Typical! Wait decades for a film with hobbits in and six come along at the same time! At least, that’s how it felt. Like many teens of the time I had my copy of the single volume paperback edition of The Lord Of The Rings shortly after it was first published in 1968 having read The Hobbit in primary school. Over the years I’ve ended up buying multiple copies of both books; hardback, paperback, illustrated, with or without appendices, and in varying numbers of volumes.
I’ve listened to radio adaptations and dramatised releases on cassette (for younger readers they were downloads that you had to go and collect from a shop and listen to with a special player) but the question for me was always could this ever be on a screen?
And that question was being asked by the people behind those screens as well. As the book sales took off so the studio chiefs saw all that money and were horrified that it wasn’t going to them so they started looking into changing that. But that was when the problems started. To paraphrase Clive James “books and radio are like TV but the pictures are better.”
Tolkien had created a, literal, whole new world. Language, history, demography, cartography, religion, mythology, everything. But it was all only confined by the boundaries of the English language and the imagination of the reader and there lay the problem… how were you going to get that on a screen? At the time the choices were animation and stop motion work.
OK, Georges Méliès was making fantasy films back at the end of the 19th century but they relied more on novelty than sophistication. Looking back on them you get a warm glow and a nostalgic feeling but it is like the feeling you get after you find an old painting done by your child when they were in nursery.
Between the wars Disney mastered the art of precision animation and ended up introducing synchronised sound, full-colour three-strip Technicolor, feature-length cartoons to the world. To this day it still surprises me that the Disney Corporation didn’t just steam roller the competition in the sixties, buy up the rights, and make their own version of it. But then, I suppose, the reason is obvious… while Disney are renowned for killing off parents, The Lord Of The Rings has some very dark sections which are not suitable to put in front of little ones which, ultimately, is Disney’s market. They may have got away with making a version of The Hobbit but it would have been a bit like making Snow White and killing off Sleepy, Doc, and Dopey.
But could it seriously be made by any other technique? At the time Ray Harryhausen was the king of stop motion action films but they definitely seem a bit creaky and with jerky movements nowadays. So it had to be animation. After all… if you can imagine something you can draw it can’t you? But then there are different levels of drawing. I can’t imagine anyone paying to see an animation that I drew! Which is where rotoscoping comes in.
Rotoscoping was invented way back in 1915 by Max Fleischer. Basically, it involved shooting a film of actors performing the script, projecting the film a frame at a time onto glass, and then tracing it. This gave accurate, life-like drawings which could then be tweaked so that, instead of an unknown actor being on the screen, you got a giant mouse or a duck or whatever you wanted. When Fleisher’s patent expired in 1934 other studios started using the technique. By altering the relative projection distances you could shoot a group of people of similar heights and then trace them as one full size person and seven dwarfs as Disney did in 1937.
So now we have the stories and we also have a technique for getting them onto the screen. So what’s next?
The first effort is animation from Czechoslovakia in 1967. Now anyone who complained about Peter Jackson’s take on The Hobbit being too drawn out (like butter scraped over too much bread, perhaps?) should have a look at this… it lasts all of 11:42. That’s eleven minutes and forty two seconds not eleven hours and forty two minutes. How do they cram the whole book into just over ten minutes? In short, they don’t. There’s a character called Bilbo Baggins, another called Gollum, a dragon named Slag, and at the end Bilbo marries a princess. Oh… and it’s not really animated, just the camera getting moved over a number of drawings.
Then there’s a break of ten years before another animated version hits the screens, small ones this time though. The Hobbit of 1977 was made for TV but runs for 78 minutes and manages to stick to the story… more or less. I do know that this was a childhood favourite of our own correspondent, Jill so she might like to chip in a bit more. Personally, I didn’t even know it existed and until I watched it as research for this article.
The next effort is Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated version of The Lord Of The Rings. Well… the first two books, anyway. Or is it? I digress back into the world of literature…
Originally Tolkien planned The Lord Of The Rings as one volume of a two volume set alongside The Silmarillion but the publishers baulked at the thought of a book the size and weight of an anvil and so a three volume edition of just The Lord Of The Rings was published and each of the three volumes was made of two separate books. Tolkien was initially opposed to titles being given to each two-book volume, preferring instead the use of the six individual book titles: e.g. The Lord of the Rings: Vol. 1, The Ring Sets Out and The Ring Goes South; Vol. 2, The Treason of Isengard and The Ring Goes East; Vol. 3, The War of the Ring and The End of the Third Age. However, these individual book titles were dropped, and after pressure from his publishers, Tolkien suggested the volume titles: Vol. 1, The Shadow Grows; Vol. 2, The Ring in the Shadow; Vol. 3, The War of the Ring or The Return of the King. As you know, only one was picked up.
