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Bakshi’s "Lord of the Rings": Better Than It Looks


Movies are movies, and books are books; and it is usually unfair to judge an adaptation from one medium to another by comparing it to the original. But sometimes it can’t be helped.

Judged on its own, Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is an abysmal failure: overly long, shapeless, confusing, and incomplete. It is only notionally animated, and in many places it is downright ugly. At least Rankin-Bass produced a couple of complete, compact, and cartoony films when they adapted The Hobbit and The Return of the King.

And yet I come not to bury Bakshi’s film, but to praise it. It isn’t very good, and is perfectly dreadful in spots, but I like it a lot more than the undigested goulash of special effects and addlepated camerawork that Peter Jackson gave us a few years back, and in many ways I think it’s more faithful to the source material. As a Tolkien fan, that counts for a lot with me. Regard what follows as the ramblings of a Tolkien-head.

Let’s start by admitting that Tolkien’s masterpiece is probably unfilmable, at least in any way that preserves its peculiar spirit. The Lord of the Rings is only accidentally a prose work; by all rights it should be an epic poem in Old English or Old Norse—something much more like Beowulf. Its virtues are those of such an epic: lots of incident and lots of atmosphere, all piled intricately atop each other. The trouble is that it hasn’t much in the way of character dramatics. Once Frodo and his friends leave Rivendell, conversation more or less dries up, to be mostly replaced by lots of windy speechifying and great, gusty draughts of exposition. Most of the characters are ciphers or plot devices. It is very hard to imagine what their inner life is like, and do any of them (except maybe Sam or Pippin) seem like the sort who occasionally do in the woods what a bear does, even though they spend months out there?

And so it’s a book woefully short on the kind of scenes that movies excel at: scenes in which people bicker and joke and chip at each other, and in doing so reveal unexpected facets of themselves. If you think I’m wrong, cast your mind back to 1977’s Star Wars, which for all its action and spectacle is hardly more than a funny, tempestuous running argument between Luke and everyone else in the story. There’s nothing like that in The Lord of the Rings.

What Tolkien does very well, though, is something that movies cannot do well, which is the slow, moody development of atmosphere. The golden, autumnal Shire gives way to the harsh, stony winterscape of the Misty Mountains, and then (in different chapters) turns into the crisp, green downs of Rohan and the hard, obsidian nightmare of Mordor. The subtle evolutions in the landscape refract through the characters, illuminating them. Movies can do atmosphere, of course, but this kind of incremental change is very hard to convey in two hours—or even ten—especially when everyone seems to be moving at a hard run and sometimes at a full-tilt gallop. Peter Jackson may have been able to squeeze most of the incidents of the book into his sprawling, multi-part film, but only at the cost of making it hectic, dizzy and garish, which are qualities entirely at odds with Tolkien’s contemplative prose.

In terms of plot, Bakshi’s film tracks the original at least as closely as Jackson’s does. (At least up until the Battle of the Hornburg, of course.) It starts with a party during which Frodo Baggins, a rather bourgeois hobbit from the Shire, inherits a magical ring that is being sought by the forces of the Dark Lord Sauron. With a few friends Frodo makes a dash toward the Elvish haven of Rivendell, from which he and a larger company then set out on a quest to destroy the ring. There are monsters and battles and kidnappings and treacheries; surprise deaths and surprise resurrections; unexpected allies turn up, and so do unexpected foes. Like Jackson, Bakshi has wisely cut out some fun but extraneous bits, such as the trip through the Old Forest and the adventures with Tom Bombadil and the barrow-wight. He has simplified the cast list. (Glorfindel is replaced by Legolas.) And like Jackson he has added a rather silly battle between Gandalf and Saruman. But anyone who has read and digested the books will recognize the key landmarks and won’t find anything disconcertingly new or Hollywoodized in the story. (Though they may be amused or disgusted by the way the White Wizard’s name shifts unaccountably between “Saruman” and “Aruman.”)

Whether newcomers will be able to follow it is another matter. It comes with a longish prologue that sets up the idea of the rings of power, and describes how Sauron lost his ring, and how it was found first by Smeagol and then by Bilbo. Gandalf explains a few other things to Frodo, and there is a briefly informative colloquy at Rivendell. Mostly, newbies can get through the film if they grasp that Frodo’s ring is bad and will have to be destroyed. The rest of it, they will find, is just one damn thing after another: lots and lots of new characters with unpronounceable names; fights with shadowy beasties; and an endless succession of kingdoms and territories that appear and recede over the horizon even faster than do European principalities on a package tour. This was alright in Tolkien’s book, where he could explain and characterize these people and places over the course of several hundred pages, but in a movie it is just tedious and headache inducing.

