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There And Back Again
the Animated Tolkien movies
and the Live-Action trilogy

by Octavio Ramos Jr.

all images  
Warner Video  
Gandalf (on right) confronts Saruman, a wizard allied with Dark Lord Sauron Lord Of The Rings, on DVD
On December 19, 2001, New Zealander Peter Jackson (director of films such as The Frighteners and Heavenly Creatures) will unleash The Fellowship of The Ring, the first instalment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. At this point, Jackson plans to release 'The Two Towers' in December 2002 and 'The Return of The King' in December 2003. These ambitious live-action films will use the latest in special effects and computer technology to bring to life the world imagined by J.R.R. Tolkien.
   The fan base for Tolkien's work has at times felt insurmountable, and Jackson has already felt the sting of its fervour. For example, early on there were rumours that Arwen (played by Liv Tyler) would either follow or actually become part of the Fellowship (or The Nine). In the books, Arwen remains in Rivendell until she travels to Minas Tirith, where she marries Aragorn II after he is crowned king. She is a very minor character, and when fans heard Jackson would make her a major character, they went berserk.
   Although this rumour has been quelled, Jackson continues to mess with Arwen's and Aragorn's relationship. For example, in the film Arwen and the Lothlorien Elves (led by Haldir) will arrive in time to help the Fellowship battle the Uruk-Hai (a special breed of orc) at Amon Hen. In the books, no such help arrives.
   An even greater groaner appeared in one of the recent teasers seen on American television, where Arwen, behaving like a crazed Xena - Warrior Princess, appears to hold off the Ringwraiths (once human kings and sorcerers who wear the Nine Rings of Men and are now servant shadows of the Dark Lord) at the ford of Rivendell. Not only does this change eliminate Glofindel, but it also takes away some of Frodo's power (his defiance of the Ringwraiths in the book demonstrates that the little hobbit has what it takes to bear the burden of the ring) and minimizes the wizardry of Elrond and Gandalf (they, not Arwen, create the massive wave - Gandalf's special touch consists of the spectral horses).
   So, how does Jackson justify these and other changes? "We have to find a way to include Arwen in more of the story, to have a chance at creating a meaningful screen romance [with Aragorn II]." As a result of such ongoing scrutiny, Jackson has relented, at length stating, "Sure, it's not really The Lord of the Rings... but it could still be a pretty damn cool movie." [Source of interview quotes: The One Ring]
   With the release of the first instalment of The Lord of the Rings, the debate over adapting Tolkien's works will heat up even more. To add fuel to the fire - or perhaps quell it a bit - I have written this article to look back at previous adaptations, namely the animated works of Ralph Bakshi (no stranger to controversy himself) and Rankin and Bass. As you will read, it is a fine line between what works on screen and what fans consider poor adaptation. Looking Back
Based on the controversy over the live-action films, it is not surprising that the animated films inspired by Tolkien have been feverishly criticised and overanalysed by fans who have their own unique visions of Tolkien's world. On the other hand, there recently have been some fans who have defended the films, pointing out the differences between reading a story and watching one come to life on the big screen.
   With all three Tolkien animated features recently released on DVD, I thought it would be a good time to review these films with a less critical eye. Although all three films have flaws, they do represent honest and heartfelt attempts at adapting what many consider the un-adaptable. Why un-adaptable? The principal problem resides in the fertile imaginations of so many fans. Although Tolkien painstakingly created his world, he was not overly descriptive (as say, H.P. Lovecraft). Thus, many readers have developed their own personal Tolkien worlds. Even with the new film's release, this problem remains unsolved.
   A secondary problem was the scope of The Lord of the Rings. The trilogy's incredible battles, powerful beings (such as Sauron), and races were simply too difficult and too cost-prohibitive to render using traditional live-action techniques. Even with the technology that brought Star Wars to life could not help, as demonstrated by the often-flat special effects behind another Lucas film, Willow. Computer technology, however, at last made it possible for Jackson to tackle such a project.
The Hobbit
Creators of children's animated and stop-motion tales such as Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy, and Jack Frost, Arthur Rankin Jr and Jules Bass also have delved into fantasy, producing tales such as The Last Unicorn and The Flight of Dragons. In the late 1970s, Rankin and Bass tackled the works of Tolkien, the first of which was the prelude to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit.
   Adapted by Romero Miller with song lyrics written or adapted by Jules Bass from Tolkien's original material, The Hobbit comes through quite well, with many of the scenes lifted directly from Tolkien's book. The story concerns Bilbo Baggins (voiced by Orson Bean), a hobbit of the Shire who is hired (or coerced) by wizard Gandalf (voiced by John Huston) and dwarf Thorin (voiced by Hans Conrad) and his 12 dwarves. Thorin and company wish to return to Lonely Mountain, where the dragon Smaug (voiced by Richard Boone) took residence many years ago, in the processes killing many dwarves, some of whom were Thorin and company's ancestors.
