As pretty much everyone knows by now, next month Amazon Prime will premier its new Lord of the Rings series, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.
Hi, my name’s Fred. What’s my name?
Sorry, I think the series title looks redundant.
Anywhoo, the trailers have been royally dragged by Tolkien fans and rightly so, because the series looks unacceptably and unforgivably woke. I plan on watching it if only to tear it into teeny little bits on my Substack page, but I’m going to try and keep an open mind. Basically. Tolkien fans are a dedicated lot, much like Trekkies, and they don’t get mad for fun, so if they’re mad, something is very, very rotten in Middle-Earth.
All of this can wait another month, though, because going back into the cultural history of the books and their previous iterations sounds really appealing.
The history of Middle-Earth and LOTR began long before a line of prose was ever written. All his life J.R.R. Tolkien was fascinated by languages, particularly Welsh, Gothic, and Finnish, and made up his first Middle-Earth language as a young man in 1915, Quenya, an elven language with a whole history and lore attached to it. This language would end up becoming part of The Silmarillion, which was published four years after Tolkien’s death in 1973, and drew on Anglo Saxon, Scandinavian, Gaelic and Celtic language, culture and legend.
Like many other authors, Tolkien’s Hobbit was originally told to his own children, and eventually they took on a life of their own. We don’t know when exactly Tolkien began writing The Hobbit as his manuscripts aren’t dated, and Tolkien himself didn’t remember, but according to Tolkien biographer Humphrey Carpenter, it all started in 1930 or 1931 when Tolkien scribbled a single sentence on a random scrap of paper: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
Tolkien may have not have remembered when he started writing his novel, but he always said he based hobbit culture on his own life. He loved the country, simple food (including wild mushrooms), simple humor, he didn’t like to travel, he was a night owl, and he wore waistcoats as a habit. Bag End was named after his aunt’s farm in Worcestershire. “I am in fact a hobbit,” he said, “in all but size.”
The story flowed out of Tolkien, who wrote his novel without chapter breaks but not without revision. Gandalf was originally a dwarf and the wizard who became Gandalf was called Bladorthin. “Smaug” came from a German verb, smaugan, or “to squeeze through a small hole.” In the end, Gandalf became Thorin Oakenshield and Bladorthin became Gandalf because the latter’s name means “wizard” in Icelandic. The only place where Tolkien choked a little was the conclusion because he wasn’t sure how to wind up the novel, but ended up dashing off a fin to please his children, who clamored to know how The Hobbit turned out.
When it came time to find a publisher, one of Tolkien’s former students thought Allen & Unwin would be a good fit. So did Stanley Unwin’s ten-year old son, Rayner Unwin, who worked as a book scout for his dad, earning a shilling per report. Allen & Unwin not only published The Hobbit in 1937, but had Tolkien illustrate it.
Once the novel became a success, Unwin asked Tolkien for a sequel, and at first Tolkien toyed with the idea of publishing The Silmarillion. Unwin wasn’t too keen on that because while he thought Tolkien’s history was very impressive, he didn’t think it was a suitable follow-up to The Hobbit.
Tolkien wasn’t sure what to do, but then another idea struck him: Make the ring Bilbo found at the end of The Hobbit the plumbline of the new novel. Unwin loved the premise and gave it his blessing, but the writing of The Lord of the Rings was longer and much more complicated because family obligations took up all of Tolkien’s time. It was a few years before he was able to organize his thoughts and begin writing. Fun fact: Frodo’s original name was Bingo Bolger Baggins.
Once the story was finished, Unwin’s only request was that the hefty thousand-plus page novel be split into three parts because it was too expensive to publish in one go, and The Fellowship of the Ring first hit store shelves in July of 1954, followed by The Two Towers four months later and The Return of the King in October of 1955. Amazingly enough, the novels initially garnered mixed reviews (read one here), and due to paper shortages, initial printing runs were relatively small.
Where things really took off was among college students, which is ironic seeing as the novels were written by a college professor. Tolkien became a pillar of counterculture in the late sixties when the books were published in paperback in the United States. Suddenly every college student had to read the books, and some got into Middle-Earth more than others, but either way, as one mother put it, “going to college without Tolkien is like going without sneakers.”
Hippies got in on the act as well. “Frodo Lives!” was seen emblazoned on New York City subway walls and on posters, not to mention buttons and anything else that could carry a slogan. It was primarily a hippie thing about bucking convention and going against authority, never mind that Frodo’s quest was about vanquishing evil and not so much rebelling against The Man.
Naturally, where there’s a golden goose, there are hopefuls waiting to catch the eggs, and almost from the beginning, people have been trying to bring Tolkien’s work to the screen. The Beatles wanted make their own version with themselves in the Hobbit roles, but Tolkien himself vehemently said no.
