Peter Jackson’s Adaptations of JRR Tolkien’s trilogy are widely (and rightly acclaimed) as masterpieces of cinema, but they weren’t the first adaptation of his works.
This ambitious 1978 version, directed by Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat) is a flawed, dated and largely forgettable attempt at adapting the first 1 ½ volumes (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers) of Tolkien’s trilogy, but it’s not without its merits.
Frodo Baggins is a young unassuming Hobbit (Essentially 3 foot humans with Hairy Feet) with few cares or troubles, until he inherits a Magical Ring from his older Cousin Bilbo that is. He is forced on a dangerous journey to destroy it and save his home, The Shire, battling Trolls, Orcs and worse creatures along the way. Accompanying him is a ‘Fellowship’ of Eight others-3 other hobbits (Sam, Merry, Pippin) a dwarf Gimli, the Elf Legolas, the wizard Gandalf, and two men Boromir and the tall, mysterious ‘Strider’, the absence of any major female characters, or romance may prove a downside for some viewers, but these were problems that stem from the Novel as well.
Even for those familiar with Tolkien’s work it is a complicated plot that can quickly get confusing. The vast array of names and places often has strange meanings or pronunciations, and Bakshi is at the start forced to rely on clunky expository dialogue to explain the plot. It is a somewhat slow opening, that may cause some viewers to switch off, but the pace soon quickens, and though the film remains complicated to the end, there is an increasing amount of action that makes up for the slow points in the film.
The Lord of The Rings is a book that runs over 1000 pages in length, full of minor characters, rather random sub plots, and an apparent disregard for standard narrative structure. Adapting such a behemoth for the big screen would never be easy, but screenwriters Chris Conkling and Peter S Beagle are surprisingly successful, the film follows the events and timeline of the book closely, making the film enjoyable for fans, but still largely understandable for novices, (though many of the details have been lost or simplified along the way). But despite all the cuts the film still retains some of the books flaws, whilst the screenplay shows one’s of its own.
Much of the dialogue in the film is taken directly from the book, (another bonus for fans) by and large it works, the conversations between the characters and narration are largely convincing, and well thought out, even if some of the dialogue seems too archaic for cinematic usage, or comes across as predictable. There are few plot holes or mistakes in the script. Some of the plot cuts Jackson made in his version are included in this one, making it interesting to compare the two (There is at least one camera shot in the Jackson version intended as a direct reference to this version), though the vast discrepancies in budget and filmmaking techniques should be taken into account.
But the writers strategy of being extremely faithful to the book doesn’t always work, too much time is spent on the plot and minor story detail’s, and not enough getting to know the characters, with the result that the film often feels a little flat. Some of the dialogue, and plot points feel shoehorned into the script, and serve little purpose, other than to appease fans (The film was released only 5 years after Tolkien’s death, and arguably the books were at the height of their popularity around this time) leading to some awkward scenes in the film.
Despite the complex history and plot of the film we learn surprisingly little about the fellowship, other than their physical attributes (themselves largely told through the visuals); this was a flaw prevalent in the book as well. Many of the supporting characters are forced to compete for meaningful roles in the film, hampered by limited screen time, with the result that it’s often hard to care what happens to them, or to judge there purpose in the story.
In contrast to the Jackson version, several songs are included, whilst it breaks up the action and plot, and gives the film more character, they don’t really work, in the book it often made awkward reading, in the film even more so (None of the voice cast have particularly good singing voices either), the one original song ‘Homage to Mithrandir’ is clunky, annoying, and doesn’t really fit in with the tone of the film, though it does give the film room to breathe, accompanying some badly needed character building scenes.
Bakshi, working with a limited budget uses a combination of rotoscoping and hand drawn animation to visualise the screenplay, whilst its certainly imaginative, and adequately directed, it doesn’t completely work, there are many awkward cuts in the film, and many of the effects in the film look very dated, not fitting in with the animated sequences particularly well.
The actual animation is just as varied: The shire looks like the shire, The Elves look like elves, but the orcs end up looking like thin men wearing pyjamas (which probably isn’t too far from the truth), whilst the Balrog’s portrayal is best left unsaid. Even the character’s movement looks a little awkward, often they shuffle instead of walking, whilst some of their mannerisms soon get annoying. The visual look of the film certainly has its flaws, but it is memorable, very different to modern animation, and it stays in the memory after the film has ended.
The Largely forgotten voice cast (Only John Hurt as Aragorn rings a bell) do a good job as the fellowship, complementing the visuals well, generally rising above the convoluted script, though the prevalence of ‘Queen’s English accents’ may annoy some viewers. The actors voicing the Orcs however, do a poor job, injecting little personality into their limited clichéd roles in the plot.
The film’s musical score by Leonard Rosenman is exciting and vast paced, though it is far too prevalent in the film, and often repetitive. It doesn’t quite fit with the film either, sounding too modern for a film about mythical lands of thousands of years ago.
There are positives though, once past the slow opening the film quickly picks up pace, including several action scenes, and a variety of vivid locations, even if viewers can’t understand the plot, they probably won’t get bored, and despite the flaws with the animation the crew gets the most out of the limited budget making a it a generally enjoyable watch. Just 128 minutes in length it is a relatively short film, that doesn’t soak up too much time, even though it ends rather suddenly, half way through the two towers (Plans for a sequel covering the second half of the Two Towers, and the Third volume, The Return of The King fell apart after the film’s disappointing box office) adding up to a disappointing, somewhat confusing ending.
Many fans of the book, or later films may come away disappointed, whilst others will find it hard to accept or enjoy such a far fetched plot. It is awkwardly animated and scripted, and isn’t as well adapted as it could have been, but taking its age into account it does end up providing a limited amount of entertainment, albeit largely forgettable.