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.
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.