The Hobbit (1937-2012): A Tale from Development Hell

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

TalesDevHellSquareWith these words, impulsively scribbled on a piece of paper by thirty-eight year-old Oxford languages professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, the greatest fantasy epic in the history of literature was born. Although The Hobbit, as the resulting story would eventually be titled, was written largely for Tolkien’s own children, it found its way to publisher Allen & Unwin, and appeared in 1937. It sold well; well enough that Allen & Unwin asked for a sequel. Thirteen years later, ‘J.R.R.’ Tolkien, renowned as a perfectionist and self-professed procrastinator, was ready to deliver it. “My work has escaped from my control,” he wrote to his publisher in 1950, “and I have produced a monster: an immensely long, complex, rather bitter, and rather terrifying romance, quite unfit for children (if fit for anybody).” Its title was The Lord of the Rings.

It was a further four years before Allen & Unwin finally published the book, an epic saga set in a fictional world called Middle-Earth. Divided, much to the author’s annoyance, into three parts entitled The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, the book sold moderately well, particularly for a thousand-page trilogy of hardcover doorstops which, unable to fit comfortably into any existing genre, had invented one all its own. Nevertheless, it did not begin to enjoy the kind of success one can describe as phenomenal until the mid-1960s, when Ace Books (home of Philip K. Dick and Tolkien-inspired fantasist Ursula K. Le Guin) and Ballantine published rival editions of the book. By this time, American youth was in the midst of being caught up in hippie culture, and the quiet Oxford don suddenly found his story about hobbits, elves, dwarfs and wizards selling hundreds of thousands of copies per month, and becoming — almost overnight — required reading for a generation of psychedelic explorers.

With a vast readership stretching from middle England to the Midwestern United States, one would have expected Hollywood to come knocking on the door of his study, the cigar smoke of a producer mingling with that of Tolkien’s beloved pipe as he signed away the film rights to his masterpiece. In fact, Hollywood had been ahead of the curve, with Hugo award-winning science fiction fan, writer and magazine editor Forrest J Ackerman — the man credited with being the first to abbreviate science fiction to ‘sci-fi’ — approaching Tolkien as early as 1957. Ackerman made his appeal in person, flying to London and taking the train to Oxford. “I had no sooner landed in London than an hour later I was in the drawing room of Professor Tolkien,” he recalls. “There were two young lady fans who went with me. The Professor talked to us with a pipe in his mouth, and holding his head kind of down, and a very thick accent, and when the two girls and I got back on the train we were saying, ‘What did he say? Did you understand anything?’ We only understood about one word in five!” Nevertheless, he adds, “He gave me permission for a year to try to find a movie producer for it.”

Ackerman’s ambitious plan was to make a live-action film, rather than taking the animated approach Tolkien would have preferred. “I should welcome the idea of an animated motion picture, with all the risk of vulgarization,” Tolkien wrote to his publisher Rayner Unwin on 19 June 1957, “and that quite apart from the glint of money, though on the brink of retirement that is not an unpleasant possibility.” Referring to an earlier bowdlerization of the book for a dramatised reading produced for radio by the BBC, he added, “I think I should find vulgarization less painful than the sillification achieved by the BBC.” Although a writing associate of Ackerman’s, Morton Grady Zimmerman, set to work on a treatment for the proposed film, while production designer Ron Cobb began scouting suitable locations in California, Ackerman found it difficult to interest the few producers he knew in such an ambitious undertaking. “I had gone to school with James Nicholson, who was the president of American International Pictures, and I thought perhaps that he would be interested,” he says, “but the scope was too great for him. I no longer recall just who else I approached, but nobody obviously was prepared to produce it at that time.”

In April 1958, Tolkien admitted in a letter to Unwin that he was “entirely ignorant of the process of producing an ‘animated picture’ from a book, and of the jargon connected with it.” He had recently received Zimmerman’s synopsis of the book, described as a “story-line”, and while Tolkien claimed ignorance of the adaptation process, he did know the difference between a film ‘treatment’ and what he saw as ill treatment. “This document, as it stands, is sufficient to give me grave anxiety,” he wrote, adding that Zimmerman seemed “quite incapable of excerpting or adapting the ‘spoken words’ of the book. He is hasty, insensitive, and impertinent,” he went on. “He does not read books. It seems to me evident that he has skimmed through the [Lord of the Rings] at a great pace, and then constructed his [storyline] from partly confused memories, and with the minimum of references back to the original.”

