All of the English-language screen versions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings came out after J.R.R. Tolkien passed away in 1973, so we’ll sadly never know what he might have thought of them. But things were nearly quite different. In the late 1950s, Tolkien and his publishers seriously considered a proposal for an animated film, which even got to the script stage before the project was eventually scrapped.
In 1957, Tolkien was approached by an American film agent, Forrest J. Ackerman, about a proposed animated film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. Early on, Tolkien was really quite positive about the idea, in a pragmatic sort of way. At this stage, Tolkien was shown some drawings and color photographs to indicate the sort of look they were going for in the animation, and he read a “Story Line,” a synopsis of the film’s proposed plot.
He told one of his publishers, Rayner Unwin, that he would “welcome the idea of an animated motion picture” despite the risk of “vulgarization,” because “I think I should find vulgarization less painful than the sillification achieved by the B.B.C.” This statement was referring to a 1950s radio adaptation that has since been lost, not the acclaimed 1980s radio drama starring Ian Holm, which seems like the sort of thing he would have liked given how seriously it takes the story and how faithfully it recreates the world of Middle-earth.
Like his friend and fellow English professor C.S. Lewis, Tolkien was very particular about how he described things and he chose his words very carefully to get his precise meaning across. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, on which Tolkien was a staff member in 1919-1920, “vulgarization” means “making usual or common; the process of rendering familiar or popular.” “Sillification” is not a real word but obviously relates to “silly,” which means “foolish, thoughtless, empty-headed.” So Tolkien had no issue with taking his story and adapting it to make it more popular, but he did not want it made foolish or thoughtless.
When he was first shown the proposed synopsis of the film, he told Unwin that he thought an “abridgement by selection” of the story would work, but that the current synopsis was a “compression” instead, leading to “over-crowding and confusion.” Tolkien was saying that he thought an abridgement that cut out less important sections of the book could work, but that trying to squeeze the whole thing into a format and length it did not fit, as the current synopsis did, was a bad idea. He was also worried that it was making the story more of a “fairy-story” rather than the epic myth that he had written.
But Tolkien was also nearing retirement and was enthusiastic about the idea of making some more money to support himself. He told his son Christopher that he and his other publisher Stanley Unwin (Rayner’s father) had agreed on a policy of “Art or Cash. Either very profitable terms indeed; or absolute author’s veto on objectionable features or alterations.” While Tolkien had fairly strong feelings about how his stories should or should not be adapted for the screen, he was more than willing to compromise those feelings in exchange for financial compensation.
Tolkien did draw the line at Disney, though. He had an intense dislike of the animation studio. Way back in 1937, he had written that American illustrators of The Hobbit should do “what seems good to them” as long as he could “veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartfelt loathing).” At the time that letter was written Disney hadn’t even released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, so his ire was primarily aimed at Mickey Mouse, although his opinion did not appear to soften over the years.
Fortunately, Ackerman had gone in a very different direction with the tone of the imagery he was proposing. Tolkien told Christopher the drawings resembled “Rackham rather than Disney.” Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) was an English artist famous for his illustrations of fairies and fairy tales. His mythical creatures were complex and delicate, and often intertwined with nature and particularly with trees. It’s easy to see why this sort of style appealed to Tolkien, the creator of the Ents.
So far, then, things seemed to be going well, but sadly for Ackerman, it was all downhill from there. In 1958, Tolkien wrote to both Rayner Unwin and Ackerman about a film treatment written by Morton Grady Zimmerman, a detailed look at the proposed film that included actual dialogue among other things. In fact, it seems like Tolkien read what was essentially a full script. A photocopy of Zimmerman’s treatment is currently held at the J.R.R. Tolkien Collection at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
It’s easy to tell from his letter to Rayner in April 1958 that Tolkien had become increasingly frustrated with the project and even personally insulted by some of the changes the script made to his book. He was convinced that Zimmerman had “skimmed through the L. R. at a great pace,” and then written the synopsis “from partly confused memories.” There were basic mistakes in the treatment, like spelling Boromir as Borimor, and baffling changes, like turning the wizard Radagast into an Eagle. Tolkien complained about Zimmerman’s “extreme silliness and incompetence” and “complete lack of respect for the original.” However, he was still concerned that he needed money for his imminent retirement, so the project rumbled on.
By June 1958, however, Tolkien had finished going through Zimmerman’s treatment and was thoroughly unimpressed. He sent Ackerman a copy of the script complete with his own notes and comments. A lengthy series of extracts were published along with his letter to Ackerman in The Letters of JRR Tolkien. Here are a few highlights:
The Eagles were over-used in the film script. Tolkien said they were a “dangerous ‘machine’” that he used “sparingly, and that is the absolute limit of their credibility or usefulness.”
Zimmerman had the landlord at Bree ask the hobbits to “register” and gave them numbered room keys. Tolkien was horrified. “There are no police and no government” in Bree, he said, “Neither do I make him number his rooms. If details are to be added to an already crowded picture, they should at least fit the world described.” He later complained at length about the suggestion that lembas bread could be scientifically explained as a “food concentrate,” noting that in the book it had an almost religious significance, and that science fiction explanations did not fit with his world-building.
