4 Early Embarrassing 'Lord Of The Rings' Adaptations That Time Forgot
It's wild to think that J.R.R. Tolkien's The Two Towers was published about 20 years before New York's Twin Towers opened, and the movie came out a year after they ceased to be. How come no one had tried to adapt Tolkien's work before that? Oh, they did. They just ... weren't very good at it, for a variety of reasons. Hence the existence of deservedly obscure Tolkien adaptations like ...
The Baffling Soviet Hobbit And Fellowship
In 1985, the Leningrad TV Channel aired a film with the snappy name *deep breath* The Fairytale Journey of Mr. Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit, Across the Wild Land, Through the Dark Forest, Beyond the Misty Mountains. There and Back Again. According to the fairy tale of John Tolkien "The Hobbit." Yes, the title alone has a bigger word count than the book itself (we think; we lost count halfway through). This low-budget TV play is notable for two reasons: First, it not only dared to keep the book's songs that the coward Peter Jackson cut, but it actually turned them into fabulous dance numbers.
And second, for a long time, no accurate English-subtitled version existed online, and so the only way to enjoy this movie if you didn't understand Russian was through this not entirely accurate version:
There's also a Soviet adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring that surfaced in 2021 after being aired only once 30 years earlier (it's from the same year the USSR imploded, so it just barely qualifies as "Soviet"). Once again, this one embraced and expanded the musical aspects of Tolkien's work. It even has an opening song that wouldn't be out of place at the start of some tear-jerking anime:
But that somber opening soon gives way to the kind of bizarre psychedelia that can only be achieved via '90s green screen effects and costumes that look like straight out of an under-funded high school's even-less-funded drama club. The result looks like what happens when you mix vodka with LSD.
Also, in 1991, an animated Soviet adaptation called Treasures Under the Mountain began production, and ... you know what, this one actually looked promising. Sadly, it died along with Lenin's dream, and only six minutes of animation are known to exist.
Who knows, perhaps if that movie had been finished, then today Vladimir Putin wouldn't be more of a Harry Potter guy.
The Unfortunate History Of Tolkien Musicals
Tolkien's work has had a cursed relationship with musicals ever since the day Leonard Nimoy made the highly ... inexplicable decision to kick off his singing career with a song about Bilbo Baggins.
It was around that same time that the Beatles seriously considered making The Lord of the Rings their next movie after A Hard Day's Night and Help!. Their producer, Denis O'Dell, approached Stanley Kubrick about directing the movie, but he considered the story "unfilmable" -- and that was before having to interrupt it every four minutes so the Lads could sing "Hey, Balrog" or whatever.
Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni was more receptive to the idea, but apparently, the Beatles couldn't decide who they should play: John originally agreed to be Gollum but also wanted Gandalf, who was George's, and Frodo, who was Paul's, while Ringo wanted Sam but was clearly born to play Ent #7 (a non-speaking role).
Ultimately, the arguments were for naught because Tolkien himself didn't want the Beatles or any other musical group to do the movie, so he just refused to sell them the rights. That didn't stop future Zardoz director John Boorman from considering the Beatles as stars when he was officially hired to make the film around 1970, although the fact that they'd just broken up at that point would have made their presence challenging. Still, Boorman's script had elements of rock opera and described Sauron as looking like Mick Jagger -- who probably would have said "Yes" if asked, since he once lobbied to be in a LOTR movie. Oh, and Boorman wanted the Hobbits to be played by 10-year-olds in beards dubbed with adult voices. He later admitted that his version "might have been" a disaster.
You know what did get made and was a disaster? This:
That's from the 2006-2007 Lord of the Rings musical, which was pitched as "Shakespeare meets Cirque du Soleil" and ended up becoming "the most costly musical mistake in West End history." Reviewers called it "largely incomprehensible," "mind-rotting mediocrity," and (devastatingly) "bored of the Rings." During a preview, one of the actors got his leg stuck on the elaborate stage machinery and broke it in front of the horrified audience, and things just went downhill from there until it was canceled. Hopefully, the promoter was able to bounce from this setback -- literally, since he was slated to do some sort of Spider-Man musical after that.
