I know this is only the second entry of Between Logic and Enchantment, but I want to shake things up a bit anyway. Instead of the typical “break down the story plot point by plot point with analysis and light snark,” we’re going to jump around a bit while discussing one of my SECOND favorite Rankin Bass animated Fantasy film: their 1977 adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Why such an unconventional approach, you ask? Well, first, let’s all be honest – does anyone who’s a fantasy fan really need to be told the plot of The Hobbit? Tolkien’s works are so influential on the Fantasy genre that they’re looked upon with disdain by many who want more variety in their tales of sword and sorcery – in fact, many Fantasy writers nowadays are defined as good because of how they break from Tolkien’s mold. If you are one of the few who need a summary of the book, do yourself a favor and read it – it’s a wonderful book in my opinion (and may warrant a review of its own further down the road), and even if it’s not your cup of tea, it’s good reading just for the sake of seeing how it set up trends that have continued long after its publication.
If you really, REALLY need a summary of it by me, here you go: there’s a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins. He is convinced by a wizad into going on a quest with some dwarves to their old home in the Lonely Mountain. He goes there and comes back again, facing challenges, making and losing friends along the way, and learning lessons about life and about himself. There ya go, that’s The Hobbit. From here on out, this review assumes you have some familiarity with the story.
Secondly, a subject as well known and influential as this allows us to look as a particularly pressing issue with Fantasy fiction in film: the pros and cons of adaptation. With a story as iconic and influential as The Hobbit, you’d have no doubt that people would try to adapt it to different mediums to make money. However, as many a Fantasy fan will tell you, adaptations of Fantasy stories tend to be less than faithful. Of course, a certain level of change is required to adapt a story from one medium to another – that’s kind of what the word “adaptation” means. Some adaptations fail because they don’t change enough, but if you ask most fans, the vast majority fail because they change too much.
So for this entry in Between Logic and Enchantment, and perhaps a few future ones as well, we’re going to be considering our topic less as its own story and more on how it works as an adaptation. What does it change? What does it keep true to? What works and what doesn’t? Without further ado, let’s dig into the 1977 animated adaptation of The Hobbit.
This adaptation has a less than stellar reputation nowadays, with many considering it “cheesey” – the adjective we ascribe to stories whose flaws are being old and heartfelt. The recent development of three shiny, new, and ridiculously expensive movies supposedly based on the same novel has not helped it in this regard – why would anyone give this dusty old made for TV movie the time of day when we have a star studded live action trilogy filled with the most costly CGI spectacles that busloads of money can buy? How can its folksy charms compare to the supposed acting talent of Bandersnatch Cranglesmith?
Well, let me count the ways.
1: Character Design
Tolkien’s novels have a lot of great visualization in them. Dude knows how to paint an image in his writing, even if he sometimes drags on a bit. He also put so much detail into his world building that you kind of need a meticulous eye for detail to capture the best aspects of his writing. This is something I think the 77 Hobbit movie does really well, even when they sometimes have to change or add things that weren’t in the original text to aid in the transition to film.
The dwarves are one of the most problematic elements of the original novel when it comes to adapting it into a visual medium. In the book, they’re mostly interchangeable, with the exception of Thorin (i.e. the one who is a character) and Bombur (the one who is a fat joke). This is one of several instances of whimsy in the original novel, and it works there because saying “13 dwarves ran about doing shit” allows the audience to immediately get a nice image of what’s going on while they read. Giving them all really similar names also allows the scenes where you do identify them individually to feel silly and light-hearted. It makes for some fun jokes and visuals when written down, but when you can actually see all those dwarves, well, there’s a bit of a problem.
The 77 Hobbit movie deals with this fairly well. It takes all the dwarves that have similar sounding names – Dori, Ori, and Nori, Balin and Dwalin, etc. – and gives them similar designs. You can pick out the groups well enough (those super old looking ones? Balin and Dwalin. The young happy ones? Kili and Fili.), but there’s still a little whimsical confusion over which one in which group is which. It also helps stress the familial ties beneath those similar names. The whimsy is preserved ALONG with the idea of family units involved on an adventure, something that is key not only in Tolkien’s writing, but in the medieval tales he was inspired by (and imitating).
