On this edition of “Watching Series,” we take a look at the three loosely connected animated Tolkien movies from the late 1970s: The Hobbit (1977), The Lord of the Rings (1978), and The Return of the King (1980).
I watched the last movie of the animated Lord of the Rings trilogy first for this article. This was done out of practicality — The Return of the King DVD was the first used copy I found in the area — and also to attempt recreating the ’80s home movie experience. People who were kids in that decade know the scenario: your parents come home in the evening, one of them grabbing a random VHS from the rental store. The Return of the King is exactly the kind of tape ol’ pops would have brought home to his kids, whenever he could remember that he’d already checked out Encino Man a million times before. You have no choice but to watch whatever makes its way to your home.
So let’s say we are all very young again and there is The Return of the King playing in the VCR in my living room. Inured on arcades and football, I have no concept that the cartoon is the conclusion to a larger story. No concept of J.R.R. Tolkien. And certainly no idea that halfway around the world, a teenage Peter Jackson, who had by now seen the animated trilogy, was getting an idea, that maybe it’d be up to him to tell Tolkien’s tale on-screen better than this.
Were I still the naive ’80s child and had just saw The Return of the King, I’d guess I’d have been delighted by the movie’s color and animation. And find the rest completely incomprehensible.
This TV-movie was directed by Alan Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass (their powers combined, they are Rankin/Bass Productions, most famous for their stop-motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer specials). Rankin and Bass were tasked with the unenviable job of following up on Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, which had come out in theaters a year earlier in 1979. Bakshi covered The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers novels, and the movie he put out was violent, weird, and scary. The Rankin/Bass modus operandi is to make movies for kids. Exciting but not super scary adaptations, with a helluva lot of Glenn Yarbrough on the soundtrack.
So Rankin and Bass needed to tone down everything Bakshi made too dark for television, and with less money and less time than he had. Rankin/Bass were concluding a story they had no part of before, and with all the events of Return of the King having already been set previously in motion, they didn’t even get their own chance to properly introduce the characters. Frodo, Sam, Aragorn and the rest are locked on a rail, pushed mechanically towards the resolution, just so it could finally be said that Tolkien had been adapted for the screen.
Trying to recreate the ’80s watching experience was a failure then. I had to use my adult memory of the Peter Jackson films as a shorthand to decipher the action and characters in this RotK. The only significant addition in this RotK is a scene where Samwise is tempted by the Ring, a moment that further sharpened the corruptive nature of Sauron’s jewelry.
RotK stretches its limited animation to pad out the run time, like using extra-long establishing shots of villages and Minas Tirith, or scenes of hands gliding over motionless strategic maps of Middle-earth. Those moments actually stood out to me: it was like watching living storyboards to the live-action movies. Incidentally, I share Bilbo’s love for maps, and had I watched RotK as a kid, I would’ve rewound those map and village scenes over and over, just to study the lines and trails. Regardless if you thought the movie was faithful to the book or not, I think seeing Middle-earth come to animated life that young would spark anyone’s imagination.
I next watched The Hobbit, also by Alan Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass, adapted for television three years before The Return of the King. The Hobbit is easily the best of the trilogy, and remains (until next year) the only film that shows Tolkien’s first novel in its entirety.
The Hobbit and The Return of the King are visually consistent, Rankin/Bass having used the same crew for both films. Art and animation was done by Topcraft, a Japanese studio whose bankruptcy in 1985 would lead to the founding of Studio Ghibli. Indeed, the landscapes in the two films have a handsome, pastoral quality, very much in the vein of Nausicaa. The art is more accomplished in Return of the King, but thematically fits better with The Hobbit‘s lighter adventuring.
