Rediscovered: Long-Lost Version of “The Hobbit” by Gene Deitch
by amid
January 9, 2012 4:21 am

A long-lost version of The Hobbit by animation legend Gene Deitch has resurfaced online in the past few days. Why did Gene produce this 12-minute “animatic” version instead of the feature-length version he’d originally planned with Jiří Trnka? Why did he have just one month to produce it? Why has nobody ever seen it? The crazy circumstances that led to the production are revealed in this piece that Gene wrote on his website. In short, the film was a financial ploy by Deitch’s producer William L. Snyder to earn himself a nice chunk of change. Deitch writes:

The Tolkien estate had now been offered a fabulous sum for the rights, and [William] 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! I should have told him to shove it, but I was basically his slave at the time. It suddenly became an insane challenge.

The rest of the story can be read on Gene’s website. And just for the record, the delightful illustrations in the film were created by Czech illustrator Adolf Born.

(Thanks, Stephen Persing, via Cartoon Brew’s Facebook page)

MIchael says:
01/9/12  5:19am

I love the styling of this. Interesting read too. I’d like to see how this version would have played out with animation and not just as a glorified animatic. Thanks for posting this.

Tavoman says:
01/9/12  5:21am

Gosh! I remember finding some cryptic mention about this in a 70’s animation book I ran into during collage (one I should have stolen out of mercy as at that point many students had already ripped many pages). As abridged and choped as this aproximation is, is great to get a glimpse at what could have been.

Brett McCoy says:
01/9/12  5:46am

Wow, they sure twisted the story around, didn’t they? Interesting graphics, though.

Baron Lego says:
01/9/12  6:40am

Very weird but interesting nonetheless! The changes to the story are incredibly distracting, though…

Kevin says:
01/9/12  7:10am

Gene Deitch’s artwork is really good.

I had no idea that there was another adaption of “The Hobbit” other than the Rankin Bass and future Peter Jackson one. This version replaces the dwarfs with a cliché king, minstrel and princess. I wish they said the names right. It’s Smaug not Slag, and it’s Gollum not Gloom.

Gobo says:
01/9/12  9:10am

Gene clarifies on his blog that when he wrote the script, he took a lot of liberties with the plot and changed character names… things that he’d never do now, but at the time, The Hobbit was still relatively unknown.

Barney Miller says:
01/9/12  11:01am

Relatively unknown at the time? The book was hugely popular from it’s first printing and remained in print continuously. In fact, Tolkien’s books and characters experienced massive,renewed interest in the time leading up to Deitch’s film.

Let’s not revise history to excuse the revisions:)

Gobo says:
01/9/12  12:38pm

@Barney, I know it was quite popular as a kids’ book — it was popular enough for the publishers to plead with Tolkien for a sequel. It didn’t achieve massive mainstream popularity until just before Deitch’s film came out, exactly. I’m not revising history — I’m stating what’s on Gene Deitch’s blog.

Stephen Persing says:
01/9/12  4:31pm

Perhaps it wasn’t as well known in Prague, where Gene was living and working.

Chris Sobieniak says:
01/14/12  2:04pm

I would go with that too. Even when Gene was adapting stories for Weston Woods in the 70’s and 80’s many of those titles like Maurice Sendak’s “Where The Wild Things Are” probably didn’t see a Czech printing for long time (or never).

Tim Hodge says:
01/9/12  7:39am

For a 12 minute version, it’s pretty decent. Loved the illustration design, although Gollum looked more like the Bumble from Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Stephen Persing says:
01/9/12  7:46am

Thanks, Amid!
I would add that this is the strangest version of the Hobbit you’re ever likely to see.

K-Tel says:
01/9/12  8:37am

Gene Deitch was in an unenviable position but proved an exemplary soldier, as always.

Pierre says:
01/9/12  9:34am

I loved watching this version enormously. The art of adapting a familiar story is a fascinating one and the choices made are quite brilliant.

One of the biggest problems with adapting The Hobbit is the fact that you have thirteen dwarves to contend with, in addition to a wizard, a hobbit, Gollum, a dragon, a bunch of wood elves as well as the men of Lake Town (not to mention some Trolls, Beorn and others who populate the story). The number of characters is overwhelming.

As a novel, to be read over a series of days, this amazing assortment of characters is easy to digest (though I still think thirteen dwarves is excessive). In a two hour movie (or four hours if you count the two movies that Jackson is making), it borders on being totally unwieldy.

Boiling the characters down to a few for the sake of clarity is certainly helpful in Deitch’s film. I can guarantee that one of the criticisms of the upcoming Jackson film will be over the issue of giving the 13 dwarves enough individuality to justify their screen-time. To their credit, Rankin-Bass kept the entire crew of dwarves but lost a number of incidents from the book (though the design and storyboards still exist in the illustrated version of the Hobbit based on the R-B cartoon.

As already mentioned though, I love the look of the film. It gives the film the look of a stylized tapestry from the middle ages (as opposed to Middle Earth).

Thank you for reposting this ( and for linking to the Deitch website for additional background).

Aleks Vujovic says:
01/9/12  9:54am

THANK YOU for posting this. I grew up on Adolf Born’s artwork, and I LOVE Tolkien, so this is a multi-treat.

