What The Hobbit Animated Movie Did Better Than the Peter Jackson Trilogy


The animated adaptations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings from the 1970s and 1980s have a bit of a bad reputation these days, but these are not entirely deserved. In particular, Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass’ 1977 TV movie of The Hobbit, with a screenplay by Romeo Miller, gets a lot of things right that Peter Jackson’s three-part live-action film adaptation did not.

The most obvious advantage that the animated version has over the live-action films is its length. The fact that the live-action movies are too long is pretty well-established, but by way of a reminder, the book of The Hobbit is about 300 pages long, with slight variations in each edition. Other books of similar length that have been adapted into films include Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Emma Donoghue’s Room, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. One thing all of these have in common, is that they were adapted into one single film, two to three hours long. Pride and Prejudice has also been adapted into a six-hour miniseries by the BBC, but none of them have been stretched out to just under eight hours, which is the combined length of the theatrical cuts of the three live-action Hobbit movies. (They’re just under nine hours if you are watching the extended editions though.)

The Rankin/Bass version of The Hobbit, on the other hand, is a mere one hour and 17 minutes, which you could almost argue is actually too short. The introductions of Elrond—who has an inexplicable crown of stars around his head for no apparent reason—and Beorn, for example, could have done with a little more room to breathe. But for a fairly slight story, a runtime that is a little too short feels like an improvement on a runtime that is far too long.

One thing both versions “get right,” that is, they do it really well, is the music, but the Rankin/Bass film uses music in a different way to the live-action movies. In Jackson’s 2012 film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Howard Shore’s “Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold,” performed by Richard Armitage and the other dwarves in an incredibly evocative basso profundo voice, is a thing of beauty. The Rankin/Bass The Hobbit also features a musical setting for the same song from the book, and although it lacks the power of that incredible bass voice, it’s a good piece of music in its own right.

But the Rankin/Bass movie doesn’t stop there; it’s actually a musical with relatively short songs being peppered throughout the story. This is a completely valid choice too. Author J.R.R. Tolkien’s books are full of songs, and nearly all of the songs that appear in the film are samplings of Tolkien’s own songs from the book using his lyrics. The only exception is the theme song, “The Greatest Adventure,” which is a complete original.

Making the film as a musical also fits with the overall tone viewers would have expected from Rankin/Bass. The studio was known for its holiday specials—made-for-television, animated or stop-motion films that usually aired around Christmas time. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) and Frosty the Snowman (1969) had already become holiday staples by the time of The Hobbit. Both heavily featured music and songs, and Rudolph was a musical feature with several different songs included throughout the story. A musical with short songs appearing frequently is something audiences would expect from the Rankin and Bass studio. And they also expected the studio to produce animations aimed at a “family” audience, primarily children. This is the biggest thing Rankin and Bass got right and that the Jackson movies get wrong: The Hobbit is a story for children.

When Tolkien originally imagined The Hobbit in the 1930s, it was as a story for his own children, and was not originally connected to the wider mythology of Middle-earth. It was only as time went on that the story got drawn into his bigger mythmaking project. And while The Lord of the Rings is clearly a novel aimed at an adult readership, The Hobbit is equally clearly intended for a younger audience. Bookshops these days generally shelve it with Middle Grade fiction aimed at children aged roughly eight to 12, not far from Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis and his Narnia books (which Tolkien did not like, and probably would not appreciate seeing next to his own work!).

In fairness to Peter Jackson, Tolkien did come to regret the tone and style of The Hobbit. This was partly because it made it stick out like a sore thumb next to his other writing about Middle-earth, but also because Tolkien came to believe passionately that children should not be talked (or written) down to, and that children’s literature did not require some kind of special, slightly silly tone. In a letter to W. H. Auden in 1955, Tolkien said of The Hobbit: “It was unhappily really meant, as far as I was conscious, as a ‘children’s story’, and as I had not learned sense then… it has some of the sillinesses of manner caught unthinkingly from the kind of stuff I had had served to me… I deeply regret them. So do intelligent children.”

