Before Star Wars and Harry Potter, J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic novel, The Lord of the Rings, defined the modern fantasy genre. Published in full in 1955, the multi-volume novel weaves together intricate descriptions of varying landscapes and adventures that stretches across alternative mythologies, changing atmospheres, and invented languages, for its various races, including Elves, Dwarves, and Orcs.
The Hobbit, published in 1937, introduced the world where its ambitious sequel would take place: Middle-Earth, an (almost) idyllic land that closely resembles Europe and Asia in some prehistorical imagined time, where Elves still walk the forests and Man has just started serving as the planet’s head species. This enchanted setting is made nearly tangible in Tolkien’s elaborate and sensuous language and maps drawn by the author. It’s easy to mistake The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy. Its actually one novel, comprising six “books,” often published in three volumes: Part I, The Fellowship of the Ring; Part II, The Two Towers; and Part III, The Return of the King.
It must be hell trying to make it into a film.
Yet, two men have taken on the task. While Peter Jackson’s live-action trilogy, adapted from the three volumes in LOTR, is the first time that the entire tale will make it to the screen. The only other serious effort to reimagine Tolkien’s tale as a movie is Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated version, an ambitious effort that resulted in both success and failure.
To understand how this film can be simultaneously great and dismal, one must first acknowledge that it is impossible to render LOTR faithfully. Audiences would have to be in theaters for 30 or more hours at a clip to witness every lovely nuance Tolkien devises in his masterpiece. This is a common complaint about adapting any book, particularly a long one like LOTR, for the screen, but LOTR works much of its magic through Tolkien’s deft use of language. His Middle-Earth needs no visuals to bring it to life — the novel’s scenes are almost mystical, rich images seeming to spring from some deep psychic well, where trees have souls and immortals walk alongside humans. Nevertheless, Bakshi tries. The result is glorious in scope and imagination, yet ghastly to the eye and mind.
Innovative and beautiful, cheesy and disjointed, the film tracks the story of Frodo Baggins. For those unlucky souls who’ve yet to read LOTR, this begins six decades after the events of more child-oriented The Hobbit (the book began as stories Tolkien made up to tell his children). This “prequel” to Lord of the Rings tells the adventure of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit (a short, humanlike creature with a passive attitude and hairy feet) who joins a group of Dwarves in their quest to reclaim a distant mountain and treasure from the control of the evil dragon Smaug. Along the way, Bilbo comes into the possession of a magic ring.
The Lord of the Rings was supposed to be The Hobbit‘s sequel. However, it took on a loftier and darker tone. As LOTR opens, Bilbo is celebrating his “eleventy-first birthday,” announcing his retirement and departure from his home in peaceful Hobbiton. He bequeaths the mysterious ring to his adopted heir, Frodo (voiced by Christopher Guard). Bakshi’s adaptation requires some previous knowledge of what’s going on, because it introduces this info in the form of a hasty exposition and some rushed dialogue between Bilbo and Frodo.
Seventeen years later, Frodo is unexpectedly visited by Gandalf the Grey (William Squire), a wizard also took part in Bilbo and the Dwarves’ earlier adventure. He tells Frodo that Bilbo’s ring is actually the One Ring, ruler of all the Rings of Power, created long ago by the Dark Lord Sauron. Bearing the One Ring, he has power to destroy Middle-Earth. Overthrown almost three thousand years prior, Sauron has now risen to reclaim his stronghold in the evil land of Mordor, and he’s looking for his Ring. Sauron is never seen; the reader and Bakshi’s audience experience only his effects, the way in which anyone who bears the Ring becomes selfish and evil, and his preternatural army. Nine Black Riders, the Ringwraiths, have made their way into the Shire seeking a “Mr. Baggins.” And so, Frodo and his friends venture from their cozy home eastward, determined to keep the Ring from Sauron. The rest of the film is a long, complicated, and extremely entertaining quest across Middle-Earth, the wonder and intricacy of the land conveyed almost perfectly.
Bakshi succeeds most clearly in the landscaping department, beautifully portraying lush greens and vast terrains. When he gets experimental, things get a little trickier. Bakshi uses rotoscoping, that is, a process by which live-action footage is animated by artists (much like Richard Linklater’s recent film, Waking Life). The technique can be used to make animated lines, movements, and proportions seem “realistic,” but Bakshi’s film looks absolutely surreal, even borderline psychedelic. The images fast-forward and rewind, ease into slow motion and occur over eerie backdrops, more a psychological quest than the vision of an unknown history and a mythical quest.
The film includes many on-point depictions, such as the caves of Moria, portrayed with perfect menace and gloom. And when Frodo wears the ring and is subsequently drawn into the nightmarish realm inhabited by Sauron’s Ringwraiths, the visual abstractions and disorienting sound help us to understand Frodo’s state of mind. At other times, however, Bakshi’s experimentations come off as bad special effects. Fully animated and partially animated characters interact, but the figures don’t come together. And some characters’ broad gesticulations, Gandalf’s in particular, are distracting. The Lord of the Rings is supposed to be dramatic, not campy.
Though Bakshi clearly understands Tolkien’s work as a breathtaking piece of art, his animated version is not itself breathtaking. Worst of all, even with its fast pace and narrative leaps, the film covers only half the story. Even within Tolkien’s text, the divisions between books are largely arbitrary. Bakshi’s “Part I” ends at the beginning of a major battle scene, set roughly halfway through The Two Towers. A lot has happened, but still, the action is only beginning and no clear resolutions have been achieved. And so Bakshi’s film feels incomplete and anti-climactic. And after the film’s lackluster critical response, and an almost nonexistent popular one, Bakshi never made a second installment. Instead of being a definitive depiction of one of the most popular books of the 20th century, his LOTR is a mere curiosity, something for Tolkien or Bakshi fans to cherish (or despise), but nothing anyone would recommend to an outsider.
Bakshi succeeded in capturing a portion of LOTR with stunning, if sometimes confused, imaginative renderings, but failed to capture its realistic fantasy (or fantastical reality). Now, 23 years later, Peter Jackson has his chance. The prospects are promising, in that technology now allows what was once the providence of pure animation — magical spells, strange and mythical creatures, and unearthly scenery — to occupy the same screen as live actors. Bakshi (also known for Fritz the Cat and Cool World) tends to show how fantasy and reality can intersect, but they never fully merge, and the differentiation makes his LOTR seem too much like a practice in artifice. Bakshi’s film falters on many points, but it has some merits. No matter what one feels about Bakshi’s presentation, the story and characters keep you intrigued.
Perhaps this is the reason that no adaptation of Tolkien can fail completely: the source material is too good. LOTR remains one of the most popular and influential works in the modern fantasy genre almost 50 years after its publication; not even Tolkien could have imagined the effect his writing would have on our popular culture. Jackson has more time and money and space than Bakshi even dreamed of having, so he has a greater chance to portray Middle-Earth as the good professor may have preferred, a world full of mythical races, rich and varied cultures and tongues, where fantasy and reality are more closely joined than either lets on.