The BBC Lord of the Rings Radio Dramatization
A Masterpiece Worthy of Tolkien's Masterpiece
Millions have been captivated by JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, the magnificent sequel to The Hobbit. Animators, movie directors, and sound studios have attempted to bring Tolkien's work to life, some more or less successfully. Peter Jackson's films were a smashing success, showcasing the latest special effects.
Peter Jackson acknowledges a debt to the BBC's 13-hour radio play dramatized by Brian Sibley and Michael Bakewell in 1981. That production lacks the spectacular visuals of modern cinema. Nevertheless, I judge it the best dramatization of The Lord of the Rings to date. The voice acting is excellent. It remains faithful to Tolkien's story, yet employs skilled use of editing to abridge and simplify his massive book. Most of all, it has one great advantage over film: the emphasis on sound allows this production to give full voice to Tolkien's mastery of language.
I heartily recommend the BBC's radio drama of The Lord of the Rings, and the following in-depth review explains why.
(This article first posted on my own website, © 2001 E. Brundige)
The BBC Dramatization of the Lord of the Rings
Sibley and Bakewell's Editing and Adaptation
The Lord of the Rings is a difficult story to dramatize. For much of the tale, the main characters are separated, and we may not hear what's happening to the other characters for hundreds of pages. The book's epic length is an obstacle, as is the cast of thousands. New readers can get lost in the sea of names, backstory and overwhelming detail.
Bakewell and Sibley use several strategies to bring the book to life without gutting it.
First, they use strategic abridgment. Tom Bombadil, alas, is the main casualty, since the Bombadil sequence is lengthy and has no impact on the plot. No other important incidents are lost, however, although many are abbreviated. For example, the Scouring of the Shire is cut to a quick battle with the ruffians and the confrontation with Saruman, and the feast at the House of Elrond gets trimmed to a few sentences before moving to Bilbo's and Frodo's reunion in the Hall of Fire.
An interesting side effect of abridgment is that it highlights the remainder, like the fine art of gem-cutting. Arwen is barely visible in the original book, but her few appearances in the BBC production stand out. Her conversation with Frodo and Aragorn in the gardens of Minas Tirith feels like a long-awaited climax: at last, we hear the Lady speak of whom we have heard so much.
Second, Bakewell and Sibley rearrange the entire sequence of the narrative using the Tale of Years from the appendix as a backbone for their script. They skillfully interweave events in Rohan, Gondor, and the road to Mordor. Comparison between what's happening simultaneously to different characters is fascinating, and lets experienced readers of Tolkien enjoy the story from a fresh vantage point. Jackson is heavily indebted to the groundwork laid by Bakewell and Sibley in this area.
Finally, there's the inevitable loss of minor characters and the fusion of others. The Sons of Elrond vanish, but Halbarad and the Rangers come to Aragorn's aid in Rohan -- not an unexpected army of Elves who vanish as suddenly as they appear. Prince Imrahil, unfortunately, is another victim of cuts, with his best lines transferred to Ãomer.
Trimming characters helps listeners follow the story. But many old favorites like Gaffer Gamgee, Farmer Maggot, Nob, Glorfindel, Gamling and Ioreth put in an appearance -- and in contrast to Jackson's films, they speak the lines Tolkien wrote for them.
Here's a few brief excerpts to give you a sense of how the BBC dramatization of The Lord of the Rings sticks to Tolkien where Jackson alters the story dramatically:
CLICK FOR SOUND SAMPLES
- Galadriel and Sam
Galadriel (Marian Diamond) shows Sam (William Nighy) her Mirror. In the films, Sam gets dropped from this sequence.
- Eomer and Saruman
Sound distortion is used to indicate magic: for example, the Voice of Saruman (Peter Howell).
- Legolas, Aragorn, Gimli
The Three Hunters (David Collings, Robert Stephens, Douglas Livingstone) confer at the Hornburg.
Faramir (Andrew Seear) shows his quality. Jackson made him a much weaker and more sinister figure.
- Frodo and Gollum
Following the book, Frodo (Ian Holm) is not easily duped by Gollum (Peter Woodthorpe).
Note: these brief excerpts are used according the UK Fair Dealing law for critique and reviews.
Cast and Voice Acting in the BBC Production of The Lord of the Rings
Ian Holm is an utterly convincing Frodo, conveying his sense of humor, his suffering, and his indomitable spirit. His supporting cast is for the most part of matching caliber.
Merry (Richard O'Callaghan) and Pippin (John McAndrew) are especially good. Merry's good sense and kind heart are both in evidence, and O'Callaghan manages to convey his touching bond with Théoden largely through tone of voice. Pippin sounds eager, young, but determined rather than simply comical. William Nighy's Sam has an appealling rustic accent, and his haunting song while searching for Frodo in Cirith Ungol is one of the most moving moments in this production. Michael Horden cannot match Ian McKellan's masterful performance, but he still sounds like the great wizard, and in fact their voices are quite similar. Douglas Livingstone's Gimli is a sturdy presence, occasionally humorous, but never mere comic relief. David Collings' slightly stuffy voice may disappoint some Legolas fans. Boromir lovers may also miss Sean Bean, but Michael Cox is plausible: a gruff, solid voice, somewhat blustering. Robert Stephens' Aragorn is perfect: strong and commanding, yet compassionate; his gently teasing conversation with Merry in the Houses of Healing is another high point. Some American listeners may be disconcerted by his upper-class British accent, which has a slight lisp.
