Saturday, 21 January 2012


Busily writing, as I am, about Peter Jackson's forthcoming film of The Hobbit, I was intrigued, recently, to read about two forgotten attempts to visualise – on film and in book form – J R R Tolkien's story about the mild-mannered, stay-at-home Mr Bilbo Baggins whom Gandalf the wizard inveigles into accepting the role of burglar in the employ of a company of dwarves who set out to recover their lost treasure-hoard from the clutches of the dragon Smaug...

Today, I am telling the adventures of one of those lost Hobbits...

In 1964, three years before the Sendak debacle, a Hollywood movie-chancer, William L ('Bill') Snyder snapped up the film rights to The Hobbit for peanuts and passed it to Oscar-winning Czech animator, Eugene Merril ('Gene') Deitch (right) who animated various animated series (including Popeye and Tom & Jerry) and who began work on a screenplay for an animated film with three-dimensional model backgrounds.

The script played fast and lose with the original text (the company of dwarves were dropped and a Princess was introduced!); however, had the project gone ahead it might have developed into something quite intriguing, since Deitch planned to collaborate with the legendary Czech illustrator and puppet film-maker, Jiří Trnka.

But that was not what happened: Snyder and Deitch pitched the film to 20th Century Fox, who turned it down partly because the asking price was too high and the craze for Tolkien (that might have justified Snyder's budget) was still in the future – though nearer than anyone imagined. A matter of months later, Snyder was demanding that Deitch produce a one-reel film of The Hobbit within thirty days. The original contract was for the production of “a full-color motion picture version” of Tolkien's book by June 30, 1966.

Since there was no stipulation that the film had to be animated or of any particular length, Snyder wanted a 12-minute, single reel of 35mm film so that it could be screened in New York before those rights, picked up for a song, ran out. Working with his close friend, the Czech illustrator, Adolf Born, Deitch created a storyboard and filmed the illustrations with a few very-limited animation effects. Herb Lass, an American broadcaster working for the English service on Czechoslovak Radio, narrated the film.

It was finished and shown in a private screening room in New York City with the audience (pulled in from passers-by on the street) who were given a dime a-piece with which to 'pay' for their seats! Snyder secured his hold on the rights which he then sold back for almost $100,000!

You can read the full, crazy story, on Deitch's blog, genedeitchcredits and, below, you can watch the 12-minute, whistle-stop version of The Hobbit – with its Groans and Gablins (instead of Trolls and Goblins), the subterranean owner of the Ring, Golloom, and a dragon named Slag the Terrible...

After watching this supremely succinct first-ever film of The Hobbit, it must, surely, raise questions about Peter Jackson's indulgent two-movie project!

My next post will feature the saga of another forgotten Hobbit...

My thanks to Jen Miller for telling me about this extraordinary cinematic curiosity.

Top image: 'Conversation with Smaug' by J R R Tolkien


Snow White Archive said...

Oh my god! Groans, Golloom and Gablins, Bilbo as the "chosen dragon killer", Thorin Oakenshield is just a "general" and no dwarves but a princess instead. How bizarre but fascinating nonetheless.

Who needs Gandalf when you have such an adventurous hero like Bilbo to lead your quest? :)

What a discovery!

Suzanne said...

Oh dear! I'm not sure which is worse: this or Ralph Bakshi's LOTR! At least it will serve to make us appreciate PJ's version even more!
emate: an internet penpal

WendyLady@GoodBooks said...

Fascinating! I'm sending this post to my son, who's doing a film/animation semester abroad at FAMU (in Prague, Czech). He's going to go all Tolkien-nerdy-hobbit-crazy over it.

Nyx said...

I've only ever seen the pictures of the 'roasting' lamb before, thank you!
The spiteful monster in me smiles with glee that am not the only one thinking Jackson is milking The Hobbit too much with the two flicks.