The Little-known Animated Hobbit Film from 1966

Today is my birthday, so here is a fun topic I want to talk about just because it is interesting to me!

Many fans will point to the animated film by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr. as the first film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. This is understandable, because it received a wide audience when it first aired, and has remained a classic for many viewers. This version, however, is not the first film adaptation of Tolkien, nor the first adaptation of The Hobbit specifically!

Eleven years prior to the creation of the Rankin/Bass version, a much shorter, and admittedly less accurate, cartoon of the text was created by Gene Deitch. Deitch himself revealed this story in a blog post, but I have summarized it below.

Here is an overview of the story behind this unlikely little video:

Image copyright Rembrandt Films

In 1964, William Snyder obtained the film rights to The Hobbit, and he approached Deitch with the proposal to turn it into a feature-length animated movie. Deitch read the book, and thought it sounded like a great idea! Unfortunately, everyone involved with the production was blissfully unaware of The Lord of the Rings, and so there were many liberties taken with the plot and characters. Once they learned about the larger text, they revised and updated their screenplay.

Unfortunately, part-way through the process, Snyder had asked for too much money from 20th Century-Fox, ruining their chances at an important bankroll for the movie. This meant that the project had to be scrapped because it lacked funding.

Months later, Snyder reached out to Deitch again, demanding a 12-minute film be completed and delivered to New York from Prague within 30 days. You see, Snyder’s contract stipulated that he had to “produce a full-color motion picture version” of the story by June 30th, 1966. The contract never stipulated how long the film had to be. If he was able to do so, then he would retain rights to both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings! The Lord of the Rings had exploded in popularity after Snyder had purchased filming rights, so retaining his contract became very important!

In order to deliver this film, Deitch had to destroy his longer screenplay, the one he spent more than a year editing, and write a short film that told the basic story from beginning to end. This also meant that Deitch had to draw, color, record sound, shoot, and edit the film then deliver it across the globe in under one month!

They managed to complete all of the work and ship the film in time. Snyder retained his rights. The film, though was just a ploy to make money off of his investment. Snyder sold the rights back to the Tolkien Estate shortly after they renewed for a large profit. Unfortunately Deitch didn’t receive anything for his work from this bit of business.

The resulting cartoon was something so slap-dash that it was never intended to be distributed. Furthermore, Deitch did not put his name on the film for 45 years. Part of the reason that Deitch burried his association with the film is because it didn’t live up to the vision he started the project with. It was not a feature-length movie with the best visual and voice-over artists that he had started the project hoping to create.

You can now watch the full video online:

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