Anyway… this is RunPee not Book Nook so let’s get back to Ralph Bakshi and his animated version of The Fellowship Of The Ring and The Two Towers.
Bakshi came across The Lord Of The Rings shortly after it was published and decided straight away that it was a story that could be told by animation. By the end of the sixties a variety of names had been mentioned in conjunction with the title including The Beatles, David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, Michelangelo Antonioni, John Boorman, United Artists, Disney, Mick Jagger, and David Carradine. The mind boggles at all the different combinations that could have been. Unlike the 1967 version this one follows the story quite closely. There are differences but then there have to be. Taking a book that’s big enough to stun a rhino and squeezing it into a couple of hours and there have to be changes even when you’re only actually using two thirds of it.
Publicity for the film said that Bakshi had created an “entirely new technique in filmmaking”. This new technique was, in fact, rotoscoping… I suppose something sixty or so years old could be called new. Watching the film now and it does show how badly it’s ageing. For me there’s a consistency problem; some parts of the film look like traditional animation while others don’t look animated at all… more like a colour washed or solarised print. It’d be nice to say that worrying about the animation technique is a bit like worrying about the font when you’re reading a book but we all know that we go to see a film in the cinema for the image and the quality thereof so, for me, the variance in the image was a distraction rather whatever it was supposed to be.
Incidentally, one of the uncredited in-betweeners was a chap called Tim Burton… I wonder what became of him?
The next screen outing for a hobbit came ten years later with 1985’s “Ска́зочное путеше́ствие ми́стера Би́льбо Бе́ггинса, Хо́ббита, че́рез ди́кий край, чёрный лес, за тума́нные го́ры. Туда́ и обра́тно,” or “The Fabulous Journey of Mr. Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit, Across the Wild Land, Through the Dark Forest, Beyond the Misty Mountains. There and Back Again” This was a (Surprise, surprise!) Russian live action, TV version. I have to admit to not having seen this version. It is available on YouTube but without subtitles and I’ve only had three Duolingo lessons.
And then everything goes quiet until the next millennium when Peter Jackson’s versions for both books arrive on the scene. These are the films that most people will know about and most have seen… definitely more than the Russian or Czech versions. So what’s left to say about them?
They weren’t animated. Or were they? To my mind they are just more sophisticated live-action and animation combination… imagine Mary Poppins but with more realistic penguins. My argument with “The Lion King” is that there wasn’t an animated version in 1994 and a live action version in 2019 but two animated versions with the latter one drawn with a pixel fine pencil.
They were filmed in the wrong order. The Hobbit should have come first because it is, very obviously, the start of the saga and was first published in 1937 over fifteen years before The Lord Of The Rings. Most importantly, if The Hobbit was put into production first then they may have reflected the relative sizes of the two books and just made it into one film rather than the overstretched three film version that we ended up with.
Ian McKellen wasn’t the first choice for Gandalf. Peter Jackson originally wanted Sean Connery for the role to the extent of offering him 15% of the box office takings on top of $5million for each film. This would have been a pay day of $465million. But, somehow, “you shall not pash” doesn’t have the same ring to it. The next choice would have been, I think, just as acceptable as Ian McKellen… none other than his real life best friend, and MCU mortal enemy, Patrick Stewart but that would have meant him having starring roles in three massive franchises: Tolkien, X-Men, and Star Trek! That would surely have put him line for canonisation.
Other casting near misses were Jake Gyllenhaal as Frodo. Personally I think Jake would have been better as I find Elijah Wood a bit immature and always on the verge of tears. Various Aragorns were considered before a list minute switch to Viggo Mortensen… Daniel Day-Lewis, Russell Crowe, Vin Diesel(eek!), and, possibly the hardest to visualise, Nicholas Cage. As soon as Sean Bean showed up everyone knew that Boromir wouldn’t be around at the end. Maybe if Liam Neeson had been allowed to transfer some of his “very particular skills” he might have survived. Helena Bonham-Carter was lined up for Arwen. When it boils down to it Liv Tyler is just more, well, Elfin. But, perhaps, the biggest disappointment for me was Elrond. Don’t get me wrong, Hugo Weaving is awesome but an early choice was (gasp!) David Bowie!
And finally there is the question of just how numb do you want your bum to get. As with a lot of big projects there was a theatrical release and an extended release. If you want to just watch the ‘short’ versions you’ll need to put aside seventeen hours and twelve minutes. Sitting through all the extended releases will keep you occupied for twenty hours and fifty eight minutes… best get one of those rubber ring cushions lined up.
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