The Accidental Animated "Trilogy"
Say your kids are into Hobbits and the like but are far too young to sit through a bunch of long-ass live-action movies directed by some guy who used to make muppet pornos and gore films. While looking for more kid-friendly alternatives, you might run into this trilogy:
And sure enough, you start watching, and the first movie has a bunch of songs about stuff like Bilbo's dislike of mishandling plates.
So you step away during the second movie ... and miss your kids watching Hobbits animated in a completely different style being stalked by shadow creatures (which was so freaky that Peter Jackson straight-up cribbed these scenes).
Then you come back right in time to watch more sentimental Hobbit songs in the third movie.
The jarring change in tone is due to the small fact that this was never a trilogy: The Hobbit (1977) was a TV special made by Rankin/Bass, of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer fame, The Lord of the Rings (1978) was a completely unrelated theatrical film made by the creator of the X-Rated Fritz the Cat and that movie where a bunch of magical Middle-Earth-esque creatures go to war are exposed to Nazi stock footage for some reason ...
... and The Return of the King (1980) was another Rankin/Bass special that serendipitously happened to pick up the story roughly where The Lord of the Rings '78's canceled sequel would have. It was only once Warner Bros. ended up owning all three movies in the '90s that they started packaging them as if they were part of the same series, indifferent to how many childhoods they might ruin.
But let's be clear: all of these movies are masterpieces compared to ...
The 12-Minute Hobbit Film Made To Exploit A Loophole
Greed is a central theme in The Hobbit: the whole story centers on a little thief who is hired to break into the hideout of a far bigger one and re-steal some valuables. So perhaps it's appropriate that the first adaptation of this classic tale was created exclusively to take advantage of a legal loophole and make more money.
Behold, 1967's The Hobbit, which took the opposite approach to the Peter Jackson film adaptation: instead of stretching the story to 500 minutes, it crammed the plot (or something vaguely resembling it) into less than 12.
You might notice that this isn't so much an "animated" adaptation as a "photographed" one. It's mostly just the camera zooming in and out of a bunch of storybook-looking drawings with the occasional visual effect and exactly one voice actor. That isn't a stylistic choice -- this is literally all they had time to do since this thing had to be thrown together in less than a month for almost no money.
See, in the mid-1960s, producer William Snyder had bought the rights to make movies out of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings for a pittance since only a few nerds here and there knew about those books. But then, while Snyder was preparing his first movie, Tolkien-mania hit, and suddenly a lot of nerds were into that stuff. Snyder's love of filmmaking took a backseat to his even bigger love of making lots of money, so he decided to re-sell those Tolkien movie rights to some big studio.
The only problem was that no studios were biting yet and, according to the contract, his rights to The Lord of the Rings would revert back to Tolkien unless Snyder produced a "full-color motion picture version" of The Hobbit by June 30th, 1966. The contract, however, said nothing about the film having to be longer than a few minutes, or faithful to the source material, or any good. So, a month before the deadline, Snyder contacted his employee Gene Deitch, who operated a studio in Czechoslovakia and was best known for making the crappiest/weirdest Tom and Jerry episodes.
Deitch accepted the challenge and took some liberties with the story and characters because, again, Snyder did not give a crap. He replaced the 13 dwarves with a couple of regular people, turned Gollum into a big furry monster called Galoom, and added a princess character to "overcome Bilbo Baggins' bachelorhood." In the end, Bilbo kills Slag the dragon, marries the princess, and they rule the non-dwarf city together. Deitch handed the film to Snyder on June 29th, and they showed it exactly once to an audience of people they grabbed off the street so it'd legally count as a screening.
Snyder ended up selling the rights back to Tolkien for $100,000 in 1967 money, which is about $887,000 today. Deitch, meanwhile, got nothing but the satisfaction of a job ... uh, done.
Thumbnail: New Line Cinema, 5TV