Considering why the original ‘Star Wars’ was such a hit and why the animated ‘Lord of the Rings’ was not

October 7, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 7, 2015

As I wrote earlier today:

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, a fantasy-adventure trilogy first printed in 1954–55, was a seminal publication. Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, an animated feature based on Tolkien’s work that was released in 1978, is an obscurity.

By contrast, I saw the original Star Wars during an extended first run in 1977, and I immediately fell in love with the movie: I instantly wanted to buy all of the Kenner toys based on George Lucas’s movie. For years, I bought and devoutly studied novelizations of the original trilogy of movies as well as original Star Wars novels. (In the latter category, Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye and Brian Daley’s trilogy of Han Solo adventures held prized places on my bookshelf and in my heart.)

So why did I cotton to Star Wars so thoroughly while The Lord of the Rings left me cold? Part of it was the quality of Bakshi’s movie — as discussed earlier, I generally found it to be adequate, whereas I thought Star Wars was out-and-out thrilling. But there are also major differences between the narratives woven by Tolkien and Lucas, and I wanted to explore those.

Star Wars and its first two sequels blended adventure with easy-to-follow intrigue. And frankly, if one couldn’t always track the narrative and thematic nuances, the situations and characters were archetypal enough that it didn’t matter that much. When something explodes in Star Wars, it is (a) exciting and (b) clear-cut what is happening and who the audience should want to prevail.

I mean, everybody recognizes that Darth Vader is a villain from the moment he walks onto the screen, and that would probably be true even without John Williams’s musical cues. The guy’s at least six feet tall, he wears a frightening mask and a cape, and his masked henchmen — clad from head to toe in armor that seems unnaturally white, even when seen in the strangely antiseptic corridor of the Rebel ship hijacked by Imperial forces — have just slaughtered a bunch of anxious average-looking guys. Luke Skywalker may have turned out to be overly angst-ridden and terribly whiny, but viewers knew right from the get-go that the moody young moisture farmer attired in simple garb made of earth-toned fabric was destined to be the hero of the piece.

(Take a moment to contrast the easy-to-follow plot of 1977’s A New Hope with the first Star Wars prequel, the widely loathed The Phantom Menace, where the story’s political and economic threads were difficult if not impossible to sort out.)

The Lord of the Rings is at least as much of a landmark achievement in the fantasy-adventure genre as the original Star Wars movie is in the space-opera niche. But Tolkien’s books are much denser than Lucas’s 1977 movie — and, I would argue, than all three entires in the first Star Wars trilogy taken collectively.

Yes, there are clearly recognizable heroes and villains in Tolkien’s saga: Gandalf, Frodo and Strider/Aragorn on one side of the ledger; the Nazgûl, the orcs and their masters, Saruman and Sauron, on the other. However, there is much more ambiguity present here. What to make of Bilbo Baggins, Frodo’s uncle and the clever, lovable hero of Tolkien’s prequel, The Hobbit? Bilbo removes himself from the story at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings; he is, in fact, told by Gandalf that he must not have any further involvement with the One Ring. Later, we see that it has corrupted him at the same time that it granted him extraordinarily long life and other good fortune*.

Further along, we learn that Gollum — once a regular Hobbit named Sméagol — is the ultimate example of a mortal that has been degraded by the ring. And yet Frodo Baggins and his loyal companion Sam must rely upon Gollum in what seems to be their all-but-hopeless quest to infiltrate the dark realm of Mordor and destroy the powerful magic ring by throwing it back into the volcano where it was originally forged.

The characters of Bilbo and Gollum alone contain more nuance than every individual in the original Star Wars film put together — even accounting for the fact that Han Solo is a murderous, self-serving rogue and Darth Vader (as Obi-Wan Kenobi fails to inform Luke and the audience) once used to be not only a heroic figure but Luke’s father.

All of which is to say that there are reasons why Tolkien’s books were best-sellers, and Lucas’s film a blockbuster, whereas Bakshi’s 1978 adaptation of the Tolkien trilogy was a relatively obscure movie — and, more to the point, that not all of those reasons lie with the animated film itself.


* I may be confusing some of Tolkien’s narrative with Peter Jackson’s film adaptation; if so, my apologies.

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