I’d also like to note how the dwarves, Bilbo, and Gandalf all look humanoid, yet not quite human. All three technically aren’t humans, so making the physical difference starker than just height and pointy ears is, well, logical. It’s something that’s obviously easier to do in animation than in live action, but still a point I’d like to make in this movie’s favor.
The Hobbit also has some really creepy takes on standard fantasy monsters. We’ll just focus on the trolls for now – with their weird fleshy snouts, scraggly hair, and tusks, they take some of the more often forgotten traits of folkloric trolls and bring them to the forefront to make a truly weird and unnerving monster that oozes with personality. These creatures don’t just look like generic, pale cretinous ogres, but something you could see getting into an argument with goats while lurking under a bridge.
Part 2: Music
“There’s a magic in that music.” ~ Gandalf
One of the jokes people make about Tolkien’s literature is its use of songs. There’s a case to be made against them – “Tra La La Lalley” is one of the reasons I fuckin’ hate the goddamn fuckin’ elves with a fiery passion – but a lot of his music serves a purpose beyond just paying homage to the musical nature of medieval tales (most Arthurian myths are ballads). Many of them advance the plot in a unique and beautiful way, giving the audience exposition on the setting, conflict, and characters in a way modern fiction rarely attempts.
Perhaps the most notable song in The Hobbit – both the book and this adaptation – is “Misty Mountains Cold.” In addition to being a haunting piece of poetry, it effectively conveys the backstory of the dwarves in a fashion that is much more interesting than, say, just having some asshole tell it to you in a fifteen minute long speech. Conveying this information in song has an inherently mythical and enchanting tone to it- it’s not just history, it’s lore. Music, as Gandalf notes, is magical. The 77 movie exploits this to its full extent, creating a stylized montage of the dwarf history that the song relates to us. It matches the poetry perfectly and helps translate the mythic feel of the text to a dreamlike and powerfully emotional animated sequence.
I mean, seriously, how clever is that? You have this beautiful, haunting, enchanting, and utterly iconic song, and it just so happens to also give some well needed exposition in a way no other story does. You’d have to be a fucking moron NOT to use it for that purpose.
The music in this special sets the mood really well, and while some of it is a little corny (particularly that goddamn “Tra La La Lalley”), a lot of it contributes to the story in a very unique way that could not be done with any other method. There are plenty of fantasy cartoons out there, but none feel quite like this special – none have that Tolkien touch on their soundtrack.
Part 3: Goblins!
Yeah, since what makes these guys so badass is the way they mix excellent character design AND excellent music, I decided to give them their own section. They are quite possibly all this movie’s strengths distilled.
“Goblin” is a wastebucket genus in both mythology and Fantasy fiction – it can mean practically any type of monster you can think of. However, if I had to describe in detail what the quintessential goblin was WITHOUT being lazy and saying “a green guy with pointy ears,” this would not be far off from what I come up with. That mishmash of frog, cat, boar, whatever those antlers come from, and… I dunno, just raw childhood nightmares I guess? It screams goblin.
Design alone isn’t their strength, though, as these guys are just as much “goblin” in personality as they are in looks, which is to say they’re a bunch of nasty, brutal, and utterly vicious little fuckers. The goblins in this special are introduced with one of the most menacing and bombastic villain songs I can recall as they declare just how FUCKED our heroes are. They don’t fuck around while they’re singing, either: they spend every verse chaining up our poor, meek heroes with ease and (it is suggested) eating their ponies off screen. Even with the movie’s occasionally less than stellar voice acting, these guys never let up on nightmarish imagery and utter brutality, establishing their malice with every scene they’re in.
The goblin king stands out in my memory as being particularly nightmarish, despite his admittedly kind of weak vocal performance. Did you know that in Tolkien’s book he was described as being big enough to swallow a man whole? Now, while some might read that description and think, “Let’s make an ogre with a giant scrotum-shaped tumor on its chin,” this special went a different route.
