Sunday, November 30, 2008

Getting Tolkien Wrong ...while being faithful to him

Thirty-one years ago this month, a made-for-TV animated version of JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit made its debut on NBC.

After watching the 1977 animated version of The Hobbit this weekend, I am glad that Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro are making two movies. Much was lost by trying to squeeze the film into an hour-and-a-half (minus commercials) time slot. And, although Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass should be commended for their ground-breaking work as the first to attempt to put Middle-earth on screen, some of Tolkien's worst fears came true.

In a letter to his publisher in 1946 [Letters of JRR Tolkien, #107, p. 199], Tolkien complained about proposed illustrations for a German translation of The Hobbit. The illustrations were too "Disnified" for his taste. Little did he know what would be done to his characters when, not Disney, but the makers of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman got a hold of them.

The teleplay by Romeo Muller was not bad; it won the Peabody award in 1978. It is faithful to the book, and uses much of the same wording Tolkien uses. But the interpretation of Tolkien by the animators leaves little to be desired. Bilbo is not badly represented, but the almost "Snow White" appearance of the Dwarves is not helpful. The Elves are much worse. The strange lighting surrounding Elrond's head is silly enough, but the portrayal of the wood elves as some sort of blue amphibian-like creatures makes no sense at all. And why does the Elvish King sound like he has an Austrian accent?

The use of song throughout the film was perhaps a good idea for its time, and it works as well as it does in previous Rankin/Bass TV productions, if you can get by Glenn Yarbrough's vibrato. The biggest problem seems to be that, although many of the lyrics seem to be taken right out of the book, the whole tone of the music, and the movie itself, is much more gloomy than the book. I miss the lightheartedness of the elves and Biblo's humorous taunting of the spiders.

In his review of the Rankin/Bass version of The Return of the King, Greg Wright pointed out that, despite its shortcomings, that movie does a good job conveying moral lessons to children. I do not have the same praise for The Hobbit. In fact, perhaps the greatest lesson of all in the book revolves around the Arkenstone, which is not even mentioned in the movie. The importance of doing what is right, even if it means standing up to your companions, is lost. There is only a comment by Bilbo that he does not understand war.

Even worse, the movie makes it appear (unintentionally or not) that Bilbo had run away from the fighting, which does not happen in the book. Bilbo is knocked unconscious in the book, but the movie makes it appear he just uses this as an excuse, and actually had abandoned his fellows and hidden from the battle. So much for conveying good lessons to your children.

My suggestion: Get yourself a copy of the book and spend time reading it to your children and grandchildren. You will all profit from that experience more than watching the movie together. We'll see how much profit the next version of the story will bring in 2010.

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