In a previous article, I wrote about how Rankin/Bass’s TV movie The Hobbit , which debuted the same year as Star Wars, served as a prophecy for the future of entertainment. These days, Tolkien’s legendarium isn’t just mainstream: it’s the foundational text of mainstream pop culture, from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones to Star Wars —Tony Stark even calls Hawkeye “Legolas” in The Avengers.
It wasn’t always so. In the 1970s, the main places for Middle-earth references in the greater pop culture were Rush and Led Zeppelin songs, and graffiti declaring “Frodo Lives” on subway station walls. Tolkien was a conservative Oxford don, but The Lord of the Rings had found its first popularity in the counterculture.
It’s fitting, then, that the first person to bring Tolkien to the big screen was the counterculture cartoonist Ralph Bakshi, aided by screenwriter and The Last Unicorn author Peter S. Beagle. Most famous for the X-Rated cartoon Fritz the Cat , Bakshi brought a distinct artistic approach to The Lord of the Rings that simultaneously fit its countercultural caché and helped to bring the story out of funky hot-boxed rooms filled with lava lamps and into a more mainstream consciousness.