The Lord of the Rings - BBC Radio Adaptation (1981)
In 1981 BBC Radio 4 produced an ambitious twenty six part adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, presenting Tolkien’s novel in thirty minute episodes. As with all adaptations some material had to be removed, but overall the BBC production was not excessively abridged and followed the plot faithfully. The characterisations and dialogue were extremely well realised and music by composer Stephen Oliver was very much in the style and idiom of Tolkien. This was a production of the highest pedigree and a major event for the BBC at the time. The series was heavily promoted, receiving front page status in The Radio Times, the UK’s premier TV guide and bestselling magazine. Although initial reviews were varied, the series immediately gained a cult following with fans trading episodes recorded on cassette tape. Word of mouth and substantial listening figures soon lead to revised opinions from the press, along with the immortal slogan "Radio is Hobbit 4-ming".
The trilogy was adapted for radio by the then novice writer Brian Sibley and veteran dramatist Michael Bakewell. It was directed by Jane Morgan and Penny Leicester, who were both experienced in radio dramas. The cast was made up of numerous fine British actors and voice artists such as Ian Holm as Frodo Baggins, John Le Mesurier as Bilbo Baggins and Sir Michael Horden as Gandalf. It also featured Robert Stephens as Aragorn and Peter Woodthorpe as Gollum. The adaptation excised a lot of the "excess fat" from the source text allowing the actors to concentrates on plot, character development and atmosphere. The attention to detail of this production was extremely high with Christopher Tolkien approving the scripts, leading to an authentic depiction Middle Earth. Great care was taken with pronunciation of words and the delivery of dialogue spoken in Elvish and the Black Speech.
Upon its initial release each of the original twenty six episodes received two broadcasts per week, this remains standard practice for many BBC radio serials. After a successful first run the twenty six part series was subsequently edited into thirteen hour-long episodes, restoring some dialogue originally cut for timing, re-arranging some scenes for dramatic impact and adding linking narration and music cues. The re-edited version was released on both cassette tape and CD boxsets during the eighties and nineties and included bonus material such as the Stephen Oliver’s complete soundtrack for the series. It is this version of the BBC adaptation that has proven most popular and has been most commonly distributed and syndicated over the years.
In 2002 due to the commercial success of Peter Jackson's cinematic adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, the BBC re-issued a revised version of their 1981 series. This was in three sets corresponding to the three original book volumes (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King). This version omitted the original episode divisions and included a new opening and closing narration recorded by Ian Holm. The re-edited version also included some additional music cues. However some fans felt that the re-arranging the material in this way actually spoilt the drama and the flow of the narrative. The original edit of the series was constructed so that the separate stories of Frodo and Sam ran in parallel to that of the rest of the Fellowship. It heightened the drama and afforded listeners a clearer understanding of the time line.
Tolkien's linear style proved to be a good fit for radio, with Sibley and Bakewell’s adaptation confidently staying true to the source text. Like Peter Jackson’s movies, some storylines have been cut, such as Tom Bombadil, along with the journey through the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs. However the Scouring of the Shire has been included, ensuring that Tolkien’s codicil is in place and therefore ending the tale correctly. One of the reasons this particular adaptation was so successful was due to the care and attention spent on the voice casting as well as the prudent use of music and song. Tolkien went to great pains to make both language and verse and integral part of Middle-earth and Sibley and Bakewell did not shy away from exploring this facet of the story. The BBC Radiophonic workshop was also effectively utilised providing pertinent sound effects. As a result both the One Ring and the Nazgul have their own distinct audio characteristics.
Because the production elected to intercut the separate storylines to facilitate a more familiar style of narrative, there was a requirement to bridge a few expository gaps. Writers Brian Sibley and Michael Bakewell tackled this issue in an innovative fashion, adapting text from Tolkien’s later book Unfinished Tales which subsequently explained these literary grey areas. For example during the Nazgul’s quest for the One Ring, they visit Isengard and challenge Saruman over the whereabouts of The Shire. He advises them to pursue Gandalf. However as they follow Mithrandir’s trail they chance upon Grima Wormtongue, who is hurrying to Isengard with a message. It is he that gives up the location of the Shire upon threat of death. These narrative additions help with the flow of the story without breaking the lore.
This exceptional adaptation still remains accessible to both established Tolkien fans and those who have yet to read the trilogy. It is also a quintessential example of BBC Radio drama at its best. Although I enjoyed Peter Jackson’s movies upon their initial release, I feel that the BBC radio adaptation, despite being a different medium, is the better of the two. Peter Woodthorpe’s Gollum is a far more nuanced and sinister portrayal than Andy Serkis’s bi-polar performance. Also Jack May’s King Theoden is far more sympathetic and regal than Bernard Hill’s. Apart from reading the source text, this is the next best way to lose oneself in Tolkien’s classic story. It allows the listener to enjoy the outstanding vocal performances while conjuring up their own depictions of the characters in their mind’s eye. Where Peter Jackson’s movies are very much his interpretation of Middle-earth, the BBC radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is a far more faithful and flexible dramatisation. Due to the medium of radio the strong story and characters are not overwhelmed or marginalised by spectacle.