Tolkien, a lifelong philologist, was principally peeved with the constant misspelling of Boromir as ‘Borimor,’ but there were other slights, and overall Tolkien felt “very unhappy about the extreme silliness and incompetence of Z and his complete lack of respect for the original.” Nevertheless, there was one redeeming feature about the whole affair, and it was an obvious one. “I need, and shall soon need very much indeed, money,” he wrote, referring to his encroaching retirement, and promising to restrain himself, “and avoid all avoidable offence.” In a letter to Ackerman circa June 1958, Tolkien begged understanding of “the irritation (and on occasion the resentment) of an author, who finds, increasingly as he proceeds, his work treated as it would seem carelessly in general, in places recklessly, and with no evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about.” Although hardly an avowed cinemagoer, Tolkien understood the medium well enough to note that “the failure of poor films is often precisely in exaggeration, and in the intrusion of an unwarranted matter owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies.” His commentary on Zimmerman’s synopsis was thorough in scope and condemnatory in tone. “He has cut the parts of the story upon which its characteristic and peculiar tone principally depends, showing a preference for fights; and he has made no serious attempt to represent the heart of the tale adequately: the journey of the Ringbearers. The last and most important part of this has, and it is not too strong a word, simply been murdered.”

Bryan Sibley, author of a later (and widely acclaimed) BBC radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and the official ‘making of’ books for Peter Jackson’s trilogy, believes that some of Tolkien’s criticism may have been unfair. “The problem was that, because Tolkien was not a regular moviegoer, he didn’t understand the problems of dramatisation,” he told Starlog. “One of his chief criticisms of [the] treatment was that he had arranged the books in chronological order. It’s actually something that you have to do if you’re going to construct a screenplay out of what is essentially a novel.”

Nevertheless, despite the considerable efforts of Ackerman et. al. to convince Tolkien that his story was in safe hands, the proposed adaptation withered on the vine, and no firm agreement was ever made. “I think it was just as well,” Ackerman admits, “because it could never have been given the grand treatment that Peter Jackson afforded it.” Ackerman did, however, manage to produce another adaptation of the book, however. “I edited 200 issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland,” he says, “and the man who produced those issues saw a value in Tolkien. As I recall he had me do a one-shot comic book based on it. I had already created a comic strip character called Vampirella, so he had me create a one-shot on a portion of the Tolkien stories.” There was another, more surprising consolation for Ackerman: a cameo role in Peter Jackson’s early splatter film Braindead, aka Dead Alive.

Meanewhile, back in Europe, work was underway on an animated adaptation of Tolkien’s earlier work, The Hobbit, thanks to the foresight of producer Bill Snyder, who, in 1964, optioned the rights for a period extending to 30 June 1966, handing the task of adaptation to legendary animator Gene Deitch. “After reading the book, I caught the fever,” Deitch recalled in his autobiography, How to Succeed in Animation (Don’t Let A Little Thing Like Failure Stop You!), “and intensively began working up a screenplay … The great sweep of the adventure, the fabled landscapes, and the treasure of fantasy characters, made the story a natural for animation.” Incredibly, Deitch and his writing partner, Bill Bernal, were well into the screenplay when they heard, for the first time, of the existence of The Lord of the Rings. “Having assumed there was only The Hobbit to contend with, and following Snyder’s wish, we had taken some liberties with the story that a few years later would be grounds for burning at the stake,” Deitch admitted. These changes included changing some of the characters’ names, playing fast and loose with the plot – even creating a love interest – a Princess, no less – for Bilbo Baggins. Having read The Lord of the Rings, Deitch and Bernal realised that they were dealing with something “far more magnificent” than The Hobbit, and set about retro-fitting elements from the later works into their script, to allow for a potential sequel. They even conceived a ground-breaking animation method they christened ‘ImagiMation’, which would combine cel-animated figures over elaborate 3D model backgrounds, in the style of some techniques pioneered by animation genius Max Fleischer.

