The Hobbit (1977)

For a number of people my age this was our first exposure to J. R. R. Tokien's world of Middle Earth.  Released as a TV movie in 1977 and directed by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr., it ran two hours with commercials and was played at least once a year going into the 1980s.  I know a number of people who have credited it with getting them into Tolkien and fantasy literature in general.  

While animation was the only real way until Peter Jackson's first trilogy of film to portray the stories of Middle Earth, this had the exact opposite effect on me.  I was a bit of a weird kid anyway, and often didn't like things that other children were supposed to like.  And, although I'll argue that The Hobbit is not a children's book, this version was cut to try to appeal to both young adults and children at the time.  Thus, until my wife introduced me to the actual books, I considered this to be nothing other than children's literature, and ignored it as such.  Why, otherwise, would the only thing I remembered out of the whole movie be his encounter with Gollum, even though I know I was sat in front of this thing (and typically bored to tears) year after year. 

Times do change, and with a greater appreciation of Tolkien (helped along by studying, as part of my major, quite a bit of the literature that influenced him prior to ever reading the novels) I enjoyed what Peter Jackson did with The Lord of the Rings (while still holding the same opinion after all these years that Ralph Bakshi's animated version is terrible) and enjoying about a two thirds of what was put on the screen for the Hobbit trilogy, with most of that being the first two movies of the series.  When I noticed this was available to view I was curious on if I would still have the same reaction to it as an adult. 

Bilbo Baggins (Orson Bean) is enjoying his life in Hobbiton when the wizard Gandalf (John Huston) and a party of Dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Hans Conried) show up and hire him as a burglar.  Reluctantly leaving his comfortable home, he joins them on a trip to reclaim their ancestral home in the Lone Mountain, which is currently inhabited by the dragon Smaug (Richard Boone).  Along the way the party, and Bilbo, have a number of adventures, but it turns out that they are not the only ones who want a share of the treasure the mountain hides.

To be honest I like it much more than I did as a child, even though it was obviously aimed toward a younger audience.  What largely stands the test of time is most of the animation and voice work, all of which is impressive.  Many of the backgrounds look like they were taken from the illustrations from the books, and help to bring the story to life.  Bilbo, Gandalf and the Dwarves all look great, although Thorin looks way older than he should (I'm basing my opinions on my reading of the book, not the Peter Jackson films).  Smaug and Gollum (Theodore Gottlieb) are both realized in ways that have stayed in the imagination over the years.  The music is also largely enjoyable, and it is not as filled with it as I remembered; I may be thinking of the Rankin / Bass version of The Return of the King from 1980.  Here much of the music is taken from songs in the book, and fits, although Glenn Yarbrough's narrative folk song (used as the theme and incidentally throughout) gets old rather quickly. 

Some of the portrayals of the characters I have a problem with.  The Wood Elves look more like I would have envisioned the Goblins, while the Goblins don't seem to look anything like one would expect a Goblin to look like.  They look more like a take on the Tasmanian Devil.  

The main problem with this version, though, is how rushed it is.  The encounter with the Trolls does not include Bilbo's keeping them talking until the morning comes, Beorn never appears, and neither does the Arkenstone.  Much of it seems rushed, introducing characters like Elrond (Cyril Ritchard) for mere seconds before they are gone from the movie for good.  Way too much action happens off screen, and much of what does happen is adjusted so that kids won't get too scared.  I have seen the anti-war sentiment in this version brought up a number of times, but I personally don't see that out of line with much of what Tolkien thought; for all the glorious speeches of the Dwarves, it is obvious that the Battle of the Five Armies is largely over a pile of gold that could keep all the kingdoms of Middle Earth running for centuries being fought due to Thorin wanting to have it all.

This version of The Hobbit works best when it slows down and stays relatively true to the story material, which it does in two important places.  Bilbo's discovery of the ring and encounter with Gollum is largely intact, and the toad-like representation is still how I see the character today, although Jackson's version of Smeagol was much closer to how he should look.  The other impressive scene is that with Bilbo and Smaug.  I did like the way it was done in The Desolation of Smaug, but I do find the confrontation here having a bit more tension.  

Although there are many things this animated version does better than the Peter Jackson films, especially since it doesn't have all the unnecessary side stories that were not in the book, there is still too much missing from this version for me to say that it is truly better than the later movies.  I would put them on the same level, with the hope that at some point a good live-action version is done - say, a nice three or three-and-a-half hour, self-contained film, that cuts out the fat of the Jackson films but contains nearly all of the book.  

The Hobbit (1977)
Time: 77 minutes
Starring: Orson Bean, John Huston, Hans Conried, Theodore Gottlieb, Richard Boone
Directors: Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin, Jr.  


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