Back on November 27, 1977. kids watching network TV were introduced to the “greatest adventure” of all time. Although the original Star Wars blew everyone’s minds that summer and forever altered the way we think about blockbuster movies, the Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr. version of The Hobbit quietly pushed the most famous fantasy origin story of all into the mainstream. 45 years later, the impact of the animated Hobbit cannot be overstated. As the world mourns the passing of animator and producer Jules Bass — who died on October 25, 2022, at the age of 87 — it’s also a good time to celebrate his work. And, as this version of The Hobbit celebrates its 45th birthday, the movie has never been better.
Clocking at just 77 minutes (and apparently, not an hour and a half as many remember it), the animated version of The Hobbit from Rankin and Bass captures the breezy and jaunty quality of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 children’s novel The Hobbit. Of course, even by 1977, The Hobbit had been retroactively relegated to “prequel” status, making it something of an underdog next to the sprawling, and mega-popular Lord of the Rings trilogy of novels, which had been published, originally from 1954 to 1955. Before this, in 1951, Tolkien had revised The Hobbit, to make it more closely aligned with the spirit of The Lord of the Rings, making the slightly more childish version of the book a historical memory.
However, the 1977 animated Hobbit, firmly took the world of Middle-earth and made the adventure for children. With their experiences on other animated kids’ specials like Frosty the Snowman, Rankin and Bass upped their game significantly for The Hobbit, mostly because they had amazing source material to work with. While hardcore Tolkien heads are very aware of the various songs throughout the book versions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, for the casual viewer in 1977, the staggering amount of music in the animated Hobbit might have seemed weird. However, it was Jules Bass himself who adapted a good chunk of Tolkien’s lyrics directly from the book and then assisted composer Maury Laws, in making it all happen.
The famous Glenn Yarbrough-sung folksy ballad, “The Greatest Adventure,” was, in fact, the only song that was original to the movie, and not derived from the pages of The Hobbit. This single fact is the microcosm that demonstrates the overall brilliance of this version of The Hobbit; it’s both wildly faithful to the source material, but also morphs into a significantly separate adaptation. Just as Bilbo’s stories of his meeting with Gollum later turned out to be unreliable, the 1977 Hobbit succeeded in turning Tolkien’s book into a modern folk tale. Depending on who was retelling the story, the story could change. Before 1977, this hadn’t happened yet with The Hobbit, and other than Tolkien’s revisions, alternate versions of the story simply couldn’t exist.
As scholars and students of folk tales and fairy tales will tell you; what ensures that a story survives isn’t just the preservation of the text, but instead, the retellings of a story is what creates immortality. In the time before the printed word, this was accomplished through the oral tradition, but in the late 20th century, film adaptations began to do something similar.
With its unforgettable animation style, brilliant pacing, hilarious moments, excellent casting, and yes, whimsically endearing music, The Hobbit was the first of its kind: A new take on what had already been an instant classic in 1937. Like the film version of The Wizard of Oz, the 1977 Hobbit sublimated a wonderful kids’ book into a brilliant piece of modern animation. Today, we might think of the 1977 Hobbit as retro. But the reason why it was so important is that, when it comes to amazing fantasy adaptions, the future began right here.