- Year: 1977
- Director: Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass
- Starring: Orson Bean, John Huston, Hans Conried
The first Tolkien adaptation that was made with the intention of actually being a good Tolkien adaptation, The Hobbit was brought to television by Rankin/Bass in 1977. Who better to bring you the dark and fantastical world of J.R.R. Tolkien than the guys who brought you that special about the talking snowman?
Alright, to be fair, The Hobbit is definitely a children’s book, especially compared to The Lord of the Rings. There are talking trolls, a dragon, lots of songs, and the story is pretty lighthearted. That said, it’s still Tolkien, in that nothing involving war can be wrapped up with a “happily ever after.” This 78-minute cartoon was actually my first introduction to Middle-Earth, but I will try to put nostalgia aside and judge the thing fairly. Trust me, there are plenty of issues to point out.
Our first shot is of Tolkien’s book with John Huston’s voice-over of the famous line “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” However, it then veers off into lines not at all in the book about “the time of middle earth.”
I have no issue with opening narration adding something that’s not in the book, because we’re watching a movie not listening to an audiobook, but it’s borderline sacrilege to show a copy of The Hobbit with lines that are clearly not in it.
One of the common criticisms about this special is that it doesn’t feature a British voice cast, and I get it. Tolkien intended Middle Earth to be a mythology of sorts for England, so a British cast would make sense, but the casting of the three leads is quite good regardless. Orson Bean voices Bilbo Baggins, and while definitely American, he puts so much wonder into Bilbo’s voice that the performance still works.
American voice actor Hans Conried (best known perhaps as Captain Hook in Disney’s Peter Pan) plays the chief dwarf, Thorin Oakenshield.
Conried gives the dwarf the voice of someone who has traveled all over, which in my opinion is perfect for a character like Thorin. He has not lived anywhere for a long period of time since he was young, so this sort of general European accent works.
Gandalf is voiced by the aforementioned John Huston, whose performance is the best thing about the film. Gandalf may seem an easy enough character to play, as he’s basically just the powerful wizard who shows up when needed, but Tolkien gave the character the major duality of being incredibly powerful and incredibly kind. One moment he could be scaring you to death, and the next he could be comforting you. It’s tough to pull off both, but John Huston does it marvelously. His immensely rich voice lends itself perfectly to the commanding moments and the kind ones.
When I read a book of a movie I’ve already seen, I rarely if ever hear an actor’s voice in my head, but rather just the character I imagine. An actor may deliver a line in a certain way that makes it memorable when I read it in the text, but John Huston is one of those rare exceptions where even when I read Lord of the Rings, I still hear him as Gandalf.
The other twelve dwarves (Quick Tolkien note: Dwarves is the proper plural of Tolkien’s creatures) really don’t have much character, and most don’t really even have lines except when the group all speaks together. They don’t tumble in Bilbo’s door like in the book, but instead they all show up from behind trees and bushes like the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz. Having thirteen dwarves is perhaps the most difficult aspect of adapting The Hobbit, as only a few have defined characteristics in the book, but they are still present in most of the scenes. Some have even theorized that Tolkien wrote in so many dwarves so filmmakers would not want to adapt his novel.
Tolkien’s writing had a lot of songs and poems, and the film does a fairly good job of including them. The dwarves’ backstory is told through “Misty Mountains Cold,” a dark and haunting dirge that is both incredibly atmospheric and a quick way of getting a lot of exposition across. The elvish songs, on the other hand, are pretty and melodic, and the goblin songs are ugly and imposing.
Since the film isn’t even 90 minutes long, it moves at an incredibly brisk pace. We meet Bilbo, Gandalf, the dwarves, hear the entire backstory, see Bilbo agreeing to go, and get an opening credits sequence all within the first ten minutes. Before we know it, Bilbo is trying to steal food from the trolls.
This troll is wearing a hat. This raises so many questions:
- Trolls only come out at night or they get turned to stone. Is there some late night haberdasher in Middle Earth?
- Even if this alleged late night haberdasher exists, these trolls live in the wild. How far did this troll travel to get said hat? He has to be in a cave by sunrise.
