From Novel to Film pt. 17: The Lord of the Rings

While it wasn't a billion dollar franchise, the Lord of the Rings saga was certainly a multimedia juggernaut before Peter Jackson's two trilogies came along. In addition to three animated films, a radio adaptation, calendars, posters, and figurines, it was universally regarded as the most influential book of its genre, spawning countless imitations, and as first-among-equals among inspirations for the Role Playing Game medium.

Myself, I came to know the general tropes of Middle Earth through three things - really only one, my older brother, through whom it all came my way, but we'll say three: 1) old Dungeons and Dragons modules or source-books: 

While I've never read any of the MERPS (Middle Earth Role Playing Games) that Iron Crown Enterprises put out between 1984 and 1999, I've been making my way through IntoTheDarkDimension's excellent and exhaustive series on them. These images here are all from TSR, but I.C.E. held the official Middle Earth license.
2) the ongoing ads from Marvel comics of the early 80s:

Or 3) the animated films and TV shows of my childhood, most specifically Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings (1978), which I watched countless times 1982-1984.

These were my eventual gateway to the books. I read The Hobbit somewhere around that time, and Fellowship through Return a few years after that. But never since. I thought it'd be fun to re-read them all and then watch and evaluate the old animated features as adaptations.

So let's start with some bullet-points on the two novels that provide the source material for Bakshi's film. First up:

First published July 1954.
THE PLOT: A meek hobbit of the Shire and his eight companions set out to destroy the haunted ring that will destroy the world if it falls into the hands of Sauron, the Dark Lord who forged it.

This is another one like Dune in that there's little point in my summarizing anything more than that. Or saying much of anything about it really. I loved it - this is probably my favorite of the three War of the Ring books. 

Favorite bit? Probably the journey through Moria, but each of the places they visit is brought to life so perfectly it's difficult to choose. I thought of both the Mabinogion and the Heimskringla several times, both of which I really want to re-read. But such things should be approached with caution, as they can lead to mythology and epic-saga rabbit holes.

Tolkien listed both the Mabinogion and the Heimskringla as influences. As for influences in the other direction, the similarities between LOTR and at least two subsequent franchises - Stephen King's The Dark Tower and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter - really jumped out at me. Beyond the scope of this post, and of course I acknowledge a range of mutual tropes for all fantasy material, but as a line of inquiry, there's a lot to work with here.

I was bothered by the use of the Roman calendar throughout. Only mildly, but I'd planned to discuss it here. This morning as I was finishing the appendices of The Return of the King I came across this: "In the narrative, I have used our modern names for both months and weekdays, though of course neither the Eldar nor the Dunedain nor the Hobbits actually did so. Translation seemed to be essential to avoid confusion."

So there's one less thing to talk about. Next up:

First published November 1954.
THE PLOT: While Frodo and Sam are led to the edge of Mordor by the ring's twisted renegade servant Gollum, the divided fellowship defends itself against the treachery of  Saruman and the hordes of Isengard.

Again, what a book. Favorite bit? Either everything with the Ents or the lair of Shelob

I liked this bit from the New York Times review: "Mr. Tolkien is a distinguished British philologist, and the language of his narrative reminds us that a philologist is a man who (...) has had intimate access to an epic tradition stretching back and back and disappearing in the mists of Germanic history (...) his story has a kind of echoing depth behind it."

This is the main advantage of the many songs and lineages referenced along the way - this echo and weight of an invented history. The War of the Ring is just the tip of the iceberg. It's entirely possible to engage only with the surface events of the story and walk away wholly entertained, but an entire cosmology has been shaped around and under them to give the whole thing dimensions other stories simply do not have.

This from Legolas made me chuckle: "You comfort me, Gimli, and I am glad to have you standing nigh with your stout legs and your hard axe."

Far be it from me to contribute to our ongoing national climate of perpetual adolescence, but certain aspects of the Gimli/Legolas bromance seem a little overdone to 2015 eyes. (Perhaps among the hobbits, as well.)


Before we look at the film itself, a few words on its long march out of pre-development Hell:

- In 1969 the rights to the work were acquired by United Artists. Stanley Kubrick expressed interest in doing the film for them, and when The Beatles heard this, they set up a meeting with Kubrick to pitch a version of the film starring themselves. (Paul would play Frodo; John would play Gollum.) Kubrick didn't think much of their ideas, and the meeting ended badly. John would later remark that he was disappointed to discover the man who made 2001 was "so nowhere."

