From Novel to Film pt. 19: The Hobbit


"There behind lay Mirkwood, blue in the distance, and darkly green at the nearer edge even in the spring. There far away was the Lonely Mountain on the edge of eyesight. On its highest peak snow yet unmelted was gleaming pale."

First published September 1937.
The Hobbit might be my favorite of all the Middle Earth stories. It's just such a satisfying fairy tale, palatable for all ages. A remarkable achievement. Immersing myself in Tolkien's work the last few weeks has been one of the most pleasurable experiences of this whole From Novel to Film series.

THE PLOT: Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit of the Shire, is hired by a wizard and a group of dwarves to journey to the Lonely Mountain to contend with Smaug, the dragon who has taken up residence in the dwarves' ancestral home and possession of all their treasure.

It was interesting to re-read this immediately after finishing the other LOTR books. The tone switch is a refreshing change after the sustained anxiety of the War of the Ring. Anxious moments abound in The Hobbit, of course, but it's all rather light-hearted. Bilbo's ancestor, for example, who lopped off a goblin's head and sent it flying into a hole, is claimed to "have invented golf at the same time." Hard to see Tolkien putting a line like that in any of the other LOTR books.

Or consider when Gollum is introduced. Tolkien writes "I don't know where he came from or who or what he was... I don't know where he got the ring. (...) Perhaps the Master who ruled them could tell." That last line was undoubtedly part of the revisions he submitted for the second edition of the book (1951). It fits the narrative tone of The Hobbit while not contradicting anything from the stories written after. But it should not be taken to mean it took writing The Hobbit to start Tolkien down the path of Middle Earth; he'd been worldbuilding that since before World War One.

From a letter to Milton Waldman in 1951, reprinted in The Silmarillion.

"Once upon a time, I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story (...) which I could dedicate simply to England, (my country.) It should possess the tone and quality, the clime and soil of North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe: not Italy or the Aegean (...) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic. (...) I should draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole (...) Some escaped from the grasp of this branching acquisitive theme (...) The Hobbit was quite independently conceived; I did not know as I began it that it belonged. But it proved to be the discovery of the completion of the whole (...) As the high legends (of The Silmarillion) are supposed to look at things through Elvish minds, so the middle tale of the Hobbit takes a virtually human point of view."

So while The Hobbit began life as an independent story, it fits seamlessly into the larger story of Middle Earth (Silmarillion) and serves as the perfect apéritif for the Lord of the Rings saga. For me the more Middle Earth context you have, the greater each and every sentence becomes. Nonetheless, if you have neither the time nor inclination, you can make do with just The Hobbit

But why would you want to?
I especially like the note it ends on:

"'Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!' said Bilbo.

'Of course!' said Gandalf. 'And why should not they prove true? Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!'

'Thank goodness!' said Bilbo, laughing, and handed him the tobacco jar."

Hobbits and wizards sure love smoking. What are they growing up there in the Shire?


The Rankin/ Bass animated movie was broadcast on Sunday night, November 27, 1977, against All in the Family and The Six Million Dollar Man. It was seen mainly as a way of selling the storybook that accompanied it:

Which I had, of course.
It's basically the same cast and crew as The Return of the King, so let's just go through the story chronologically and see what made it into the movie. 

1. The Opening. Abridged somewhat, but Bilbo joins up with the dwarves in more or less the same manner. 

Orson Bean pitches his voice slightly differently for Bilbo than he would later do for Frodo.
And John Huston's Gandalf is even better here than in ROTK.
Hans "The Grinch" Conried voices Thorin.

2. Trolls. Again, more or less the same scene, just a little compressed. I wasn't a huge fan of the visual they picked for the trolls:

When it comes to trolls, I'll forever have the '77 Monster Manual in mind.

3. Elrond/ Rivendell. After they escape the trolls, they make their way to Rivendell. Making Elrond the only character to appear in each Middle Earth book.

Technically, I guess, you could say Sauron does, as well, though he appears only off-stage in The Hobbit, as the Necromancer. I only half-count it.

