With this week’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, director Peter Jackson and his filmmaking fellowship continue their long journey towards expanding J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 fantasy novel into a blockbuster trilogy. Even watching the film, it’s evident the adaptation process was a tricky one; Jackson lifts familiar beats from the book, scrutinizing over details while reconfiguring set pieces and emotional beats to align with his cinematic sensibilities.
Because one does not simply walk into billion dollar box office franchisedom, even with Lord of the Rings behind them, The Hobbit has to be a great set of movies, a great set of Peter Jackson movies. The Hobbit can be an epic Hollywood triptych because nothing is sacred in the art of adaptation and nothing should be.
Over the years, “The Hobbit” has been the source material/victim of the process. Like Jackson, artists saw Tolkien’s adventure tale as malleable. The goal wouldn’t be to trump the original, but to find something new within it or reach an audience that may not have discovered it in the first place. Ahead are nine more Hobbit incarnations; only time will tell if Peter Jackson’s trilogy will be the one to rule them all.
9. The Hobbit, a Visual Serial
Tolkien was extremely resistant to the idea of handing over his texts — to this day, the author’s estate strives to keep third parties from appropriating imagery from Peter Jackson’s movies because, as his son Christopher Tolkien puts it, the Lord of the Rings movies “eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25”. But the inevitable morphing of Tolkien’s Middle Earth tales to new mediums eventually occurred. There are scant traces of the first official Hobbit adaptation, a 1953 stage production by the St. Margaret’s School, Edinburgh. One we do have glimpses of (and one of the more bizarre examples) is a graphic retelling for Princess, a British teen girl magazine, serialized in 1964. The story was abridged, broken into 15 installments, and accompanied with new illustrations by Ferguson Dewar’. According to letters sent to the book’s original publisher George Allen & Unwin, Tolkien said of the tinkered version, “Criticism of the drawings is probably not in this case useful, …I should myself wish at least that Gandalf were less fussy and over-clad and had some dignity. He should not be styled ‘magician’ but ‘wizard.'” That’s called a diss, ladies and gentlemen.
8. The Hobbit, a Short Film
Famed Alice of Wonderland in Paris and Tom and Jerry animator Gene Deitch was the first to bring The Hobbit to life on screen. It didn’t go well. According to Deitch, he was handed Tolkien’s novel by William L. Snyder in 1964 with the task of turning it into a feature film. Snyder’s owned the rights, but the expiration countdown clock was ticking. Deitch had until June 30, 1966 — plenty of time by the animator’s watch. Deitch went to work on a full screenplay, twisting the material and adding his own ideas to the script — songs, a princess character to balance out Tolkien’s bro-heavy ensemble, etc. — to make a Hollywood-ready package that Snyder could sell to a studio. In the end, no one would bite. Snyder wanted too much money, Deitch’s plan to combine cel-animated figures over 3D model backgrounds, all but unheard of in 1966, was too ambitious.
The animator returned to his home in Prauge heartbroken, though Synder had a back-up plan. Knowing his ownership of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” was worth more and more as Tolkien fervor escalated, the producer protected his ownership of the rights by tasking Deitch with the production of a condensed version of “The Hobbit.” And that’s what he did; Deitch destroyed his original screenplay to avoid legal misunderstandings and went about animating a 12-minute, single 35mm reel version of the book. He did it in 30 days. The film was briefly screened in New York before beings resurfaced by Deitch himself last year.
7. The Hobbit, an animated feature
Most fantasy obsessives are familiar with the hand-drawn version from Christmas special auteurs Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr. that first aired on NBC on November 27, 1977. Less known is the studio behind the actual animation. Topcraft was a Japanese anime studio founded in 1972 that churned out everything from anime to Rankin/Bass’ The Jackson 5ive cartoon and The Last Unicorn. When they went bankrupt in 1985, none other than The Wind Rises director Hayao Miyazaki stepped in and bought the place, rehiring many of the animators and transforming Topcraft into Studio Ghibli. Now let’s imagine what a modern Ghibli version of “The Hobbit” would look like.
6. The Fabulous Journey of Mr. Bilbo Baggins the Hobbit, a TV movie.
If you’ve ever wondered what an H.R. Pufnstuf version of The Hobbit might look like, look no further than this Russian version from the ’80s. According to the Tolkien Gateway, the film was shot as a telemovie for a children’s fairy tale show and many of the cast members hail from the Leningrad State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre. Which does not explain why the dancing goblins look worse than your average elementary school play.
5. Hobitit, a mini-series
In 1993, Finnish television station Yle TV1 produced their own live-action miniseries based on “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings.” The adaptation takes extreme liberties with the story, framing Bilbo and Frodo’s adventures into a “War of the Ring” oral history relayed by an elderly Sam Gamgee to his son. The production design is substantially better than the Russian version, akin to the BBC’s Narnia adaptations or Jim Henson’s Storyteller series. The quality is debatable, although you can watch most of the film on YouTube with subtitles. The decision to paint Rush Limbaugh green and call him “Gollum” has divided critics around the world.