In January 1966, Deitch was invited to America to make a presentation to 20th Century Fox. “By the time we arrived, however, Snyder had already blown the deal by asking [Fox] for too much money.” Evidently, word of The Lord of the Rings’ groundswell of sucess had evidently not reached the ears of Fox executives. By the time they did, however, Snyder found himself with an ace in the hole: according to the paperwork for the film rights to The Hobbit, all Snyder had to do in order to hold an option, also covering The Lord of the Rings, was produce “a full-colour motion picture version” of The Hobbit by 30 June 1966. Nowhere in the contract did it state that the film must be animated, or feature elength, or even produced to a high standard. As a mortified Deitch explained, “All he had to do was to order me to destroy my own screenplay – all my previous year’s work – hoke up a super-condensed scenario on the order of a movie preview (but still tell the entire basic story from beginning to end), and all within 12 minutes’ running time – one 35mm reel of film. Cheap. I had to get the artwork done, record voice and music, shoot it, edit it, and get it to a New York projection room on or before 30 June 1966.”

Marshalling a tiny group friends and associates – a Czech illustrator named Adolf Born, a composer friend named Vaclav Lidl, and an American narrator, Herb Lass – Deitch worked out a simple storyboard, brought to life with paper cutouts photographed with multiple-exposure visual effects and scene continuity, working directly under the camera. Incredibly, the one-reel film was completed on time, and Deitch arrived in New York with the rough answer print a day ahead of schedule. Snyder had already booked a small projection room in midtown Manhattan, and after a quick test screening, Deitch ran downstairs to stop passers-by, asking if they would mind paying ten cents admission to see a new animated film. “After the screening, the few puzzled audience members were asked to sign a paper stating that on this day of 30 June 1966, they had paid admission to see the full-colour animated film, The Hobbit. Thus, Snyder’s film rights to the entire J.R.R. Tolkien library were legally extended, and he was immediately able to seel them back for nearly $100,000. My share of this weazled boodle? Zip.”

By now, the book had become one of the publishing sensations of the decade, and every studio in town was clamouring for the film rights. This time, it was another ‘60s phenomenon — The Beatles — who became linked to the project, a move apparently instigated by John Lennon. “We talked about it for a while,” Paul McCartney told Roy Carr, author of The Beatles at the Movies, “but then I started to smell a bit of a carve-up because, immediately, John wanted the lead.” According to Carr, however, Lennon was interested in the role of Gollum, with McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr opting for Frodo, Gandalf and Sam respectively. Whether related to The Beatles’ ambitions or not, United Artists successfully acquired the rights to film The Lord of the Rings in the autumn of 1969, for the sum of $250,000.

It was around this time that Heinz Edelmann, designer and art director of The Beatles’ animated film Yellow Submarine, became interested in pursuing the idea of an animated adaptation. At the time, Edelmann was doubtful that stories of action, suspense and thrills could be depicted as straight animation, and proposed to make the film “as a kind of opera, or a sort of operatic impression”, more closely related to Disney’s Fantasia than, say, The Sword in the Stone. He intended to approach it “As one does an operatic version of any book,” he told Outré magazine, “[to] sort of try for a distillation of the mood and the story, but not follow every twist of the plot.” For instance, “One could have packed 300 pages of wandering into a five-minute sequence set to music.”

Edelmann has said that his version of The Lord of the Rings would not have been stylistically similar to Yellow Submarine: “The artwork would have been completely different: much less colour, and unrealistic, but without the art nouveau touch Yellow Submarine has.” Neither did Tolkien’s original illustrations for the book, which were all based on medieval art, appeal to Edelmann, who saw the story more in terms of an Akira Kurosawa film. “If you look at all the fantasy films done in the last thirty years,” he said in 2001, “there is a strong Japanese ethnic influence in the staging, in the buildings, and especially in the costumes. I think at that time we might have been the first to think in those terms. The Lord of the Rings is such a classic right now that almost no artistic freedom is possible. Back at that time, when it was new and Tolkien was still alive, it would have been a contemporary version, and I think that would have given us much more artistic freedom.” Nevertheless, he added, “I would have loved to have done it. Sometimes I do still think about it, but it would have been an awful amount of work. Maybe it’s better that it has remained just a concept.”