The music all-around is pretty tough going. It's more or less the same deal as the Rankin/ Bass ROTK, but I'm (slightly) more forgiving of the music in the later film. Here, ugh - it all just grated on me. I woke up with one of the songs in my head and wanted to punch myself. I mention it in this section because the musical representation of Rivendell/ the Elves reminded me more of the opening tune from That Thing You Do ("Loving You Lots and Lots", a song I love, incidentally) than anything I'd associate with the High Elves.

4. The Storm and Goblins. Not bad - this sequence more or less follows the book exactly. 

I like this look better for goblins than I do for orcs in ROTK
5. Bilbo and Gollum. Here's a scene I really loved as a kid, but not so much this time around. Gollum is difficult to understand, and the scene just doesn't flow so well, with cutaways that don't quite work and repetitive animation for Gollum.

"Hello... what's this?"
6. Beorn. Missing, so here's Beorn from the Jackson movies.

We do see the Warg attack and subsequent rescue by the Eagles, though.

7. Mirkwood. Tough call here for the animators, as the Mirkwood of the book is the ultimate enchanted forest of the imagination. I don't envy anyone's task in trying to evoke the atmosphere of the novel. That said:

The animated feature does okay with the spider attack -
- but falls a little short with the Wood Elves.
It's a trip, though, that they got Otto Preminger to voice Thranduil. Huston as Gandalf, Preminger as the Elven King... I wish they'd found a way to cast Hitchcock or Billy Wilder.
This is abridged from the novel, particularly everything in the Wood Elves' lair, but more or less faithful. The visuals for the wood Elves aren't really to my liking. Too similar to the goblins and Orcs.

8. Smaug and Laketown. Smaug walks away with the movie, naturally. If you have a dragon in your story who doesn't, you blew it.

Voiced by Richard Boone.
In both novel and film, Bilbo and Smaug dance around with each other, to draw one another out, and Bilbo walks away the better for it. The dragon blames the Men of the lake and goes on a rampage. His last, as it turns out.

Here is one small change, as instead of the thrush hearing Bilbo tell the dwarves about Smaug's weak spot, Bilbo instructs the thrush himself to go and deliver the news to Bard in Laketown below.

Bard comes across pretty well here. I don't think he's ever mentioned again - further-traveled Tolkien readers are encouraged to correct this in the comments, if wrong, as I'd love to learn what happened to him.
Also missing? The Arkenstone. Which brings us to -

9. Battle of the Five Armies. Somewhat lame. 

Removing the Arkenstone from the story also removes the late innings conflict between Thorin and Bilbo. This necessitates a scene where Thorin calls Bilbo a coward so he has something to make right for on his deathbed soon to come.

10. Return Home. Gandalf's several-years-later visit to the Shire  with Balin (poor Balin) is grafted onto his and Bilbo's journey home. An economic choice. There's no busting in on his relatives selling off his things, but, like the Scouring of the Shire from LOTR, it's an understandable choice.

The End.
FINAL VERDICT: The novel is a high water mark of its age. The film is not, though it's quite a faithful adaptation. But the magic of the novel doesn't quite catch. Still - it was a fun postscript to this little mental vacation into Middle Earth. If only there was a Rankin/Bass Silmarillion - I'd love to hear Glenn Yarbrough compose the Ballad of Melkor.


  1. Time or an unfashionable confession: Without at all denying the classic status of "Rings", or the enjoyment to be got from it, I'm one of that small, select group who likes "The Hobbit" more than it's much vaunted sequel.

    If I had to speculate why, I'd it's down to the difference in it's two main characters. Frodo, I think, bears more in common with much more complex and troubled fictional characters like Capt. Ahab, or perhaps even Travis Bickle (yeah, take that with as much salt as necessary). Such characters can make for an interesting story, and that's certainly the case in LOTR, however while these characters are interesting to read about, nobody would make the mistake of identifying with them, but rather observing them in a more detached way.

