Sunday, April 3, 2016

The best Tolkien Adaptations

1. The Hobbit, Rankin/Bass, 1977

I've written enough on my affection for this version and why I love it.  It's still the best.  It does take away parts from the story.  Any adaptation from book to movie has to drop some things.  But it keeps the heart and flavor of Tolkien's children's book, and keeps it on a children's book level.  Most importantly, it inspired me to want to know more about this fictitious world and the Hobbits therein.  And when I finally read the book, I wasn't disappointed in the cartoon. Instead, I was impressed at how the cartoon captured the feel of the book.  That, among many other reasons, is why I feel it deserves top honors.

2. The Two Towers, Peter Jackson, 2002

This was a tough one.  Some would argue Jackson's first LoTR film was the best.  Certainly it had fewer gross deviations from the books than his later films.  And we all know the hatchet job Jackson did on the character of Faramir, the added scenes with Frodo going to Osgiliath, the plot holes and inconsistencies that arose, the reworking of the bloated Aragorn and Arwen love story, the Theoden cum Exorcist scene, and of course the cringe inducing surfing elf that was a warning for future silliness.   And yet, when Two Towers shined, I feel it did better than the best of the Fellowship.  The scenes with Treebeard, the storming of Isengard, the introduction of Gollum, the retelling of Gandalf's fight with the Balrog, and the Battle of Helms Deep (sans surfing elves) all were better than the best scenes of Fellowship.  Yes, Jackson's annoying tendency to want to out-write Tolkien by the above changes ruined what could have been the best  of any series, but when he actually produced the visions of Tolkien as presented by Tolkien, he ended up with some of the best sequences of Tolkien's works ever put to film.

3. The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson, 2001

As I said above, this could be number two.  There were fewer deplorable interpolations than Two Towers.  There were fewer places where Jackson stepped in and messed up the story or added illogical plot holes.  Yet he did do so.  The appearance of Arwen, Super Elf, who fears nothing in all of Middle Earth and yet is excluded from the Fellowship, was the most glaring.  Much of the tension and thrill of Frodo's flight before the Nazgul was utterly lost because of that.  Likewise, you had Jackson's inability to simply direct dialogue in several missed opportunities: The Council of Elrond, the first meeting of Strider, the conflict between Biblo and Gandalf.   True, there are times where Jackson let the dialogue shine.  One of the best scenes in any of his films is the conversation between Gandalf and Frodo in the mines of Moria.  It doesn't happen like that in the book, but Jackson shows you can make changes to the book and have them be for the better.  Unfortunately, that is too often the exception rather than the rule for Jackson.  Most of the time, the best Jackson offered was giving a major Hollywood treatment to what fans had imagined for years.  When the final cut was evaluated, the misses ended up outpacing the hits, if only because the hits didn't live up to the potential they could have.  Or live up to the potential of the best hits of The Two Towers.

4. The Lord of the Rings, Ralph Bakshi, 1978

Much maligned by fan boys who worshiped at the altar of Jackson.  Jackson himself breached honesty by first denying that he ever had heard of Bakshi's version, then admitting he had but it had no influence on him, and finally by admitting what we all knew, that his Fellowship movie was based on Bakshi's version, including introductory summary montage of the history of the Rings and the elimination of certain scenes like Tom Bombadil and the Barrow Mounds.  Because of the nature of Fanboydom, that which was once great is often superseded by that which is the latest, hippest.  So Bakshi, who already received mixed reviews upon the film's release, became the brunt of withering assaults and attacks in the early 00s.  Which wasn't fair.  Yes, Bakshi's version is a classic case of studio executives messing up the final product.  See their insistence that the name Saruman be changed to Aruman half way through production for an example.  Also the sudden and abrupt ending pending  a sequel.  In today's prefabricated movie franchises, it's hard to believe that even as late as The Empire Strikes Back, audiences didn't like movies that only set up the next movie rather than wrap up a complete story.  But Bakshi is treated unfairly.  In the end, he also captures Tolkien's feel, albeit in a different way.  His take on the Nazgul as black riders is much better, IMHO, than the horsed army tank versions of Jackson. He keeps the characters in check based upon the book, rather than shift roles around (Gandalf, not Frodo, solves the riddle of the gates of Moria).  And he managed to keep some pretty good dialogue where Jackson often floundered (the meeting with Strider is far superior to Jackson's).  Yes there were artistic decisions and strange choices in envisioning some characters like Boromir or Sam, but after Jackson's beardless beefcake dwarves and elven love stories, we can cut them some slack.  To this day, when I read Fellowship of the Rings, it's John Hurt's Strider as Native Woodsman I envision, not Viggo Mortensen's brooding Grunge Rock ranger.

