Many people are aware of the 1977 animated film adaptation of The Hobbit created by Rankin/Bass Productions, but it is a little known fact that the first animated film adaptation of The Hobbit, and of any of Tolkien’s works for that matter, was made in 1966. For decades The Hobbit (1966) was known only to a handful of people. It wasn’t until 2012 that the film was rediscovered and uploaded to youtube. It was produced by the late William Snyder and directed by animator Gene Deitch in the Czech Republic.
Mr. Snyder obtained the rights to the novel very cheaply from the Tolkien estate in 1964 before it ballooned in popularity. Snyder immediately set about producing a feature length film with the screenplay by Deitch.
A great many liberties were taken for the film, many of them from the instruction of Snyder. Some names were altered, the plot was changed, and a princess was added as a love interest for Bilbo. The director desired to create the film using "a retro visual effect, combining cel-animated figures over elaborate 3D model backgrounds." The film became more ambitious as more time was put into it.
Eventually the feature length project fell through. Since this was a few years before The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit boomed in popularity, no studio could be found who were willing to pick up the movie for the price that Snyder wanted to sell it for. The initial screenplay would never see the light of day.
From the ashes something else was yet to come. At a later date Snyder contacted Deitch with a seemingly impossible task. He instructed Deitch to make a 12 minute short and to bring it to New York City within 30 days. By this point Tolkien’s works had started to explode in popularity and Snyder wished to capitalize on it. When Snyder bought the rights in 1964, the contract stated that he had to have a film produced by June 30, 1966. If he didn’t produce something by that date then the rights would automatically revert back to the Tolkien Estate. Snyder noticed that the contract did not specify how long the film had to be. The plan was simple. Create a film adaptation as quickly and cheaply as possible so he could retain the rights long enough to sell them off for a large sum of money. "Snyder thought, "Why invest money, plus a year-and-a-half of work, when you can make money without all that sweat?"" The end of the 30 day time window Deitch was given was the June 30th deadline.
Gene Deitch quickly flew the film to America on June 29 and showed it to William Snyder who was pleased with the result. Then they had to have a public showing. Deitch went outside and stopped people on the sidewalk asking if they were willing to see a quick film preview for 10 cents. Deitch would actually give the people a dime which they would simply give back as their “payment.” After watching the film the confused viewers were asked to sign forms stating they had watched The Hobbit on June 31, 1966. Snyder later sold the rights off for about $100,000. None of the money would be seen by Deitch.
For decades this film was lost. The only members of the public to have seen it were the handful of people collected on the New York City streets. The film was rediscovered by Adam Snyder, William Snyder’s son, who found the film reel in his father’s film archive. The film was uploaded to the Rembrandt Films' YouTube channel. Rembrandt Films is the production company founded by William Snyder and is now operated by Adam.
Those who are interested in learning more about this film are encouraged to visit Gene Deitch's blog.
- RembrandtFilms. "First Animated Hobbit- directed by Gene Deitch, produced by Rembrandt Films. Online Video Clip. Youtube. Youtube, 12 Aug. 2013. Web. 14 Aug. 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBnVL1Y2src
- http://genedeitchcredits.com/roll-the-credits/40-william-l-snyder/ Retrieved August 11, 2015.