Foolishness and Faith in 1978's The Lord of the Rings

Sarah Welch-Larson

The Lord of the Rings, director Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy series, attempts to tell the story from the point of view of the hobbits.

Bakshi’s film has been generally forgotten in favor of Peter Jackson’s more successful live-action movie trilogy. It’s true, this version is unpolished and imperfect. The story is incomplete, leaving out the end of Tolkien’s saga. To fans of the books, this version feels like an unfulfilled promise. But its unfinished status belies its unique creative vision. Nowhere is that vision more apparent than in the movie’s presentation of the hobbits as innocents undergoing a mission that they are not equipped for and cannot hope to complete on their own. Impossible though it might seem, they must complete their mission anyway. In this, they are kindred spirits with the early church; like those first believers, these hobbits seem foolish for both their hope and their faithfulness.

Hobbits were the first beings to appear in Tolkien’s stories; of all the different beings that populate Middle-earth, they were likely his favorites. They’re the creatures most like him: homebodies and gardeners, lovers of good food and beer and things that grow. They don’t seek out adventure, but have it thrust upon them. Tolkien describes them frequently as “cheerful” and “foolish” and “silly.” They are literally lowly people, half the height of men and living in holes in the ground. By contrast, the villains of the story are often referred to as “crafty” or “cunning,” making calculations about how best to dominate the world. Hobbits don’t want power or glory. They are content to live in a quiet forgotten corner of Middle-earth, a strange, small, peaceful people in an increasingly dangerous world. This is remarkably similar to the early Christians, who were instructed by Paul to “live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

Bakshi’s version of the story demonstrates just how fond he is of hobbits as well. Where Tolkien describes them as “foolish,” Bakshi shows them to be so. The characters’ actions are expressive almost to a fault, each yawn and smile and step exaggerated to make the hobbits appear like innocents. When Frodo (voiced by Christopher Guard) agrees to take the One Ring out of the Shire, he does so almost nonchalantly, shoving his hands into his pockets and kicking a rock down the path ahead of him. Sam (Michael Scholes) dances in place when he realizes he is going to see elves, then bursts into tears—a childlike action. He and his friends do not understand the full consequences of their choice to do the right thing; they just know that they are about to go on a big adventure. They move through a wild world that does not value them, but the movie does. And it works hard to make sure the viewer does too.

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Frodo is a reluctant adventurer who accepts his charge to take the One Ring to Mordor without fully understanding the dangers he will face on his journey. He is a nobody, an echo of the early church members, who were neither powerful nor influential. The animation styles emphasize Frodo’s place in the world: delicate watercolors for his home in the Shire; heavier oil effects for the kingdoms of the elves; and pen-and-ink drawings for the dangers of the wilds, with trees and rocks dripping with dark lines, as well as menace. The hobbits look weak in comparison.

When Frodo finally encounters a Ringwraith face to face, the environment around him changes once again. Having fallen under their spell, he sees them for who they really are: dangerous monsters who will stop at nothing to retrieve the Ring. The film’s art style changes again, with the backgrounds faded to a bloody red, the environment indistinct. Here, using a rotoscoping technique, the animators trace over live-action footage, making the wraiths and their horses appear hyper-realistic, with glowing red eyes and movements that are uncanny when compared with the lovingly drawn motions that animate the hobbits. The wraiths look otherworldly and monstrous as they chase Frodo. After his encounter with the Ringwraiths, Frodo finally understands just how dangerous his journey will be and how thoughtlessly foolish he was to agree to do it. And yet he doesn’t waver; he knows that the Ring must be destroyed and he stays faithful to the job he was called to do.

This adaptation itself could be considered a foolish venture. The filmmakers believed that carefully detailed animation would convey a sense of wonder and magic better than any live-action movie made at the time could. They found themselves fighting uphill against budgetary restraints (hand-drawn animation, especially animation as detailed as the art in this movie, is very expensive) and against producers who did not fully understand the story and who wanted to rush it into movie theaters.

The movie never quite succeeds in its goals. While it remains faithful to the books for much of the running time, somewhere around the halfway point, the scenes and storylines begin to splinter. Side plots are left abandoned, leaving characters like Merry and Pippin alone in the woods, their thread trailing away into nothing. By the end, all coherence is gone; the movie ends with a battle between faceless men and faceless monsters, with Gandalf explaining in voiceover that the heroes do eventually win the war against evil. To modern eyes—especially eyes that are most familiar with Peter Jackson’s blockbuster live-action epics—Bakshi’s version of The Lord of the Rings appears quaint, almost silly.

The foolishness is still worth the effort. Tolkien’s story climaxes with Frodo’s failure to destroy the Ring. This retelling of the story is itself an expensive and incomplete effort, rushed out the door before it was ready (almost like Frodo, rushing out of the Shire before he understood the consequences). Yet even though the movie doesn’t quite cohere, the scenes that feature the hobbits and the background art are still celebrations of small acts of foolish faithfulness. The movie isn’t worth bragging about, which is a reminder that the early church was urged not to brag about their own achievements, either, because they could not have managed anything without God’s help.

Frodo couldn’t complete his quest on his own; Bakshi couldn’t complete his film; we cannot bring about our own salvation. But God works in the grace notes to redeem our foolish messes, transforming them into a story worth telling, again and again.

Topics: Movies