Middle Earth Ring Cycles

Ralph-Bakshi-Lord-of-the-Rings
Ralph Bakshi’s ‘JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings’

Jim Smith and J Clive Matthews
The Lord of the Rings:
the Films, the Books, the Radio Series

Virgin Books 2004

In the words of the authors, this study is “an attempt to examine the process(es) whereby Tolkien’s books have been adapted into performed drama”. By Tolkien’s books they mean principally The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit; by performed drama they mean films and radio plays, though passing reference is given to Donald Swann’s song cycle The Road Goes Ever On, Leonard Nimoy’s curiosity The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins and other more or less ephemeral items selected by the authors, even if such a selection can never be comprehensive. All discussion centres on those adaptations rather than on a critique of Tolkien’s writing, though of course comparisons are made between the original text and subsequent interpretations.

Bakshi's Gandalf
Bakshi’s Gandalf

The larger part of Smith and Matthews’ study is naturally taken up with Jackson’s impressive first trilogy of films (though it predates Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy it does briefly anticipate his involvement in the later project). However, the authors draw attention to lesser known but preceding performances of both books: the reportedly calamitous 1956 BBC twelve-part radio series of The Lord of the Rings, the more successful BBC radio adaptation in 1966 of The Hobbit in eight episodes (still available on CD, and featuring music on reproductions medieval instruments) and the TV animation of The Hobbit broadcast on NBC in 1977. These were followed by in close succession by another animation, Ralph Bakshi’s JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings released in cinemas in 1978, the TV animation JRR Tolkien’s The Return of the King: a Tale of Hobbits broadcast on NBC in 1980, and the thirteen-episode BBC radio serial first aired in 1981.

The authors reserve their admiration for the Jackson films, which they argue have more artistic integrity than any of the other films while largely remaining faithful to the spirit of the original text. The compromises and creative decisions made in the films (they maintain, and I agree) largely respects Tolkien’s imaginative creation while making those justifiable changes that either accompany any transference from page to screen or seek to make consistent what Tolkien’s rambling epic apparently fails to do, despite the author’s later revisions.

This was an enjoyable read, not just for the discussion of the Jackson films but also for the previous Tolkien outings that I’ve either seen or heard or been vaguely aware of. There are plenty of asides (such as details of various actors involved in the productions), trenchant criticisms (particularly of aspects of the animated films) and a sterling defence of the approach New Line took in re-focusing character motivation and manipulating plotlines. For a study of this length (a little over 200 pages of discussion) the authors cover a huge subject in as comprehensive a way as space allows. My only real niggles concern the occasion typo, in particular the confusion evident when one of the authors writes ‘principle’ (a truth or belief) when what he means is ‘principal’ (main or primary); other than that, this is a fine analysis of the right and wrong ways to go about adapting well-loved texts for another medium.

2012 review revised May 2014

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15 thoughts on “Middle Earth Ring Cycles

    1. I think there was criticism of the ‘cutesy’ Disneyfied treatments of the TV animations. You can catch trailers and at least one feature-length upload on YouTube and judge for yourself — I couldn’t bear to watch it all myself, if that’s any help! The first LOTR radio adaptation by the BBC was reportedly a turkey, but as far as I can gather there were no recordings so it’s hard to judge now.

  1. As a young boy, I loved the Ralph Bakshi film and was so disappointed that he never got to make part 2. Then, of course, came the Peter Jackson versions and all was forgiven.
    I remember being stunned as what I had seen only in my head for the previous twenty years was now on screen in front of me (it helped that I was sitting next to a Nazgul, and elf and a rider of Rohan at the time – true). I’ve never been a purist so I too had no issue with the editorial choices he made. My only disappointment was that we never got to see the Scouring of the Shire.
    Lovely blog.

    1. The Scouring was of course prefigured in Galadriel’s mirror as a possible future, and I can regretfully understand his editorial decision to omit it.

      I was less enamoured by The Hobbit Part One — a misguided indulgent mess I thought — but reserve judgement till I’ve seen the other two films.

      Glad you liked the post!

  2. I, too, missed the Scouring of the Shire section. There are many who feel it’s a weak part of the book – a case of Tolkien not ready to let go, but it strikes me as necessary for showing not only how the four hobbits have matured, but also how the battle against evil is unending – how the repercussions echo and rebound. The beauty and peace of Hobbiton at the end of the 3rd film is too easy.
    BTW, the radio version of HGG preceded the book series, although in the US the radio play wasn’t aired until the print version was a hit.

    1. I agree totally with what you say about the Scouring, Lizzie — on my first reading it seemed superfluous and unnecessary, but in retrospect it was highly appropriate, for all the reasons you mention.

      The radio version of HGG coming first: yes, that rings a bell. The TV version (third in sequence, therefore) wasn’t entirely successful, in large part because the SFX of the time wasn’t quite up to it. (But the theme music, short though it was, still charms.)

  3. Even though I was a budding teen at the time, the NBC 1977 Hobbit thrilled me to no end. I am not sure why. Maybe because I had read the book twice and enjoyed seeing Bilbo and Gollum. I fell in love with Jackson’s trilogy, but sadly cannot stand what he has done with The Hobbit. I just saw the second film and though I love Smaug, the film just fell flat.
    It would be fun to hear the BBC radio version, if only for the medieval music.

        1. All creative works are of their time, aren’t they, only the best having timeless qualities that render them universal. But maybe this work’s cutesy qualities override any cross-generational appeal.

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