- Even if somehow this troll got to this alleged late night haberdasher while it was dark outside, how would said haberdasher have a hat in his size? How many troll customers does he have?
- Will the haberdasher make a special hat just for the troll? Will the troll come back another night just to pick up this specialty hat? This is a lot of work for a troll who can only be outside a few hours a day and a haberdasher who has other customers.
- Even if somehow the troll takes multiple nights out of his schedule to place and pick up this special hat order, what happens when he turns to stone? Does the hat also turn to stone? I get it, trolls turn back into the mountain they were made from, but does the hat just chill there on top of the mountain? Does all the late night haberdasher’s work go to waste? Imagine if he were to walk buy and see that the hat he spent multiple nights creating was now stone.
In the book, Bilbo is caught and the dwarves later check up on him, getting caught themselves. Here, Bilbo gets caught and idiotically screams out “Dwarves, I’m done for. Run for it!” I get that Bilbo is a little green to the darkness of the world around him, but how could he do something this stupid? Unbelievably, as soon as he announces the dwarves’ presence, they all run away without a shred of concern for Bilbo. The trolls of course capture them anyway, but this is a really weird way to condense the encounter from the book.
A lot of what follows next is pretty accurate to the book. Sure, the weird passing statements about the stone giants are left out, but that’s probably for the best (more on that when we get to the Jackson films.). The company visits Rivendell where Elrond (Cyril Ritchard) explains Thorin’s map…
They get captured by goblins, Gandalf kills the Great Goblin, and Bilbo gets separated from the group and meets Gollum. The actor playing Gollum is credited simply as Theodore, but research shows that it is self-described “stand-up tragedist” Brother Theodore. He does fine voicing Gollum, and the character’s physical appearance isn’t all that different from the one we’d see in the Jackson films.
After Bilbo is reunited with the dwarves, and the eagles save them from the goblins and wolves, the movie starts to make some weird decisions. Look, The Hobbit is an episodic tale. Everything takes place on the journey to Lonely Mountain, sure, but most of the conflicts happen quickly and the characters move on. They meet trolls and get away, they get kidnapped by goblins and get away, the dwarves get trapped by spiders and Bilbo rescues them. It’s not a complex story, but a lot of stuff happens. When you only have 78 minutes to work with, cuts are going to have to be made, but why would anyone decide to cut Beorn the skin-changer?
When an adaptation of The Hobbit is planned, wouldn’t one of the most exciting things be “Guy who can change into a bear”? I suppose they cut this over other sections because, ultimately, Beorn doesn’t take them to the next stage of their journey. It’s just a stop along the way, and he gives them ponies (that ultimately run off) and some advice, but it’s a guy who can change into a bear. Everyone wants to see this! Instead, the eagles drop the company right outside Mirkwood Forest.
Wanting to apparently stay away from violence in this story that ends with something called “The Battle of Five Armies,” all we see when Bilbo goes to stab the spiders that trapped the dwarves is this weird kaleidoscope effect.
Apparently even spiders getting slashed down is too violent for Rankin/Bass here, even though a gun would save the day in Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July. The wood elves make their return… Oh you missed me talking about the wood elves the first time? That’s because I didn’t. Bilbo just narrates that “The wood elves had returned,” even though they hadn’t been mentioned up until this point. It’s clear that the first appearance of the wood elves was intended to be in the film, but no one changed the narration. All you had to do was have the line “We had seen the wood elves once before.” How hard was that? You don’t even have to show them, but nope, they return even though we haven’t met them yet.
Up until this point, it feels like every voice actor has been cast with much thought, with the casting director truly trying to find the actor with the right voice for each of Tolkien’s characters. The voice casting from here on out, though, seems to be based on whoever was hanging around the studio lot that day. The king of the wood elves (unnamed in The Hobbit, named Thranduil in Lord of the Rings) is voiced by Austrian director Otto Preminger… Austrian, not Australian. The only explanation I can come up with is that he was having lunch with John Huston and Rankin/Bass needed somebody in a pinch.
The wood elves are also hideous for some reason. Just a reminder that this is what the Rivendell elves look like.