   The path toward Lonely Mountain is filled with peril and breathtaking adventure, with our heroes encountering orcs, elves, giant spiders, and trolls. Along the way Bilbo also meets Gollum (voiced by Theodore), a mutated and corrupt hobbit. It is during this encounter that Bilbo finds the One Ring, which serves as the basis for the trilogy that followed.
   As presented by Rankin and Bass, The Hobbit is aimed at children. For example, violence is handled carefully; when creatures die, they twist and turn like kaleidoscopes, and as a result their demises are very vague, bloodless, and painless. This approach is warranted; of Tolkien's works dealing with Middle Earth, The Hobbit is constructed most like a fable and thus is aimed at children.
   But like most memorable fables, The Hobbit taps into adult hearts as well, and no one knew this better than Tolkien himself. Remember, Tolkien placed many 'idea seeds' into the book that would blossom in the more adult-oriented trilogy. Recognising this, Rankin and Bass preserve these ideas, from the rediscovery of the One Ring to Gandalf's business with 'the necromancer' (one of Sauron's many monikers) to foreshadowing that someday Bilbo's descendents will have to deal with the ring. Adults who have read the book will enjoy certain scenes, such as when Gandalf tells Biblo, "Your story has the ring of truth. It rings true." Huston's emphasis cannot be missed, and fans will grin in agreement.
   Although not completely faithful to the book, Rankin and Bass' The Hobbit does come very close.
The Lord of the Rings
Ralph Bakshi's animated version of The Lord of the Rings, like every film in the Bakshi canon, has either been lauded or heavily criticised. Having released Coonskin (aka: Streetfight) with producer Al Ruddy (The Godfather and The Longest Yard) in 1975 and Wizards (inspired by the works of underground artist Vaughn Bode, whose most remembered creations include 'Cheech the Wizard' and 'Cobalt 60') in 1977, Bakshi next tackled Tolkien's trilogy, once again using a rotoscoping technique to animate many of the scenes.
   It is this rotoscoping technique that is the heart of much of the criticism of Bakshi's work. Pioneered by Disney to create realistic movement, rotoscoping simply means that animators 'trace over' live-action film. Although Disney used such technique to great effect without losing any of the animation process, Bakshi's process was sloppy, particularly for the 1970s, and The Lord of the Rings suffered from it. (One notable example is when Gandalf returns as 'The White.' When he jumps onto a rock, the actor's cloak accidentally wraps itself around his head. Rather than correct it with the rotoscoping, the animators simply trace over the blunder). It would not be until the 1980s that Bakshi would use rotoscoping to good effect, particularly on Fire & Ice, which he produced with fantasy painter/god Frank Frazetta.
   Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings covers the first two books, The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. Screenwriters Chris Conkling and Peter S. Beagle do a decent job of adapting Tolkien's work. Although some key scenes are missing, many others are captured with startling detail. Missing scenes include the hobbits encountering Tom Bombadil and their later encounter with the Barrow Wights. The Bombadil omission and indeed Bombadil himself (or itself) has generated discussions for as long as the books have been in print. (The character was based on a Dutch doll belonging to one of Tolkien's children. Tolkien first wrote about Tom in the poem 'The Adventures of Tom Bombadil', published in Oxford Magazine in 1934.)
   In addition to the omissions, there are some blunders that most Tolkien purists will catch upon the first viewing. For example, when Gandalf throws the One Ring into the fireplace and later hands it to Frodo, the hobbit notices that the ring remains cool. However, Gandalf and Frodo fail to discuss the ring's inscription - this is important, for the inscription only appears when the ring is heated!
Gandalf comforts troubled young hobbit, Frodo Galadriel, the Lady of Lothlorien hobbits Samwise, Merry, Pippin, and Frodo - after leaving Bag End on their great adventure
As far as the animation goes, it is the rotoscoping technique and high-contrast methods that cheapen the film. Large live-action sequences are painted and glossed over, creating bizarre images that clash with the animated characters. There are sequences that are animated well, but as the audience is drawn in, yet another sequence of glossy covered up live action takes place, shattering the illusion. Another problem is the constant gesticulating of the characters. In many scenes Gandalf appears fretful and nervous just because he cannot keep still.
   Despite the screenplay quibbles and animation complaints, Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings is quite entertaining as a standalone story. If you can ignore the mistakes and omissions, you can enjoy the film on its own merits. The characters are compelling, the story engaging, and the pace for the most part effective. If anything, Bakshi has the guts to tackle the trilogy head on. Although flawed, it to date has been the best attempt at capturing the first two books of the trilogy.
