The Hobbit (TV 1977)

The Hobbit is an enjoyable, light hearted, child friendly adaptation of Tolkien’s classic. A television special produced for American TV in 1977, it isn’t a particularly famous production, with numerous flaws, though a few strength’s, it is a film that will draw extremely varied reception from viewers.

Bilbo Baggins is a middle aged Hobbit (essentially a 3 foot human with hairy feet) living a quiet life in The Shire with few cares or troubles, all that is soon to change. Bilbo wakes one day to find thirteen Dwarves suddenly arrive at his house, accompanied by the old Wizard Gandalf. Sitting awkwardly in his kitchen watching his uninvited guests devour his food, he learns the Dwarves are on a quest to reclaim their ancestral home The Lonely Mountain from the evil Dragon Smaug. Not a particularly strong willed Hobbit Bilbo reluctantly finds himself along for the journey, a journey that will change his life dramatically…

Running only 77 minutes in length the film is relatively faithful to the book, including many of the iconic events, but simplifying or dropping many others (Beorn, The Master of Laketown and much of the stories setup is missing, for example). It makes it very fast paced, and relatively easy to understand for all viewers, but may come as a disappointment for fans hoping for a more faithful adaptation of the book.

A lot of the songs and archaic language present in the book find their way into the film, whilst it gives the film more personality and fits the tone of the book, it doesn’t completely work onscreen. Many of the songs seem to be included just to appease fans, few add to the story, and most are badly handled- none of the voice cast has particularly strong singing voices. An additional song written especially for the film- ‘The Greatest Adventure (The Ballad of the Hobbit)’, sung by Glenn Yarbrough is included; unfortunately it doesn’t really work. Very dated, resembling a 1970’s folk song, it is far too prevalent, and the repetitive lyrics quickly get annoying.

The Book was first published in 1937, so the plot itself may seem a bit tame by today’s standards. The film is easier to follow than the book, but some may still find it a little confusing, there are several plot holes in the film- a sudden jarring reference to wood elves comes out of nowhere, the Dwarves set off on a dangerous quest seemingly without weapon’s, whilst Bilbo is conveniently knocked unconscious at a pivotal moment ‘I’ve been out for hours’ without the film explain why or how, it’s annoying and demonstrates some rather lazy screenwriting. 

Though there are 13 dwarves, just a few of them have more than one or two lines, only their leader Thorin has any real purpose in the story. Not only do most of the Dwarves end up being irrelevant to the narrative, they largely look and act the same, making it very hard to remember who’s who, and even harder to care.

As it is aimed at children, simplification is perhaps, to be expected, but the film arguably takes it too far. Though most of the key events are included, the film doesn’t really have the sense of adventure present in its source material, Bilbo goes on great journey, but the audience merely go for a small excursion.

There is so much time focussed on the main plot points, that there is little time left to connect with the characters. Bilbo’s growth as a character is barely sketched out beyond the central plot, only a few clichéd bits of dialogue giving any real insight into his personality. His friendship with the Dwarves is underdeveloped too, remaining largely one-dimensional throughout, consequently Bilbo turns into a very flat protagonist, with whom it’s hard to sympathise, even when he’s in mortal peril.

The character’s do surprisingly little traveling, repetitive scenes of them clambering over rocks being the normal way of linking the action scenes. The few action scenes are very quickly handled, often disguising the actual violence, and causing a lot of potential confusion in the process. The Battle of Five Armies which closes the film is quick and lacking in drama, told mostly from a great distance, utilising a series of random dots and close ups strung together it’s  confusing telling who’s who, it doesn’t really have the epic feeling it could have. In the end the film ends up feeling like a series of disconnected, uneven vignette’s, instead of one exciting, continuous story.

Made on a small budget of $3 million the animation is rather basic, but serves its purpose well, balancing detail with accessibility, it should entertain children, even if many of the designs don’t really feel like Tolkien’s work. Bilbo looks like Bilbo, Rivendell looks like Rivendell, and the Eagles resemble Eagles. But many more designs look completely at odds with his intentions, the Dwarves, Trolls and Wood Elves resemble fairy-tale creatures, with more in common with an American Disney production, than a classic British fantasy. Gollum’s portrayal is a confusing mixture of man, fish and lizard, surprisingly disturbing for a kids cartoon.

The Voice cast is unusual, but enthusiastic. Orson Bean suits Bilbo well, balancing his eccentric personality with a convincing nervousness; John Huston brings a great deal of authority to the (Underwritten) role of Gandalf, whilst most of the Orcs and Dwarves are believable. On the other hand Otto Preminger is completely unconvincing as the ElvenKing, his tone of voice and Accent proves very distracting, and he doesn’t really bring much personality to the role.

As well as his strange Appearance Gollum (voiced by Brother Theodore) is very hard to understand, he’s meant to be weird, but not completely raving mad, his voice is largely impenetrable and quickly gets annoying. Alot of Gollum’s dialogue is directly taken from the book, though it may please fan’s, most is irrelevant to the plot, and a lot is confusing, with the result that, sadly ‘Riddles in The Dark’ (Arguably the most famous chapter in the book) is one of the weaker segments of the film, and proof that sometimes, direct adaptations don’t always work.

Whilst it’s uneven, clichéd, and dated, there are positive’s. The simple narrative features an interesting variety of locations and characters, whilst the animation and voice acting, if not perfect is certainly characterful. Despite its age it should still entertain children who can be persuaded to watch it, most of the film’s flaws were overlooked by its target audience when first screened, and the same will probably be true with similar dispositions from today’s youth.

The film ends with Bilbo’s return home, and a rather sudden denouement setting up the events of the sequel novel The Lord of The Rings (later adapted into a theatrical Ralph Bakshi film covering the first 1 ½ books, and a TV film covering the Events of Return of The King), a different beast entirely.

The Hobbit is a simple, cheaply made, but acceptable adaptation of Tolkien’s novel, small children and unassuming adults may enjoy the simple narrative and care free tone, but others, especially hard-core fans may be disappointed, or plain bored. It’s not a great film, nor to all tastes, but taking its limited budget, format, and age into account, it does end being enjoyable, though to what degree largely depends on a viewer’s own perceptions of such subject matter.


Paul Ashwell


About paulashwellreviews

A Blog dedicated to Film, TV and Book reviews of all ages and genres
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