Ten years before the Rankin/Bass animated adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit of 1977, American producer William L. Snyder commissioned this short movie version. He had acquired the film rights from the Tolkien estate when the novel wasn’t yet a phenomenon, but only on the condition that he could produce a “full-colour film” by June 30, 1966. Development Hell being what it is, this soon appeared unfeasible. Snyder failed to get backing from any major studio. And then the Tolkien craze did start, and Snyder realized he could probably still make some money off the material. He realized this somewhere around June 1 and promptly phoned his writer, Gene Dietch, who had been diligently working on a “magnificent” script for nearly two years. The loophole that would let Snyder keep the rights was this: the extreme leeway provided in the vague phrase “full-colour film.” Not feature length, not even fully animated…just something on film, in color, that basically sort of almost you-could-argue told the story ofThe Hobbit. Snyder gave Dietch 30 days to produce a 12-minute movie version that an audience might technically pay money to see.
Likely in something of a panic, Dietch called on his friend, Czech illustrator Adolf Born, utilized some contacts to get a voice actor and a skeletal crew, and produced this. They showed it in New York and charged 10¢. I’d have paid.
As an adaptation, it is naturally horrendous. Thorin Oakenshield is the General of Dale, there are no dwarves, there is a Princess (whom Bilbo falls in love with), Smaug is renamed Slag, the Lonely Mountain is encircled by Mirkwood and something called the Barricade Mountains, the One Ring doesn’t turn anyone invisible, and the Arkenstone is fitted as the head of a massive arrow in a massive crossbow that is used to shoot the dragon in his sleep. We should be grateful they left Bilbo and Gandalf’s names intact.
But on its own haphazard merits? It’s kind of imaginatively charming. The illustrated cutouts at first look a little childish, but are actually quite good, showing some really neat uses of color to evoke atmosphere. Look at the bright, orderly colors used for Hobbiton, the haunting blue-gray sky around Gandalf’s lonely tower, or the neat transition as the trolls (called “groans” for some reason) are changed by the dawning sun into gnarled trees. The narrating voice is grandfatherly and hobbitish, and evokes well a humorous but intelligent older man gleefully telling a lively fairy tale to some children, and making a fair bit of it up as he goes. The musical touches are tasteful and fun. And, while objectively it is a butchering of Tolkien’s story, it still retains some flavor of myth and old fairy story, as filtered for children.
Perhaps I feel safer admiring its fun, atmospheric energy now that we have a high-quality Peter Jackson version on the way, which will undoubtedly be much more faithful to Tolkien’s story. Gene Dietch didn’t intend this to be the definitive version of The Hobbit; it wasn’t even made “for the art.” It served its purpose of extending Snyder’s rights to the material so that he could sell it at a profit. But still, I like it. I hope you do, too.
The Warden’s Walk, through the distribution of YouTube, is proud to present the first ever film adaptation (loosely but legally speaking) of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit!