Reading by Ear: The Lord of the Rings (BBC Dramatization)

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
narrated by Gerard Murphy with full cast

During the The Lord of the Rings Readalong last spring, I heard a lot about the different audiobook editions of the novel (as well as The Hobbit); some had full casts, some set the songs to music, and some were straightforward readings. Curious, I began to research the audiobooks haphazardly and, remembering the piece of trivia that Ian Holm, Bilbo in the Jackson film adaptations, had once played Frodo in a radio play, I looked into the BBC’s history with the novel. Once I learned Bill Nighy had played the Sam to Holm’s Frodo in this 1981 BBC production, I simply had to listen to it.

The Lord of the Rings follows Frodo Baggins and a Fellowship that represents the free people of Middle-Earth in their quest to destroy the One Ring, an infinitely powerful and infinitely evil artifact that ever seeks to return to its master, the Dark Lord Sauron. As Sauron grows ever stronger and the shadow of war grows deeper, the Fellowship is sundered, and the tale splits three ways–Frodo and Sam attempt to take the Ring to the fires it was made in, Merry and Pippin find themselves among the Ents and find their own glory as military men, and Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn seek to save Rohan and Gondor.

Brian Sibley and Michael Bakewell adapted the novel into 26 half hour long episodes, which were later reedited into 13 hour long episodes—The Two Towers is breezed through at an alarming pace. In fact, Sibley and Bakewell apparently took their timeline of the events of the novel from the Appendices, as well as adding in some material from supplemental work by Tolkien, such as a conversation between Saruman and the Black Riders. As an adaptation, it’s fairly successful, focusing on the main three storylines rather than trying to get everything in. Tom Bombadil is, of course, excised; the poor guy can’t catch a break, can he? Save the omissions, the adaptation follows the novel faithfully; Faramir’s storyline is untouched and Éowyn is just as grim as she is in the book. If you’re a purist who was offended by Faramir’s treatment in the Jackson film adaptations, this just might be the adaptation for you.

As someone who was reared on the Jackson film adaptations, I couldn’t help comparing the radio cast to the film cast, which is unfair. Ian Holm makes a very nice older Frodo, every inch a hobbit (which, no doubt, served him well when he returned to Middle-earth as Bilbo) and Bill Nighy’s lovely Sam is stunningly similar to Sean Astin’s vocally, although he’s more bumbling than I find Sam to be. Peter Woodthorpe’s Gollum is also oddly prescient of Andy Serkis’ Gollum, although Woodthorpe’s Gollum is less sneaky and more vicious. It look me a while to get used to Michael Horden as Gandalf, but his reassuringly rumbling voice is quite soothing and appropriate—in fact, Ian McKellen and Horden sound quite similar. I found Peter Howell’s Saruman fascinating; instead of regal bombast, Howell goes for a seductive, intimate, and reassuring voice, the kind of voice you’d follow off a cliff. Andrew Seear’s Faramir is noble and human; his lovestruck pleas to Éowyn were beautifully acted. As for everyone else, it’s a solid cast that does justice to the characters.

However, I did have some problems with the presentation that may be problems with radio plays as a genre. While there is a narrator, Sibley and Bakewell (what a charmingly British combination!) prefer to have the characters tell you what’s going on; it can be done naturally, but it usually isn’t, often leaving the hobbits to make bizarrely obvious statements in order to tell the listener what they need to know. The sound effects are equally hit or miss, as are the songs. The main theme, which is used as an introduction and during key moments in the Frodo and Sam storyline, is fantastic, and Bill Nighy’s rendition of “The Fall of Gil-galad” is beautiful. (Give it a listen here.) But a lot of the songs have a very Middle Ages and Arthurian feel to them, which, given Tolkien’s distaste for the “French” Arthurian mythology, feels a little false. The choice to use songs to illustrate battle scenes is a fantastic one, but it’s not very well-executed, especially since the minstrels can be hard to understand. In fact, even the volume of this production is quite variable; I constantly had to change the volume between scenes. Ultimately, though, I’m glad I listened to this. The Peter Jackson film adaptations seem to owe something to this production, from the use of the Appendices timeline rather than Tolkien’s structure of the books to Sam’s accent to even the depiction of what Frodo sees when he puts on the Ring. I probably won’t buy this set for myself, but it’s a nice alternative to the Jackson film adaptations.