HOW ARE THESE THE SAME SPECIES? What in Middle Earth got in way of this evolutionary process? I have a feeling that the Grinch is somewhere in this family tree.
As fast as the plot is moving, we get a really nice atmospheric scene as Bilbo and the dwarves are escaping the wood elf prison in barrels. “Rollin’ Down the Hole” is the best song in the film, a jaunty nautical number that makes the escape all the sweeter. This isn’t turned into an unnecessary action scene, but instead it’s just a nice moment. Bilbo looks up and sees Lonely Mountain in the distance, knowing they are getting even closer to the dragon Smaug.
The company doesn’t spend much time in Lake Town, and the Master of Lake Town is not a character in the film (a change that actually makes sense.) Continuing with the bizarre casting choices, Bard is voiced by the very American John Stephenson, and the character even looks like he stepped out the 1970s and into Middle Earth.
Bilbo and the dwarves make their way to the mountain, and Bilbo walks into Smaug’s lair. In the book, Smaug and Bilbo exchange in clever riddles and wordplay (Tolkien insists this is how one must talk to dragons.), and while there are still hints of that here, the portrayal of Smaug is all wrong. He’s voiced by western character actor Richard Boone, who clearly belongs in westerns and not a Tolkien adaptation. His voice is all “I’ll shoot you at high noon” and no “I’m more cunning than you.”
He also looks ridiculous, with his headlight-eyes and cat face. Bilbo is also stupid enough to take the ring off in Smaug’s presence, stand in place, and show off the treasure he is stealing before running out. With all he’s been through, how is he this dumb? I really don’t get why this decision was made.
Smaug gets angry, flies out of the mountain and gets shot down by Sonny Bono.
There’s a great moment where Bard tells his men to “stand your ground” and they all just jump into the lake anyway. I’m not sure if this was intentional comedy or not, but it’s hysterical.
The subplot of the Arkenstone is gone, which I understand, but it was still a nice little extra scene of Bilbo being smart and sneaky in the book. We get to see the Battle of Five Armies from the perspective of… the eagles I guess. This is seriously what it looks like.
The book is unquestionably anti-violence and anti-greed, as Thorin Oakenshield is ultimately a tragic figure. He gets his gold, but he dies for it. However, of the original thirteen dwarves, only Thorin and his nephews Kili and Fili are killed in battle. The cartoon makes the effort to mention that seven have died, including Bombur. I guess this makes up for the lack of violence in other portions, but it seems odd that more dwarves die in the lightest take on the tale. Thorin’s dying scene is done really well, with Hans Conried and Orson Bean pouring themselves into the emotion without overdoing it. It would have been easy to make this seen cheesy and melodramatic, but it’s really handled nicely.
Ultimately, the Rankin/Bass The Hobbit is a fine but brief adaptation of Tolkien’s novel. It has some really great voice acting (and some really bad voice acting) and a few nice songs. It’s a pretty good introduction to the world of Tolkien. Let’s check out the final score.
Adaptation (32/50 Points)
Some of the changes make sense, like cutting out the Master of Lake Town and Roac the talking raven (I didn’t even get to him, but he’s not that important in the book.). Others, like removing Beorn and the Arkenstone take out some of the book’s charm. The laziness of keeping in the reference to the wood elves’ first appearance also hurts it here.
Cast (17/25 Points)
John Huston and Hans Conried are top notch as Gandalf and Thorin respectively, especially Huston who still defines the character for me. Orson Bean does a good job as Bilbo, and I really enjoy Cyril Ritchard’s brief scene as Elrond. The very non-Middle Earth voices of Smaug, Bard, and the Elven king really distract from the film, though.
Experience (12/25 Points)
The animation isn’t great, honestly, but some of the backgrounds work. The shying away from from violence is understandable but it lessens Tolkien’s message regardless. The songs by Glenn Yarbrough aren’t for everyone, but at least most are taken from the book, and a few are quite nice. The non-Tolkien number “The Greatest Adventure” is overused, but it’s not a bad song.
FINAL SCORE: 61%
The Hobbit 1977 isn’t groundbreaking, but it at least seems to really love its source material. If you don’t go in expecting a brilliant adaptation, you’ll enjoy it enough.