In 1981 BBC Radio 4 produced an adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, comprising of twenty six episodes, each running thirty-minutes. The production remained very faithful to the books and although material had to be lost, it cannot be considered excessively abridged. The characterisations and dialogue were outstanding and music by Stephen Oliver was totally appropriate to 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 frontpage status in the UK’s most popular magazine, “The Radio Times”. 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 where 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, 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” allowing the actors to concentrates on plot, pace, characters, action and atmosphere. The attention to detail was extremely high with Christopher Tolkien approving the scripts, which lead to a authentic depiction Middle Earth.
Each of the original 26 episodes received two broadcasts per week which is still standard practice for many BBC radio serials even today. 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 sets which also included the soundtrack album. It is this version that have proven most popular and has been most commonly distributed and syndicated.
In 2002, due to the success of Peter Jackson’s movies, the BBC re-issued a revised version of the series, in three sets corresponding to the three original 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, I feel that arranging the material in this way actually spoils the drama, as the series was originally constructed to run the separate narratives after the breaking of the fellowship, simultaneously, rather than consecutively.
Tolkien’s work lends itself to radio very well, 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, the journey through the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs. However, the scouring of the Shire has been included, ending the tale correctly. The voice casting is inspired and the use of music and song sublime. Purists will enjoy the correct pronunciation of names and languages along with the innovative musical composition. The BBC Radiophonic workshop also provides some very good sound effects, imbuing the ring itself and the Nazgul with their own audio characteristics. There are several scenes that actually have their source in Tolkien’s “Unfinished Tales”, but are included to expedite the plot. For example, the Nazgul challenge Saruman over the whereabouts of Gandalf and later learn from Grima Wormtongue the location of the Shire. These additions help with the flow of the narrative.
This superb adaptation is great for both Tolkien fans and those who have yet to read the trilogy. It is a solid example of BBC Radio drama at its best. Although I enjoyed Peter Jackson’s movies, I feel that this adaptation, despite being a different medium, is the better of the two. Peter Woodthorpe’s Gollum is a far more sinister portrayal than Andy Serkis’s bi-polar performance. Also, Jack May’s King Theoden is far more sympathetic than Bernard Hill’s. Next to reading the source text, this is a great way to lose yourself in this classic story, allowing you to enjoy the outstanding vocal performances and conjure up your own depictions of the characters in your minds eye. I would go so far as to say that the BBC radio version is the definitive adaptation.