That said, they completely botched the story. And I can’t figure out why. I understand that there are too many character to make sense of it in a short version, but why not simply drop some dwarves? What’s the deal with the pricness? Bilbo has always been a bachelor….

GhaleonQ says:
01/9/12  2:21pm

I don’t know. I think some things are awful if they aim to be the “definitive” version (Jackson’s Middle-Earth is a good example of a successful definitive adaptation) and brilliant if they’re allowed to riff on the source material (the Khitruk Winnie-The-Pooh films, for instance).

eeteed says:
01/9/12  2:29pm

this is fantastic. i loved everything about it. as i recall, gene’s original plan was to make a feature length film filled with songs, and sculpted dioramas for backgrounds.

i know i wouldn’t have cared for those additions.

this film, with its small budget and tight deadline show the downside of hollywood’s way of big budgets, and countless hands endlessly reworking artists’ original visions.

Tim Hodge says:
01/9/12  3:17pm

I wonder if Professor Tolkien ever had the chance to see this, as it was made around 6 years before he died.

The Brewmasters says:
01/10/12  9:55am

Gene wanted to comment on your question but was having issues with the commenting system, so he asked us to post this response and let you know that Tolkien never saw it:

“The one-and-only public screening of this film, until yesterday, was in a tiny New York screening room in 1966, for about 6 random pedestrians we lured off the sidewalk. Since that time, the print has lain ‘deep in the dark’ of the Snyder basement, until two days ago when Adam Snyder graciously retrieved it and zapped it to me, to accompany the piece on his father in my genedeitchcredits.com blog.”

Some Hobbit says:
01/9/12  3:30pm

This short is kind of like looking through a collection of elaborate psychedelic album cover art and beautiful old picture books. And all the while, your crazy Auntie is trying to tell you a story from her early childhood, and she is both remembering the details totally wrong and also getting them confused with parts of other completely different stories.

And that is why this short is AMAZING! Thank you so much for sharing it; I had no idea it even existed!

Greg Ehrbar says:
01/10/12  5:27am

My crazy Aunts were Rosie, Sadie, Angie and let’s face it, my grandmother Jean. Often entertaining, but nuts.

Hobbit Fan says:
01/9/12  6:13pm

How you look at this short is a matter of perspective. If you have not read Tolkien’s The Hobbit, I suppose one could find it entertaining. However, if you have read the book, this short is sacrilege. The name changes were just pointless (Smaug into slag???) and the inclusion of a princess just made the whole story seem like a generic cliche fairy tale.

I know that what is done is done but I still look at this short and think that this adaptation deserved a lot more than what it was worth but the meddling of Will Snyder (if Gene Deitch’s story is to be believed) practically killed it.

Gene Deitch says:
01/10/12  8:33am

To answer one of the questions above, the one and only screening of this nutty little fim
EVER was in a New York projection room to where we lured about 6 people off the sidewalk to see it and sign a paper that they had seen it – strictly for proof that was a public screening on that day. After that one and only screeing, the print laid “deep int the dark” of Adam Snyder’s basement from where he graciously retrieved it only two days ago! So know, JRR VTolkien never saw it… Thank God!

eeteed says:
01/10/12  1:14pm

thank you for make this little treasure, and for all the wonderful works you’ve made!

Jorge R. Gutierrez says:
01/10/12  10:21am

The designs are gorgeous! I would kill to see this projected.

hiradot says:
01/11/12  4:11am

I believe Tolkien would have LOVED this short. the colours and design are gorgeous and the speed of the narration is perfect.

anyway, I am really happy I discovered it and I will keep this in mind for a creative reference.

Jeffrey Gray says:
01/11/12  2:22pm

Wow, this is intriguing.

Believe it or not, there’s another pilot film for an unproduced “Hobbit” adaptation somewhere out there. In the mid 70s, Geoff Dunbar and Oscar Grillo worked on an abortive animated “Hobbit” for Rankin-Bass, who apparently first tried to make it in London before doing it in Japan. It’s briefly mentioned in Bruno Edera’s 1977 book “Full Length Animated Feature Films,” in a section on cancelled features.

Dunbar told me in an e-mail that he and Oscar quit the project when they realized that Rankin and Bass didn’t understand anything about Tolkien.

Some kind of pilot must have been made, because finished frames appear in Walter Herdeg’s 1976 book “Film & TV Graphics 2″ (which is how I first found out about it).

BP says:
01/12/12  8:57am

Who here besides me thinks the cartoon would have looked just as cheap even if it has been officially produced?

Gene Deitch was also supposed to do a “Charloette’s Web” adaptation, something E.B. White really wanted. That didn’t happen, and Hanna-Barbera made it instead.

Chris Sobieniak says:
01/12/12  3:22pm

Well then I guess you can thank Bill Snyder for that one too.

marbpl says:
01/13/12  10:38am

There was also a short 1991 Russian cartoon from the Lake Town back story http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2hWwu17udnI&feature=related
as well as a 1985 live action televised Russian play http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49a27D4hmvo (both no doubt unauthorized).

Ryan Storm says:
01/13/12  8:05pm

I’ve recently become a fan of Deitch’s and have spent a lot of time studying his work.
Thanks for digging up this wonderful looking Gem!!

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