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Peter Jackson has made six large budget films adapting The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and before that there were the animated Rankin Bass and Ralph Bakshi films.

However those films began in 2001 and 1977 respectively, and The Hobbit was first published in 1937. Were there any earlier adaptations made? What was the first official film adaptation?

3 Answers 3

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The first official film adaptation of Tolkien's work was an adaptation of The Hobbit in 1967.

Tolkien was previously approached twice about film adaptation rights to The Lord of the Rings in the late 50s, but neither of those projects ever ended up being produced.

In 1962 William Snyder of Rembrandt Films secured the rights to make an adaptation of The Hobbit for $15,000 plus a percentage of profits in countries that were part of the Berne Convention (at that time The Hobbit was not under copyright in the United States.) The contract required that Snyder “produce a full-color motion picture version” of the book by June 30, 1967 in order to retain the rights to The Lord of the Rings.

With suspicious ease William Snyder of Rembrandt Films agreed our main conditions, and early in 1962 a contract was sent to him for signature. Then he suddenly realised that American copyright in The Hobbit was even more equivocal than that of The Lord of the Rings, and re-negotiation had to commence. In the end only the advance of $15,000 and a share of any profits earned in countries that were signatories of Berne remained. But we were not in a strong position.
George Allen & Unwin A Remembrancer

Gene Deitch was set to write and direct, and Jiří Trnka was the art designer. A full script was written and some concept art was made while Snyder unsuccessfully tried to find a backer.

But I dreamed big, visually. I pitched Snyder the idea to employ Jiří Trnka to design the film. It was going to be a lavish production in a rich painting style! I was thinking of making use of the great set-building skill of the model makers at Trnka’s studio, in a sort of update of what Max Fleischer tried many years earlier, the use of real set backgrounds, with drawn animation characters superimposed over them.
genedeitchcredits.com - "Jiří Trnka"

In January, 1966 Snyder asked Zdenka and me to come to America to do a presentation to 20th Century-Fox. ... By the time we arrived in New York, however, Snyder had already blown the deal by asking 20th for too much money. Tolkien’s name hadn’t yet reached them either. I had a fat script, but no other film companies were then interested. It was crushing.
genedeitchcredits.com - "William L. Snyder"

However, shortly before the cut-off date in their contract came, The Lord of the Rings came out in paperback in the United States, and the popularity of the books skyrocketed.

Snyder thought, “Why invest money, plus a year-and-a-half of work, when you can make money without all that sweat?” Not only had the Tolkien estate lawyers given Snyder the rights for peanuts, but in their ignorance of film terminology, they had left I in the contract: It merely stated that in order to hold his option for THE LORD OF THE RINGS, Snyder had to “produce a full-color motion picture version” of THE HOBBIT by June 30th 1966[1967]. Please note: It did not say it had to be an animated movie, and it did not say how long the film had to be!
genedeitchcredits.com - "William L. Snyder"

So they took whatever little they had (some 2d concept art), made a 12 minute film-reel of a camera panning over it, and added a voice-over. Then they "released" the film.

I arrived with the rough answer print on June 29th. Snyder had already booked a small projection room in midtown Manhattan. After a quick test screening – and Snyder was duly impressed – I ran downstairs and stopped people on the sidewalk, asking them if they would like to see a preview of a new animated film, for only 10¢ admission. I handed each willing customer a dime, which they handed back. After the screening, the few, puzzled audience members were asked to sign a paper stating that on this day of June 31, 1966[1967], they had paid admission to see the full-color animated film, “THE HOBBIT!”
genedeitchcredits.com - "William L. Snyder"

With the film "released" on time, Snyder was able to sell the rights back for $100,000.

You can watch the "film" here, (probably takes less time than reading this post):

For further reading see:

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    And let us not forget the immortal sound track "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins" performed by Leonard Nimoy back in 1968 . Youtube it at your own risk.
    – Amarth
    Nov 3, 2021 at 16:35
  • I... just... wow.
    – erickson
    Nov 4, 2021 at 15:48
  • Ah, Hollywood, shamelessly sleazy from beginning to end. Nov 4, 2021 at 17:35
  • as a big LOTR fan ..the video above triggers me
    – Nigel Fds
    Nov 5, 2021 at 0:19
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IMDB list of Tolkien credits.

When you say "film" are you restricting it to cinematic movies? Do TV adaptations count?

The earliest TV adaptation of The Hobbit appears to be a British show, Story Box, Episode aired Mar 4, 1964.

I can find very little information about the show.
There is a credited cast, so it seems to be at least partly a dramatic adaptation.

But looking at the episode titles, it sounds like a review or discussion show. Maybe only some scenes were filmed. That's just a guess, though. It might have been a full version.

It's up to you if you'd count it.

No copy of the episode is known to exist.

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  • It probably wouldn't be an authorized adaptation though.
    – ibid
    Nov 3, 2021 at 17:55
  • Why wouldn't it be authorized? They must have got permission.
    – Pete
    Nov 3, 2021 at 20:06
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    It seems like it isn't mentioned anywhere among either Tolkien's papers or his publisher's papers. Or at least it doesn't appear in lists of adaptations compiled by people who went through those archives. (While things like school theater productions that wrote for permission are listed.)
    – ibid
    Nov 3, 2021 at 20:46
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    I saw quite a few episodes of "Story Box" when I was young. It was an educational show for children, rather than a review or discussion show. This was probably a book reading a la "Jackanory" (who also did "The Hobbit" by the way). Maybe a few scenes could have been acted out too.
    – user135790
    Nov 4, 2021 at 15:07
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Leningrad Television broadcast Khraniteli, a live-action adaptation of the Lord of the Rings in 1991: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khraniteli

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