Oh, and going off our little bit about the power of music in Tolkien’s story…
You can stick as much metal in their skin as you like, replace their hands with crude hooks, or have them be riddled with various nasty diseases, but nothing will make the goblins more hardcore fucking terrifying than having them sing about burning our heroes alive in grisly detail WHILE DOING THE DEED IN THE PROCESS. I mean, the dwarves survive and all, but the goblins got pretty close to watching their beards blaze, eyes glaze, hairs swell, skins crack, fat melt and bones black.
This 1977 cartoon realized that not a lot needed to change or be added to make Tolkien’s goblins scary. They’re horrible monster men who live in caves, eat people, and gleefully sing gruesomely detailed songs about how they’re going to torture, mutilate, and violently kill their victims. Cutting elements of that formula – like, say, those lovely, carnage-filled songs – would be a bad move, and it is thankfully a move this film did not make.
Part 4: Gandalf and the Whimsy of Wizards
Y’know that whole “A wizard is never late, nor early” bit in The Fellowship of the Ring? It’s actually a consistent part of Gandalf’s characterization in the books, and one of the subtler ways he is made magical and unearthly. Gandalf seems to show up almost at random – there are some moments he arrives in the nick of time, some where he leaves just before the trouble starts, and some where he is gone when you think he would be needed most. He doesn’t make excuses about it in the movie – he just tells our heroes that, frankly, he has a lot of irons in the fire and they can politely get off his ass about it.
There are a lot of good Gandalf moments in the many various adaptations of Tolkien’s writing, but one of the most iconic to me occurs here, where Gandalf appears out of nowhere just as the armies of humanity, dwarves, and elves are about to fight over something stupid. After being insulted by them before they recognize who he is, Gandalf reveals that an actual threat is coming that will destroy all three armies unless they join forces. They didn’t even know they needed Gandalf, and yet here he is, interrupting their big “war” with news about an actually important problem. It makes Gandalf feel like he’s on a higher plane of existence, beyond the petty concerns of mortals but willing to help them in true times of peril.
Part 5: A Different Flavor of Gollum
The Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies have made what is probably the definitive visual interpretation of Gollum, perhaps rightfully so. It gets straight to the point and is an iconic performance – one that was literally a game changer for the special effects industry and, if I may be so bold in saying what others have said a thousand times over, film itself as a medium. It is rightfully praised. However, it isn’t necessarily the only valid visual interpretation of the character, and the 77 Hobbit film offers a very different but incredibly intriguing alternative.
Uber nerds Tolkien fans may note that orcs and goblins in this universe are technically descended from elves, having been mutated and reshaped into something monstrous by the dark magic of Morgoth (Sauron’s boss, for those not up to the sizable challenge of reading and understanding the medieval style text of The Silmarillion). Is it that far of a stretch, then, that a Hobbit could have been turned into this?
I mean, it has some resemblance to the movie’s hobbit designs, with the big ears, the massive eyes, and even the proportions of its limbs. Its mutations make it seem well suited for a life in the dark and diseased corners of the earth – just like goblins and trolls. It’s not as obvious as, say, a thinner, sicklier looking human, but it does in its own way look pathetic and corrupted – something that could have been cute in a straight forward way, but was twisted to being cute in a creepy way instead. I’m not saying it’s better than the live action version, it’s just different and more, well, creative. A valid alternate take.
Part 6: Bilbo and Thorin’s Character Dynamic
Bilbo and Thorin have an important character dynamic in the story, as Thorin plays an important role as Bilbo’s foil. At first Thorin seems perfect for the role of adventuring party leader – he’s a king (leadership), a warrior (knows how to fight the many monsters they face), and he’s personally invested in the quest. In short, Thorin is everything the standard hero of a Medieval myth – and, let’s be honest, also most Fantasy stories – would be. However, he’s also a short sighted, self centered jackass who blunders into things without guile or forethought. By contrast, Bilbo is a sheltered, peaceful, relaxed guy who doesn’t want treasure or glory – just a few comforts and, perhaps, a little more knowledge of the world. When it comes to being the standard Fantasy protagonist, Bilbo falls short of almost every mark. However, he’s also incredibly clever, and far better at negotiating and putting others’ needs before his own. Bilbo is selfless and smart, and both these traits prove far more valuable than being able to kill things and proclaim yourself king over the corpses.
