Many people are under the mistaken impression that the Lord of the Rings was created by that shrewish Oxford don of linguistics, J.R.R. Tolkien, during the lofty war-torn 1940s. It wasn’t. Rather, the story and characters we know today were crafted by the cartoon pornographer Ralph Bakshi in decadent 1978.

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Figure 1: The wizard Gandalf faces the demonic Balrog, deep in the mines of Moria. Before 1978 no one had the guts to even imagine what this might look like.

Bakshi was a veteran director of semi-pornographic animation for a decade prior, bringing many cult comics to the screen, and even his own dark urban visions, including Heavy Traffic (1973). His epic animated adaptation of Lord of the Rings, cut in half and never completed, establishes the characters, visual styles, and updated tone that most of us associate with the fantasy epic.

Indeed, Bakshi’s creative choices have only been further reproduced in every version attempted since, including especially Peter Jackson’s academy award-winning film trilogy, brought to the screen decades later. As such, Bakshi’s brave aesthetics have carved a special place in the history of story-telling. He shares the stage with Tolkien, in this sense, by rendering the old man’s sometimes-turgid linguistic experiment as a real story: psychedelic, bizarre, human, and alive.

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Figure 2: Not far from the Shire, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin are stalked by the Black Riders. Bakshi’s tense scene would be appropriated, wholesale, by Peter Jackson more than two decades later.

Tolkien in a Nutshell

Summarizing the plot of the Lord of the Rings is, of course, pointless, but suffice it to say that Bakshi is largely faithful. His film opens in The Shire where the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Norman Bird) is throwing his farewell party, bequeathing his magic ring to his nephew Frodo (Christopher Guard). Frodo is informed by the wizard Gandalf (William Squire) that the ring he now possesses is a dangerous artifact and that he, along with his cousins and gardener, should spirit the cursed item to the land of the elves, where its fate can be debated.

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Figure 3: The Hobbits set off for Bree, unaware of the enormity of their task.

The rest is well known. The Fellowship is formed, consisting of the hobbits, a stoic elf Legolas (Anthony Daniels – yes, C-3PO!), a grumpy dwarf Gimli (David Buck), and a bunch of sometimes-fickle men, including the ranger Aragorn (that’s John Hurt…) and the miserable Boromir (Michael Graham Cox). The party bears the ring through the Mines of Moria and eventually splits up, sending Frodo and Samwise off alone headed to horrific Mount Doom in Mordor, while the balance of party joins the vast war with the forces of Sauron, and so on. The picture climaxes and ends, startlingly, with the victory of the forces of good against those of evil at Helm’s Deep, roughly halfway through Tolkien’s original narrative.

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Figure 4: Legolas, Aragorn, and Gimli in Fangorn Forest. Sure is dark in here.

What Bakshi achieves in the process is a modern, well-paced, and totally compelling version of an often-times, off-putting, epic novel. He does so, of course, at the expense of important literary elements.

Brave Aesthetic and Narrative Decisions

Because for all the film attempts to portray, what makes it remarkable is what it chooses not to include from the sacred novel (note: LOTR was only split into a trilogy of books by the publishers). A wealth of famous detail is abandoned in Bakshi’s interpretation for the screen, from the somewhat-interesting barrow-wrights, to the ludicrous Tom Bombadil. Purists of the time must have been tearing their hair out over these short-cuts, as Bakshi abandoned many of the detailed elements of Tolkien’s narrative.

Yet the overall effect is impressive. Taking a massive and fastidious (indeed: fussy) volume and paring it down to a rollicking chase story, Bakshi renders Tolkien modern, accessible, and momentous.

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Figure 5: The Black Riders, framed in against an apocalyptic sky. This is signature  Bakhsi and it still scares the pants off me.

But Bakshi’s creative decisions do not end there. His studio carefully crafted a gritty medieval aesthetic, giving life to the furry feet of the hobbits, the harsh landscapes of Weathertop and the rushing ford of Rivendell. This defines the aesthetic for all who follow. Gandalf’s pointy hat; the lumbering gait of the grim orcs; the horrific specters of the Black Riders, including especially the Lord of The Nazgul, Witch-King of Angmar (a mouthful!): these are all realized within a quasi-realist, animated aesthetic. They are simultaneously faithful to Tolkien’s descriptions but also somehow original, inventive, and visually novel. I would bravely wager that most players of Dungeons and Dragons (may we pity them all) are reproducing Bakshi’s aesthetics in their own minds every time they sit at the table with a 20-sided die.

