Professor J.R.R. Tolkien’s death in 1973 drew a line under his tales of Middle Earth, the setting for the legendary Lord of the Rings. Of course, the saga continued on the big screen, through acclaimed directors Ralph Bakshi and Peter Jackson.
Tolkien famously wasn’t keen on producers adapting his work, so it’s surprising to hear he contributed to a lost BBC radio series in the 1950s. How involved was he and what happened to the end result? Leave your cozy Hobbit hole to find out…
An unexpected discovery
The mid-fifties saw producer and dramatist Terence Tiller take on the epic task of bringing Prof Tolkien’s novels to the airwaves. It has the distinction of being the sole adaptation produced while the author was alive, with Tiller only contacting Tolkien during the second series.
This version devoted six episodes to The Fellowship of the Ring. As for The Two Towers and The Return of the King, they shared the remaining six. The second run was even shortened from 45 to 30 mins. Naturally, Tolkien wasn’t impressed.
Tiller had a lot of ground to cover, so no wonder he reached out. Plus, the trilogy was pretty new, making broadcasters less inclined to splash out on a longer series. Academic Stuart Lee from Oxford University (Tolkien’s former workplace) notes: “Had the books been out longer and become more established,” then more leeway might have been given, as quoted by The Guardian.
Lee has gone on an unexpected journey, delving into the BBC’s archives and discovering the scripts. These were thought to be long gone. Sadly, the precious recordings properly disappeared, the corporation wiping them from existence – standard practice in times before mega-media franchises!
J.R.R. Tolkien himself contributed to the scripts
As mentioned by Bodleian Libraries’ Tolkien archivist Catherine McIlwaine, the author actively engaged with the project. What did the creator of Middle Earth add to Tiller’s material?
One gem concerns his comments about a wraith, mentioning their black cloaks, white faces and “cruel bright eyes.” Lee notes the details were inserted “rather clumsily” into Frodo’s dialogue, before becoming part of the narration.
Actor and presenter Derek Hart was the voice of the adaptation. The cast included future stars David Hemmings (Blowup) and Prunella Scales (Fawlty Towers).
Prof Tolkien added marks in red, recalling his role as an academic. Tiller may possibly have felt like he was back at school. “PLEASE TYPE!” his collaborator scribbles at one point.
Lee’s findings complement a recent unveiling of Tolkien’s art by the author’s estate. Turns out he was more than a man of letters. “Sometimes the words would inspire the artwork,” writes Artnet, “and sometimes drawing a scene would move the narrative in new directions.”
Tolkien was tough on adaptations of Lord of the Rings
As revealed in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (1955), he didn’t particularly rate Tiller’s efforts, believing the source material to pose a major challenge. “Except for a few details I think they are not well done,” he wrote. Actor Norman Shelley’s performance as Tom Bombadil was deemed “dreadful” – Shelley also played Gandalf.
Tolkien also poured cold water on a proposed adaptation starring none other than the Beatles. Even the presence of director Stanley Kubrick couldn’t make it happen. According to The Telegraph, a teenage fan said the movie “would be like putting Disneyland into the Grand Canyon.”
The legend lives on
Ralph Bakshi made an animated movie of Lord of the Rings in 1978. Unfortunately, it only covers part of the story. Like Terence Tiller, he found the adaptation process difficult. The next year a production aired on National Public Radio.
Then the BBC recorded the complete saga in 1981. Ian Holm starred as Frodo – he’d go on to play Bilbo Baggins for director Peter Jackson. Notable cast members were Bill Nighy (Sam Gamgee), Robert Stephens (Aragorn) and Michael Hordern (Gandalf).
Jackson shattered expectations with a fully-fledged movie trilogy between 2001- 2003. Another three movies covering shorter volume The Hobbit followed (2012 – 2014). Other directors who attempted a film were John Boorman. His vision wound up fuelling the Arthurian release Excalibur (1981).
In 1991 Leningrad TV produced a low-budget version of the story in Russia. Titled Khraniteli, or The Keepers, it was posted to YouTube in 2021. Reviews weren’t positive. Quoted by the BBC, artist Irina Nazarova comments: “Actually this was more about the fading away of the USSR than any adventures in Middle Earth.”
The next Tolkien TV production is easily the biggest, said to cost approx $1 billion…
When elves met Amazon
Amazon Studios and New Line Cinema are producing an original Lord of the Rings series, based on the Middle Earth universe and J.R.R. Tolkien’s ideas. Developed by J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, The Rings of Power is a prequel of sorts to the books. According to reports, producers are legally prevented from linking the show to Jackson’s movies.
A teaser trailer drew praise and also fierce criticism for the diverse casting. Writing about the tendency of fans to speak out over their favorite properties, Den of Geek notes: “In 1893 20,000 readers of The Strand magazine cancelled their subscription upon the death of Sherlock Holmes.”
More from us: These Actors Were Nearly Cast in The Lord of the Rings
Where can you see the lost Tolkien scripts?
Stuart Lee and Catherine McIlwaine are editors, alongside Richard Ovenden, of The Great Tales Never End: Essays in Memory of Christopher Tolkien. The new collection – which includes the radio script pages – honors Prof Tolkien’s late son and will be published in June 2022.