There’s an argument to be made, therefore, that The Hobbit should be transformed into something with a darker, more adult tone in an adaptation. Jackson probably felt he had little choice in the matter anyway since his live-action Hobbit movies were prequels to his live-action The Lord of the Rings movies—and those, as is appropriate to The Lord of the Rings, have a tone of high epic fantasy with an intended audience of adults and older teenagers.

But Tolkien regretted the tone and style of The Hobbit, not because he regretted writing it for children, but because he felt that writing for children should not engage in “sillinesses of manner.” It is still a story intended primarily for children, and while of course film adaptations have to make changes, the Rankin and Bass film feels more like it captures the spirit of The Hobbit because it is aimed primarily at children. There are no lewd jokes, the scary sequences are kept at an appropriate level, and of course, the runtime will not test the patience of elementary school aged children too much.

One of the main ways Rankin and Bass make it clear that this is a film intended for children and their families is by deliberately echoing aspects of Disney’s animated films. The decision to make the film a musical is one obvious similarity with Disney’s animated fairy tales, but there are others as well. The similarity in the character design of the dwarves in The Hobbit to the dwarfs from Disney’s 1937 classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is not a coincidence. (By the way, if anyone is wondering, Tolkien was quite particular about the fact that his imaginary creatures were dwarves, as opposed to dwarfs. In his Author’s Note at the beginning of The Hobbit, Tolkien explained that “in English the only correct plural of dwarf is dwarfs, and the adjective is dwarfish. In this story dwarves and dwarvish are used, but only when speaking of the ancient people to whom Thorin Oakenshield and his companions belonged.”)

To cement the Disney-like feel, the film opens on an image of a big, hard-bound and illustrated book, just like Disney’s Snow White, Pinocchio (1940), Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959), The Sword in the Stone (1963), The Jungle Book (1967), and Robin Hood (1973). Interestingly, Rankin/Bass’ The Hobbit opens on an image of the book, by J.R.R. Tolkien, with the author and the famous first line (“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”) clearly visible. The end of the movie, on the other hand, shows Bilbo’s in-universe Red Book, titled There and Back Again: A Hobbit’s Holiday, before finishing on an image of the One Ring, glinting in a glass case on Bilbo’s mantelpiece. Both clearly parallel the Disney trope, especially the opening, which places the story firmly in a fictional, “fairtytale” universe.

There are of course some things the Jackson movies got right that the Rankin/Bass version did not. One of the more inexplicable decisions made for the animated movie was to increase the body count of named characters in the climactic Battle of the Five Armies. In Tolkien’s novel, and in Jackson’s film, the only three members of the Company to die are Thorin, Kili, and Fili. Rankin and Bass, however, kill off seven of the Dwarves, only even naming Thorin and Bombur, both of whom die on screen. We can assume that Kili and Fili were among the seven killed and that Balin survived (since he has to go and die in Moria sometime between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), but it is a mystifying decision, especially since films aimed at children do not usually increase the body count.

The Jackson movies also include some fantastic sequences that, taken on their own, are perfect screen adaptations of scenes from the book. Bilbo’s riddle-game in the dark with Gollum under the Misty Mountains in An Unexpected Journey and his verbal sparring with Smaug in The Desolation of Smaug are near perfect, helped by fantastic performances from Martin Freeman as Bilbo, Andy Serkis as Gollum, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug. The casting is all around pretty perfect, especially Freeman, and while Legolas’ added storyline was controversial, the character really is supposed to be the son of Thranduil, the King of Mirkwood, and it’s rather nice to see him slotted in there, even if the role he is given is not to everyone’s taste.

Overall though, the Rankin/Bass animated adaptation of The Hobbit, whatever its flaws, feels like it captures a bit more of the feel of the book, even if it leans quite heavily toward a more Disney-like tone. And if you have young children, you are almost certainly better off trying to show them this version instead of the live-action films. That is if you are too impatient to wait until they are old enough to read the book!

The post What The Hobbit Animated Movie Did Better Than the Peter Jackson Trilogy appeared first on Den of Geek.

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