The Lord of the Rings: when Tolkien himself wrote the episodes of an adaptation -…

Scripts annotated by JRR Tolkien have been found, relating to the first adaptation of his “Lord of the Rings” novels for radio broadcast in the 1950s.

In 1955, the British JRR Tolkienauthor of novels The Lord of the Ringswas contacted by a certain Terence Tiller (poet and radio producer) who wanted to adapt his three works for BBC Radio.

The Lord of the Rings represents more than 700 pages, and tells, oversimplified, the story of a group of adventurers (the “Fellowship of the Ring”) setting out on a mission to destroy an evil magic ring and prevent it from fall back into the hands of the dark lord.

Surprised by Tiller’s proposal, Tolkien was not at all convinced by the feasibility of the project, writing to the producer in 1956:

Here is a book unsuited to a dramatic or semi-dramatic portage. If a [adaptation] is tempted, she must have space, lots of space.

Indeed, the radio adaptation starts over a period of fairly short episodes and with only the sound to describe everything, the author is doubtful in the face of a solely oral representation of his work:

(…) Personally, I think it requires more of an old art form like ‘mime’, rather than something more dramatic, which results in too much emphasis on dialogue (and removes most of the decor). (…) I think your job is going to be very difficult.

However, once the project was launched, Tolkien invested himself as a consultant on the adaptation of Two towers and Return of the King, answering questions from Tiller about the accents, costume and attitude of the Nazgûl, but not only! Indeed, in May 2022, Stuart Lee, archivist at Oxford and specialist in Lord of the Ringsfound the scenarios of this radio adaptation, and discovered that they were annotated by Tolkien himself!

The lord of the rings: when tolkien himself wrote the episodes of an adaptation -...
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The Nazgûl of Peter Jackson’s films

These scenarios are a real nugget in the history of Middle-earth, because the radio adaptation, broadcast in 1956, was not preserved in the archives of the BBC. Given the worldwide success of the trilogy today, this may seem inconceivable, but it must be remembered that at the time, the books had just been released (1954-1955) and had not yet had international success.

The scripts found by Stuart Lee are therefore our only trace of this adaptation, narrated by Derek Hart.

Despite his involvement, Tolkien remains bitter about this version of his books, condensed into 12 episodes of 30 to 45 minutes. Between the mistakes made by Tiller (in particular making Old Man-Willow an “ally of Mordor”) and a result that he judges “idiot” in one of his lettersTolkien refuses several proposals for adaptation thereafter, in particular in cartoon.

The lord of the rings: when tolkien himself wrote the episodes of an adaptation -...
Warner Bros.

The Fellowship of the Ring

Another better-known radio version appeared in 1981, eight years after Tolkien’s death. Unlike the 1955 version, the 1981 version has been kept and can still be listened to in 13 episodes of one hour. We discover in particular that Frodo is played by… Ian Holmwho will play Bilbo in the film trilogy of peter jackson.

The annotated scenarios are now available in this book, The Great Tales Never End: Essays in Memory of Christopher Tolkienavailable since June but only in Shakespeare’s language at the time of writing.

What would Tolkien have thought of Peter Jackson’s version and how would he have put up with all of his false connections?!

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