Among the secondary characters, Arwen's actress is an interesting choice: she sounds like an older woman with an unusually clear voice; the combination gives her a regal and timeless quality. Peter Howell's voice of Saruman is chillingly faithful to Tolkien's description: arresting, hypnotic, almost musical, yet when he briefly loses his temper it becomes harsh and grating. Elin Jenkins' unflinching Éowyn meets the Nazgûl's eloquent taunts with heroic poise; one cannot imagine this shieldmaiden crawling on all fours and weeping over Théoden like a lost child. Peter Vaughan's Denethor is the epitome of a formidable, shrewd, yet shrewish older man -- instead of sounding mad from the start, one can hear him begin to unravel only after Faramir's grievous return. Jack May as Théoden truly sounds like a proud king of seventy years fighting the physical frailties of old age and striving to make a noble end to his life. About the only cast member I can't praise to the skies is Marian Diamond as Galadriel. I was extremely impressed with her strong performance before I saw the films, but Cate Blanchett's Galadriel overpowers hers.
Faithfulness to Tolkien
One of the chief criticisms of Peter Jackson's films is that they omit or profoundly alter important parts of the story, while introducing many new scenes and plot twists. Bakewell and Sibley do no such thing. Tolkien's language is left intact in the mouths of the proper characters; the most noticeable additions to the dialogue are stage directions like "draw your sword, Sam!" to help listeners visualize actions. Here are some of the key events omitted by the movies but present in the radio play:
- After their conspiracy is "unmasked," Merry and Pippin help Frodo set out from Crickhollow
- Butterbur delivers Gandalf's letter and provides them with Bill the Pony
- Glorfindel aids them on the way to Rivendell
- Frodo defies the Nine at the Fords of Bruinen
- Aragorn brings Andúril from Rivendell and intends from the start to become king
- Elrond never scorns Men (his own ancestors) or tries to prevent his daughter's marriage; he only insists Aragorn earn it by becoming king
- Boromir comes to Rivendell for counsel, not for the Ring, which Denethor doesn't know about
- Gandalf (not Frodo) insists on the Moria route
- The Ents choose to march on Isengard at the Entmoot; they are not tricked into it
- Théoden is not under a physical enchantment, only a malaise of spirit; once Gandalf rouses him, he is a competent and decisive king
- Éomer fights side by side with Aragorn at Helms' Deep; Erkenbrand saves the day
- The Rangers accompany Aragorn on the Paths of the Dead and fight at Pelargir; he leads Men, not ghosts, to deliver Minas Tirith
- Faramir resists the Ring's pull and helps Frodo in Ithilien
- Gandalf and Pippin find Denethor sanely ordering Gondor's defenses when they arrive; he has already lit the Beacons
- Gandalf confronts the Lord of the Nazgûl at the gates of Minas Tirith and does not quail
- Denethor cracks only after Faramir's wounding; he reveals the Palantír to Gandalf
- Frodo and Sam face Shelob together, and Frodo never trusts Gollum over Sam
- Aragorn masters the Mouth of Sauron with his gaze, and doesn't demean himself by slaying a herald
- Faramir presides over the Coronation as Steward
- Frodo and his companions confront "Sharkey" at Bag-End
In short, none of those moments that show the worth of these characters are lost. Jackson claimed he could not tell the story as Tolkien wrote it, because audiences would not be able to accept or understand it. Sibley and Bakewell have more faith.
While the BBC dramatisation lacks the richness of a big-screen motion picture's soundtrack, there is much to recommend the music in this production. For one thing, since it's a radio play, it takes full advantage of Tolkien's poetry, putting many of the songs to music. "The road goes ever on," "Upon the hearth," "To Rivendell," "Gil-Galad was an Elven king," "In western lands," and "Sing all ye people" are all there, plus many more. Frodo's little accident in the Prancing Pony happens while he's reciting "There is an inn, a merry old inn," and the Ents march forth to war with a booming, stirring rendition of "To Isengard." When Boromir reports his dream at the Council of Elrond, an English boy's choir singer does a spine-tingling job of singing the "remote but clear" notes of "Seek for the Sword that was broken." Besides those which have been put to music, several other poems are recited; Douglas Livingstone does a splendid job with Gimli's Khazad-dûm poem.
