The Lord of the Rings was one of the greatest works by J.R.R. Tolkien, who became known as the “father” of modern fantasy. It provided a rich tapestry of characters and races that struggled to survive the darkness threatening the realm. Unlike the classic fantasy tales, it depicted a world at war with no simple solution to the realm’s ills. However, before the epic began, Tolkien first wrote a short children’s adventure novel: The Hobbit.
According to Tolkien’s recollections, he felt inspired to write when he thought up the words “In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit.” This simple phrase led to a fantastic adventure that he finished writing by 1932.
The story introduced the Baggins family as Bilbo reluctantly went on a quest to help a troop of Dwarves retake their home, the Lonely Mountain. While Hobbits like Bilbo preferred to live simple lives away from danger and adventure, the grey wizard, Gandalf, knew that he was the perfect thief required for the quest. As Bilbo traveled through Middle Earth, he faced many dangers including trolls, goblins, and the gigantic red dragon under the Lonely Mountain, Smaug.
The journey also led him to meet the current owner of a mysterious ring, Gollum. By using his wits and winning a game of riddles, Bilbo escaped from Gollum with a brand-new ring that granted him invisibility. Unfortunately, this ring later brought a new round of danger to the Baggins family.
While his later works, the Lord of the Rings, overshadowed the popularity of the Hobbit, this story remained a beloved part of the mythos. Thus, it has gained multiple adaptations over the years.
Many audiences first got to experience the adventures of The Hobbit when it appeared as an animated short in 1967. This 12-minute-long version was produced in Czechoslovakia and directed by Gene Deitch. Later, Rankin/Bass introduced another animated version in 1977. This time, the film was produced in the United States with Romeo Muller in the director’s seat.
One of the largest adaptations of The Hobbit came out in 2012 as a follow-up to Peter Jackson’s award-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy. While the book was short, this version was produced into a trilogy with the final part, The Battle of Five Armies, debuting in 2014.
Along with Peter Jackson’s take on the Hobbit, companies like Bridge Direct created action figures for the movie. These toys included large creatures like Smaug and a troll. There was also a transparent action figure of Bilbo that simulated him using the ring of invisibility. LEGO also joined in to create a new line of building sets for the movie.
With the success of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien began transforming the world of Middle Earth into one of the most influential works of fantasy. This new story would have a more mature tone and take several novels to tell in completion. Moreover, he developed a brand-new threat that endangered the entire world, Sauron.
The saga of the Lord of the Rings began with the Fellowship of the Ring, first published in 1954. This novel introduced a new generation of Baggins, Frodo, and a brand new troop of Hobbits. Expanding on the story from The Hobbit, Bilbo’s magic ring was proven to be the One Ring that Sauron sought to keep power over all the other Rings of Power. Thus, Frodo had to trek into the heart of evil, Mordor, and destroy the ring. To help him on his quest, he was joined by a fellowship filled with members of the various species of Middle Earth, including Dwarves, Elves, and Humans.
Frodo’s travels continued into the Two Towers, which was published in 1954. While the Fellowship had not held together to see Frodo make it to Mount Doom in Mordor, they continued to protect the land against Sauron’s encroaching evil. Unfortunately, Sauron had enlisted the help of one of the most powerful beings on Middle Earth, the White Wizard Saruman. Thus, he was able to create an army of Orcs in a bid to attack the various nations. Meanwhile, Gollum caught up with Frodo and “helped” him on his quest.
The story concluded with The Return of the King, which was published in 1955. As Frodo, Sam, and Gollum closed in on Mount Doom, the Orc army threatened to overwhelm Gondor. Thus, one of their prior party members, Aragon, had to confront his past and accept his role as the King of Arnor and Gondor. Even though Frodo managed to make it to Mount Doom, he succumbed to the evil influence of the Ring. Fortunately for Middle Earth, Gollum’s attempt to steal the Ring back from the Hobbit led to both him and the Ring falling into the volcano.
One of the most famous film adaptions of The Lord of the Rings first appeared in 1978, when Ralph Bakshi adapted the first two books into an animated film. This film used various techniques, including rotoscoping of live-action sequences. It also famously changed Saruman’s name to Aruman. Even though this version was meant to be a first part of a series, it never received a proper sequel. So, the story remained incomplete for years.
Despite the lukewarm reception to Bakshi’s take on The Lord of the Rings, the film gained a memorable toy line from Knickerbocker. This series featured a select number of 5 1/2” action figures including characters like Gandalf, Aragon, Frodo, Samwise, and Gollum. It also had a Ringwraith with a 7 ½” scale horse named Charger. Rounding up the line was another mount, Frodo’s Horse. Beyond the failure of the film, competition from larger lines like Star Wars led to this toy line failing to gain any traction.
Even though Rankin/Bass eventually concluded the tale with an animated film for the Return of the King, few knew about it. Thus, for decades, most audiences only had the incomplete version of Bakshi’s rendition as their best adaption for the books.
This all changed in 2001 when Peter Jackson introduced his live-action take on the books. The first movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, remained mostly faithful to the books. Thus, it quickly became a beloved success and led to two follow-ups. The Two Towers came out in 2002 while The Return of the King debuted in 2003. These three films even received extended editions, making them the definitive adaption of Tolkien’s work.
Complimenting this new series was a fresh new take on the Lord of the Rings from Toy Biz. They released action figures for the movie from 2002 until 2005. During this time, they notably created thirteen different versions of Frodo. This line also introduced a new way to clothe toys. While the bodies were hard plastic, the clothing was created from softer, more flexible plastics.
Since then, many companies have also created collectibles for the live-action movie. Companies like Diamond Select created 7” action figures for adult collectors. This toy line will receive its fifth series in the latter half of 2023.
His son, Christopher Tolkien, published many of Tolkien’s previously unpublished work as well as finished stories based on his father’s notes. Thus, fans were able to enjoy books like The Silmarillion which came out in 1977.
While there has been no direct adaptation of The Silmarillion, Amazon used pieces of it to create a streaming series, 2022’s The Rings of Power. This series explored a take on the history of Middle Earth and its races. It even provided insight into the history of the realm’s greatest enemy, Sauron.
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