Celebrate #TolkienReadingDay With a Review of the 1968 BBC Radio Broadcast of The Hobbit!

People of the world rejoice!! Sauron has been defeated!!

If you’re wondering why I’m brining this up now, well the answer is that according to the Tolkien Society, March 25th is in fact (fiction?) the day in which The One Ring was destroyed, thereby completing Frodo’s quest and defeating Sauron. Since 2003 the society has encouraged fans to celebrate and promote the life and works of J.R.R Tolkien on this day even going so far as to dub the holiday Tolkien Reading Day.

So what better way to celebrate the father of modern fantasy, then to review The One Book which started it all, The Hobbit.

Or attempt to do so, but instead talk about a 1968 BBC Radio adaptation of Tolkien’s 1937 classic because you didn’t realize the audiobook you requested from the library was not the original work until about a half hour in when you’re wondering why there are all these breaks, musical interludes, and repeated sections.

And by ‘you’ I mean me. This is what I did. This was the mistake I made.

Anyway, rather than request the original and have to wait several weeks for it to come in (thereby missing this incredible holiday), I just decided to give the radio version a listen and see what was good.

I have no doubt that in the late 1960s, this radio adaptation was the cat’s pajamas, but I’m wondering if modern audiences would find the broadcast somewhat jarring. For me, this discomfort has no better example then after the eagles come to rescue bilbo et al, from the wargs and goblins who have set the forest aflame to try and smoke them from their hiding place within the trees. They soon land on the Great Shelf and speak with the Lord of the Eagles. I’ve done my best to transcribe the encounter:

Lord of Eagles: Raaahhckkk! Gandaaalllfff my old friend. What a pleasant surprise to see you again Raaahhckkk!

Gandalf: I am honored lord of the eagles, may I present Thorin Oakenshield, son Thrain, son of Thror, and his followers.

Lord of Eagles: Son of Thrain, Son of Throrrr, Raaahhcckkk. It be a great pleasure to meet the head of such a famous family of goblin slayersss. Raahhcckk.

I think that is enough to get the gist of the conversation (Raahhcckk!!).

For comparison, here is the same section from The Hobbit book:

“As Bilbo listened to the talk of Gandalf he realized that at last they were going to escape really and truly from the dreadful mountains. He (Gandalf) was discussing plans with the Great Eagle for carrying the dwarves and himself and Bilbo far away and setting them down well on their journey across the plains below.”

So obviously a book is able to simply tell its audience some things in summary when doing so in a radio production would absolutely kill the momentum of the story, however, summary is not completely absent from the BBC adaptation which included effectively two narrators (Bilbo and the true narrator). This means that somewhere along the way it was decided that this conversation was important enough to SHOW rather than TELL.

So far I’m in agreement. Giant sapient eagles who have kings and fight goblins is just about one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard of. Definitely a SHOW moment. Only that moment becomes laughable with all the elongated pronunciations and squawking (isn’t that a parrot thing anyway?).

Most of the show’s depictions of magical creatures (spiders, elves, goblins, trolls etc.) seem to suffer similarly from the overproduction of their audio. This combined with two narrators, who often speak over each other, while dwarves are cheering or having side conversations in the background (and all of that often set to music as well!) led to a pretty confusing sound picture which I felt actually detracted from the story rather than added to it.

What I did find striking however, was how similar Gollum sounded to his Peter Jacksonian counterpart (LOTR movies) and Bilbo’s characterization really stood out to me as well. I don’t know if I ever actually saw the Hobbit movies in which Martin Freeman plays the character, but now I’m very curious whether or not they are similar, and if Freeman used the 1968 radio broadcast as an inspiration.

So . . . Worth a Listen?

Despite my relatively negative review of the broadcast so far (and during a celebration no less), I would say it is still worth a listen. The story of a small hero going on a big adventure is always going to be entertaining, and despite the kinks introduced by its adaptation to another medium, The Hobbit is still a fascinating story.

I’ll admit that I had forgotten just how much I enjoy Tolkien’s characters and while middle-earth — with all its histories and legends, cities and places — can sometimes seem vast and overwhelming, this story is a much more digestible place to start.

At the very least, listening to the BBC’s 1968 adaptation of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit, reignited my interest in Tolkien’s writing . . . which seems to me is exactly the point of Tolkien Reading Day.

Has anyone listened to this broadcast? What are your thoughts? Did they stick the landing or does the adaptation fall flat? What were your favorite parts? Are you doing anything to celebrate Tolkien Reading Day? What is your favorite Tolkien work?

Please leave your answers in the comments. Looking forward to talking about this one!

Ta ta for now!


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