The Hobbit (1966)

2 thoughts on “The Hobbit (1966)

  1. Pingback: ‘The Hobbit’: Illustrations from Tolkien, Sendak and More — TOON Books Blog

  2. A perceptive review of my anonymous and just-kidding HOBBIT film/sketch from Stephen Persing’s Steve has been a loyal and regular reader of my “Credits” blog from the very beginning.

    A small flurry of attention followed the rediscovery of Gene Deitch’s 1963 version of J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit, said flurry consisting of equal parts amusement, admiration and horror. The film, as Gene Deitch recounts in his blog, was a stopgap measure to ensure that his producer, William L. Snyder, could retain the movie rights. What had been a treatment for a feature film became condensed down to 12 minutes – but what 12 minutes!
    The film, had it reached a wider audience or even its original feature-length, would have provoked howls of outrage. The story had been Hollywooded to include a Princess for Bilbo to romance, and discarded many basic elements of the story, such as the dwarves. Gandalf ceased to play a part after they depart for the Lonely Mountain. Characters were renamed (Trolls became Groans, Goblins = Grablins, Gollum = Guloom) and the dragon Slag (not Smaug) is despatched by Bilbo, the Princess and her retainers. It’s not a bad story, but it’s not Tolkein.
    The film was made on no budget, dissolving and panning through the artwork (by Czech illustrator Adolf Born) with narration (read by Herbert Lass) filling in the story. It did what was intended; Snyder (whose name appears twice on the opening credits, while Deitch’s is missing completely) retained the rights and sold them for a generous profit soon after. The little film was buried and left to be forgotten, until now.
    But it has some good points. Born’s sketches, though hurried, have a charm and Eastern European style to them that is absent from fantasy film in our generation. Deitch has subsequently posted sketches by another great Czech illustrator, Jiri Trnka, which were designs for the aborted feature. The most finished of these, showing Slag (though the writing on the drawing seems to say “Sludge”) shows us a faint glimpse into what could have bee. The jewel tones of Slag’s scales and the pile of treasure he sits upon is like nothing else in Tolkein film history. Live action fantasy film-making has settled into a stylized realism (let’s call it fantastic realism, just to muddle things) wherein Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, the George R.R. Martin Game of Thrones TV series and their myriad imitators opt for the same general style. In animation it is possible to shape reality more directly. The greatest asset to the Rankin-Bass animated TV movie version of The Hobbit from 1977 is its Arthur Rackham-influenced background art, which is at times quite lovely. Although Ralph Bakshi’s stunted film version of Lord of the Rings is hobbled by a dozen problems (though fewer than Deitch had to deal with) there are moments of visual creativity – such as when Frodo is chased by the Nazgul on his way to Rivendell.
    Why is film an art form? Because, like every art form, it presents us with a distinctive state of reality – yes, even photographic realism does this! Deitch trained at UPA, the cartoon studio that spearheaded the emotive uses of color and line in animation, broadening the artistic possibilities of the animated film. The elements were there, but UPA, like Kandinsky in painting, set out to chart new territory, and sometimes succeeded. For all it’s faults, Gene Deitch’s Hobbit is unique, and shows roads never travelled in fantasy film-making. If you are a Tolkein purist, you will probably hate it, but watch it anyway.

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