Ultimately, United Artists decided that animation was not the best way to proceed, and in June 1970 announced that John Boorman, the young British director who had come to Hollywood’s attention three years earlier with his gritty thriller Point Blank, would helm a live-action version. Boorman had originally wanted to make a movie about the legend of King Arthur, but when United Artists offered him the chance to turn Tolkien’s fantasy tale into reality, he leapt at it, bringing aboard Rospo Pallenberg to work with him on the script. They conceived of several approaches, from a straightforward adaptation, to what Pallenberg later described as “like a Fellini movie in a never-land, or in a big studio, like Moulin Rouge! — sort of all fake.” In the end, a more straightforward approach prevailed, with the studio hoping to combine all three volumes of the book into one film — an endeavour which proved challenging to say the least. “At the time, they produced long movies with an intermission,” Boorman explained. “[The script] is 176 pages with an intermission on page eighty-one, after the Fellowship goes down the rapids, and you have a sense that they have reached a great landscape as the river widens.” After the intermission, “we accelerated as we continued the story, and dropped things out. We were propelled by what we liked, and invented as we went along.”

Among the script’s inventions was the opening, in which the camera would invade J.R.R. Tolkien’s own study, disturbing him at work, followed by a brief history of Middle-Earth, conducted by what Pallenberg described as “a kind of Kabuki play in which the story of Sauron and the creation of the rings was explained to a gathering in Rivendell.” Pallenberg wrote new scenes for several characters, including a love scene between Frodo and Galadriel (husband Celeborn was not featured). He also claimed a particular affinity and sympathy for the dwarf, Gimli, for whom he wrote a new scene in which Gimli was buried in a hole and beaten to utter exhaustion in a bid to recover his unconscious ancestral memory, and thereby remember the word necessary to enter Moria and discover other insights about the ancient dwarf kingdom. “I had a rather fanciful idea involving these orcs that are slumbering or in some kind of narcotic state,” he added. “The Fellowship runs over them, and their footsteps start up their hearts. John liked that a lot.” Another original idea was a unique duel between Gandalf and Saruman, inspired by African magicians who duel with words (an idea subsequently explored, incidentally, in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman). “It was a way of one entrapping the other as a duel with words rather than special effects flashes, shaking of staves, and all that,” he explained. “I tried to keep away from that a lot, and Boorman did too.”

At the time, the possibility remained that The Beatles might be involved, perhaps even playing the four hobbits, a prospect which Pallenberg relished, despite the fact that it would have been difficult to apply roles to each of the group’s members. “It was presented to me as, ‘Let’s see if we can try and keep the four hobbits on sort of an equal basis — [though] obviously, Frodo was the protagonist — so we did that,” Pallenberg added, opining that Paul McCartney would have been his ideal Frodo. “They were the emotional anchor to the whole piece. We also anchored a lot of the film on how the ring corrupts, and we were fascinated by Tolkien’s idea of ‘stewardship of the land’.”

New Zealand director Peter Jackson, who would bring a live-action Lord of the Rings to the screen thirty years after Boorman’s aborted attempt, sympathised. “When you’re faced with adapting the twelve hundred pages of The Lord of the Rings it’s obviously an incredibly daunting task,” he told the makers of The South Bank Show. “It’s daunting in several ways. One [is that] just as a book, it’s very dense and there’s a lot of characters and it has… layers, [so] that you can scrape away one layer and there’s more information below, and you can scrape that away [and] there’s more information, which is exactly what makes it such a wonderfully beloved book. To somehow translate that particular aspect of the book into film, it’s virtually impossible. What you can do is you can take the story, you can take the characters, and you can make a movie that presents on film the moments that people remember from the book. Tolkien did a lot of things in his story that if you were a film-maker you would choose not to do — it’s as simple as that,” he added. For example, “His villains are very difficult to put onto film. Sauron, his ultimate evil in the story, is unable to take physical form by the time the events of The Lord of the Rings take place, and he manifests himself as a giant flaming eyeball. Now, you know, to have a movie in which your principal villain is a flaming eyeball is not a decision that you would make if you were writing an original screenplay…” Added Boorman, “[We] used to get the giggles about some of the issues. There was one I remember clearly when Gandalf is vanquished. The text is, ‘He fell beyond time and memory’, and we puzzled about how you put that on film.”