Bottom line: The 1981 BBC radio play adaptation of The Lord of the Rings boasts a solid cast—including Bill Nighy’s wonderful Sam and Peter Woodthrope’s vicious Gollum—and, save for the omissions, an unfailing faithfulness to the novel. The medium forces characters (usually hobbits) to make extremely obvious statements to set the scene, and the songs can be hit or miss. Still, a worthy listen for any The Lord of the Rings fan, especially anyone who didn’t like what Peter Jackson did to Faramir.

I rented this audiobook from the public library.

17 thoughts on “Reading by Ear: The Lord of the Rings (BBC Dramatization)

  1. I listened to this all the time when I was younger. I was really upset when I found out winter break that I lost the CDs.

    Love love love.

  2. Oh, this has been on my list for ages. The fact that you liked it makes me more inclined to make an effort to seek it out! I’m convinced that Tom Bombadil is impossible to dramatize in any way that isn’t silly, so I commend them for leaving him out. (I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I learned Jackson had.)

    I’ve had the same problem with volume on other radio plays I’ve listened to. Odd.

    • It’s quite charming, especially if some of Jackson’s changes irritate you. Sibley later dramatized Bombadil in Tales from the Perilous Realm; no idea if it’s successful. But Brian Blessed and Alfred Molina are involved, so yay!

      Do you think it’s a problem of ripping the audio from tape, if you’ve listened to any recent radio plays?

  3. I’m going to have to see if I can lay hands on this. I’ve listened to (and loved) the audiobooks as read by Rob Inglis, but I haven’t gone looking for these, mostly because audio dramatisations make me antsy, for the reasons you mentioned (volume issues, weird music cues, obvious fill-ins for narration, plus I’m not always being able to tell voices apart.) But those issues, at least the last two, might be mitigated in a book I know as well as Lord of the Rings, so it might be worth a try.

  4. I do think that Jackson used elements of this adaptation in his film versions, though I don’t think he made such an issue of the songs, which do come across well and as part of the adaptation. I do like the voices very much (not so much Gerard Murphy’s narration, actually); so much so that I couldn’t listen to the BBC adaptation of ‘The Hobbit’, which did not have Hordern as Gandalf – the actor playing him had a very smooth, slightly devious-sounding delivery which I thought was all wrong!

  5. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know what happened in ‘The Lord of the Rings’. I have listened to this radio play since before I can remember. As a child I was fascinated by it, and I used to, and still do, find it the perfect thing for cold winter evenings when the sun has set, (except perhaps ‘The Paths of the Dead’ sequence, which to this day still sends shivers down my spine).

  6. I’m myself going thru LOTR for the nth time, and in discussing with my now teen daughter (also an obsessive LOTR fan) we are both in agreement that the jackson films do more disservice than anything else to the LOTR literary legacy. Besides distorting the story line massively (who ever heard of Frodo standing at the ruins of (was it osgiliath?) in front of a Nazgul and the ring is just hanging from his hand and suddenly all is well. But more horridly, what jackson did to Bilbo, Aragorn is really quite criminal and Faramir’s treatment doesn’t come close to those more serious crimes :). But your review of the play is quite interesting and I will do my best to listen to it. I wonder by Mr. B always gets cut out. I wish Tolkien had written more about him! Of course the worst of all is now when we hear folks saying they find the books boring and the movies more interesting. Moves one to tears, it does. Thx Chitra

    • Thanks for stopping by, Chitra! Yeah, the movies did change a lot of the book to make it more “cinematic.” I’m fine with it, personally, but I can definitely see where it would be a deal breaker for some! The movies and the novel are different creatures.

      This dramatization is quite fantastic—I think you’ll really enjoy the treatment of Pelennor Fields. I hope you enjoy it! Come back and let me know after you’ve given it a listen.

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