- John Boorman of Zardoz fame was then hired to bring the project to life. He wanted to do the trilogy as one film and wrote a screenplay where he greatly altered the story and added several characters, as well as (allegedly) a long, tripped-out sequence about footwear. No one at UA knew what to make of his script, and the project stalled. Boorman pocketed $3m for his troubles and moved on to other projects.

- Enter Ralph Bakshi, who called up UA upon hearing of the difficulties and expressed his interest in doing it as an animated feature. After hooking up with Saul Zaentz, who'd helped finance Bakshi's Fritz the Cat and who decades later would prove a significant thorn in Peter Jackson's side re: The Hobbit films, as producer, Bakshi got to work.

- He intended this as a two-parter, but despite it turning a tidy profit in theaters, he only ever got to make the one. (Apparently, he never was told that no one he was working with had the rights to The Return of the King.) Had Roger Ebert known this when he wrote  these remarks: "...the closing seems badly conceived. It's not so much that the massive battle of Helm's Deep is a terrible point at which to close (though Bakshi's obvious relish in his rendering of the battle scenes does give the finale an air of showing off), but that the story never really climaxes." he might have qualified them somewhat.

So from a strict-adaptation standpoint, how did they do? Short answer - pretty well. Better than perhaps he's given credit for, if a few google searches is any proof of it.

As Jackson's films would later, Tom Bombadil and much else besides is excised from the hobbits' journey to Bree.
This may have caused a problem had they ever got to Return of the King, as no meeting with the barrow-wight means no barrow-blade for Merry, so who would have killed the ol' Witch-King?
Eomer's and Faramir's roles are diminished, as well. I agree with Roger Ebert's ultimate assessment, that it's a respectable and bold achievement that nevertheless falls far short of the charm of the source material. Still, it served me well as an entrypoint to the mythos, and there's plenty to enjoy here.


1. The Black Riders.

These things really unsettled me as a kid. The combination of rotoscoping and animation worked well to approximate their having one foot in the world of Middle Earth and one in the Land of Shadow.

I also quite liked the cosmic backgrounds given them in their key scenes in Bree and near the ford of Rivendell.

My favorite part of the whole movie is probably when they chase Frodo near said ford. The Witch-King's repeated whisper of 'Come back, come back... To Mordor we will take you...' still totally creeps me out.

Doesn't screencap quite as creepily. But it's all nicely done.
2. By far the film's most distinguishing feature is its liberal mix of animation with rotoscoping.

Bakshi claims he chose to go the rotoscoping route due to the difficulty of credibly animating horses as well as the "cast of thousands" aspect. Both are valid enough reasons; animation astounds me for how labor-intensive it is. Plus, as with the Black Riders, rotoscoping the Orcs and the battle scenes ensures Lord of the Rings look like no other animated feature.

It also lends the violence of the film an almost psychedelic effect.


1. Sauron. All we see is this silhouette of him from the beginning, but it's more or less implied he's just some mortal guy who learned the art of ringcraft. 

For the purposes of the film, that's fine, but that's certainly not the Sauron of the novels.
2. Moria. As mentioned above, this lost city of the Dwarves really captured my imagination. "Far, far below the deepest delving of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not." Bakshi's visuals for it aren't bad:

but I was less keen on his rendering of the Balrog:
While certainly memorable, it just didn't match the terrifying figure from the novel.
Here I have to send a chapeau Peter Jackson's way, as the Balrog of the film was terrific.
3. Lothlorien. The Elven city feels almost as if it's in outer space.

But I didn't quite get the same sense of power from Galadriel that she exudes in the novel. (Here again a shout-out to Jackson's casting Cate Blanchett, who was more or less perfect.)

Still, I do love the scene with the Mirror.
4. Saruman. I quite liked John Hurt's voice acting for Saurman, particularly his wonderfully abrupt switch to ALL-CAPS when he asks Gandalf (1:38 here) if he'd rather see Sauron have the ring or SARUMAN OF MANY COLORS?!


And the visuals for Isengard were perfectly fine, as well as the high drama that accompanies their tete-a-tete.

