Tolkien’s olden age 

Middle-Earth, pre-Peter Jackson

With the release of the third and final installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy just days away, by this point you’re either, like, into Middle Earth or you aren’t—and probably never will be. For those who are, it’s been a nice run of Decembers, plus LOTR events and decisions (like wondering whether to run right out and buy the first DVD to hit stores, or hold out for the deluxe extended edition) to pad out the calendar all year long. Now that we’re on the home stretch, diehard fans might even be wondering what’s left to look forward to. D & D activity could soar as many Missoulians struggle to cope in the grip of post-trilogy listlessness and depression.

Serious hobbit-holers among you are surely hip to the fact that Peter Jackson isn’t the first director to tackle Tolkien’s mammoth ring-cycle for the screen—only the best, and rightfully rich and famous for it. For recent initiates, here’s a pocket primer to the Pre-Jackson Tolkien filmography. It’s pretty patchy (not to mention scanty), but unless you’re planning on braving lines and making extra Reserve Street forays to pick up advance tickets, you’re going to need something to do for a few days until the frenzy dies down

The Hobbit (1977)

This folksy version of the Rings prologue animated by Rankin-Bass studios represents the first glimpse of hobbits on film for many Tolkien fans, simply because it aired on television several times in the early ’80s. It’s not terrific or anything, but it’s a fun way to kill an hour and a half. Gandalf’s voice, memorably, is that of John Huston, while Otto Preminger supplies the unmistakably Teutonic bark of the Elvenking—the late actor/director’s final performance.

The best part of the film might be the cheesebag soundtrack, originally available as a double LP, and basically just the complete audio track committed to vinyl. I still have mine, actually—it’s the first record my parents ever bought just for me! Bilbo’s adventures elicit all sorts of spontaneous singing from the various characters. The Goblin song kicks ass, as does Gollum’s eerie musical riddling. Folkie Glenn Yarbrough sings “The Greatest Adventure” with so much vibrato that he sounds like he’s got his neck slung into the belt of one of those old-time weight-reducing contraptions. You’ll be humming along for days (simulate Yarbrough vibrato by jiggling your Adam’s apple) before it finally drives you to suicide.

The Lord of the Rings (1978)

Before the Peter Jackson trilogy, skeptics who claimed Tolkien’s trilogy was patently unfilmable were probably recalling the grand folly of animator Ralph Bakshi (the inspiration for “Comic Book Guy” on The Simpsons), whose ambitious but misguided attempt to recount the entire cycle in one feature-length movie fell flat on its face. Tolkien fanatics hated it, Tolkien tyros found it confusing but dull, and nobody much cared for Bahski’s style, rotoscoping, in which animation is superimposed over live action. To top it all off, the production ran out of money roughly at the point where the events recounted in The Return of the King were to begin. The whole thing feels sloppy, rushed and incomplete, particularly right at the end. But as crummy as the animation looks—like too little paint spread over too much house—there are some inspired touches here. Eisenstein devotees will notice footage from the Soviet director’s 1938 epic Alexander Nevsky mixed into the battle scenes, which is a pretty unusual move. The Nazgul (ring-wraiths) are live actors filmed in photo-negative, which I think makes them weirder and scarier than the blurry old prunes hounding Frodo in the Peter Jackson movies. Bakshi’s movie also produced an unusual legal battle stemming from the fact that all of the live actors, many of them little people, went uncredited for their performances. None recorded voice parts for the soundtrack, and Screen Actors Guild rules at the time held that only the voice actors were required to be given screen credit. Billy Barty, founder of the advocacy group Little People of America, was so infuriated by this omission (he stood in for the parts of Bilbo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee) that he successfully challenged the SAG rules.

The Return of the King (1980)

This one is downright bad. How bad? The consensus among Tolkien fans is that this made-for-TV movie makes Bakshi’s woebegone epic look like Oscar material in comparison. Rankin-Bass certainly took on a tall order, starting at the end but trying to cram all the necessary background into a short prologue so they could get on with the king returning and so on. This they “accomplished” by condensing everything that happened in the first two books into a gawdawful ballad sung by “The Balladeer” (aka Glenn Yarbrough). There’s barely anything to recommend this: not the crude animation, not the complete lack of cohesion, not the muddled and/or anticlimactic everything else, and certainly not the horrible songs, with “Balladeer” Yarbrough sounding even more adenoidal than he did in The Hobbit. “Where There’s a Whip, There’s a Way” is an embarrassingly bad marching song sung by the Orcs, who all look like frogs with bats’ ears. Casey Kasem was also a poor choice for the voice of Merry Brandybuck—the voice of Shaggy from “Scooby Doo” and the aural Ex-Lax behind the weekly American Top 40 Countdown. Here’s your long-distance dedication, Frodo: “Band of Gold.” Apparently the producers ran out of money for new Yarbrough songs halfway through production: The melodramatic strains of “Bearer of the Ring” waft up every five minutes like a white-elephant gift from a secret farter. Ugh.

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