Perhaps the biggest hurdles for Boorman to overcome in the process of adapting the book were the technical challenges. Making the hobbits appear smaller than life would have been accomplished with oversized props and locations, and forced perspective. Flying creatures were excised from the story, so that instead of having the Nazgul chief swoop in on a flying steed, it rides a horse with no skin — just exposed, bleeding flesh. “I still have this feeling that the dazzle can take away from the fundamental drama,” Pallenberg suggested. “We always tried to do things on the cheap, simply. When you saw a castle in the distance, it could have been made out of anything — even gleaming, high-voltage transmission towers. You saw those in the distance between the trees, and then suddenly you were inside it. John Boorman is tremendously clever at that.” Nevertheless, Boorman had other ideas which might not have proved so cost-effective, including a model of Middle-Earth so large it would have displayed the curvature of the Earth, and filled an entire studio. Principal photography would most likely have taken place in Ireland (which would have opened up tax incentives for the production), with interiors being shot at Ardmore Studios. Said Pallenberg, “As I drove around, taking breaks from writing, I saw all sorts of places. I remember there was one view that he could pass off as the Shire — it looked down towards a little village that was called Anamoe, I believe.”

The Boorman/Pallenberg script ended poignantly, as Gandalf, Frodo, Bilbo, Galadriel, Arwen and Elrond sail away from Middle-Earth in a ship. A rainbow appears, prompting Legolas, who is watching from the shore, to remark, “Look — only seven colours. Indeed the world is failing.” Although it sounds like Tolkien, the line is Pallenberg’s own. “From a physics standpoint it’s incorrect to say that there could be more than seven colours,” the writer points out, “but what it’s saying is, ‘We live in a diminished world.’” The end of Boorman and Pallenberg’s year-long endeavour was no less poignant: no sooner had they submitted the script to United Artists than the studio decided it was too risky, too costly or simply not commercially viable, and put it on the back burner. Boorman and Pallenberg had not wasted their efforts, however. A decade later, in 1981, they used the knowledge they had gained during their year of development on the unrealised Tolkien project as the basis for Excalibur, the film about King Arthur which Boorman had set out to make before United Artists persuaded him to consider The Lord of the Rings.
By the time of Tolkien’s death in 1973, word of Boorman’s stalled production had reached Ralph Bakshi, a Brooklyn-born animator best known as the filmmaker who brought Fritz the Cat to the big screen. Says Bakshi, “I was a Tolkien fan, and I thought Lord of the Rings was not only one of my favourite fantasies, but one of my favourite novels. I was doing my own stuff at the time, and I knew Disney were talking about doing it, but the Tolkien family wasn’t happy with their approach, because Disney wanted to make it a musical, tone it down, and make it more palatable for young kids.” Interestingly, both Disney’s archives and legal department dispute the notion that the studio ever pursued an animated feature based on the books. “Then I heard that John Boorman was going to do it live-action for United Artists, and had somehow condensed the three books into one script, which I thought was ridiculous,” Bakshi continues. “So I went to Mike Medavoy at United Artists and told him it should be done in animation, in two or three parts. He said, ‘We’ve spent $3 million on this script we don’t understand. I don’t know if we’re gonna make it.’ So I walked across the lot and talked to Dan Melnick at MGM, who loved the idea and immediately wrote a cheque to buy it from United Artists.”

One might think that Bakshi, whose animated features Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic had both received ‘X’ ratings, was the last person to whom J.R.R. Tolkien’s estate would give their blessing for the first feature film based on his most famous work. Not so, he says. “They had no contractual approval, but I said, ‘Unless they give me the okay I’m not doing it.’ So I went to see Tolkien’s daughter and spent two days discussing how and why I was going to make the film. I said I couldn’t do everything, but the scenes that I could do would be pure Tolkien, both in dialogue and depiction, and she loved that. She took me to the studio where Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings, and gave me her blessing, and I got to work.” Chris Conkling wrote the first draft of the screenplay and delivered it on 21 September 1976. This was subsequently revised (in a second draft dated 3 May 1977) by Peter S. Beagle, with the third draft (credited to Conkling, Beagle and Bakshi) being completed on 21 September 1978, exactly two years after the first. In the meantime, however, Dan Melnick had left MGM, and The Lord of the Rings was not a project his replacement wanted to pursue.

