If you were making a list of the most influential books in human history, you’d probably include religious texts, a few works from great minds like Plato, maybe On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, but not too far down on that list would have to be the works of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, better known as J.R.R. Tolkien.   

While working as a professor at Oxford University in the early-1930s, Tolkien began working on an epic novel called The Hobbit, Or There and Back Again.  Tolkien had allowed students and colleagues to read his book, but never expected it to go beyond his circle of friends.  That is until 1936 when one of Tolkien’s students lent the novel to a friend who worked at the Allen & Unwin publishing house.

Allen & Unwin released the first edition of The Hobbit on September 21, 1937 with a print run of 1,500 copies.  The book was immediately successful, selling out by December, and receiving almost universal praise from critics.  The book has remained in print ever since and has sold well over 100 million copies.  

The story of Bilbo Baggins and his dwarven friends helped establish an entire genre of fiction known as Modern Fantasy.  The medieval European setting, the prevalence of magic, and a menagerie of fantastic beasts have become the basis for everything from Dungeons & Dragons to Harry Potter and countless other books, movies, video games, board games, and comic books ever since.  

On November 27, 1977, The Hobbit, a made-for-TV animated special, aired on NBC.  The film was a 78-minute adaptation of the book, directed by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass of Rankin/Bass Productions.  While not strictly a musical, the film did feature many musical numbers adapted directly from lyrics Tolkien wrote in the book.  However, one original song, The Greatest Adventure (The Ballad of the Hobbit), written by Maury Laws and Jules Bass, sung by Glenn Yarbrough, was also produced.  

The concept art for the film was based on the work of Lester Abrams, who had previously drawn characters from an excerpt of the book that was printed in Children’s Digest magazine.  The animation was handled by Topcraft out of Japan.  

Fun Fact: Topcraft went bankrupt in 1985.  Afterwards, many Topcraft animators formed Pacific Animation and continued to work with Rankin/Bass on television shows like ThunderCats and Silverhawks, the animated special based on the Saturday Night Live skit, The Coneheads, the feature film, The Last Unicorn, as well as The Hobbit sequel, The Return of the King (which we’ll get to in a future episode).  The rest of the staff, including director Haya Miyazaki, formed the now-famous Studio Ghibli, whose works include My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and the Academy Award-winning, Spirited Away

Upon release, The Hobbit was met with mixed reviews.  Some critics felt the plot was confusing to those who had never read the book, but many simply were not in tune with the art style or animation.  Personally, I feel like the art style is one of its strongest points.  The backgrounds are beautifully rendered, while the characters are imperfect, with wrinkles and blemishes that would be far too ugly for a Disney production.  Together, they give the film a very specific, consistent otherworldly feel and makes for a great introduction to the world of Tolkien.    

The record of The Hobbit that is part of my collection is a 1977 release by Disneyland Records.  The album features the original dialog and songs lifted directly from the film.  The album also includes a 12-page book that isn’t a direct read-along adaptation of the record, but does feature quite a few pieces of artwork and dialog of key scenes from the film.

There was a read-along record book version of The Hobbit released, also in 1977 by Disneyland Records, which is part of my collection as well.  However, that version cuts out so much of the already-short 78-minute film, that it’s a Cliffnotes version of the film at best. 

If you’d like to listen to The Hobbit, I’ve included it as an episode of my podcast, When You Hear This Sound! Head over to spacemonkeyx.net and check it out!

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