Zimmerman described Orcs as having feathers and beaks. Tolkien is very firm on the fact that they are “corruptions” of the human form of Elves and Men, not birds.
Tolkien’s tone gets crosser and crosser as he writes. Noting that the Balrog should not make any vocal sound and definitely should not “laugh or sneer,” he said, “Z may think he knows more about Balrogs than I do, but he cannot expect me to agree with him.”
Tolkien was irritated by the description of fairy-like “delicate spires and tiny minarets” on a “castle” in Lothlórien, but he was even more upset by the cutting-out of the temptation of Galadriel, the moment in Lothlórien when Galadriel considers Frodo’s offer for her to take the One Ring. Although happy with the idea of taking out elements of the story that were less important, Tolkien did not feel that this was one of them. “Practically everything having moral import has vanished from the synopsis,” he complained.
Tolkien had historical issues with Zimmerman’s treatment of Rohan and the Rohirrim, too. He complains that “in such time” kings like Théoden did not have private bedrooms, presumably meaning in Northern Europe during the early medieval period, which is roughly the inspiration for Rohan. He also said they did not have glass windows that could be thrown open, something he felt strongly enough about to put two exclamation marks on, and added, “We might be in a hotel.”
Overall, Tolkien felt that Zimmerman had shown no signs of appreciation of what his work was about, had treated the story “carelessly” and “recklessly,” and that the most important part of the story, the journey of the Ringbearers (i.e. Sam and Frodo) “has, and it is not too strong a word, simply been murdered.” This probably refers to a change that happened in between the original production notes and the treatment Tolkien read in 1958.
The original production notes followed the ending of the story fairly closely. In Zimmerman’s treatment, however, Sam abandons Frodo to Shelob, even after realizing he is still alive, out of a sense of duty to Middle-earth, and takes the Ring to Mount Doom himself – which Tolkien noted in the margin is the “opposite of [the] book.” When he reaches the fire and is about to destroy the Ring, he is attacked by Frodo, who is in turn attacked by Gollum. This is presumably why Tolkien wrote that Part III of Zimmerman’s treatment was “totally unacceptable to me, as a whole and in detail.”
What would Tolkien have thought of the animated films from the 1970s and 1980s, or the Peter Jackson films? He would almost certainly have found the Rankin/Bass films far too “Disneyfied,” but enjoyed Ralph Bakshi’s more serious take on the story. The Ackerman project was originally going to use a combination of live action, animation, and miniatures, so Bakshi’s blending of animation and live action might have appealed on that front, too.
There are some things he disliked in the Zimmerman treatment that did eventually show up in the Jackson movies. Aragorn draws a sword in Bree rather than carrying the Sword That Was Broken, the Black Riders screech rather than approaching silently, and Jackson has also added more fight scenes, including one at Weathertop, all of which were the subjects of complaints on the Zimmerman treatment. Tolkien even pointed out to Ackerman that the battle between the Rohirrim and the Orcs in The Two Towers should be called “the defence of the Hornburg,” not “Helm’s Deep” because Helm’s Deep is actually the ravine behind the Hornburg and is not shown. Good thing he never saw all those “I Survived Helm’s Deep” t-shirts Jackson gave to his production crew after the very difficult shoot…
On the other hand, given Tolkien’s preference for abridgement over compression, it seems quite likely that he would have been less annoyed about the cutting of Tom Bombadil than many of his fans are. Zimmerman’s script actually included Bombadil and his partner Goldberry, who was introduced as a glimpse of skin through a waterfall. Tolkien remarked that “she had far better disappear than make a meaningless appearance.”
Ironically, he may also have been accepting of the theatrical version of Jackson’s The Return of the King, which leaves Saruman alive and trapped in Orthanc, never to be seen again. (In the Extended Edition, Saruman’s death is moved to the confrontation in Orthanc rather than its position towards the end of the book, but is otherwise similar in essential details to the book version, with Saruman ultimately killed by Wormtongue). Zimmerman had changed Saruman’s death so that he killed himself. Tolkien said Saruman would never have committed suicide, and they should have Gandalf leave him in Orthanc, saying, “Since you will not come out and aid us, here in Orthanc you shall stay till you rot, Saruman. Let the Ents look to it!”
Which is almost exactly what he says in the theatrical cut of The Return of the King: “And there [locked in his tower] Saruman must remain, under your guard, Treebeard.” Ultimately, the deep respect for his book shown by the whole production on the Jackson films would likely have made Tolkien feel far more positive about these changes. Zimmerman, however, failed the test.
All but one of the quotations from Tolkien are from The Letters of JRR Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien and available in paperback from HarperCollins. One is from Janet Croft’s chapter on film scripts of The Lord of the Rings in Fantasy Fiction into Film: Essays.