Undeterred, Bakshi approached Saul Zaentz, who had financed Fritz the Cat (and had produced Best Picture Academy Award-winner One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and would later produce another, Amadeus). Zaentz agreed to back the film, which would be divided into two parts. In adapting the books, Bakshi made good on his promise to remain faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, and elected to employ the controversial ‘rotoscoping’ technique — essentially tracing over live action footage — to ground the fantasy in the kind of “nasty realism” he found omnipresent in Tolkien’s work. “His fantasy is grounded in totally realistic terms,” he explains, “and to get that kind of realism I knew I would effectively have to do a live-action picture in animation. I thought rotoscoping was the answer. After all, [Walt] Disney used rotoscoping on every film he did — Snow White and the Prince, every realistic character, every song and dance number in every Disney film was rotoscoped [from performers] in full costume — but he kept it a secret. So it was not a cheat, it was a choice. Besides,” he adds, “if we’d done it in animation, we’d still be animating the picture today!” Even so, making the film was, he says, “a logistical nightmare. I recorded the voices in England, then I filmed the live action scenes — seventy-five to 200 set-ups a day, to get it done in time — using mostly different actors, fully costumed, playing back the pre-recorded dialogue to them so that the movement and timings would match the recordings. Only then did I go back to my desk to begin animating this two-and-a-half-hour picture! It was the hardest, most devastating and nerve-wracking two and a half years of my life.”

The worst was yet to come. When the film ended half way through the second book, The Two Towers, audiences and critics cried foul. Bakshi says he always intended to make a second film, but by the time the first film was released, the film’s backers had reneged on their agreement to produce a follow-up. “They screwed me royally, because they never put ‘Part One’ on the screen,” he says of United Artists, who had declined to produce the film but wound up distributing it. “They were supposed to make two films, but they chickened out.” Although two animated television specials were produced in the late 1970s, based on The Hobbit and The Return of the King, neither was related to Bakshi’s version. Bakshi took solace in the fact that the film was a favourite of the Tolkien family, and has subsequently enjoyed a critical reappraisal. “I got a letter from Tolkien’s daughter saying she loved the movie, but I was pretty despondent for years, until I started to go online [at http://www.ralphbakshi.com], and got thousands of emails from people around the world saying they loved the movie. I feel much absolved.” Nevertheless, Bakshi was upset that no one involved in Peter Jackson’s adaptation contacted him during the production of those films: “I sat with the book with no illustrations, so every decision about what a goblin or hobbit or wraith has to look like was coming out of my own imagination and my experience of reading Tolkien, and my fear of making a mistake with the Tolkien fans. And he doesn’t even call me and thank me. Not that I’m bitter — I just find it ungentlemanly.”

It was during 1996 that the first rumours began to circulate concerning a proposed adaptation by Peter Jackson, whose diverse output as a director ranged from the splatterfests Bad Taste and Braindead, to horror comedy The Frighteners and the award-winning drama Heavenly Creatures. It was not until 1998, however, that Miramax Films came forward to negotiate with producer Saul Zaentz (who still retained the movie rights to the saga) and underwrite a two-movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings with Jackson as writer, producer and director. When Miramax got cold feet about a production of this scale, New Line Cinema stepped in, agreeing to back not two but three films — a risky prospect which has since paid off handsomely. “That was the key to it,” Jackson said later. “Without someone committing to the three movie idea, I think it would always have remained unfilmed.”

The same might be said of Jackson’s three-part film adaptation of The Hobbit, an undertaking made possible by the global success of The Lord of the Rings. “It’s a huge uphill struggle to make [films like] that,” John Boorman admits, and as someone who’s tried to do it, I have the greatest admiration and sympathy for Peter Jackson. It’s glorious in that you know that’s what movies should be about — taking these huge risks and making something as wild and unfilmable and impossible as The Lord of the Rings.”

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