Revisiting BBC Radio 4's The Hobbit

Review Andrew Blair 13 Dec 2013 - 07:00

As Peter Jackson's second Hobbit film is released in cinemas, Andrew looks back on the 1968 BBC Radio 4 adaptation...

Somewhere in the sidestreets of Hereford is, or was, a bookshop that is indelibly labyrinthine in my memory, with nooks and crannies (yes) in every direction filled with shelves, platforms, steps and ladders. I have an inkling that it only sells maps now. When I was a child, it sold all the books, and was the first place I ever saw the cassettes of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit (speaking of Inklings). And, as I pointed out to my parents, we did need something to listen to on the journey back to Glasgow. The Hobbit was cheaper, shorter, and – crucially – not in a cardboard box about a foot long. The cassettes came in reflective gold-coloured card that, I seem to recall, confused the hell out of budgies.

In light of Peter Jackson's potentially nine hour long interpretation, Michael Kilgarriff's adaptation (the actor played the original Cyber Controller in Doctor Who) consists of eight half-hour episodes, and is very faithful to the 1951 edition of the book (with a few post-Lord of the Rings embellishments thrown in). In 1968, Ralph Bakshi's animated version of Lord of the Rings was still a decade away, and radio seemed an obvious way to encompass the scope of Tolkien's story. Interestingly, a now non-existent adaptation of Lord of the Rings was made in the Fifties, and Tolkien was far from impressed, and thought radio a poor medium to adapt his work due to the over-emphasis of dialogue and the cutting of a lot of descriptive prose. The version of Lord of the Rings available from the BBC today was made in 1981, and will be looked at in a later article.

The Hobbit, though, cunningly introduces the narrator as a character whom Bilbo interacts with and frequently interupts. Though radio does obviously remove a large amount of description from its script, this device enables the scene setting to be done in a more interesting way than a straight narration. Paul Daneman (who played Vladimir in the first English language production of Waiting for Godot) plays Bilbo as a good natured but frantic sort. There is a gnomish quality to this Bilbo, so that even as he grows there is still a child-like quality to him.

Gandalf, here played by the brilliantly named Heron Carvic, is spikier here than the generally avuncular take on the role (in all movie versions, Ian McKellen and William Squire – both Doctor Who villain guest stars incidentally – are mainly friendly and benevolent characters with moments of irritability). Carvic (also a Doctor Who villain, once upon a time) has a voice that suggests impatience and detachment with Hobbit and Dwarf alike. As we are not following Gandalf on his journeys away from the main quest, this approach works well. If, however, we were hearing Gandalf's adventures investigating the Necromancer, this haughty approach to the quest would not be appropriate. As it is, it's quite funny to hear a patronising Gandalf who is effortlessly superior to his travelling companions, and knows it.

This is illustrated during a scene that the radio version, in my opinion, depicts more effectively than the recent film: the Great Goblin in the Misty Mountains. A potentially fun romp involving cartoon physics on screen devolves into an overlong and patience-stretching set-piece. In the radio version, the Goblins are more cunning after the sudden and shocking demise of their leader. They seek out the fleeing dwarves through the darkest tunnels, using stealthy runners to find their position before attacking again. This is what splits the party up, leading to the Riddles in the Dark scene (although, if any scene in the recent film can be said to be definitive, their version of Riddles is surely up for consideration).

Kilgarriff's Hobbit is more consistent in tone than the 2012 movie. Peter Jackson's film has that particular kind of child-friendliness that seems patronising and jarringly goofy, in between scenes of decapitated heads and dwarves being burned to death. The radio version doesn't veer that far in either direction, and its scares are based on sound design and volume dynamics (courtesy of the Radiophonic Workshop, the goblin shrieks and spider noises always felt unsettling). In keeping with the book, its child-friendliness comes from the episodic nature of the adventures. Lacking a visual element helps in this respect, as there's no way to do a song and dance routine. As a result, it feels less patronising but does not seek to achieve through narration some of the splendid visuals that Weta can manage.

It also doesn't have as much pathos as the recent film, but then nor is it trying to. Sticking closely to Tolkien's version it relates the battlefield deaths of major characters in flashback, and doesn't try to shape Bilbo's character arc into something more emotionally resonant. The characters on radio seem severe, but this works because the story is told from Bilbo's point-of-view. With him accompanying the narration, we get to hear his thoughts and reasoning, which makes it understandable that the others seem a little distant. There's no character who befriends Bilbo to the same extent as Ken Stott's Balin does in the new trilogy. Each new creature seems potentially dangerous, even those that are helping the dwarves. The King of the Eagles and Beorn are, through sound design and character, somewhat ambiguous.

That the radio adaptation feels more perilous might be informed by its standalone nature, whereas Peter Jackson has already made The Lord of the Rings. It can't be helped, but making the films in this order does negate a lot of suspense over whether or not some characters will make it. Obviously, we know that everyone who appears in the original trilogy will survive, whereas the radio version was made without any existing films, and the 1951 – 1956 radio version of Lord of the Rings was not available to buy or repeated since its broadcast. Basically, they didn't have to consider the idea of over-familiarity nearly as much.

Musically, too, it's evocative. Obviously it being something listened to in childhood has had an impact, but the theme music to the radio version of The Hobbit had lodged itself in my head, whereas I can't remember any music from Howard Shore's recent score that wasn't already featured in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. David Cain's score from the Radio show is a mix of a capella (occasionally effects enhanced) singing and medieval sounding instruments, performed by The Early Music Consort.  Here's a selection:

Overall, while The Desolation of Smaug looks to be a more tonally consistent film than An Unexpected Journey, anyone who wishes to get an idea of what The Hobbit might be like as one faithful film – minus appendices and Sylvester McCoy – should seek this out. It might lack the dynamism of the cinematic adaptation, but the world it creates feels more dangerous and real.

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