We begin with Rankin/Bass, the studio most famous for their stop-motion Christmas specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, Jack Frost, and the traditionally animated Frosty the Snowman. However they’re also the producers behind The Last Unicorn and a little series called ThunderCats. And in 1977 they aired a TV movie based on Tolkien’s 1937 novel The Hobbit, only four years after the death of the author himself. The fantasy adventure seemed like a perfect fit for Rankin/Bass’ whimsical reputation.
It was not, but until 2012 it was the only significant adaptation of The Hobbit that existed. How does it compare to the book and subsequent Jackson movies, and does it work on its own? Well, let’s take a look.
The first thing you notice is a terrific and very atmospheric opening score and narration provided by John Huston who voices Gandalf. He’s not great in the role, but he’s far from terrible as American actors playing Gandalf could go. The artwork in the opening is beautiful as well. It’s something of a mix in designs of Roger Garland and Inger Edelfeldt with a touch of John Howe and Tolkiens’ own illustrations. The narration also acknowledges what few other Tolkien products do: that Middle-Earth is intended to be a part of our own mythology and lost history. Even the characters designs, though a bit wooden in appearance have a unique but still Tolkien-esque quality to them. Indeed it’s a very nice looking movie until the plot happens.
It skips over much of Gandalf’s initial conversation with Bilbo, introducing the dwarves all at once in this moment. And most of the dwarves like in the book, have little to no character or distinctiveness. Sure in the Jackson movies a lot of them didn’t get much to do, but they had creative designs and you could at least tell them apart. They sing the plates song in Bag End which is a nice callback to the book, but sadly it comes at the expense of any character development for Bilbo. We’re never given any indication that Bagginses are not prone to adventures, or any real handle on his fussy personality, so when he agrees to the quest minutes later, unless you’ve read the book, you don’t care at all. This film only has seventy-eight minutes to tell its story, and it’s a heavily detailed and episodic story at that, so it makes some sense they wouldn’t take any time with individual scenes. However they do at least go into the backstory of the Lonely Mountain through the Lonely Mountain song, and again the illustrations here are great. The subsequent folk song that plays over the opening credits I think also compliments the very folktale style of the original book.
The trolls look really weird. Generally the character design is good, but these big-nosed, tusked monstrosities look very little like the trolls as described in the book. In fact, really they just look like larger dwarves. There’s a notable inclusion of Bilbo’s love of maps when they later loot the troll’s collection, but it’s integrated really clumsily. This is also the scene where Gandalf reveals he has the map and key to the Lonely Mountain, and gives these to Thorin. There is absolutely no reason they moved this from the unexpected party to this stage in the story -it comes bizarrely out of nowhere, and stranger still, Gandalf gives no reason for keeping them from Thorin. Afterwards, they arrive at Rivendell which looks pretty uninspired. While in Jacksons’ films, Rivendell is a grand and beautiful city, heavenly almost in its radiance, here it’s just a couple of log houses sitting in the middle of a valley. And my god, that elf song needed to be cut! I respect the makers of this film for trying to adhere so loyally to Tolkien’s book, but the song the Elves sing, mocking the dwarves as they enter Rivendell (the Elves in The Hobbit generally are kind of dicks), is distractingly out of place, and sounds more like a song of pesky imps than elegant elves. Elrond is done fine though; I find it interesting this film portrayed a lot of the elves with beards which may not quite adhere to Tolkien, but makes for a more unique looking race. That uniqueness extends to the goblins as well.
I actually really like the look of these goblins; they’re pretty scary by 70’s animation standards, with those giants mouths and fangs, evil snake eyes, horns, and even their song. And really, the fear factor is all the goblins need in The Hobbit, and these guys I’ll admit look more frightful than the ones in the Jackson films who were all more or less like orcs. Unfortunately, they’re given a very silly treatment when the Goblin King is killed -you see, his is the first death in the story (not counting trolls turning to stone), and being as this movie was meant for kids, they replace any hint of gruesomeness with a weird void effect. It’s not just a stylistic choice for the Goblin King -every villain who dies dies with this same effect and it’s really goofy. Who does Rankin/Bass think they’re fooling? With these scary-looking goblins, did they really think their audience couldn’t take a mere monster death?
