It’s hard now to remember a day when Peter Jackson’s films (whatever one may think of them) were not the dominant, go-to examples of Tolkien on film. Growing up in the 1990s, however, I clearly remember a time when, if you wanted to see Tolkien on screen, you had to go to either Rankin/Bass’s productions of The Hobbit and The Return of the King, or Ralph Bakshi’s ill-titled effort The Lord of the Rings. While the Rankin/Bass versions have, with some justification, gone down in Tolkien history as horrible travesties, I want to reconsider them for a moment, to see if there is anything redeeming about them, especially for those who (like me) enjoy and love Jackson, but find some of his artistic choices questionable.
To begin with, I want to acknowledge some of the things that people most commonly complain about the Rankin/Bass The Hobbit and The Return of the King. Their particular style of animation is not to everyone’s liking, and it works better in some films than others (it adds a peculiarly sad and exquisite beauty to The Last Unicorn, for example). The artistic offenses are more egregious in The Hobbit, not only in the design of Bilbo (who comes out looking more like a frog than anything that anyone would identify as a hobbit), but also in Thranduil, who is rendered as some sort of purple, gnomish figure. The Return of the King is little better, and I still cannot determine why most of the Nazgul ride winged horses, while the Witch-king gets to ride the fell beast (though, strangely enough, Jackson’s film also features an inaccuracy in that, in the novel, during most of the battle and the siege the Witch-king actually rides a normal horse; he does not mount the fell beast until he is thwarted at the gate by Gandalf and the arrival of the Riders of Rohan. In Jackson’s version he is on the fell beast throughout).
The music is, for the most part, far too saccharine to be effective or truly emotionally moving, and it is the clearest sign that these films were largely intended for a child audience. The one exception to this would have to be “Where There’s a Whip There’s a Way” from The Return of the King, which is almost infectiously catchy. However, even it seems somewhat at odds with the tone of the moment, considering that Sam and Frodo are trying to find their way across the plan in Gorgoroth to in order to destroy the Ring (I would also point out the continuous mispronunciation of Sauron, here pronounced Sore-on).
However, there are some redeeming qualities, and I actually think that the Rankin/Bass films do some things better than their Jackson equivalents. For one thing, however else they butcher the plotlines, Rankin/Bass often keep some of the more archaic-sounding pieces of dialogue from the original. Smaug’s delivery of his lines in The Hobbit is, I think, in some ways superior to that of Jackson (and this is the fault of the writing more than Cumberbatch, whose voice is, as always, pitch perfect), and the confrontation between the Witch-king and Eowyen in The Return of the King actually maintains the rhythms of Tolkien’s original words. They keep, for example, the cadence of “No living man can hinder me” (Tolkien’s phrasing), which Jackson changes (and dare I say banalizes) to “No man can kill me.” Admittedly, however, the voice of Jackson’s Witch-king is much more compelling than the high, reedy one of Rankin/Bass, full of a deep-throated, raspy menace.
And yes, there are many other voices in these films that rival those found in Jackson’s versions. While Ian McKellan is a truly masterful Gandalf and will probably find no equal in our lifetime, it’s worth noting that no less a Hollywood great than John Huston provided his voice for both The Hobbit and The Return of the King. Roddy McDowell makes an unlikely yet compelling Samwise, and Orson Bean does manage to capture, I think, the world-weary tenderness of Frodo. Of course, no discussion of voice acting in these films would be complete without mentioning the inimitable Hans Conried, whose inevitably and consistently sarcastic, yet also slightly pretentious, voice lends Thorin a certain measure of both gravitas and ridiculousness (which is how Tolkien himself portrayed him).
While by no means perfect, the two Tolkien films produced by Rankin/Bass do at least deserve a measure of respect from we latter-day Jackson fans. While they do not capture the operatic and epic grandeur of Jackson’s collection, they do nevertheless capture some of the elements closest to Tolkien’s heart, the archaic cadences of his language. Perhaps more than anything else, there is, it seems to me, a genuineness in this effort that deserves our respect, even if the effort does not universally pay off as we might wish.