The timeline of the 'Rings': A history of Middle-earth on film

From a 1966 animated short to a Russian TV movie to Jackson's films themselves, here's how J.R.R. Tolkien has made it to the movies.

Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" and "Hobbit" trilogies are the first proper film versions of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth works. But they weren't the first. Many have tried to tackle Tolkien's alterna-world; many have failed. But even the failures have interesting elements — and the first one might even be the most pleasing to the eye.


1966: “The Hobbit”
One of the most beautiful films that exist only to exploit a legal loophole, this comes from producer William L. Snyder, who had purchased the rights to Tolkien’s book but couldn’t get a splashy adaptation off the ground. At the last second he rustled together enough talent for a 12-minute toon, albeit one that changes some names (Smaug becomes “Slag the Terrible”), adds a princess and whittles it down to a charming, colorful tale.


1977-1980: Animated films
Technology greatly prohibited making a satisfyingly transportive Tolkien movie till Peter Jackson got around to them, but that didn’t stop filmmakers. Rankin-Bass produced their own “Hobbit” toon, which was followed by Ralph Bakshi’s partly-rotoscoped “The Lord of the Rings” in 1978. Bakshi only got halfway through “The Two Towers,” but didn’t oversee the very childlike “The Return of the King,” which closed out a somewhat forgotten trilogy.


1985: “The Fantastic Journey of the Hobbit Mr. Bilbo Baggins”
The first live-action Middle-earth came from the Soviet Union, of course. “The Hobbit” became a TV movie, with actors in funny makeup scared by a puppet Smaug.


1993: “Hobitit”
Well before Peter Jackson, a Finnish broadcaster split up “The Lord of the Rings” books into a nine-episode series, which was called “The Hobbit” but only focused on Frodo and Sam, not Bilbo.

2001-2003: “The Lord of the Rings”
One of the biggest gambles in movie history paid off and then some, as we know now. But at the time there was a chance a pricy film series based on nerd books and helmed by a guy who made a filthy Muppet satire (“Meet the Feebles”) might never cross over.

2012-2014: “The Hobbit”
Needing his Tolkien fix but good, Jackson himself took over the prequel — then blew it out into three films and nine hours, even though the book’s climax wound up happening as a pre-credit sequence in film number three. Still, Martin Freeman is a god.

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