You know, most of the time when I hear objections raised against an adapted work, like the Lord of the Rings, it usually takes the form of ‘it’s not enough like the book.’
Yet, strangely, I usually find that following the book too closely isn’t a good idea. David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune or the Harry Potter movies often recreate scenes word for word from the books, and the result ends up as a disjointed, inelegant crush. Whereas the ones that are a bit more liberal, like Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, which aren’t all that wayward anyway, capture the magic in a way that makes the most of the change of format.
Still, I did argue earlier this week that the new Hobbit movies are straying somewhat further than is reasonable. So for those who want to see their beloved childhood favourite rendered faithfully, not merely spectacularly, then there is another option: the 1977 animated rendition of the Hobbit by Rankin Bass studios.
People around my age have all experienced this production, often at school during study of the book. And if you ask about it, the opinion is almost certainly that it’s terrible.
And frankly, I find this statement somewhat puzzling. Possibly a lot of people conflate it with Ralph Bakshi’s visually artistic but otherwise dreadful rendition of about two-thirds of the Lord of the Rings, which was guilty of the same erratically stitched-together compression used in the other poorer adaptations listed earlier. Rankin Bass did make a campy and quite sloppy adaptaion of Return of the King, handy since Bakshi never got around to it, which probably is best forgotten.
I suppose part of it is the animation, which is a Japanese rendition of fairy-tale style figures that make all the characters look about 95 years old – for some reason, Thorin’s enormous nose is always my first thought in this direction. The New York Times described the goblins as looking like Maurice Sendak’s doing. And in an act I normally regard as unforgivable, several of the characters – Bilbo, Gandalf, Bard and Smaug among them – are voiced by American actors instead of British ones. Amusing side effects include Gandalf pronouncing treasure “tray-sure” and Smaug’s name being (rather aptly, you have to admit) pronounced “smog” instead of “smowg”
The animation is also rather stylized – several of the animators went on to work for Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. The Great Goblin and the spiders’ deaths end with them spinning out and vanishing. Bilbo’s invisibility when he puts on the Ring is denoted by his becoming semi-transparent. And for some reason, the Mirkwood elves are blue and rather ugly, like Smurf gorillas, and have German accents. Possibly the creators used folkloric images of elves and other Fair Folk and missed the memo on Tolkien’s ideas of elves. Plus Elrond has a beard, Gandalf has a tall pointed hood instead of his signature hat, and Gollum looks more like a gargoyle frog than anything that could once have been a hobbit. On the plus side, the design of Smaug, or at least his face, is unlike the standard issue dragon in most European illustrations and cartoons. He looks almost fox-like. In point of fact, he looks like a Japanese dragon, a novelty that, despite Weta Workshop and Tolkien’s own illustration and all the rest of Western artwork, has become fixed in my mind as the ideal dragon.
And then there’s the music. The 70s-American-folk melodies do use a lot of Tolkien’s lyrics, including the same ones used for “Misty Mountains Cold” in Jackson’s Unexpected Journey. They have a charm and memorable ear worm quality to them which, while stylistically a bit odd, are quite a lot of fun to listen to.
The plot is truncated to fit into the 77 minute runtime: many scenes are a lot briefer, just long enough to get the job done. If nothing else the plot moves quite briskly, while maintaining cohesion. Some changes are a little strange: Gandalf seems to make the sun rise early to trap the trolls, rather than distracting them until it rises on its own; Beorn is absent, joining Bombadil in narrative extraneousness; the Arkenstone and the drama around it is omitted; most bizarrely, in the runup to the Battle of the Five Armies, Thorin seems happy and willing to march into battle with just his thirteen companions (though Bilbo repeatedly points out that this is insane), and treats the arrival of his allies from the Iron Hills as merely a bonus; and while only three of the thirteen dwarves die in the book, seven of them fall in the movie. Bombur and Thorin are the only ones named specifically, with no concern with who the others are.
I re-read the Hobbit in anticipation of Jackson’s movies coming out. And I watched the Rankin Bass version so many times as a kid I fairly memorized it. That being the case, I discovered that the Rankin Bass version oftentimes follows the book word-for-word, or near enough to it. In particular the scene between Bilbo and Smaug is almost dead on the money, as is the scene with Gollum. However abridged, the whole of the basic story is in here. It’s been cut down without turning it into the disconnected mess of cool scenes that many such adaptations end up as. Thorin is also middle-aged or older, as he is in the book.
And thematically it holds up well: Bilbo gains gumption and courage in his adventures, enough to call out Thorin on his greed and bravado by the end, and their reconciliation is quite touching. After all that, Bilbo takes a tiny fraction of his share and goes home to write his memoirs and get as far away from such grand matters as possible.
While I normally cringe at hearing American voices in what is fundmentally a British story, the particular voices involved – veteran actors from the 1950s like Orson Bean and John Huston (also the director of the Maltese Falcon) – have a great deal of character that makes up the difference.
If you can, get the version with the old hi-fi audio, like the VHS edition, since many sound effects are unaccountably missing from the DVD release, and enjoy it. The target audience is younger than the book’s, that much is clear. But it actually is a pretty grounded and precise adaptation of the Hobbit, with none of the excesses the Jackson version has been exhibiting. Equally, it lacks the sense of depth Tolkien imbued his work with. But it’s much better, I think, than it’s given credit for. People who insist that adaptations aren’t any good because they aren’t close to the book really have no right to complain about it. If you like Studio Ghibli movies, the style will be familiar, and the music is a lot of fun.
“You’re a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I’m very fond of you. But you’re only quite a little fellow, in a big world after all.”
“Uh, thank goodness.”