Examining Hollywood Remakes: The Lord of the Rings

Ever since J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic book trilogy first came out in the 50s’ there had been talk of adapting it into film but the epic scope of the story often deterred filmmakers of the era from taking on the task. In the early 70’s, director John Boorman (Deliverance, Excalibur) wanted to do a condensed 100-minute version of the whole trilogy but that plan fell apart.

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Then, animator/producer Ralph Bakshi (American Pop, Cool World) unveiled his idea to do a two-part adaptation of the trilogy in animated form. Since Tolkien’s daughter was a huge fan of Bakshi’s previous animated movie Wizards (1977) she gave him the go-ahead to film his vision of the books. Simply called Lord of the Rings (no subtitle) the film covers the entire first book and half of the second, ending with the battle of Helm’s Deep and Gollum leading Frodo and Sam to Shelob the spider. (This came in the middle of the Fellowship of the Ring book, not the end, as Peter Jackson did it.) Bakshi wanted to call it Lord of the Rings: Part One but the studio felt that no one would pay to see ‘half a movie’, so the “Part One” was eliminated, much to Bakshi’s chagrin. (In the VHS version they added narration at the end saying “Here ends the first part of the history of the war of the ring”.)

The animated Lord of the Rings was released in 1978, distributed by United Artists, and had a 2 hour & 15-minute running time. While the reviews were less than stellar, (It’s at 50% on Rotten Tomatoes) it did make a profit, grossing $30.5 million from a budget of $4 million.  John Hurt did the voice of Strider/Aragorn, while Anthony “C3P0” Daniels voiced Legolas. The Lord of the Rings was later listed as the 36th greatest animated film ever by Time Out magazine and also was ranked as the 90th greatest animated film of all time by the Online Film Critics Society. Fans who remember the film seem divided on it. (It’s at 6-out-of-10 on the fan-rated IMDb)

Despite the profit, no sequel was ever made. Bakshi said the project “Took more out of me than I got back”, and added, “This made me realize that I had no interest in adapting another writer’s story”. Thus, the story was left unfinished. (Actually, a different animation studio called Rankin-Bass did produce the Return of the King in 1980, but they made the mistake of making it into a G-rated musical. Yes, the animated Return of the King had singing Orcs! The less said about that the better. This is about the Bakshi film.)

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Cut to 2001 when the first chapter of Peter Jackson’s ambitious live-action Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, came out making a huge profit and getting acclaim from both fans and critics. This was followed a year later by the second chapter The Two Towers, which was just as successful. Both films were nominated for Best Picture. Few people would disagree that the Jackson films are modern fantasy classics which helped redefine the way big-budget blockbusters would be made afterward.  So how does the 1978 animated version hold up when compared to the two live-action remakes? (We’re not counting The Return of the King here because the animated film doesn’t cover that book.)

Despite it being so condensed, the Bakshi film has some advantages the live film doesn’t have. While the animated movie, done in the 70s on a $4 million budget, does not have the impressive visuals and epic look of the Jackson films, it does have a certain dark, ominous tone that sufficiently encapsulates the situation. Sauron is never seen in the animated version which makes him seem somehow spookier and more intimidating than the armored version shown in the Jackson film.

While Frodo’s perilous journey is significantly cut-down in length for the 1978 film, Bakshi does do a good job of maintaining the feeling of impending doom and menace that follows the Hobbits on their trek. Also, the animated version is probably truer to the book than the Jackson films. Although a lot of stuff is cut out of the animated version, the Jackson interpretation adds in many things that aren’t in the book at all, such as padding out the female roles and lots of the comic relief scenes from Gimli the Dwarf. The main character of Frodo is more spirited and less-passive in the animated version, making him closer to the Tolkien version.

 

On the other hand, the live-action films do have a lot of advantages over the 1978 version. The action sequences are outstanding, especially the battle of Helm’s Deep. Although that battle has a certain touch of moody realism in the animated version, the non-stop action of the live version blows it out of the water. The biggest plus for the Jackson versions is that the extended running time allows for more character development, so we get to know our cast better and become more invested in their journey. Some characters who are under-developed or completely absent in the Bakshi film (such as Arwen) are fleshed out better in the six hours of the two live action movies.

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The casting is mostly ideal in the Jackson versions and the stand-out performance comes from the scene-stealing Andy Serkis as obsessed Gollum. There are some nice moments with Gollum in the animated version, but Serkis hits a home-run capturing Gollum’s multi-faceted nature, alternately depicting him as insane, manipulative, funny and sympathetic. The longer running time allows Jackson to play with Gollum’s fractured personality.

The visuals in the Jackson version are very impressive. While the animation is often quite good in the Bakshi version, there is far too much rotoscoping here. Rotoscoping is an animation technique where animators trace over live-action footage, frame by frame, and then uses the trace frays as a blueprint to create realistic-looking animated cels. It was often used as a short-cut when time or budget did not allow for the animators to complete the project as planned. Many of the scenes were initially filmed with real actors, and then rotoscoped into animated form.  The battle sequences here were rotoscoped almost entirely from the 1938 Russian action classic Alexander Nevsky, which was directed by legendary filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein.

So which is better? Clearly, the two Jackson films are the superior efforts. The grandeur of the overall epic sweep; the cast of terrific actors (Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee, Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Ian Holmes, John Rhys-Davies and Sean Bean, among others); the great battles; and the state-of-the-art FX are just too much for the modestly budgeted 1978 animated project to compete with. While you could argue that there’s a certain maturity to the Bakshi version that’s missing from the live-action films, there’s an energy and sense of grand adventure in the Jackson version which the animated project can’t match.

Also–and it’s a small quibble–but the changing of the pronunciation of Sauruman’s name in the animated movie was a bit annoying. The filmmakers in the 1978 version decided that the names Sauron and Sauruman were too similar so they changed it to Aruman. It’s a minor detail but it bugs me.

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To be fair, the animated Bakshi version is under-rated and often unfairly criticized. It does have some nice artistic touches. In fact, some of the scenes were so well done that Peter Jackson copied them for his own films. A few examples are: Frodo and his Hobbit companions hiding from the Black Riders under a large tree root; The prologue of Gollum losing the ring (which wasn’t in the books); A low-angle shot of a Hobbit correcting Bilbo by yelling “Proudfeet!”: And the Black Riders slashing at the Hobbit’s beds in the Inn of the Prancing Pony (also not described in the book). Jackson’s Two Towers ends at exactly the same point as the 1978 film.

In fact, Bakshi himself was upset about some of these sequences being ‘lifted’ from his work. He said, “I feel bad that Saul Zaentz, the producer, and various people never called me, thanked me, or asked my permission to do the movie. Nor did anyone send me a bottle of wine on the tremendous success of those movies.” Bakshi also feels that his film made Jackson’s job easier. He said, “I’m glad Peter Jackson had a movie to look at. I never did. And certainly there’s a lot to learn from watching any movie, both its mistakes and when it works. So he had a little easier time than I did, and a lot better budget.”

That’s all for this week’s look at cinematic remakes. We’ll be back next week to dissect another remade movie. In the meantime, you can look up our previous articles Examining Hollywood Remakes