The Hobbit has no delusions about Thorin being the protagonist, even if Thorin himself does. This is Bilbo’s story, and Thorin is just there to make us see all the clearer that Bilbo is the true hero. That’s what foils are for, rather than, say, stealing the focus of two out of three movies in the trilogy to the point where people wonder why the titular hobbit is even there.
Part 7: Bilbo’s Character Arc
The moment where Bilbo goes from “naive newcomer” to “party leader” happens when the group encounters the spiders. Before this, all the dwarves have spent most of their interactions telling Bilbo he’s a coward and a weakling (even though neither of those are true). They never outright say it, but you can tell that the dwarves think he’s not really suited for adventuring, and Bilbo fears they’re correct on several occasions.
Then they’re all caught by spiders, and that’s where Bilbo shows his quality. Alone and outnumbered, Bilbo takes out his sword and magic ring and proceeds to put the fear of Eru (Lord of the Rings God) into these arachnids. After a daring rescue and more than a few spider slayings, Bilbo’s role and reputation in the group is irrevocably altered. From here on out he is basically their leader in all but name, much to the consternation of Thorin. It’s a critical moment of Bilbo’s character development in the book, and it’s replicated exactly as it should be in the film – y’know, as if Bilbo is the main character or something.
The climax of Bilbo’s journey, both in the book and the 77 film, is the conversation with Smaug – a scene so well written and iconic that its chapter has been published independently of the novel itself, appearing in at least one anthology of Dragon stories. Few chapters of any novel can make that claim. The 77 movie’s adaptation of this scene is, well, mostly perfect (which is to say slightly not perfect as well). I have some minor quibbles with the voice acting of and design for the dragon, but the writing of the scene is just as it should be, which is to say it preserves the dialogue, character dynamic, and story purpose that the scene is supposed to have. This scene is meant to be a battle of wits, testing all the guile and courage Bilbo has honed over the course of his journey against a foe who cannot be defeated with brawn alone. The scene works because Smaug is actually interested in what Bilbo has to say, playing along with the conversation instead of just issuing threats and trying to eat him. There’s even some of the dragon’s wit and sarcasm here – “Lovely titles!” he says as Bilbo lists off his made up names for himself.
(Also, no one butchers Smaug’s iconic speech and replaces it with lines like “My armor is iron!” and “I am fire! I am death!”, so that’s nice.)
As much as I love to ramble on about Smaug, though, he isn’t the true star of that conversation. It’s really about Bilbo besting the dragon – the dragon’s development is just there to make Bilbo’s victory all the more meaningful. And the movie knows this, because they emphasize the hell out of it. “To take those steps… that would be the bravest of all moments,” Bilbo thinks to himself outside the dragon’s room, “Whatever happens afterwards that would be nothing. Yes, here is where you fight your real battle Mr. Baggins.” Bilbo’s riddles to the wyrm are well crafted, and throughout the entire conversation he has the upper hand. He even tricks Smaug into revealing his weak spot, rather than having it, say, told to him before the conversation in a piece of needless exposition back in Laketown. This is, without a doubt, the story’s climax, and the one where Bilbo proves himself as worthy a hero as any other. This 77 cartoon understands this and gets it exactly right, rather than rewriting it so to make the dragon more concerned with Bilbo’s foil, Thorin. You wouldn’t think that’d be hard, would you?
Part 8: Preservation of the Nature Theme
The importance of living in harmony with the natural world is a huge theme in Tolkien’s work. While it’s probably best showcased by the ent subplot in The Lord of the Rings, it’s still present in The Hobbit. With its lush watercolor backgrounds, the 77 film makes nature look every bit as wild and lovely as Tolkien describes it. One of the less talked about important moments in the novel, where Bilbo climbs to the top of Mirkwood forest and is awestruck at its beauty as he sees large black butterflies unlike any he has ever seen before flying across the treetops, is presented here with a flourish of music and a long, thoughtful pause in a movie that is otherwise almost breathless in its quick pace. The film knows we have to stop and appreciate the beauty in Bilbo’s journey as much as we experience the terror and excitement of fighting goblins and trolls.