The film captures the novel’s simplicity and joy. The irony of Bilbo being thrust into a ridiculously dangerous journey is not lost on this movie, using it to establish a narrative arc that witnesses Bilbo’s ability to learn, question, and discover inner bravery. The Hobbit, originally conceived as a standalone piece, moves free from the dramatic, portentous weight of the future Lord of the Rings. When Bilbo puts on the Ring and disappears, it inspires whimsy and a spirit of fun. One can enjoy the moment, and not have to think about Ring-wraiths and Sauron and all that upcoming sad stuff. And Gollum is not shown as a revered, tragic figure, but a weirdo in a cave who gets off on riddles. And then there’s Smaug himself (wonderfully animated) to consider, along with the Battle of Five Armies, secret messages in maps, forest trolls and giant spiders — this is pure adventure, briskly paced and packed with incident.
A year after The Hobbit, Ralph Bakshi got his two-hour Lord of the Rings movie into theaters. Was it strange that the guy who did Fritz the Cat and Coonskin would be the one to adapt Tolkien for theaters? Or would that not be as strange as hiring the Kiwi who did Braindead and Meet the Feebles for the same job 25 years later?
So in 1978, Bakshi adapted The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers into one movie called The Lord of the Rings: Part 1. His film is a mixed media of violently clashing rotoscoping, real photography, and abstract backgrounds. It looks like a mess and plays like it too. Which was always one of the selling points with Bakshi: Were his movies abrasive and choppy because he never had the money to make them look better, or was it because he just wanted to piss people off? The answer has probably always been a little bit of both. His movies are certainly never dull.
Here’s a thought about orcs. People who saw this movie as kids mention how scary the orcs were, which is understandable since they’re shown as one large singular mass, a fleet of dark fast zombies. It’d be impossible to rotoscope that many orcs on a 1977 budget, so only small essential details were painted on top of the orc actors, like red eyes or fangs. As a side effect to that, the dumbest monsters in this Middle-earth also now look and move the most like real-life humans. This visual conflict is probably what we refer to now as the uncanny valley. We instinctively look for human characteristics in other creatures as a means of social reassurance, but with these human/orcs, the more you stare at the shape, the less sense the shape makes. There’s the unsettling part.
Moving on, Bakshi was led to believe he’d get to adapt The Return of the King and purposefully stopped his 1978 movie short, right after the victory at Helm’s Deep and as Gollum is leading Frodo to Shelob’s lair. Then at the last minute, the producers removed the Part 1 from The Lord of the Rings title, figuring nobody would want to pay for half a movie. The movie made money anyway. The producers pushed Bakshi out anyway. Turns out they didn’t even own the movie rights to Return of the King. Those had been at Rankin/Bass Productions all along…
It is evident now that the animated trilogy served as a blueprint for the live-action movies. Peter Jackson’s Fellowship and Two Towers especially match the story beats within the Bakshi work, including the omission of Tom Bombadil and Farmer Maggot, and pushing the Shelob fight from the end of Two Towers to the beginning of Return of the King.
Jackson, fan of the books first and foremost, probably viewed the animated trilogy as a series of mistakes, just like most anyone would. But keep an open mind, and a mistake becomes an opportunity to learn. The takeaway from this 5-hour trilogy of the late 1970s: That it was very much possible to put Tolkien’s story on screen. As in, if you take only these characters and guide them through only these plot points, you will have a complete story. It won’t be very good, but at least you can get financing.
And that’s a crucial skill for a writer, anyway, being able to boil your story down to its raw elements without destroying it in the process. Using what worked and what didn’t work in the cartoons as a jumping off point, Jackson could now, decades later, artfully re-introduce characters, locations, and events that had been only in the books. Life and atmosphere returning to Middle-earth right before our eyes.
In other words, let’s say the animated movies are like a big vat of Tolkien chicken broth. Basic foodstuff — reasonably filling, gets the job done, certainly no substitute for solids. Give that vat to a guy like Peter Jackson, well-fed on Tolkien lore, and he’ll know what to cram in to get the flavor right: lembas bread, raw fish, honey-cake, PO-TA-TOES… Baby, you got a stew going!