J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings Fotonovel Publications 1979
The road travelled by the illustrated story is long and, as it were, goes ever on. Its several origins can be found in ancient Mesopotamia and on Viking gravestones, in Palaeolithic cave paintings and on the Bayeux tapestry, on medieval church walls and in early modern chapbooks. In the 20th century we were introduced to French comics called bandes dessinées and to Japanese manga and the graphic novel, while the addition of photographs gave rise to Italian fumetti and the American photonovel. When Tolkien’s epic fantasy appeared in the middle of the last century it was only a matter of time before the film of the book was produced, leading much more rapidly to … the photonovel of the film of the book.
In 1978 Ralph Bakshi’s animation of the first two parts of The Lord of the Rings trilogy went on general release, which is around the time I first saw it. This was a stunning if occasionally flawed adaptation of ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ and ‘The Two Towers’, hugely disappointing because the film stopped at the battle of Helm’s Deep with no indication of a concluding sequel (which in fact never came).
It featured extensive use of rotoscoping — animation based on filmed live action — which gave it a more natural fluidity compared with standard animation until the arrival of Pixar and other computer animation studios changed the rules of the game. Max Fleischer, its originator, used rotoscoping for the figure of Gulliver in his Gulliver’s Travels (1939) as did Disney earlier for parts of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1937. The Beatles’ 1968 cartoon Yellow Submarine employed it for some sequences, while A Scanner Darkly (the 2006 adaptation of a Philip K Dick novel) featured it exclusively.
The year after the film’s issue this Fotonovel Publications appeared, utilising frame blowups from the motion picture for its narrative. For those who’ve seen the movie the illustrations are genuine, with nothing redrawn. Rudimentary speech ‘balloons’ (just text with attribution lines to indicate the speaker) have interspersed scroll-like banners to link the action. As a souvenir of the film in the days before videotape, let alone DVDs and streaming, this was the closest most fans could get to repeat viewings.
For us however, sophisticates from a later period when technology has moved on exponentially, it’s not a huge success. How can you summarise even two-thirds of that sprawling canvas of a fantasy in a small paperback of a little over a hundred pages, where most of the space is taken up with images? The text is often hard to read: the font is small and swaps from black to white in an attempt to stand out against a busy colourful background; and paraphrases of Tolkien’s descriptions are clumsy and lack any majesty. The images only give a hint of the impact Bakshi’s original film, itself acknowledged as inspirational by Peter Jackson when he came to made his own version.
My advice is that, unless you’re a completist, you choose to view of the film. Or better still, read or reread the original.