Adapting Tolkien: The Films

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When one considers how popular J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth is, it’s a bit surprising that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings haven’t been adapted into other mediums more often.

It’s not so surprising that The Silmarillion has remained relatively untouched, because that work is, well, you know… it’s The Silmarillion.

But then you start looking at all the different Tolkien adaptations, and all the works that have been inspired by Tolkien, and you end up being surprised (and a bit overwhelmed) that Tolkien shows up in other mediums as often as he does.

The film versions of Tolkien’s work must be the most widely known Tolkien adaptations.

Rankin-Bass

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For many of us, the 1977 animated adaptation of The Hobbit by Rankin-Bass is one of the defining moments in our evolution as Tolkien fans. It’s too bad about the 1980 follow-up The Return of the King, which is such a grotesque abomination that you have to look extremely hard and be extremely forgiving to find any of its redeeming qualities. Try as I might, the nicest thing I can think to say about it is that some of my friends like the song Where There’s a Whip There’s a Way. Catchy, but not enough to hang an entire cartoon on.

While The Hobbit suffered from some bizarre character design and from being so abridged that it lost much of its thematic weight, it at least managed to capture an otherworldly, creepy, fairy tale tone, which can still manage to capture the attention and imagination of children. The Return of the King, on the other hand, manages to be even more trite and childish than its predecessor, which is actually an impressive feat, since The Hobbit is a twee book that’s blatantly written for children, while The Return of the King is the weightier and more ponderously dense tome.

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And somehow, the creep factor of the Rankin-Bass Hobbit manages to be appealing, like a darkly magical image of a Brian Froud fairy, while the creep factor of the Rankin-Bass Return of the King veers wildly into territory that can only be described as uncomfortable.

Ralph Bakshi

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I almost wonder if the poor quality of the Rankin-Bass adaptation of The Return of the King was the result of it being rushed into and through production to take advantage of the infamous and unfinished Ralph Bakshi adaptation of The Lord of the Rings from 1978, two years earlier. Bakshi’s version of the fantasy epic is a fan favorite target for ridicule. It’s the kind of movie that’s so widely accepted as being terrible that it’s watched for the entertainment value of how bad it is, like an epic fantasy version of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space. The film is undoubtedly a failure. Even it’s more glaring flaws, such as the spastic overacting mannerisms of some of its rotoscoped actors, or the choice to change Saruman’s name to Aruman and then back to Saruman, barely scratch the surface of where this adaptation went wrong.

It’s such a magnificent failure, though. While Bakshi’s wonderfully psychedelic and experimental style don’t quite mesh with Middle-earth, you can still admire the movie for how psychedelic and experimental it is. The screenplay certainly has its flaws, but still, it’s a screenplay by Peter S. Beagle, the man responsible for beautiful novels such as The Last Unicorn and The Innkeeper’s Song. The movie abruptly ends halfway through the story, but it ends with Theoden’s poignant, melancholy charge from Helm’s Deep and Gandalf’s timely, triumphant arrival. And who could complain about Aragorn being voiced by John Hurt? Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings may not be a success, but it certainly deserves to be revisited with as open a mind as possible. It’s full of hidden but shining gems if one is willing to look for them.

Peter Jackson

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This brings us to Peter Jackson’s epic, three film production of the saga. These films are, in a way, the opposite of Ralph Bakshi’s adaptation. Where Bakshi’s film immediately annoys because it’s so utterly wrong, Jackson’s films immediately enchant because they get so much completely right. Where Bakshi’s murky film is saved by a scattering of shiny, brilliant bits of gold shining through its tarnish, Jackson’s shining films are marred by scratches and dings that dull its gold leaf surface.

In a way, I have more admiration for Bakshi’s telling of the story, because it feels like he was, at the very least, trying to do something artful and poetic with Tolkien’s tale. Sure, his version of the Flight to the Ford drags, but it’s also so nightmarish and stark and strange and dark and ethereal that it effectively captures the sense of Frodo slipping into the shadow world of the Wraiths. Jackson’s version of the Flight to the Ford, on the other hand, is simply a thrilling chase scene. A chase scene that frustratingly ends with Arwen stealing one of Frodo’s defining moments of strength and courage.

