Thursday, October 22

Comparative Piece on the 1977 Rankin-Bass Hobbit and Tolkien's Work

One of my favorite books which I make a point of re-reading each year is The Hobbit. Published in 1937, The Hobbit was written by Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, who also authored The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Children of Hurin, The Silmarillion and various other works within and outside of the Middle Earth legendarium. The rights were sold by Tolkien during his lifetime for financial reasons and it was made into several different adaptations – films (live action and animated), radio, graphic novels, and video games. “A TV version of The Hobbit by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin aired on NBC in 1977. Tolkien’s songs from the book were used to give the programme some musical content and the stars turned out for the production. Bilbo Baggins was voiced by Orson Bean, Gandalf by John Huston and the Elvenking, with a German accent, by Otto Preminger.” (Cawthorne 262-263). This version was the only adaptation that the majority of readers and non-readers alike of Tolkien had access to for nearly four decades until the development of YouTube where the others were made public. As such, this 78-minute animated feature was also the introduction to Tolkien’s world of mythology for many people, but was not necessarily intended to be a completely faithful adaptation.

Bilbo Baggins speaking with Gandalf the Grey
(All Rights reserved; Rankin-Bass and Topcraft)
Logistically, the film itself is only twenty-five scenes long (including the beginning and end credits), whereas Tolkien’s work consists of nineteen chapters in about three hundred pages (depending on your copy). Some of the art in the film is based on Tolkien’s artwork for the book – such as his artwork and description of Bag-End in the Shire. Also, “Arthur Rankin went to Japan in the 1950s and discovered that the Japanese had talents for animation he had never seen before… The background paintings by Minoru Nishida exceptionally captured the look and feel of Tolkien’s books” (Ashworth, Capuano, and et al 46-47). According to The New York Times, “Rankin’s design of the creatures of Middle-earth and the sites of their adventures owes most to… Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), an Englishman whose illustrations for Grimm’s Fairy Tales and other books inspired Disney’s visual approach to ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’” (Culhane). As noted, the filmmakers drew inspiration from Tolkien’s original art found in the book – which the film visually remains rather faithful to – as well as Japanese artwork and Rackham.

According to Rankin, “I saw the whole picture in a series of monochromatic designs. There are about a dozen major sequences and each has its key color. The Hobbit Hole in springtime greens; the Gollum’s cave, purples; the goblins’ place, red; Smaug’s cave, golden…” (qtd. in Culhane). The artwork itself is fairly faithful to the book, and the colors mentioned by Tolkien – such as what each dwarf wears, the colors worn by Gandalf and Bilbo – are kept in the film, and other colors are rather appropriate. However, the design of the wood elves (they look more like thin goblins than elves like those of Rivendell), the fact that Elrond has a beard and a crown (he is neither king nor are elves bearded), Smaug’s feline appearance and a few other points of consideration deviate from Tolkien’s material. The portrayal of Gollum as a frog-like creature is perhaps the most detrimental, as Tolkien’s rewrites to The Hobbit were partly meant to imply that Bilbo could one day become as corrupted by the ring as Gollum was. For the animated feature’s audience, it is difficult to imagine Bilbo ever becoming like Gollum.

Now, according to author Lynnette Porter, “As a first introduction to Tolkien, this adaptation does a good job of presenting Bilbo as an initially reluctant adventurer who becomes a hero by default; the television special even begins with Tolkien’s first line: ‘In a hole in the ground there live a Hobbit’” (74). She goes on to note that “Hobbit-loving parents (especially those who believe in the themes presented in this folk-music laden TV adaptation) likely approved of this message of peace, especially in a late Cold War, Vietnam-era family programme” (77-78). In the historical setting, this late-Cold War program was much-needed in terms of the prominent themes of heroism, striving for peace, dreaming and others, which help instill the audience with good messages.

As A.K. Reed notes, “On the other hand, the production was seriously inaccurate in many ways: Bilbo Baggins, for instance, is not a nervous young man, but a comfortable and socially respectable 50-year-old, suddenly moved to run off to adventures without even his pocket handkerchief… woodland elves are not grotesque greedy creatures, but beautiful and artistic beings (albeit overfond of jewels)” (138). Also, “The Rankin/Bass Bilbo is urged to abandon thinking and dreaming [as told in one of the songs, The Greatest Adventure]; these, the song affirms, block the opportunity to know ‘passion’ and ‘pain.’ Tolkien’s Bilbo, however, is different from the other hobbits around him in that he does think and dream” (Reed 141). In other words, the film was faithful to the book in many respects – it also included several of Tolkien’s poems aside from having large portions of direct dialogue and quotations from the text and in the Gollum scene four of the ten poems are used.

Some critics have noted that the film did not truly get to the heart of Tolkien’s story. Bilbo is shown as a rather calm individual who does not have the desire for adventures (not even on his Tookish side), and there is no sense of immaturity from him in the beginning, nor a sense of growing up throughout as is seen in the text. For example, in chapter 8 of the text we read, “Somehow the killing of the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help pf the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else, made a great difference to Mr. Baggins. He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach” (Tolkien 144). It is here that Bilbo names his sword Sting, which is a hallmark of ancient tales. In these tales, heroes name their swords for great deeds or heroic battles, and in this scene Bilbo matures in many ways. While Bilbo does indeed kill spiders and name his sword in the film, there is not a sense (nor such an emphasis) on the importance of this event, or others in the story. Even in the scenes with the dragon, the audience is not given the impression that a tiny hobbit is fearful in any way of the enormous dragon that could instantly end his life. The lack of these moments of courage and growth detracts from the emotional involvement that the audience could have. The Arkenstone and its lesson on doing what is right even in tough circumstances is cut from the film and would have been a good lesson for the younger audience, and also has to do with the overarching theme of greed seen in the dwarves, men and elves – and one that Bilbo generally excludes himself from.