Going off this idea: letting the eagles and the thrush talk like they do in the book is a great way of turning the benevolent forces of nature into characters instead of just a deus ex machina. It also answers that obnoxious “why not just use the EAAAAAAAAGLES” question every pretentious fucker brings up as a “plothole” in the series. When the eagles can, y’know, speak, it becomes clear that they’ve got their own lives and problems, which might explain why they can be used as transportation whenever the heroes feel like it. The King of Eagles saved Gandalf here as a favor, but he has a whole nation of his own to take care of. He can’t just screw around with these asshole dwarves – hell, even the other dwarf nations won’t do that! Dude’s got eagle business to attend to. Nature is a beautiful thing, sure, and one these stories thinks we should protect and that will protect us in turn, but it’s not our servant. It’s a king in its own right.
Part 9: The Greedy Idiocy of War
One of the things that kinda bugs me in the book is that the Mirkwood elves are total dicks to the dwarves, but the book still acts like they deserve some of Smaug’s treasure anyway. The 77 film makes it a bit more explicit why they have a point: Thorin and his group snuck into his territory and refuse to tell him why they’re there, specifically because they want the treasure all for themselves. As Bilbo points out, their greed made them lose a valuable potential ally – the elves would have been really useful backup. This moment then turns from one that kinda irks me into one that foreshadows the battle of five armies in a clever way. It’s a very pragmatic way to adapt the story without needing to change its content all that much.
The movie goes out of its way to paint war as something stupid and petty – and something people like Thorin bring upon themselves because of their selfishness. Bilbo, as a voice of reason, frequently points out that the conflict is ENTIRELY avoidable. There are enough resources to satisfy them all, but it’s Thorin’s “principles” (i.e. selfishness) that drive the dwarf to ignore that fact and make two potential allies friends. Only the threat of a FOURTH army coming in for the treasure makes these selfish idiots put aside their stupid grudge, settling on the exact solution Bilbo suggested in the first place.
When the battle is over, Thorin straight up admits to Bilbo that the hobbit is right – and this is on Thorin’s death bed, BTW. Dude straight fucked up by causing these war shenanigans. The theme of the book is preserved: war is hell, and like hell it is entirely avoidable if you’re selfless and have a little common sense. Or, to put it another way: “If more of us valued [Bilbo’s] ways – food and cheer above hoarded gold – it would be a merrier world.”
Part 10: Smart Changes
In the book Bilbo tries to fight (in the battle he thinks is stupid and pointless, ‘cause it is) and gets knocked out, missing most of the action. The 77 film has him instead just sneak out like a teen at a pep rally and go do something better with his time, because seriously this shit is ridiculous and he has better things to do than watch some assholes fuck around. Though a little morally dubious, this is actually MORE in character for him than what he does in the books, and furthers the theme that abstaining from violence is almost always smarter than partaking in it. It’s a smart change.
They also increase the number of dwarves killed in the fray from three to seven, making the loss caused by Thorin’s path of war and self interest all the more stark: he lost half of his followers in addition to his own life. That is some stark shit right there – war is good for absolutely nothing.
Part 11: Pace
This special is just shy of 78 minutes long – not even and hour and a half. While it does cut or shorten some sections of the book, it nonetheless hits every important moment in the story, and there isn’t a single scene that is wasted. Every scene advances the plot, the characters’ development, and the world building of the story. Every scene has a purpose, and everything that needed to happen happens. Most importantly, the character arc of Bilbo Baggins, the titular hobbit, is presented in its entirety and kept in focus, which is more than we can say for other adaptations. Everything charming, touching, and thought provoking about the original book is kept alive and in focus, rather than twisted, smothered, or cut and replaced with meaningless spectacle. It is a story that leaves you wanting more, rather than much, much less.
It’s a good Hobbit movie. Not the best we could make, but I argue it’s the best we’ve got.