The dwarves’ escape is done loyally to the book, and Bilbo falls into a dark cavern. He finds the ring in a decently animated moment and is shortly thereafter introduced to Gollum. Gollum…is strange -an apt description of his character. His design is very frog-like, which makes some sense when you think of Tolkien’s initial description of him. He’s also distinguishable by his big ears and pudginess, and he’s about the size of a goblin to Bilbo. The problem though is he’s not frightening or off-putting. It’s unfair to compare him to Andy Serkis, considering this was the first interpretation on film of the character, but couldn’t they have taken a little inspiration from artists like the Brothers Hildebrandt? The Riddles in the Dark sequence is just about the most important scene in the novel, and its brilliantly written exposition, gloom, and tension would make it a highlight even if it wasn’t a central scene in Tolkien’s lore. And in fairness, neither this nor the Jackson film quite does the scene justice, but the latter came closer if only for capturing the tone slightly better. I mean this version presents the riddles through song which is really goofy and distracting from the tension of the moment. And Gollum refers to the ring directly as his “magic ring” which is much too on the nose. Yet at least this version keeps Gollum’s boat and his mysterious hovel on an island in the middle of the cavernous lake, one of my disappointments from the Jackson film. Bilbo of course discovers the rings’ invisibility powers just in time and follows Gollum out of the cave (with the stupid “follow the leader” line). Even though its a relatively little thing in context, the moment of Bilbo’s pity for Gollum is hugely significant for Lord of the Rings and I did miss it here. Especially given how well it was done in Jackson’s film. He leaps over Gollum, escape the mountain, loosing a few buttons in the right spot and catches up with the dwarves astonishingly quickly, like in the book.
I could’ve done without the dumb ring puns when Bilbo reunites with the dwarves. Also, the next Goblin song really takes away the tension of the following scene when everyone’s stuck up in the trees. Further disappointing, is the cutting of Beorn -pretty much the one episode from the story that’s cut entirely in this version. I wouldn’t mind this if not for its’ weird replacement with “The Road Goes Ever On” as the crew enter Mirkwood Forest. That song never appeared in The Hobbit and is only meant to tie into the name-drop of “There and Back Again” with Bilbo already deciding to write all this down in a memoir, and seems to have every beat of it already planned out. Both of these are incredibly shoehorned in and tonally strange choices given the dark nature of Mirkwood Forest. So it’s even more jarring when the next scene attempts to compensate with the sudden introduction of the spiders. I say spiders, but they’re really spider bodies with Bugs Bunny ears and the face of Jasper Beardley. And if they weren’t goofy enough they die with the same void effect that was used on the Goblin King. When the spider first appears too, you’re reminded this aired on TV with an obvious cliffhanger ad break. Bilbo sets a couple other spiders into spells of dizziness before freeing the dwarves. They return to the clearing of the Wood-Elves (they specifically say “return” despite the Wood-Elves’ vanishing feast being cut) and are once again captured. This movie certainly adapts the dwarves’ general incompetence from the book. The Wood-Elves’ design is interesting, but why the hell did they cast Otto Preminger as Thranduil? Granted you can’t really prove Wood-Elves don’t have Austrian accents, but it still sticks out. Another unnecessary song plays over Bilbo’s rescue of the dwarves and the barrels out of bond sequence takes place. And okay, the line “I never promised to burgle you first-class accommodation” got a chuckle out of me.
Lake-town is done nicely though. Bard is introduced and stands in for some of the Master of Lake-Town’s role, which makes sense considering no character from Lake-town other than Bard is really that significant. The dwarves very soon after make their way up Lonely Mountain. It’s worth noting that Bilbo by now is a lot more assertive and an active member of the group. I’d appreciate that if it felt more natural and wasn’t clearly just a way of keeping most of the dwarves quiet. When they get the door open, Bilbo’s sent in less because he’s the burglar and it’s his job, and more because all the other dwarves are cowards. And it’s here where the films’ musical accompaniment is the most inappropriate. Throughout the film, there have been various reprises of “The Greatest Adventure”, the calm folk song that played over the intro, and it reappears here as Bilbo’s about to enter the horrible den of Smaug. The lead-in should be intense, suspenseful; but the song completely ruins the mood. Also for some reason, the thrush follows Bilbo in. Smaug’s horde itself is designed nicely, replicating Tolkien’s illustration very closely. But Smaug himself looks absolutely ridiculous. He’s some kind of hybrid of a lizard and a cat which would be a neat looking animal for something like Avatar: The Last Airbender, but not a dragon, especially not when it’s the greatest dragon in fiction. His piercing gaze is conveyed through high-beams, he has claws on his wings even though he already has forelegs, and the bare patch on his chest is pretty much on a microscopic level. Also, though the dialogue is still pretty great, being lifted directly from the book, Richard Boone’s voice is just off for a character like Smaug. It’s one of the films’ worst adaptations, made even poorer when you compare it to how great Smaug was depicted in the Jackson films. His attack on Lake-town is pretty sudden too. Bard shoots him down of course with the black arrow, but not before other archers fail and then hilariously jump into the lake. Admittedly, Smaug’s death is the first we actually see that’s not a void effect.