Also, fans of the Middle-earth legendarium understand that the sword that Gandalf finds in the cave is Glamdring, the blade of the High King of the Elves, Turgon of Gondolin in the 1st Age. In comparison to other literature, the finding of this important blade is like coming across King Arthur’s Excalibur at a pawn shop. Gandalf’s reaction and Elrond’s toward this blade and the other two Gondolinian blades that are found should have more emphasis, as it would be a good omen for the coming events of the film. There are several other points of difference in the film, of course, but even “Tolkien himself said (in 1938, a year after the publication of The Hobbit that the dramatic arts and the literature of fantasy could not be combined” (Reed 138). Notably, the film uses Gandalf as a narrator for the first portion of the film and utilizes one of Tolkien’s poems “Far over misty mountains cold” to narrate and illustrate the Dwarven backstory with Erebor (Lonely Mountain) and Smaug’s coming. Halfway through the narrative, the movie uses the device of having Gandalf ask Bilbo to keep a journal of his further adventures “so I can point out your missteps,” conveys Gandalf. This lets Bilbo narrate the film from here on. The book Gandalf does not do this and is not entirely certain he will see them again due to his business with the White Council in the South driving out the Necromancer/Sauron (which is not really mentioned though slightly alluded to in the film). Film Gandalf notes that he will later look it over, which implies that he will return later in the film.

The film’s opening shot is of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (breaking the 4th wall, perhaps), and roots the story in ancient times. Given the usage of various books here and there with old bindings and a sort of goblet lit with flame, it also provides the film with a sense of antiquity. Later, the line “He comes and goes at will. He is a wizard, you know” appeals to an element of common knowledge or fantastical lore, the notion that wizards come and go – and this sets up a sort of foreshadowing for the multiple times Gandalf comes and goes during this Quest for Erebor and his return at the Battle of the Five Armies. It is interesting that Gandalf’s staff is sort of shaped like a question mark, as Gandalf himself is an enigma. The film Gandalf (as opposed to the book Gandalf) seems to have deity-like abilities – hurrying the sun to turn trolls to stone, creating fireballs, talking with eagles, coming and going, knowing more about the ring and the future of the ring as noted in the added material hinting at the Lord of the Rings in the epilogue and other instances.

Gandalf, Bilbo and the Dwarves
(All rights reserved; Rankin-Bass and Topcraft)
There are also several other plot changes, additions or shifts. For example, in the Mirkwood scenes in the book, the company had no idea about the Wood Elves’ Clearing, but in the film Bilbo is given a throwaway line as if they had already known about it. Also, his line “I joined my companions at the clearing of the wood-elves” is difficult because Bilbo is not supposed to know where that is located. Also, after the Battle of the Five Armies, of the original 13 dwarves, only 7 remained. In the book, it was 10 dwarves. After Thorin dies, Bilbo displays his ring in a mantelpiece, and Gandalf notes that “someday a member of your family not yet born” – Frodo Baggins, Bilbo’s nephew – will have to continue the quest. This was not from The Hobbit, but derived from Lord of the Rings. Other changes are as follows: all of the dwarves show up with Gandalf at the same time rather than coming in small groups. The Troll’s talking purse is omitted, as is the shape shifter Beorn (and thus the chapter Queer Lodgings) and his inclusion at the Battle of Five Armies, Azog is not mentioned and neither is Bolg, and Bombur does not fall in the enchanted river. The wood-elf feasts are not included; Bilbo only has to kill a few spiders instead of many, dozens. Bilbo's sword Sting is always glowing whether or not there are goblins close by, Dain’s appearance at the Battle of Five Armies is random instead of planned, and the majority of Gandalf and Bilbo’s return journey to Bag-End including their stops at Beorn’s, Elrond’s and the troll cave is excluded, as is the auction at Bag-End and the visit of Gandalf and Balin a few years later.

The masterpiece from Professor Tolkien was masterfully and visually rendered into an animated feature designed for children and not necessarily fans of the mythology, but there is something in the film for both fans and non-fans to enjoy. The film stays fairly faithful to the book, including large amounts of dialogue, poems and content, but for the sake of time, pacing and action there is a lot that had to be cut that was in the book but not the film. The film stands as as a separate entity from the book, and is based on Tolkien’s work but not necessarily bound or restricted by it. It is an excellent film, but there do exist a few issues with it as with any other film. It stands the test of time thus far and will continue to be a favorite among children and fans alike, regardless of its accuracy. Finally, with the conclusion of Peter Jackon’s Middle Earth film saga, with more and more interest in Professor Tolkien's work as a result, perhaps we can still say that the “greatest adventure is what lies ahead.”

Ashworth, Jeff, Christine Capuano, et al. "An Animated Discussion." Hobbit. 2012: 46-47. Print.

Bass, Jules, dir. The Hobbit. Dir. Arthur Rankin, Jr., and Romeo Muller. Warner Bros. Family Entertainment and Walt Disney Productions, 1977. Film. 20 Apr 2013.

Cawthorne, Nigel. A Brief Guide to J.R.R. Tolkien. 1st ed. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2012. 262-263. Print.

Culhane, John. “Will the Video Version of Tolkien Be Hobbit Forming?” New York Times. New York Times Company, 27 Nov 1977.

Porter, Lynnette. The Hobbits: The Many Lives of Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin. 1st ed. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2012. 73-79. Print.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. 6th ed. Boston: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007. 1-276. Print.

Reed, A.K. “The Greatest Adventure Is What Lies Ahead: Problems In Media And Mythology – An Analysis Of The Rankin/Bass Production Of Tolkien’s The Hobbit.” Journal of Popular Culture 17. (1984): 138-146. Humanities Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 30 Apr. 2013.

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