So what does Bakshi get right? I’m going to assert something very nearly heretical: his infamous rotoscoping process does a far better job of capturing the mood of Tolkien’s book than a regular animated or live-action feature ever could.

Bakshi may have chosen rotoscoping as a cost-saving device, and in far too many places it looks exactly like that. But at some point in the film-making process he must have recognized and then consciously begun to exploit its atmospheric possibilities, because there are also too many places where the film confidently seizes on rotoscoping’s capacity to convey an uncanny sense of dream-like horror. The best such moment—a spot where I sat up straight and felt goose bumps start to run up and down my back—comes during Frodo’s flight to the ford from the nine Ringwraiths. Tolkien’s own description of what happens is rather dry: it culminates in a battle of wills between the Witch-King and Frodo, who has started to fade and move into their world. But Tolkien can do little but assert that this is what is going on. Bakshi gets it across with spookiness and cinematic economy by fading the semi-realistic backgrounds into ooky color splotches even while the creepily realistic horsemen and hobbit stare each other down. Even the way the horses stumble about nervously during the scene—something probably not planned for by Bakshi—conveys a sense of pressure and tension. Few if any words are actually spoken, but the movie daringly slows and even comes to a stop as a way of suggesting the focal importance of the moment.

The movie, in fact, is at its best with the Ringwraiths, and comes to dark and scary life when they are on screen. There are a few other moments, such as Frodo’s meeting with the Elf queen Galadriel, that convey a sense of otherworldly magic, but Bakshi’s color choices and backgrounds generally do a good job of suggesting a world that is realistic but not really “of our reality.” Again, I think this is an improvement on the typical Disneyfied backgrounds or the Kiwi-based Renaissance festivals that Jackson filmed.

Rotoscoping also meant Bakshi could suggest giant crowds for battle scenes without having to go through the nightmare of setting up and re-enacting titanic battles using the technology of 1978. (That’s not to say he didn’t set up a few such shots; in the “making of” featurette Bakshi tells a grim anecdote about dealing with a Communist labor leader while filming crowd scenes.) Again, those looking for hyper-realism or magnificent set pieces will not find them in this Lord of the Rings, but they will find a strongly conveyed impression of them.

And that’s the oddball word I’d use to describe Bakshi’s film: he uses rotoscoping in a very impressionistic way. Many object to his film because it gives them neither a photograph of the thing itself nor a nice little caricature of it. But you could make the same complaint about Monet. I don’t mean that Bakshi’s images are as pretty or as well-composed as Monet’s, only that they work the same way: they give you the essence without the detail. And this kind of impressionism is about the only way I can think of that might work to get Tolkien’s peculiar strengths across on a movie screen.

Still, as I said above, there are lots of places where the movie is just ugly and throws you out of the illusion completely. Character designs are usually hard on the eye, and anyone who has ever sneeringly dismissed elves as being gay—in every sense of the word—won’t find in Bakshi’s versions a counterargument. Vocal performances are of only two types: either they are predictably and boringly “on the nose” (as with Peter Woodthorpe’s Gollum) or they are almost psychopathically miscast (as with John Hurt’s Aragorn).

The new DVD comes with a thirty-minute documentary that is more about Ralph Bakshi than the movie, but it does a very good job of suggesting that he is talented, cantankerous, impossible to deal with, and impossible to not respect. In fact, I found myself wishing the DVD were a two-and-a-half-hour documentary about the filmmaker, and that The Lord of the Rings had itself only been the extra.

Francois Truffaut—and Ralph Bakshi is a filmmaker of such stature that invocations of Truffaut are not out of place—once suggested that “interesting failures” are actually better than masterpieces, because they teach us more about art than the successes do. Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings definitely qualifies as such, and deserves to stand alongside such classic “failures” as Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, Hitchcock’s Marnie, and Spielberg’s A.I. as a broken movie that contains many brilliant pieces; certainly, like them it is impossible to get it out of your head once you have seen it. It’s a difficult movie to watch or accept, but it is a movie that I think many people—from Tolkien fans to animators and animated-film directors—should watch and study and learn from. Its release in a new format is most definitely welcome.

Related: Ed Liu reviews the Blu-ray of The Lord of the Ring.