That didn’t stop others from trying, though. By far this 1967 offering from Leonard Nimoy-of-all-people is one of the strangest LOTR adaptations of all time, even if it is just a clip from the Malibu U TV show. If anyone hasn’t seen it, well, here we are:
One of the first sorta-serious versions I remember seeing of The Hobbit was the 1977 film produced by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass. It’s commonly considered to be a sound but abbreviated version of the Tolkien novel. It’s not bad, but the hobbits look like perpetually frightened Kewpie dolls.
I have mixed feelings about the 1978 Ralph Bashki animated version of Lord of the Rings as well. On one hand it’s easy to see what inspired Peter Jackson’s interpretation, mainly the staging and look of the scenes, such as Strider smoking his pipe from under his hood in the Prancing Pony. The flashbacks are told with live-action actors filmed in silhouette against a textured red background. It’s got a lot of Retroscope, probably because the animators didn’t want to animate the orcs. The art looks really cool and it hits all the high points of the first two books.
However, some aspects of the movie are untintentionally laughable. The Ringwraiths look like a Jawa and a zombie had babies, at least until their hoods are off. Then they look like Sand People. The characters do a lot of unnecessary bobbing and weaving; I don’t know why animation of that era looked like this, but it was the style at the time. And since the movie squishes the first two volumes of Tolkien’s thousand-page trilogy into two hours plus change, most of the story’s punch becomes a light tap.
Since the Bashki movie left the Tolkien trilogy unfinished, Rankin and Bass asked Bashki if they could make The Return of the King, which first broadcast on TV in 1980. Rankin and Bass were able to bring some continuity to the Bashki film and the cast included such durable actors as Orson Bean, Casey Kasem, Roddy McDowell and Sonny Melendez, but the film got a lukewarm reception because it has some odd plot elements.
I saw these movies on TV when I was a kid (all three were on TV a LOT in the Bay Area in the nineteen-eighties), and unfortunately one of the times I came in was when Frodo is telling the other hobbits about how Gollum bit off his finger. That’s a weird place to enter a story. Needless to say I turned them off whenever they were on and wasn’t a Tolkien fan until Peter Jackson’s 2001 masterpiece, The Fellowship Of the Ring.
The thing that’s immediately apparent in the Jackson adaptations of the Trilogy is the urgency. In the books, at least in The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo has time to sell Bag End and buy a new house before going off on his quest with Sam. There’s time to hang out at the Prancing Pony and have fun singing with the other guests. And Tom Bombadil, who is very present in a couple of chapters of the book, is completely absent.
That last bit especially was a big bone for Tolkien fans, and I remember at the time I kind of agreed with them, but now I think screenwriters Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens made a lot of good calls. The movies could easily have become way too cumbersome and bogged down with too many characters, and the story needed that push. Not that the books are bloated or anything, which they definitely aren’t, but obviously movies are a whole different species of storytelling. The fat has to be cut wherever possible and some things just don’t translate to the screen.
For all they did right on the LOTR trilogy, Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens stumbled on The Hobbit movies. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy them. Martin Freeman is a worthy successor to the great Sir Ian Holm. The gaps between the two stories are effectively bridged. And it’s fun seeing Legolas with his slightly freaky lighter eye color.
The problem is The Hobbit is not nearly as hefty as The Lord of the Rings. I know plenty of people had the same issue. There’s a lot of padding. It could have easily been done in one film. Maybe two. Certainly not three three-hour movies. The novel’s fairly simple plot just can’t handle the weight of such a drawn-out arc. Still, the films are beautifully shot and they’re not terrible.
I can’t help but feel apprehensive about Amazon’s new series. Given Tolkien’s distinguished books and filmography, there’s a lot to lose, so sticking to the good stuff is a vastly better option.
The Esther Williams Blogathon is coming up on Sunday. Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you in a couple of days…
An Unexpected Journey (DVD and Blu-ray), The Desolation of Smaug (DVD and Blu-ray), The Battle of the Five Armies (DVD and Blu-ray), The Fellowship of the Ring (DVD, Blu-ray and novel), The Two Towers (DVD, Blu-ray, and novel), The Return of the King (DVD, Blu-ray, and novel), the complete Hobbit (DVD and Blu-ray) and Lord Of the Rings (DVD and Blu-ray) trilogies, the original Hobbit novel, the 1977 Rankin/Bass Hobbit (DVD), the 1978 Bakshi film (DVD and Blu-ray), and the 1980 Return of the King (DVD and Internet Archive) are available to own from Amazon.
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Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977.