described as an "unobtrusive but very ancient people; more numerous formerly than they are today; for they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth."
Set in a land called Middle Earth, the story has Frodo and his trusty servant, Sam, carrying the Magic Ring of Invisibility to the center of the kingdom of the evil Dark Lord Sauron so the ring can be destroyed and humanity saved.
In a foreword to a 1965 paperback edition, Mr. Tolkien explained that he had "the desire of a taleteller" to try his hand at a "really long story that would hold the attention of the readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them."
That is the same motivation, more or less, of Hollywood filmmakers, who have long seen the Tolkien books as a prime source of movie magic.
Mr. Tolkien, who died in 1973 without seeing a movie version of " Rings," sold movie rights to United Artists, but no film was ever made. Then, in the 1970s, the rights were sold to producer Saul Zaentz, hot off his first film, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
Mr. Zaentz made "Rings" into an animated film covering the first 1 1/2 books of the trilogy. "The Lord of the Rings" was released in 1978 to lukewarm reviews and an unenthusiastic public.
"We didn't make as good a film as I hoped that we would make," says Mr. Zaentz, whose other credits include Academy Award-winners "Amadeus" and "The English Patient." "It didn't lose any money; it did make some money. But somehow, the animation didn't quite work for me."
For another two decades, Mr. Zaentz protectively held onto the Tolkien rights - he also owned the rights to "The Hobbit" - and rejected one suitor after another.
"We wanted to see someone make it who we felt could really make it, someone who really just didn't want to make a hit picture and move on, someone who really knew what they were doing," he says.
That person turned out to be Mr. Jackson, whose work on "Heavenly Creatures" impressed Mr. Zaentz.
In January 1997, Miramax optioned the "Rings" rights with Mr. Jackson attached as director.
But after 18 months of development, Mr. Jackson clashed with Miramax; Mr. Jackson and writing partner Fran Walsh wanted to make at least two films, while Miramax was pressing for one.
Miramax finally allowed Mr. Jackson to find another studio. New Line leaped on the project, reimbursing Miramax about $10 million for development and committing $130 million for production. Miramax keeps a financial interest as executive producer.