The dwarves just sit around in Smaug’s lair and chill while this happens, until Bard makes a sudden convenient appearance expositing “my people have made me king” -which is pretty random considering the line of Girion is never referenced in this film. I’m not saying it needed to be, but nor did Bard need to become king for what happens next to make sense. Thorin, as the plot demands it, is stubborn, and refuses to provide Bard with any gold, and the next thing you know all these old dwarves are donning armour. And seeing that image, I understand why the Jackson movies made many of them younger, because it does look pretty silly. Thorin’s sudden madness wasn’t exactly done well in the Jackson movie either, but there was at least an attempt to explain it. With the Arkenstone of Thrain cut, the dwarves are essentially regressed to basic greedy jerks. The start of the Battle of Five Armies is decent to the point Gandalf appears. It’s a little convenient how Thorin, Thranduil, and Bard very quickly put aside their differences when the Goblins and Wargs show up. Bilbo just invisibly spectates as in the novel, and counts each army as it appears (the people who made this movie are mistakenly under the impression the eagles were the fifth army), which like in the novel isn’t very interesting. And at least there he got knocked out; in this one he just falls asleep while his friends die -what an asshole! There’s also a very pathetic visual trying to illustrate the conflict, where the battle is completely clouded while dots move around inside.
The aftermath however is portrayed much better. It begins with Bilbo waking to see Bombur die at his feet. A part of me admires this film for going further with its body count. Only six of the dwarves are said to survive, four less than in the book. And while yeah, none of them had any personalities, you could say the same for their book counterparts, yet Tolkien only killed off three of the most significant. After surveying a grim bloody battlefield, Bilbo goes to Thorin’s deathbed and it’s played great. Thorin’s final words to Bilbo are just as powerful as in the book, and much better than how Richard Armitage delivered them. The wrap up is certainly more evenly paced; and Bilbo’s return journey is nice and sweet allowing you to bask in some more rich artwork as he and Gandalf ride home. Gandalf knows all about the ring curiously, and he narrates that the dwarves now live in peace (ha!). Finally, he teases The Lord of the Rings by suggesting members of Bilbo’s family will one day learn the importance of that ring -the story is just beginning.
In all honesty, this film has the exact opposite problem that many have with Jacksons’ trilogy, where rather than being padded out extensively, it’s much too rushed. Most major episodes and set-pieces from the story occur, but there’s very little time devoted to character, plot, or atmosphere, making the film overall feel very vacant; nice to look at and creative, but vacant. In addition to the pacing, the film suffers severe tonal inconsistency highlighted through overused musical cues, makes some very questionable and nonsensical choices, and the dialogue where not adapted straight from the book is often quite poor. However it does have its moments: a handful of scenes that are executed wonderfully and capture the magic of the book. The voice acting particularly from John Huston, Orson Bean as Bilbo and Hans Conreid (Captain Hook from Peter Pan) as Thorin, can be very good. It’s also neat that some of the minor characters, including some dwarves, have voices provided by Paul Frees (Boris from Rocky and Bullwinkle), Don Messick (Scooby-Doo), and Thurl Ravenscroft (Tony the Tiger). And of course, the animation is wonderful, rich in texture and style if not always accurate, and it truly transports you to a mystic world. But what else would you expect from animators who would go on to work for freaking Studio Ghibli!
Is The Hobbit good as a whole? No. But it is a very interesting experiment and unique enough that it should be seen by fans of Middle-Earth. Though it is too rushed, I’d be lying if I said the Jackson movies, which I like, couldn’t have benefited from at least some of this films’ streamlining. And it does offer some moments that surpass the later live-action films.
The Hobbit was the book that introduced me to this world and prompted me to watch Lord of the Rings to begin with; and I stand by that it’s one of the best adventure stories I’ve ever read. So good in fact, that it deserves the multiple re-tellings it has had, be they through movies, TV specials, comics, or video games. Rankin/Bass’ 1977 television film is far from a perfect rendition, but it is an interesting interpretation of such an enduring classic story.