Animated 'Lord of the Rings' From 1978: Ralph Bakshi's Inventive Classic

Entertainment | August 14, 2019

Left: Gandalf and a Hobbit as portrayed in Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated 'Lord Of The Rings' film. Right: One of the Ringwraiths. Source: IMDB

In 1978, The Lord Of The Rings hit movie theaters and introduced Frodo, Gandalf, Gollum, and the rest of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earthlings to a generation of viewers. This is animator Ralph Bakshi's Lord Of The Rings -- not Peter Jackson's dazzling film trilogy, which came 23 years later. Bakshi, who was already known for animated movies including Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic, used a variety of animation techniques to tell the story in his film, which was a box-office success.

'Lord Of The Rings' Was An Underground Phenomenon

Left: Orcs from the 1978 'Lord Of The Rings.' Right: Elrond's council. Source: Pinterest

In the late '60s and '70s, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books were an underground phenomenon on American college campuses. The three Lord of the Rings books weren't published in paperback editions in the States until 1965, and steadily climbed the New York Times bestseller list. Direct and indirect allusions to Tolkien in the music of Led Zeppelin and Rush confirmed the cool factor for Tolkien -- for shaggy college kids who liked heavy music, you couldn't get a better seal of approval than Robert Plant/Jimmy Page lyrics (see "Ramble On" and "Battle of Evermore"). This same demographic were obviously early adapters of Dungeons & Dragons, which came out in 1974 and borrowed heavily from J.R.R. Tolkien's world (earning a lawsuit from Tolkien Enterprises, but that's another story). Lord of the Rings posters and "Frodo Lives" graffiti were common on a college campuses -- by 1978, the burgeoning popularity of Tolkien caused the American film industry began to see the cinematic possibilities in the story.

Ralph Bakshi's Early Career

Ralph Bakshi at work. Source: fullecirclemagazine.com

Ralph Bakshi started his career as a cel polisher, progressing to animator and eventually director. In his early years, he worked on well-known properties including Deputy Dawg and Spider-Man. His first feature film was Fritz the Cat (1972), based on the work of Robert Crumb; it was the first X-rated animated film, including drug references (Fritz smokes weed) and animated sex. Many noted that it reflected the time period quite well and it became the most successful independent animated feature of all time. Bakshi went on to create Heavy Traffic (1973), which also had counterculture and adult themes, and was also well received by critics. Bakshi was praised as the most creative animator since Walt Disney.

The Road To 'Lord Of The Rings'

Scene from Bakshi's 1972 film 'Fritz the Cat.' Source: (tmovies.com)

Bakshi began working on a fantasy film, originally titled War Wizards, but the title was changed to Wizards to avoid conflict with Star Wars. In order to cut costs on the film, which was released in 1977, Bakshi used the rotoscoping technique he would come to use in Lord of the Rings. When Bakshi heard about the planned adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, he negotiated to direct the film. Bakshi’s original vision was to create three films -- one for each book -- but he had to condense them into two.  His version of Lord of the Rings was originally intended to only be the first part of the story, encompassing the first two novels and entitled The Lord of the Rings, Part One. His intent was to film the third novel in the second film. United Artists was concerned that audiences would not be receptive if a film was broken in two. Bakshi’s film concludes with part of the battle of Helm’s Deep, leading some to criticize the film for its unfinished feeling. Bakshi did not find out the studio’s true plans until he saw the advertising campaign, which did not include the “Part One” subtitle.

An Unfinished Story That Is Somehow Part Of A Trilogy

Gollum in Bakshi's film. Source: (comics.ha.com)

The film was a commercial success, bringing in over $30 million despite mixed reviews. After Bakshi got into a fight with the producer, Saul Zaentz, Bakshi refused to work on the second film. Rankin and Bass, famous for their animated Christmas specials, had created a Hobbit TV movie in 1977, and returned to the subject matter with an animated version of The Return of the King in 1980. Together, the two Rankin/Bass TV specials and Bakshi's movie constitute a coherent, if jury-rigged, animated Tolkien saga, although the middle chapter (Bakshi's film) is vastly different in style, and some parts of the narrative don't match up.

The Look Of Bakshi's 'Lord Of The Rings'

The Ringwraiths chasing Frodo. Source: Pinterest.com

Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings employed several artistic techniques: animation, painted backgrounds, and rotoscoping (where live action is painted over). This technique allows for the creation of a very trippy, nightmarish experience when Frodo slips the Ring on his finger and encounters the Ringwraiths. The rotoscoping technique created a strange quality that put off some viewers. In addition to solving the challenges of creating the animation, Bakshi had to sync the dialogue from the British voice actors with the action on the screen.

The look and tone of the film were inspired by Rembrandt as well as fantasy artists. Bakshi did not have a blueprint to create the worlds in the film, but had to build it from Tolkien’s words and imagination. Bakshi’s film also seemed to incorporate elements of Eastern culture for the creation of Rivendell, where Frodo recovered from his wound after encountering the wraiths.

The Lasting Impact Of Bakshi's 'Lord Of The Rings'

One of the scenes that is very similar between Bakshi's and Jackson's films. Source: (nerdist.com)

Bakshi’s film was a starting point for two important things: Tim Burton’s career and Peter Jackson’s eventual adaptation of the books. Tim Burton got his first job on this film, working as an “inbetween” animator. This film was also Peter Jackson’s first encounter with Tolkien’s work and the influence of Bakshi’s film can be seen in the similarity of some of the shots.

Both Bakshi’s and Jackson’s version drew from the same source material, although Bakshi’s version is more compressed. The film is hauntingly darker than Jackson’s films because of the rotoscoping animation. Bakshi also did not have the budget to create the impressive battle scenes that are part of Jackson’s film.

Bakshi worked with a much smaller budget than Peter Jackson’s $330 million dollar budget. He had to complete it in under two years and the time and financial restraints impacted the film, which made its production and success more impressive. 

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Animation | J.R.R. Tolkien | Ralph Bakshi | The Lord Of The Rings

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Cyn Felthousen-Post


Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!