But apparently Saul Zaentz felt that audiences would be confused between Saruman and Sauron, so he had the name changed to "Aramon." Stupid, but okay. Only problem is that he's kind of called both throughout the film. So right after Gandalf bellows "Saruman!" from the pinnacle of Orthanc, he bellows "Aramon" (or sounds like he does.) Eh? And later, Boromir and others do the same. Pretty sloppy.


1. Some of the character designs.


Like I said, I get that everyone's entitled to their own mental image of the characters. So long as a discernible effort is made to follow the descriptions in the book, I can shrug off Legolas (voiced by Anthony Daniels, by the by) and Sam appearing cross-eyed and goofy. But the costume design is another story. Aragorn suffers the worst:

I mean, he's wearing a sackcloth minidress, for fuck's sake.

While I sympathize with the animators wanting to simplify things, the choice to dress everyone in some mix of Viking and Greek battle wear (and Hollywood-Viking at that - real Vikings never wore horns on their helmets) is not a visually compelling one.

Take away Gimil's axe, and he's essentially a hobo.
2. The Hobbits are a little too child-like for me. And precocious children at that, given to clasping one another in wordless ecstasy.

Sure, that's only a slight exaggeration from the book, but their hearty competence and innate heroism is undermined by their portrayal here.

3. The Fellowship bickers way too much. Boromir and Gandalf are too rough in manner and speech. And finally:

4. Some over-animation. No character just sits and says his piece to another. They have to get up, twirl around, walk about pointlessly, or make fifty facial expressions when one will do. The scene where Gandalf visits Frodo in the Shire after 17 years is perhaps the most egregious in this regard, but it's a problem throughout.  

Ralph Bakshi is not a personal fave. But I'll always have a soft spot for this one. And I've been whistling Rosenman's main theme for close to thirty years now.

FINAL VERDICT: A surprisingly faithful adaptation, interesting to revisit in the wake of the Peter Jackson films. The books, of course, cannot be praised enough. 


  1. The Bakshi film's character designs for both Sam and Aragorn bugged me from day one, when I first saw this thing. Sam went from a young everyhobbit to having the looks of a Borscht-belt comedian who got a mid-'60s film deal a la Marty Allen. Aragorn...besides the minidress, he had a Moe Howard haircut and a face just shy of being a dead-ringer for Rondo Hatton. I agree that everyone has their own perception of what the characters should be like, but sheesh. Plus, the costume designs all look like those of cosplayers from that era; Boromir's horn-helm is a great example.

    The Balrog is another example of something that looks like it was cobbled together for cosplay.

    The saving grace is, as you mention, is the look of the Ringwraiths.

    1. The butterfly wings for the Balrog are particularly puzzling.

      A genuine LOL re: your Rondo Hatton/ Borscht-belt remarks.

  2. Well, repeating what I said once before that there may be certain books that are untranslatable to screen, and that LOTR may be one of those (along with Dune, perhaps).

    That said, and knowing I'm going to catch hell from a lot of Jackson fans, of all the Tolkien adapts I've seen, Bakshi's film and the Rankin-Bass "Return of the King" seem to work best.

    Let me repeat, I said these stories are probably "untranslatable" to film, and so that means these films have to be judged as a group of people doing their best with good, if unworkable material. In "that" sense, Bakshi and Rankin and Bass all seem to capture "something", if perhaps not much, of the novel's flavor. If anything, they both should perhaps be given credit for at least "trying" to bring out the drama inherent in the book.

    In essence, I can at least give them both an A for effort.


    1. One thing else to note about the Bakshi film is that it's a testament to the effort put into it that the screen play was written by Peter S. Beagle, one of the major Tolkien fans, and one of my personal favorite authors.

      Just a shout out, really.


    2. I think the script is pretty good indeed. I guess Conkling's first draft was told from Merry's pov, after-the-fact, and Beagle was brought in for a rewrite. (And underpaid - he was promised more lucrative jobs down the line on Zaentz projects, but these never materialized). It's an advantage Jackson had for his movies, actually, that Bakshi and Beagle left a trail to follow, pitfalls to avoid, etc.

