The Strange Story of First Long-Lost Hobbit Animated Short Film

Before the iconic Orson Bean-voiced and Rankin/Bass produced 1977 version of The Hobbit came to light, there was a very different film adaptation of this classic tale. As recently revealed in the blog of animator Gene Deitch, film rights to the classic Tolkien tale were actually first owned by a fellow named William L. Snyder way back in 1964, who had bought the rights from the Tolkien estate on the cheap, as The Lord of the Rings had yet to hit big.

Those rights would expire in 1966, though, unless Snyder succeeded in making a film. And thus begins an…unexpected journey.

All full account of this story can be found on Deitch’s blog, but here are some highlights. Because the film rights owned by Snyder would expire so quickly, a screenplay had to be prepared in all due haste.  Deitch’s version changed several elements to the story, and interestingly at this point, both Deitch and Snyder were unaware of the story connections The Hobbit had to The Lord of the Rings. But then The Lord of the Rings paperbacks came out and things changed. Writes Deitch:

We were well into the Hobbit screenplay when The Lord of The Rings came out in paperback editions. Having assumed there was only The Hobbit to contend with, and following Snyder’s wish, we had taken some liberties with the story that a few years later would be grounds for burning at the stake. For example, I had introduced a series of songs, changed some of the characters’ names, played loosely with the plot, and even created a girl character, a Princess no less, to go along on the quest, and to eventually overcome Bilbo Baggins’ bachelorhood! I could Hollywoodize as well as the next man…

When I did manage to get and read “THE LORD OF THE RINGS,” I realized I was dealing with something far more magnificent than what appeared in THE HOBBIT alone, and I then back-spaced elements from The Lord into my script so as to logically allow for a sequel. First Bill Bernal, and then I worked on the script for most of a year.

However, Snyder apparently “blew the deal” in regards to re-selling film rights to 20th Century Fox by “asking for too much money” for a property that was unheard of at the time. It seemed it was all for nothing. But then, the Tolkien craze began:

The Tolkien estate had now been offered a fabulous sum for the rights, and Snyder’s rights would expire in one month. They were already rubbing their hands together. But Snyder played his ace: to fulfill just the letter of the contract – to deliver a “full-color film” of THE HOBBIT by June 30th. All he had to do was to order me to destroy my own screenplay – all my previous year’s work, and hoke up a super-condensed scenario on the order of a movie preview, (but still tell the entire basic story from beginning to end), and all within 12 minutes running time – one 35mm reel of film. Cheap. I had to get the artwork done, record voice and music, shoot it, edit it, and get it to a New York projection room on or before June 30th, 1966!

The result was the super-rushed and super-odd production which you can watch below. Though not totally representative of Deitch’s vision, it is an interesting glimpse into an alternate world of what might have been. Some of the changes made to the story—including the Smaug’s name—are quite staggering!

Full story on Deitch’s blog here.

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