    Bilbo, on the other hand, strikes me as more of a traditional hero of sorts. In other words, let's put it this way, it isn't too hard for me to see him in the lead role of the original Die Hard (however that may sound, or even if that makes sense).

    In fact, I think an overarching theme of both of Tolkien's books is a deconstruction/reconstruction of the very nature and idea of heroism. If I had to sum up Tolkien's final thoughts on this matter, I'd point to Thorin's final words to Bilbo, and that maybe LOTR's is an expansion of this idea. I always found myself asking whether it wouldn't be fun if LOTR had more of the satirical edge that "Hobbit" does, just to see if it would add things.

    As for the Rankin-Bass "Hobbit", three scenes are standout for me; the recounting of the Fall of Erebor (look up the legendarium); The scene between Bilbo and Gollum (I just like how the character is portrayed as clearly unhinged and almost ready to start slicing and dicing at the drop of a hat); and Bilbo and Smaug (same deal).

    Sadly, this one fails where R-B's ROTK manages to be a guilty pleasure. Most important of all, WHAT THEY HELL HAPPENED TO THE WOOD-ELVES?!


    1. "For the Shire, Motherfucker!" A Bilbo Die Hard would be great. Though, with the ring, he sure would have an easier time of it than John McClane.

      And yeah, the Wood Elves just don't look at all like their description in the book, or at least what I pictured from reading.

  2. I might have seen this during its first run on TV. I know I was pretty young at the time. This first aired about a month before my 10th birthday, so it's certainly possible. It was my first exposure to Middle Earth, that much I know. As such, when I eventually read the novel, I was irritated by the "extra" scenes that didn't take place in the movie I'd watched and thus I didn't consider the novel the "true" version of the story. (Hey, I also had a problem with this Connery guy pretending to be James Bond when I already knew he was played by Roger Moore!) I was young. Don't judge me!

    Funny you mentioned the Monster Manual. When I first saw the page with the troll, I was disappointed it didn't look like the trolls in this!

    The animation in this isn't terrible. Maybe it's nostalgia talking but I find it kind of charming. Yes, the elves look ugly and Gollum doesn't look anything like a Halfling but I can deal with that. Smaug looks awesome and most of the "sets" look realistic to me. If I try to say anything bad about this movie I feel my 9-year-old self will get mad and rip up some comic books as revenge. With my luck he'll pick something like Amazing Spider-Man 129. First Punisher? Who's he? Riiiiiiip...

    "After they escape the trolls, they make their way to Rivendell. Making Elrond the only character to appear in each Middle Earth book." What happened to Gandalf? Or are you counting The Silmarillion, too?

    Good review.

    1. Thanks, Joe. I meant including Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, yes, though (I may be mistaken) I think Gandalf (as Mithrandir) MAY appear in Silmarillion or be mentioned at least in passing. But as far as dialogue/ taking part in events, then (at least according to Tolkien himself) Elrond is the only character to appear in all of his Middle Earth books.

      That's funny about the "extra" scenes - I can relate.

      Hopefully no ASMs were harmed for the writing of this comment! Especially 129.

  3. I'm now consumed with trying to figure out who Hitchcock could have voiced. Bombur, maybe? Maybe just make him Lotho Sackville-Baggins and call it a day.

    The one thing that has stuck with me about this movie is Huston's performance as Gandalf. He was great. Maybe not AS great as McKellan, but pretty dang great.

    1. Huston's Gandalf is indeed pretty great. As for who Hitchcock could have voiced, it's a good question. I'd get a huge kick out of him playing Bard.

    2. My first thought, oddly enough, was Smaug. It wouldn't work, because can you imagine Hitchcock getting angry? But otherwise, he'd've been cool in that capacity.

    3. I still have to go with Bard. I want to see/hear Hitch, dressed as he always was ion his blue-grey suit, slowly telling Black Feather (the arrow) that it has never failed him and then shooting it into Smaug, then the close-up with a "Good eeeeeevening..."

      But this is probably why they don't give me the big bucks.