Friday, November 25, 2016

BBC Radio's Lord of the Rings

During a recent vacation, I beguiled parts of my drive to South Dakota, northern Minnesota, and back to Missouri by listening to the 1981 BBC Radio full-cast dramatization of The Lord of the Rings - the trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien that I have read several times in book form (and reviewed here), and once in a 1979 full-cast recording produced by U.S. National Public Radio (reviewed here), besides viewing not one but two film adaptations. The story needs no more reviewing, but I just wanted to comment on the BBC Radio version a bit, for the record.

BBC Radio's production features Ian Holm, who played hobbit Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's film trilogy of The Lord of the Rings, as Frodo Baggins. The character actor who played Bilbo in the BBC version was John Le Mesurier, whose voice sounded remarkably like the one Holm gave Bilbo in the films. My local public library furnished me with the "U.K. version," with Gerard Murphy as the narrator. Also in the cast was Bill Nighy, who played Rufus Scrimgeour in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I, in a spot-on performance as Sam Gamgee. A beautiful musical score was provided by film and opera composer Stephen Oliver, the late uncle of comedian John Oliver, and an entire disk of the set I borrowed was devoted to his music.

Of course, it was a condensed version of the trilogy, with many details left out and some of them changed to fit the format. But of all the adaptations I have seen and heard (after Tolkien's original), I strongly feel this was by far the best. It kept the most beautiful lines of dialogue and passages of description; it conveyed the dramatic power of the whole book; it included favorite things that no other adaptation has ever bothered with, such as the Houses of Healing scenes, and the palantir factor in Denethor's motives. It was definitely better, by a long road, than the NPR version, which (unlike this one) preserved the Tom Bombadil passage, but did so badly. And it devotes more time than any of the other versions to the part of the story that happens after Frodo and his companions return to the Shire.

In spite of cheesy sound effects and battle scenes that didn't quite gel, I recommend the BBC Radio version of LOTR before all other adaptations - including, I'm sorry to say, Peter Jackson's film trilogy. It's surprising at times to hear certain words put back into the mouths that originally spoke them, according to Tolkien's canonical text - like Glorfindel the elf, whose part was usurped by Arwen in Jackson's recension of The Fellowship of the Ring, and Treebeard the ent, who actually said the words Jackson has Galadriel say in the opening narration of the trilogy. The fact that the story allows you to forget who Arwen is until she shows up to wed Aragorn is another typical Tolkien touch, for better or worse. It delivers the delicious "Voice of Saruman" scene that was the reason Christopher Lee agreed to be in the films, though it ended up being deleted from the script.

The BBC Radio dramatization, produced and co-directed by Jane Morgan, structures the break between The Two Towers and The Return of the King so that Sam's realization that Frodo is still alive comes closer to being, as it should be, the cliff-hanger ending of the middle volume. And it features Peter Woodthorpe as Gollum, recreating his role from the 1978 animated movie by Ralph Bakshi, which is one of the few but significant counts on which Bakshi's film adaptation was better than Jackson's. Woodthorpe's Gollum is feral, crafty, and psychologically tormented all at the same time, to a degree that leaves Andy Serkis' latter-day portrayal far behind. The Bakshi and BBC Radio versions also share the casting of Michael Graham Cox as Boromir.

Though the actors are not the same, I appreciate both the Bakshi and BBC Radio versions' casting of Aragorn (because he sounded more mature, and could be more credibly described as one who "looks foul but feels fair" than the altogether beautiful Viggo Mortensen in Jackson's trilogy). I might also note that somehow or other, Michael Hordern's voice portrayal of Gandalf for BBC Radio could almost be dubbed over Ian McKellen's latter-day film portrayal without many people noticing. I thought Bernard Mayes was OK in the role in the NPR version, though his Tom Bombadil stank to high heaven (I might add, James Arrington was awful as Frodo in that version, which really killed it for me).

So, once again, BBC set the bar considerably higher than NPR's roughly contemporary radio play. As a complete adaptation of the trilogy, it achieves what Bakshi's blend of live action and animation could not (in case you missed it, Bakshi's film ends at the climax of the Battle for Helm's Deep in a cliff-hanger that was never followed up by the expected conclusion); and its cheap sound effects are easier for a present-day audience to forgive than Bakshi's primitive visual effects. As for Jackson's film trilogy, I maintain this audiobook version compares favorably, on the simple grounds that it does less violence to the source material, and is less patronizing to the audience. And finally, dammit, it had Ian Holm as Frodo. Born too soon to play him in Jackson's film, though not too late to channel Le Mesurier's portrayal of Bilbo (and though it might be argued Elijah Wood was born too late), Holm would have been perfect for the part in any format - as he proved in this production.

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