I do love Jackson’s films, despite their flaws. They suffer from too many typical action film clichés, and they alter or excise the source material in a way that weaken some of Tolkien’s themes (no one will ever convince me that cutting The Scouring of the Shire was the right choice), but they are movies that are an obvious labor of love, and they capture more of the heart and spirit of Tolkien’s work than I ever expected from a big budget production.

I wish I could say the same of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit. I’ve written about this before, so for now I’ll just say that the first part of the trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, was like Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings with all its flaws magnified. It’s not unenjoyable, but it’s a depressingly missed opportunity that is clumsy in its inability to find a consistent tone, and misguided and artless in its attempt to expand upon such a simple tale.

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At the very least, the casting in all of Jackson’s films is about as perfect as one could expect, which is always a huge plus.

Gene Deitch

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Last, and possibly least, we have, from 1966, the 12 minute animated adaptation by cartoonist Gene Deitch of The Hobbit. Saying that this is animated might be an overstatement, because it’s really just a series of narrated stills. Calling it The Hobbit is even a bit of a stretch, because other than a few names, the general plot of a hobbit on a quest to steal treasure from a dragon, and a few highly altered but still recognizable moments, it bears little resemblance to the original story. It’s rather like Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in that respect (and yes, before you attack me too vociferously, that’s me being hyperbolic).

On the off-chance that you’ve never see it, it’s worth taking a look. The illustrations are actually quite lovely, and it has a quick, breathless, meandering pace that almost reminds me of old Rocky and Bullwinke cartoons. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBnVL1Y2src

Others

There are other Tolkien film adaptations out there that I have yet to have the pleasure (or displeasure) of seeing.

There are fan made films such as The Hunt for Gollum and Born of Hope. I’ve heard good things about The Hunt for Gollum, and the few seconds of footage I’ve seen at least look pretty.

A television movie titled The Fabulous Journey of Mr. Bilbo Baggins the Hobbit was produced in the Soviet Union in 1985.

1993 saw a Finnish production called Hobitit (The Hobbits), which was a nine episode adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

The Peak of the Pile

Despite my misgivings, the best film adaptation of Tolkien to date is clearly Peter Jackson’s trilogy of films. Even with its flawed screenplays, they manage to be the most entertaining and engaging of the Tolkien film adaptations. And while Tolkien’s books cry out for a quieter, more meditative approach than Jackson’s bombastic style, Jackson’s penchant for going big and brash resulted in some powerful moments. Bottom line is, of all the film adaptations, Jackson’s take on Tolkien’s masterpiece is the least egregious.

Here’s hoping that a couple decades from now we finally get the films that can be more truthfully and honestly called the definitive adaptations of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Not that there can truly be any such thing, but surely we can get closer than we have up until now.

In the meantime, I think I will go watch Peter Jackson’s trilogy again.

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3 responses to “Adapting Tolkien: The Films

  • Julia

    Nice List! I’ve never seen any other Tolkien adaptations but the Peter Jackson versions, but I agree with you on them. While the LotR films were decent and probably milestones in film history in many ways, the Hobbit was a bit disappointing. I especially was angry that it tried so badly to *be* LotR in structure and feel that it completely missed the fact that the Hobbit, as a book, has a different tone and voice… But we’ll see how the next one goes, right? 🙂

  • julianrmunds

    Bakshi’s adaptation surely has it’s charms. His Gollum is far more chilling than Jackson’s. There is also a Soviet adaptation that, forgive I cannot recall who created, roughly follows the story line of The Hobbit. It is worth a watch just to see how a small budget can be strangely freeing.

    Wonderful Article and Happy Fandom

  • julianrmunds

    Reblogged this on THE EXTREMIS REVIEW and commented:
    Here’s a wonderful encapsulation and discussion of the many various adaptations of Tolkien. Read and be astounded.

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