Why Tolkien never wanted Disney to make The Lord of the Rings

Why Tolkien never wanted Disney to make The Lord of the Rings
Why Tolkien never wanted Disney to make The Lord of the Rings

For more than half a century, which is said to be early, Disney has tried to make its own versions of The Lord of the Rings both through films shot with live actors and animation. Throughout that time, very few have managed to achieve success and much less resemble the novels of JRR Tolkien. The explanation? Fundamentally, not all works can receive a “Disney treatment.” And the first to see it was Tolkien himself.

It’s not that Middle Earth doesn’t lend itself to being brought to cartoons. Or to cinema and television. Quite the opposite: Bilbo Baggins’ Little Big Adventure was adapted in 1966 in JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and ten years later received a second animated version by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass. Which will dare years later with their own version for all audiences of The Return of the King. Not to mention Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings. So, What was Tolkien referring to?

The short answer is that Tolkien didn’t like how things were done at Disney. In fact, just two years before the first animated film of The Hobbitin 1964, the British author openly responded to his readers through his letters about Disney films.

“[…] I recognize talent [de Disney], but it has always seemed hopelessly corrupted to me. Although there are admirable or charming passages in most of the “movies” produced from his studios, the effect of all of them on me is repugnant. Some make me repulsive […]

Furthermore, one of the aspects that Tolkien most criticized about Disney was that everything had a commercial basis, stating that he was not so poor as to consider a proposal from the animation studios of the most famous mouse in the world. Something that he remembered informally, but also in front of his partners.

What did Tolkien think of Disney-style fairy tales?

Tolkien’s problem with the way Disney did things was not only commercial, that too, but lay in deeper elements. The true story of Cinderella has elements that do not fit with what one expects from a Disney film. And the same applies to darker turns implied in Snow White or Sleeping Beauty.

Carlo Collodi’s own Pinocchio is a repellent child, without going any further. And he is constantly punished for it. So in the end the work was being completely adulterated and the message was sweetened not only for children or the general public, but also for its authors and the meaning of his work. Elements that did not please the creator of Middle Earth at all.

“It is true that in recent times fairy tales are often written or “adapted” for children. But so can music, verse, novels, history or scientific manuals. It is a dangerous process, even when it is necessary .

…In the same way, a beautiful table, a good painting, or a useful machine (such as a microscope) would be disfigured or broken if left unattended for a long time in a classroom. Fairy tales banished in this way, separated from a full adult art, would end up ruined; in fact, to the extent that they have been banished, they have been ruined.”

Hobbit Animation

New cover of The Hobbit (1977) created for its remastered re-release

Was Tolkien wrong? Well, if we base ourselves on more modern productions, much later than the author and closer in time, we find that the end of The Little Mermaid has little to do with the cruel ending written by Hans Christian Andersen. Frozen is actually a very different adaptation of The queen of the snow, by the same Danish author, in which the work is given a complete twist. And between the two, a Hunchback of Notre Dame who possibly would have made a disapproving grimace at Victor Hugo. Or not.

In any case, the classic Mouse House films are being given a new varnish that, in some cases, dares to move further away from the film and the original visions. And not to stick more to the works on which they are based.

That does not mean that Tolkien was closed to making concessions about his work. He was protective of her, and his son Christopher Tolkien was too for years. But he was clear about one thing: if someone was not qualified to adapt his work to the general public or a medium such as animated film, that was Disney.

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…And Disney was banned from Middle Earth

Tolkien granted the rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the rings to United Artists in 1968. However, any producers interested in adapting his works for film had a warning: Disney is left out. And the same applies to any partner or subsidiary of yours. In Letters From JRR Tolkien it was clear that anything coming from or influenced by the Disney studios was prohibited.

And not only that, but he even criticized a German edition of the Hobbit (illustrated by Horus Engels, for showing Bilbo and the wizard Gandalf on the cover looking very similar to Disney drawings. Among other reasons, because their world was not Disney’s.

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Screenshot 5258

Illustration from The Hobbit by Richard “Horus” Engels, made for the 1957 German edition

The paradox here is that the current Disney owns certain rights to Tolkien’s legacy. In part, given its expansion as a company and the inheritance received. In 1996 Disney acquired the American television network ABC, on which the animated feature film of The return of the King from directors Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass.

But the thing goes further: in 2019 the film Tolkien was released from Fox Searchlight Pictures, a biopic starring Nicholas Hoult and based on the youth of JRR Tolkien himself. Narrating his youth, his romance with his future wife, and a review of his life up to a very specific moment: the exact moment he began to write the first words of The Hobbit. A movie that can be seen today from Disney Plus.

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Screenshot 5259

The world imagined by Tolkien It is not bounded nor is it hermetically closed.. Precisely for this reason it has had an enormous influence on entire generations of readers, viewers and even video game lovers.

Promoting imagination and genuine love for fantasy from its most fanciful stories starring characters small in size, but enormous in value; to the depth and dedication with which she worked to build that fantasy world from the ground up. Including everything from its maps to the languages ​​that were spoken in it.

In the fantasy world of Middle Earth there is room for endless adventures. But outside of it, there is only one rule: Disney and what it represents cannot be touched. Or at least, that was Tolkien’s will. Which opens another debate: how much have the studios that today own the rights to adapt their books learned from Disney?

In VidaExtra | I debated again about why Legolas from The Lord of the Rings doesn’t sink into the snow, but this time he was prepared

In VidaExtra | “I didn’t become an actor for this”: Ian McKellen, Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, burst into tears during the filming of The Hobbit

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