Most of all, Bakshi creates a Gollum here, who effectively enshrines the character’s movement, sound, and affect so that it can never be easily rethought, or played another way, even to this day. The voice acting of Peter Woodthorpe is terrific. Gollum slithers, purrs, and squawks in a way that makes him scary, sad, and a little weird. Having read the books a little prior to seeing the film at age 11, I have to admit that I don’t recall if my image of Gollum was formed by one media or the other. The two are now intertwined entirely, however, with Bakshi stamping his imprintur on this timeless character in a remarkable way.

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Figure 6: Gollum, as we will always now imagine him.

The Triumphant Return of Rotoscope

And so too, Bakshi creates a visual landscape for Middle Earth that is spectacular. The realism of the animated drawings, from a remarkable dance scene at the Prancing Pony to a deadly conflict at Amon Hen, are produced to achieve visceral and cinematic veritas, but punctuated by flashing inverted imagery (like a photographic negative). This complicate pallet is achieved by Bakshi’s signature process: Rotoscope.

This technique, pioneered by Bakshi’s lab, is one where the animators directly trace over photographic cells, frame-by-frame, to create a cartoon replica of film footage. The effect is bizarre: a movie that feels like muted cartoon or an animated feature with the shadows and creepy motion of a movie reel.

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Figure 7: Inverting film negatives and painstakingly painting the cells; Rotoscope is unique in the history of cinema.

Bakshi gave Rotoscope a dry run in his less coherent but far more playful 1977 film, Wizards. In that earlier effort, however, Bakshi made the artistic decision to pilfer his base film footage from available stock, specifically and eerily including Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) and Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938). In preparation for Lord of the Rings, however, Bakshi knew that underlying footage for orcs, goblins and Uruk-Hai could not be easily appropriated from early 20th century cinema. Instead, he would have to produce it himself!

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Figure 8: Lord of the Rings required Bakshi to actually direct his own actors in shadowy archaic costume, only later to be rendered in Rotocscope. Crazy.

And so he did. Armoring actors as Orcs and Riders of Rohan, he shot them in live action footage, only later to animate the cells and render them cartoons. This means, in a sense, that Bakshi made two versions of Lord of the Rings, one live and the other animated, to achieve his version. The effort here must have been massive and totally weird. Imagine men, only half-dressed as orcs, lumbering over hills towards banks of cameras, generating hundreds of hours of work for studio serfs, who later tinted cell after cell of footage. Bizarre.

An Unfinished Masterpiece

But the effect is magnificent, as the armies of darkness are rendered in creepy negative, a kind of eerie nightmare shadow, moving out of a fiery sky. This is Bakshi at his absolute finest. Though he would later denigrate Rotoscope as an artistic shortcut, his invention renders the battle sequences of Lord of the Rings unforgettable. Bakshi had reached the top of his game.

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Figure 9: The Death of Boromir

Which makes the abrupt ending of the movie all the more lamentable. With only half of Tolkien’s story told, United Artists terminated the contract, stranding the visionary film-maker and his project, which was never completed. Bakshi’s career would deteriorate shortly thereafter, though it’s unclear if he cared; American Pop (1981) would follow, along with Fire and Ice (1983), but neither landed a punch.

Is this a picture my son should see? Absolutely and why not? Bakshi captures the epic story of Frodo and the One Ring and gives it a rich humming colorful animated life. While Jackson’s more complete and faithful telling is certainly also in the cards for my son, it is an incredibly and self-indulgently lengthy, violent, and – strangely – more unimaginative rendition.

Here is a Bakshi movie, with all its inventive detail, which could be put in front of any young person (unlike most of Bakshi’s work!). And as the pioneering Tolkien adaptation, it will certainly come first.

My experience of the film: Good

Chances Alexander will like it: Good