Tales from Tolkien: A Retrospective on Film Adaptations of Middle Earth

It has been over a decade since the first of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations, The Fellowship of the Ring, was released.  This film was greeted with both critical and audience acclaim upon its debut, and became a definitive cinematic event of the early 21st Century.  On December 14, 2012, Jackson’s long-awaited adaptation of the prequel to The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, will be released.  Jackson’s films have become regarded as classics to the point that many fans may become unhappy with anyone other than Peter Jackson making a cinematic Tolkien adaptation, and it may come as a surprise to them that some film adaptations of Tolkien’s mythic cycle had already been made prior to Jackson’s! While waiting for the release of the first film in Jackson’s Hobbit adaptation, let’s take a look back at some prior cinematic versions of Tolkien’s works, and at Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Rankin Bass production of The HobbitThe first film adaptation of a Tolkien novel, the Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit was released in 1977 for television.  The film is only 77 minutes long, an extremely short length for any adaptation of Tolkien’s work, and many aspects of the story are abridged, or completely removed in some cases.  However, the film retains a certain amount of charm for a number of reasons.  The voice casting is surprisingly good and features such noted talents as John Huston as Gandalf, and Richard Boone as Smaug!  The animation is also extremely well-done for a 1970s animated film, and there is a very good reason for this; most of the animation team was made up of Japanese staff that would later go on to work for Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, which made anime classics such as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. The film contains several singing segments, and Tolkien purists will be pleased to know that almost all the lyrics are taken directly from the book’s poetry or adaptations of the verse from the book.  This film will entertain children and many fans of the novel, although viewers seeking a more epic and intense vision like Jackson’s films may find it leaves something to be desired.

Nazgul as depicted in the Bakshi filmSadly, the infamous Ralph Bakshi adaptation of The Lord of the Rings does not retain the same level of appeal as the earlier Hobbit adaptation.  The film was animated using a process called “rotoscoping,” which used drawings of animated images imposed over live-action. This lends certain sequences, particularly the Hobbits’ early flight from the Ringwraiths, a jerky, hallucinatory quality that makes them memorably nightmarish.  However, this technique gives the characters a distracting, shambling quality in daytime scenes that can be very distracting. Some of the character scenes can seem awkward and bizarre. Boromir wears a stereotypical horned Viking helmet that gives him a “Hagar the Horrible” look, and Aragorn is drawn with Native American facial features.  The film suffered from numerous production problems and a general lack of attention to detail—characters mispronounce numerous words, the rotoscoped actors don’t always resemble the animated character, and characters can’t seem to agree whether the name of the wizard of Isengard is “Saruman” or “Aruman”.  The most unforgivable sign of production problems happens at the very end of the film—as Gandalf triumphantly rides Shadowfax at the climax of the Battle of Helms Deep, the narrator tells us about “the adventure of The Lord of the Rings," and the film abruptly cuts to a black and red credit scene, leaving the story completely unfinished! This is because Bakshi could not secure funding to make an animated version of The Return of the King, but leaves an extremely bad taste in the audience’s mouth.

The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson's versionJackson’s films were a revelation when The Fellowship of the Ring debuted in 2001. Successful live-action fantasy films were few and far between prior to Fellowship, and many people thought Tolkien’s works could never be successfully adapted cinematically by anyone, least of all an unknown director like Peter Jackson.  But since then the skepticism and derision have faded away, replaced by awe and wonder.  It’s been so long, and I’ve seen the films so many times that I can’t remember the exact point when that sense first came over me—was it when Aragorn leaped out of the darkness, thrusting his torch at the Ringwraiths, to save Frodo’s life? The early conversation between Frodo and Gandalf in Hobbiton? The prelude, depicting Isildur and Elrond’s struggle to cut the One Ring from Sauron’s hand?  The film blends together so well that all these moments seem mere parts of a vaster, more glorious whole, and the individual films themselves seem less like stand-alone “movies” than chapters in a vast, brilliant visual novel.  It was Jackson who pioneered the great storytelling technique of the 2000s, the concept of a film series where each individual entry was designed to function as a segment of a greater tale, and plot elements would be drawn out and richly illustrated over the course of the entire series. This technique was used to great effect by the directors of the Harry Potter films and by Christopher Nolan in his Dark Knight saga

Andy Serkis as Smeagol in The HobbitJackson’s films also contained numerous memorable performances, such as Ian McKellan as Gandalf and Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, but one performance that was universally loved was Andy Serkis’ brilliant performance as Gollum.  To create Gollum, WETA digital motion captured Serkis’ performance and imposed the digital Gollum over it, preserving the motions of Serkis’ face and limbs.  Through this, we can see every disturbing motion and facial tic of Gollum as he rasps for “my precioouusss,”  bites into a catfish, and leers with envy at Frodo’s possession of the One Ring. This technique was as revolutionary in its time as the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park once were and was used to create other CGI creatures such as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of Apes and The Hulk in The Avengers. Serkis will reprise his role as Gollum in Jackson’s Hobbit films and is but one of many reasons they are strongly anticipated.  Will Jackson be able to maintain the high standard of quality he set in his Lord of the Rings trilogy?  This is perhaps the biggest question on the minds of filmgoers this Christmas.