A Review of The Fellowship of the Ring BBC Radio Dramatization

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To my delight, one week ago I received a review copy of the new release of the 1981 BBC Radio Dramatization of The Lord of the Rings.  I'd never had the opportunity to listen to this interpretation of Tolkien's story, but I'd heard some good things about it.  So, over the last week, I've taken the time to listen to this dramatization of The Fellowship of the Ring.  I'll move on and listen to The Two Towers right away, but I wanted to review each book on it's own, as this re-purposing of the original is divided into the original proper 3 books with starting and closing narrations for each.

The cover of the re-released
edition.The cover of the re-released edition.This radio drama was originally aired in 1981 in twenty-six half hour segments, twice a week for thirteen weeks. Thereafter, it was re-edited again into thirteen one hour segments.  In 2002 a slightly re-edited for CD version was released (along with the opening and closing narrations I mentioned above)... and now this same version has been re-released for the holiday season.

This dramatization also has two strong ties to Peter Jackson's films.  1) Ian Holm portrayed Frodo in this radio drama, and--as you know--performed Bilbo in Peter Jackson's films.  2) Peter Jackson gave this radio drama to members of his cast that had not read the books, so they could quickly familiarize themselves with the story--and at times, I think it really shows in this (more on that later).

Before I get into the review, know that I'll get into some details that will give away some parts of this dramatization that you may rather experience by listening first.  So if you want to enjoy the recording without any expectations, stop reading now and start listening...

The dramatization starts with a narrative told by Bilbo clearly after all the events of The Lord of the Rings have happened.  It's an interesting touch, but something I wasn't too thrilled with.  It makes the story a bit more distant, less personal, setting the stage for a retelling of past events.  Once the story starts it doesn't feel this way, but the beginning narrative was--to me--a bit distracting.

If you're familiar with both the book and the film, you'll find that the progression of events follows a storyline much more similar to the events of the films.  Events that were flashbacks in the books, were chronologically spaced in the radio drama--for instance, Gandalf goes to Bree and meets Butterbur, runs into Radagast, goes to Isengard, is imprisoned by Saruman, gets saved by Gwaihir, is deposited in Theoden's hall, and rides out on Shadowfax. That kind of retold chronology makes perfect sense in a dramatization, and it was quite well done.  It was especially nice to have scenes that weren't in the films dramatized here: Gandalf's brief scene with Radagast was something I wasn't expecting and flowed very well within the story.

You won't find all of the scenes that were cut out of the films put back here in this dramatization.  I was hoping for an earnest portrayal of Tom Bombadil and the following Barrow-wight scene, but even here those moments were left out of the script... perhaps one day we'll see an attempt to show Bombadil (but, honestly, I doubt anyone ever will--he's just too... well... too Tom Bombadil for so many folks).

The acting here is first rate.  We of course start with Ian Holm as Frodo. There is more of a grown-up nature to Frodo here than in the films, and it is welcome change, to be sure.  In addition, Bill Nighy (who most of us know as Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Carribean films) portrays Sam Gamgee in a clearly less doltish manner than Sean Astin did in the films.  Sam is still a devoted friend and helper to Frodo, but he doesn't come across as  simple-minded as you might expect. Michael Hornden plays a Gandalf that is very familiar to us.  As characters go in this dramatization, his is the most similar to the countepart in the films... warm but strong, compassionate but just, encouraging but direct... dare I say I liked his portrayal more than Ian McKellen's?

The one character that really stood out to me, though, was Aragorn (performed by Robert Stephens).  This Aragorn is not the reluctant King-to-come we've come to recognize in Peter Jackson's films.  This Aragorn has a destiny. This Aragorn is self-assured and confident.  This Aragorn speaks to the nobility of the Dunedain--he unmistakenly embraces his destiny. I've always been a bit disappointed with Peter Jackson's Aragorn, but THIS Aragorn I like. THIS is the noble Aragorn that JRR Tolkien created.

While the supporting cast of characters is mostly successful (Saruman in particular was set to a perfect tenor--fair but with a foul undercurrent, and clearly a wizard who could dupe King Theoden), a few were less than stellar.  Gollum, I thought, was a bit too big in voice and manners (though I'd wager Andy Serkis was inspired by this portrayal). Legolas, Gimli, and Boromir were fine, but that's about it.  Nothing memorable to set them apart. By far, though, the worst portrayal in the dramatization was Gwaihir.  Instead of an ancient eagle from Middle-earth's past, he seemed more a parakeet with abrupt words and curt phrases... it was simply bad.

Now, remember how I told you that Peter Jackson gave a copy of this radio drama to his cast if they hadn't read the book? Yes?  Well, I think it definitely shows.  Many of the characters in the film have similarities--if not downright sameness--to characters in this radio drama.  Gollum's scatterbrained mannerisms portrayed by Andy Serkis are definitely here. Gandalf's tone is nearly identical.  Galadriel's soft-spokenness is very apparent in both (though I certainly don't miss the "nuclear" Galadriel from the films).  And not only in the characters are there similarities, but the scripts are at times (outside of the book's written words) incredibly alike.  Yet, all in all, it's not a bad thing.  In fact, the similarities are all good similarites, so I certainly don't dock it any points for that.

While I've only listened to The Fellowship of the Ring, I'm certainly giving this dramatization a solid thumbs up.  I'll reserve final judgement until I've finished listening to all three books, but if the first book is any indication, the next two should be a pleasure.

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