The sound effects are a little more hit or miss. Decades of computer-generated sound effects have spoiled the modern ear. The ringing of swords and horses' hooves work well enough, but orc-voices sound somewhat comical, and the burbling, distorted screeches of Shelob are a little too grating. One other problem is that this production usually presents scenes as if one were a bystander to the action, so it's occasionally unclear what's happening. The Fall of Barad-dûr is the worst instance: it's not entirely clear what's happening when the Ring goes into the fire. Other times, dialogue added to help paint the scene seems a little contrived: Frodo's "the river is rising! I'm falling, help me!" at the Fords of Bruinen sounds a bit forced. Tolkien purists will also wince at mispronunciations in the Elvish -- used more sparingly than in the films, since none is invented. However, these problems are usually too minor to notice.
Many times, the sound effects do a magnificent job: it is no small feat to present the entire siege of Helm's Deep in a coherent manner merely through the sounds of battle and Tolkien's dialogue!
Note: see the UK Fair Dealing law for critique and reviews.
- Merry, Pippin, Ents
Short snippet of the March of the Ents.
Innovations and Notable Moments: The Hall of Fire
Despite Bakewell's and Sibley's adherance to the original text, there are innovations in this production. One clever move is to slip the gist of the Tale of Arwen and Aragorn into Bilbo's conversation with Frodo in the Hall of Fire:
- BILBO: Let's have some real news. Tell me... tell me all about the Shire!
- FRODO: Well, it's-- it's so difficult to know where to begin. I -- oh, but here's Strider!
- BILBO: Strider? I've never heard him called that before. He's
- ARAGORN: They call me Strider in Bree, and that is how I was introduced to him. But are you fully recovered, Frodo? Gandalf told me you were on your feet again.
- FRODO: Yes. A little thinner, perhaps, but my arm is healed!
- BILBO: Where have you been, my friend? Why weren't you at the feast?
- ARAGORN: Often I have to put mirth aside. There were tidings out of the wild that concerned me.
- BILBO: The Lady Arwen was there.
- ARAGORN: So I have been told! Now that I have seen Frodo's recovery with my own eyes, I am going to find her. Until tomorrow, at the Great Council!
- FRODO: Yes. [sound of footsteps going away] Bilbo, why do you call him Dúnadan?
- Dúnadan. I thought you knew enough Elvish at least to know "Man of the West," Númenorean!
- FRODO: Ah. And Arwen, who is she?
- BILBO: The Lady Arwen. Well surely you saw her at the feast?
- FRODO: There was one lady. She sat alone, under a great canopy. I'd never believed such loveliness could exist on earth. And she...?
- BILBO: She is loved by Aragorn.
- FRODO: I see! But who is she?
- BILBO: She is the daughter of Elrond and Celebrían. And like all of her line she has the life of Eldar. For many hundred years she dwelt in Lórien in contentment before she met Aragorn -- or Strider, as you call him. To marry him she must renounce her immortality. And her father has decreed that she shall not be the bride of any man less than King of both Gondor and Arnor.
- FRODO: Strider, become a king!
- BILBO: It's not so remote a possibility as you might imagine.
This is as far as the radio play ever deviates from the book, and even experienced Tolkien readers might not notice the difference.
Innovations and Notable Moments: Some Closing Remarks
"But wait!" some shrewd listeners will say. "What about the scene between Saruman and the Black Riders right after Gandalf flees Orthanc? That's not in the book!"
Quite right. That entire scene is lifted from Tolkien's writing: nearly every word may be found on p. 355 of "The Hunt for the Ring" in Unfinished Tales. In the radio play, it helps explain how the Riders found the Shire, and illustrates the peril on Frodo's heels before he is aware of it.
One other piece of Tolkien's later writings has been pressed into service as a fitting ending for the saga: the poem that Tolkien himself titled "Bilbo's Last Song," recited by Bilbo as the ship moves out of the harbor. Nevertheless, "Well, I'm back" is the last line, as it should be.
The Muster of Rohan and the Battle of the Pelennor Fields are also treated in a highly original fashion. Starting with "Forth rode the king, fear behind him / fate before him," a musical arrangement of the Mounds of Mundberg is used to stitch together vignettes, so that scenes can jump quickly from ThÃ©oden's charge to Ãowyn's fight with the NazgÃ»l to Denethor's madness to the arrival of the Black Ships. The sequence ends with the grandly somber lines, "Death in the morning and at day's ending / lords took and lowly...red fell the dew in Rammas Echor." For those incidents that the book's ballad did not cover, Sibley and Bakewell do an ingenious job of combing the original text for lines that can be adapted to the same meter. For example, "crashed to the ground with the king crushed beneath him" maps perfectly to "where long he had feasted ere the light faded."
Such is the nature of the most dramatic changes and deviations made to cram this lengthy book into a set of thirteen 1-hour episodes. If Tolkien lovers can stomach the above-mentioned alterations, then they should definitely add this unique adaptation of The Lord of the Rings to their collection.
Lord of the Rings Showdown: Choose Your Favorite Version!
Which dramatization of The Lord of the Rings is the best?
© 2007 Ellen Brundige