  3. Hobbit, LotR, and Return of the King are all pretty cool cartoon movies that my kids laugh at too much. Personally I'm turned off to the Peter Jackson films, for a few reasons. So I don't see his films as the quintessential film version, and I also don't find he cartoons ridiculous. They're really faithful and interesting. Jackson's films are awesome in an undeniable sort of way, but they're annoying too.

    1. I still haven't seen the Hobbit trilogy, but I'm starting on that soon, I think. I like the cartoons, too - it's too bad the younger crowd can't access them as the fun they are.

      What are the reasons the PJ films turn you off?

  4. "...it's too bad the younger crowd can't access them as the fun they are."

    I here what you say about younger crowds not being able to access older forms of entertainment, or at least anything non-Disney or the like.

    I said something once before about this kid who said he didn't understand why everyone likes a film like "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly", and I think a lot of it has to do with two things.

    The first, I think, is a question of what one scholar called "Cultural Literacy (thanks E.D. Hirsch!), which means that the less people are able to soak up not just historical facts, but also the "meaning" (perhaps a better word is the "mind-set") of those facts, then it's possible they won't be able to understand or grasp anything that does not fall into their own private sphere of understanding.

    This matter of the lack of "Cultural Literacy" can be problematic, as it means the inability to grasp the most fundamental things necessary. For instance, to give a concrete example, there has been talk in congress recently about whether to keep up "The Voting Rights Act of 64".

    Anyone with a high amount of "Cultural Literacy" will know not only what that act is, but also the famous personages it's associated with. However, a lot of modern kid's reactions have been like, ....."huh?". The irony is there's a whole lot of danger in such a reaction that they aren't even aware of.

    2. The much more simpler reason kids can't enjoy, say, an old Marx Brothers film as opposed to older generations seems to be simply because they've wrapped themselves, or else been wrapped, into their own hermetic millennial space of pop-culture which doesn't acknowledge much except for a handful of things, mostly films, that have happened since before 2000.

    As I said, I think this inability to grasp a lot of the higher information necessary for even the act of "getting" an action film from the 60s might, in itself, be the sign of a much larger problem facing this country right now (assuming it's even limited to this country).

    ...Sorry. Just two cents.


  5. Rarely have I needed that Ur-Kindle more than to borrow that Kubrick/Beatles version of the movie from Earth 786 or whatever.

    I've seen the Bakshi movie, but not in a decade or so. I didn't think much of it, to be honest. I never saw it as a kid; I don't think I even knew it existed until the early nineties, and then it was years later before I actually saw the thing.

    My familiarity with it prior to then came from owning the Leonard Rosenman soundtrack on CD. A very solid score; not the overwhelming masterpiece that Howard Shore's score (in my opinion) is, but quite good.

    My lack of familiarity with the movie is even more surprising when I consider that I knew "The Hobbit" in its animated form. We watched it in school several times. I guess it seemed educational. I find it very difficult to watch nowadays, though; that style of animation doesn't work on me at all, and I've never been able to make myself sit through "The Return of the King."

    As I remember it, the animation in the Bakshi film is occasionally excellent and occasionally . . . not. The rotoscoping stands out like a sore thumb to me, and while I see the usefulness of it, it just looks ugly and crude to my eyes.

    Had no idea Anthony Daniels had been involved in this. Cool!

    1. I've got the Hobbit on tap for today, hopefully. Haven't watched it since the mid-80s - that seems to be the magic ingredient that propels something to the top of my queue!

      Have you seen any other Ralph Bakshi movies? The only other one I enjoy is Fire and Ice, but even that one has its ups and downs. I think the key to this one (LOTR) is having watched it as a kid. I could be wrong.

      Glad to hear you enjoy the Rosenman score. It doesn't seem too well-liked out there in internet-land, but I've always liked it.

    2. I saw "Heavy Traffic" once and absolutely hated it. Nothing about it appealed to me in any way. I hated it so much that I wonder if maybe I ought to give it (or another of his films) another chance just to make sure I wasn't merely having an off day or something.

  6. I loved Aragorn's voice in this adaptation. It felt rough, an outdoor voice, yet also kingly and noble, which *really* works for Aragorn's character in my opinion.
    Another thing I liked was the elves' song to Mithrandir. That was magic to me.

    1. Both of those things do work very well, it's true. The sound design in general is quite good. It's resonated with me over the years and still to this day.