5. The Return of the King, Rankin/Bass, 1980.  

I realize this is almost scandalous, to place a famously convoluted retelling of Tolkien ahead of Jackson's Return of the King, the same film that swept the Oscars in 2004.  Let's face it, he got the Oscars as a nod to his industry and reshaping the business of Hollywood.  The awards were for all three of his films and the production behind them.  The Rankin/Bass version, on the other hand, has been the target of mockery and outright hatred since its release in 80.  In a strange twist, it was the sequel that Bakshi never made, even though it was really the television sequel to The Hobbit of 77.  That alone sets the stage for confusion.  And despite psychedelic musical numbers, Saturday morning cartoon artwork, and a convoluted timeline that involves dismissing key characters (including the eponymous king) for the sake of drawn out musical sequences, there are some scenes that shine.  Roddy McDowall's Sam is better than either Bakshi's Lou Costello version, or Sean Astin's buddy-from-a-locker-room take.  As I've said before, there actually are some segments that play out better than Jackson's, who has a knack for wasting key scenes on needless swordplay and physical action.  And you had the same voice talent behind the R/B production as their original Hobbit.  It's been said that there were two groups who worked on this special, one dedicated to keeping Tolkien's vision alive, and one dedicated to producing a kid's cartoon for prime time television.  Watch it once with that idea in mind, and it will make all the difference.

6. The Return of the King, Peter Jackson, 2003

I know, in overall quality it is far better than the above Rankin/Bass version.  And there are some wonderful parts, the best probably being Frodo and Sam's flight from Mount Doom after the destruction of the Ring.  But there were so many lost opportunities as Jackson began to define himself as the director who just wont' stop directing.  By the end of the bloated Battle of the Pelennor Fields, I didn't care who won, as long as it ended.  His messing with the Frodo/Sam/Gollum story line sacrificed some of the best and most dramatic moments in the novel.  Due to lack of creativity, Shelob is reduced to being nothing other than a big, creepy spider.  His attempt to end the movie with the multiple fade ins and fade outs has become the stuff of legendary humor.  Worse than anything, it was in Return of the King that Jackson did what Lucas did.  When Lucas gave us ewoks, we had no way of knowing he would base his entire series of prequels on the same level of film making that imagined ewoks and levitating droids added quality to the Star Wars franchise.  So Jackson took surfing elves (an attempt to one-up the awesome sequence of Legolas fighting Orcs at the close of Fellowship), and based most of his final movie (and subsequent Hobbit Films) on that same mentality: over directing, over the top stunts, over the top effects, over the top acting, kindergarten level humor, and Elijah Woods' ongoing attempt to have more than three facial expressions.  In the end, some changes were good.  Just like Aragorn slicing the head off of an unsuspecting opponent during parley, however, many of the differences were changed at the expense of the heart and soul of Tolkien's works.  And that is why, for me at least, it ends up at the near bottom of the list.  But not the bottom.

7-9. The Hobbit Franchise, Peter Jackson, 2012-2014

In all fairness, I only watched the first of Jackson's cinematic trash heaps that would become the Hobbit series.  In many ways, Jackson's series seems to have single-handily gone toward diminishing the affection and desire for Tolkien's works more than anything else in the last 50 years.  In addition to the liberal inquisition in which anyone who lived more than two decades ago must be condemned as a racist, the fact that Jackson's bloated, celluloid cacophony seems to have driven youngsters away from Hobbits and Middle Earth for good is reason enough to dismiss these endeavors.  Some see the lukewarm reception that the Hobbit movies had as proof of Tolkien's waning influence in our PC age, but it could be just the opposite, that the waning affection for Tolkien is, in addition to the PC witch hunts, the result of people seeing these films and coming away assured that nothing upon which these dumps were based could amount to a good read.  My boys saw the second two, and kept me abreast of their diminished quality, though there was some debate over whether the final movie, having almost nothing to do with the original story by this time, still managed to be better over all.  It's hard to say.  I just know that going into the 00s and Jackson's films, The Lord of the Rings and its accompanying children's book were legendary as some of the greatest works of fiction of the 20th century.  Even as a non-fantasy fan, I remember hearing about their reputation.  Now, partly due to the PC thought police, and I can't help but think partly due to Jackson, we have a Tolkien still lauded by some, but increasingly dismissed by a growing number of post-moderns.  And for that, if for no other reason, a movie series can't help but be placed at the bottom of any list.

Honorable Mention

I just have to include this one.  I have no clue where it came from, but it reminds me that Tolkien has been much loved and very influential for decades, and more than just fantasy fans in America have embraced his stories.  I hope his works and reputation can survive the dark days of modern PC McCarthyism.  If so, I have no doubt the future will produce many more takes on Tolkien's works, his world, and his wonderful vision.


  1. What about this one?

  2. How could I have forgotten! A classic above them all.


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