In the 1970s, a favourite novel from the 1920s first hit the small screen: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Created by Rankin/Bass, who were best known for their holiday animation specials, the tv special closely followed the Tolkien story, but compressing details for the format, which was 77 minutes.
The production team chose some unique voices to participate in the project, including John Huston as Gandalf, Otto Preminger as The Elvenking and Orson Bean as Bilbo Baggins.
Working with Topcraft, a Japanese animation company, Rankin Bass also took Tolkien’s words and transformed them into lyrics for the musical score, thanks to their in-house conductor, Maury Laws. One original song was created, sung by Glenn Yarbrough: The Greatest Adventure: The Ballad of the Hobbit.
Airiing in November 1977 on NBC, the television special reportedly cost $3 million and also included a coffee table book by Harry N. Abrams, an LP soundtrack with music and dialogue and a read-along album for kids from Disneyland Records.
The special received mixed reviews, with devout Tolkien fans not liking the adaptation for young viewers, while many tv critics weren’t as convinced by the Japanese animation. But the special garnered much attention, and although it never happened, Rankin Bass planned a sequel.
For fans of Tolkien, this first attempt to translate the intricate story to a visual medium may not have been their dream, but for kids of the 1970s, it was a first taste of the creativity of Tolkien.