With respect to honouring Tolkien's work, Bakshi gets it right a number of times, and even when he embellishes a scene, he does so to enhance the action and heighten the tension. For example, in the book only Samwise battles the Watcher in the Water before entering Moria (Khazad-dum). In Bakshi's film version, Aragorn and Boromir engage in the battle, thus creating much more tension. Although not technically accurate, the embellishment works for the screen.
   Earlier in this essay, I discussed Arwen's addition to the Ford scene. In Bakshi's version of the film, he remains faithful to the book. We see Frodo resist the influence of the Ringwraiths, so much so that we can feel his torment as they beckon him to Morder. This is a key scene, for as viewers we understand why Gandalf and Elrond later select Frodo as ring bearer.
   Incidentally, there is another short scene, when Frodo and Bilbo meet at Rivendell, where Bilbo asks to see the ring once more. The malignant power of the ring is shown - through action and not exposition - and it is a powerful thing to behold. Bilbo, like Gollum, is tormented by the ring, and the poor hobbit mumbles "Don't adventures ever have an end." Those who have read the books know how hobbits, and in particular Biblo, have always struggled with the concept of adventure. Biblo's words bring a poignancy that no special effect can ever capture, and this scene alone shows that Bakshi can bring complicated characters to life.
   The most infuriating part of the film is the ending, for there is no resolution for all the tension that has been built up. At the end of the film, Frodo and Samwise are close to Mount Doom, Merry and Pippin are with Treebeard the Ent, and Gandalf, Aragorn II, Gimli, and Logolas have won the battle at Helm's Deep. That's it - end of film, with only a few words foreshadowing the triumph of good over evil.
The Return of the King
Building upon not only The Hobbit but also upon Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings, Rankin and Bass returned to the works of Tolkien with the final instalment, The Return of the King. Using the same animation style as seen on The Hobbit, Rankin and Bass also used the same scriptwriter, Romero Muller, and some of the same actors to portray the characters. For example, Orson Bean returns not only to voice Bilbo, but also Frodo, upon whose shoulders rests the monumental task of ridding Middle Earth of the One Ring. The incomparable John Huston also returns to voice Gandalf the wizard, as does Theordore, who handled the slimy Gollum. New to the cast is Roddy McDowall, who lends his unique voice to the role of Samwise.
   Using Gandalf as narrator, the first minutes of The Return of the King attempt to summarise events that took place in The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, and The Two Towers. This is a daunting task, but the summary is sufficient, although those who have never read the books may find themselves asking many questions. The story then settles to tell the story of Frodo and his companion Samwise, who first must escape an army of orcs before heading into Mordor, where they must destroy the One Ring in the fiery depths of Mount Doom. In the meantime, Gandalf must battle insurmountable odds at Minas Tirith, where the Nazgul (the Ringwraiths). The Return of the King ends the trilogy with good triumphing over evil.
   Once again, Rankin and Bass are relatively faithful to the source material. Muller proves that he is quite adept at adapting Tolkien's work. Key scenes are presented with exciting flair. For example, the battle between the Lord of the Nazgul and Eowyn is something to behold. As with all Rankin and Bass productions, violence is downplayed, but unlike their adaptation of The Hobbit, there is large-scale death and even suicide in The Return of the King.
   As with all adaptations, there are omissions, such as Legolas the elf and Gimli the dwarf, but for the most part the story is well told. Perhaps the most misleading component of this release is the DVD cover, which implies that Frodo is the 'king' in question (and Sting the blade is a bit long, isn't it?).
   The Return of the King serves as a satisfying conclusion to the Tolkien trilogy. Personally, I would have enjoyed seeing what Rankin and Bass could have done with the entire trilogy, but that perhaps will never be. However, fans can look forward to the live-action version of the trilogy. Let us hope that Peter Jackson handles the material at least as well as did Rankin and Bass.

A Final Thought
Can you imagine anyone ever tackling The Silmarillion? Now, this book would make one hell of a movie. Just picture the five books coming to life:
   Ainulindale: the director and producer would have to find the best composers and sound effects people in the world to even attempt creating the Music of the Ainur. And what a feast for the eyes the world of primordial Arda would make.
   Valaquenta: special effects galore would be required to create the ideal Valar.
   Quenta Silmarillion: this is where we would learn about the history of Arda, from its creation to the end of the First Age.
   Akallabeth: here we would learn about the Second Age, in which the land of Numernor (which in scope resembles Atlantis) thrives then is swept by great tides of water.
   Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age: here we would learn about the Rings of Power until the War of the Ring (which is chronicled in The Lord of the Rings trilogy).

Related pages:
tZ  The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring - film review
tZ  The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Rings - another review
tZ  The Lord Of The Rings: Official Movie Guide - book review
tZ  Phantasms & Magics: Witchcraft and the Occult in SF Comics - genre article
tZ  Genre Greats - Lord Of The Wingnuts: Peter Jackson - filmmaker profile
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