Page to Screen: The Hobbit (1977)

The Hobbit
based on The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

You have no idea how excited I am for The Hobbit. I get to spend more time in Jackson’s vision of Middle-Earth with a dream cast headed by Martin Freeman as Bilbo, which is perhaps one of the best pieces of casting I think I’ve ever encountered. It’s 2001 all over again, except this time it’s better; I’m actually participating in fandom this time around. (Also: all aboard the good ship Tauriel/Lindir.) But this doesn’t actually relate to why I picked up the 1977 television movie adaptation of The Hobbit; I just really like bad fantasy movies. Between the animation (Why does everyone under five feet lack eyebrows?) and the fact that the back of the box called The Lord of the Rings a trilogy, this looked like a promising candidate. (To be fair, you could consider The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarrilion a trilogy, but I seriously doubt that’s what they meant.)

The Hobbit, as you may know, is the story of Bilbo Baggins, a middle-aged hobbit who enjoys eating and other domestic and sedentary joys. One day, however, the wizard Gandalf stops by Bilbo’s home and, with thirteen dwarves, drafts Bilbo into a quest to recover dwarven treasure from a truly horrific dragon, Smaug, clear across the Misty Mountains and far, far away from anywhere Bilbo has ever been before. Despite his misgivings, Bilbo joins them, and learns that the world is much, much bigger than he ever considered.

This adaptation was made for television in the late ‘70s, hence its minuscule running time—seventy-seven minutes. There are definitely parts in the movie where you see exactly where the commercial breaks fit in for dramatic effect. In order to slim it down, the movie gallops through the plot at a remarkable pace, cutting out the Arkenstone and Beorn along the way. Structurally, it’s sound, but it’s so quick. There’s little build-up, establishment, or even much character development: Bilbo and Thorin get some, obviously, but otherwise, there are plot points we’ve got to hit, so either jump on or get out of the way! Still, it does manage to get in everything but Beorn and the Arkenstone in little more than an hour, which is certainly something to applaud, and it doesn’t change anything else. Storywise.

I have a hard time enjoying the loosely related trio of animated Tolkien films from the 1970s and 1980s (this, Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, and Rankin/Bass’ The Return of the King), mostly because of how they portray hobbits and also because rotoscoping freaks me out. The art direction here is sunny and cheerful, with Maurice Sendank-esque goblins, pinched, colorful dwarves, and a hobbit that looks like a fat chipmunk with no eyebrows. It’s all very cartoonish, which makes sense—it’s aimed at children, although that doesn’t excuse some of the sillier elements. I did, however, enjoy this design of Gandalf (which the film persists in calling “Gandolf”); tall, pointed, and gnarled, with a practical voice that can be intimidating. Gollum also has an interesting, frog-like design, with a low, threatening voice and, while it goes downhill once he takes flight and you realize he’s shaped like a fridge, Smaug’s catlike design is an interesting mix of Western and Eastern ideas of dragons. I also loved his voice; deep and threatening, yes, but also extremely weary.

The voice work here is well-done, and some of the designs are good. But mostly, they’re either simply alright or downright strange. While Elrond is more or less man-shaped, albeit with enormous ears and glowing lights around his head, the wood Elves—who managed to produce Legolas, widely considered a generally attractive young man—are squat, green beasts with long, blond hair and German accents. While I like the goblins, seeing them ride Wargs smaller than they are is kind of hilarious. And there are some odd choices taken here; the climactic battle is occasionally seen from space, enemies who are killed sort of… spin out of existence, the men of Lake Town are pioneers in mini-skirted tunic technology, and, while the film goes out of its way to say that it’s based on the original version of The Hobbit, it ends with Gandalf making a cheerful statement about how the Ring will affect Bilbo’s family. (All I could imagine was him saying, in that same cheerful, cryptic tone, “It’s gonna break your nephew!”)

The best thing about this adaptation is the music—some of the music. I actually find the vague title song, “The Greatest Adventure”, grating, which wasn’t fun, since it cropped up all over the place to remind the viewer that this particular moment is important. Yeesh. And while the goblin songs are fun, it’s kind of hilarious to actually watch action pieces set to them. But the dwarves’ song, which is only included on the soundtrack in its reprise, “Misty Mountains Cold”, is beautiful. It’s mournful and magical, and makes fantastic use of Tolkien’s lyrics. It hints at the dark depths of Tolkien’s world and dwarvenkind in general, and makes you think of dark, beautiful things hidden under stone. If you can rent this from your local library, it’s worth watching for this song—but skip everything else.

Bottom line: A seriously strange and cartoonish adaptation of The Hobbit, with odd choices in everything from character design to song to camera angles. Still, the character designs for Gandalf, Gollum, and Smaug are interesting, and the dwarves’ song based on “Over the Misty Mountains Cold” is absolutely beautiful and perfect for Tolkien’s world… but little else about this adaptation is.

I rented this DVD from the public library.

7 thoughts on “Page to Screen: The Hobbit (1977)

  1. The eyebrows comment cracked me up: so puzzling, and so true in a lot of older animation. I’m also ridiculously excited for Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit. Why can’t it be Christmas 2012 already?

  2. I’m hoping Martin Freeman shaves his eyebrows for The Hobbit now.

    Seriously, for a very kid-oriented version of The Hobbit, this cartoon does the job fine, much better than the rotoscope-laden Bakshi Lord of the Rings.

  3. Pingback: Review: The Hobbit — The Desolation of Smaug | The Literary Omnivore

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