How did the world wind up with this twelve minute long version of The Hobbit, written and directed by Gene Deitch (creator of some of the most commercially successful Tom & Jerry cartoons), designed by Adolf Born (premiere Czech illustrator), storyboarded, drawn, cut together, narrated and scored in no more than a month?
Why, the unexpected success of The Lord of the Rings and the Tolkien estate’s initial ignorance of film contracts. Here’s the story:
In 1967, filmmaker William L. Snyder approached his collaborator Gene Deitch with a nearly unknown 1927 children’s novel called The Hobbit, informed him that he had acquired the film rights to the story, and that he’d like him to start working on a feature length adaptation of it. Charmed by the story, Deitch went to it with gusto:
We were well into the Hobbit screenplay when The Lord of The Rings came out in paperback editions. Having assumed there was only The Hobbit to contend with, and following Snyder’s wish, we had taken some liberties with the story that a few years later would be grounds for burning at the stake. For example, I had introduced a series of songs, changed some of the characters’ names, played loosely with the plot, and even created a girl character, a Princess no less, to go along on the quest, and to eventually overcome Bilbo Baggins’ bachelorhood! I could Hollywoodize as well as the next man…
When I did manage to get and read “THE LORD OF THE RINGS,” I realized I was dealing with something far more magnificent than what appeared in THE HOBBIT alone, and I then back-spaced elements from The Lord into my script so as to logically allow for a sequel.
Then, Snyder went to Hollywood to attempt to drum up some financial backing for the film, with Deitch following afterward.
By the time we arrived in New York, however, Snyder had already blown the deal by asking 20th for too much money. Tolkien’s name hadn’t yet reached them either. I had a fat script, but no other film companies were then interested. It was crushing. Even today, when I flip through my screenplay, and can almost see the fabulous scenes I had imagined, I feel a heavy regret.
That was all that Deitch heard of the project, until, some months later, Snyder called him up and requested that he immediately start work on a twelve minute version of the entire story… and have it read in a month
What had happened was that in the meantime, the Tolkien craze had exploded, and the value of the film rights reached outer space. Suddenly Bill had the possibility of getting a hefty profit without having to finance or produce anything!
Why invest money, plus a year-and-a-half of work, when you can make money without all that sweat? Not only had the Tolkien estate lawyers given Snyder the rights for peanuts, but in their ignorance of film terminology, they had left a million-dollar-loop-hole in the contract: It merely stated that in order to hold his option for THE LORD OF THE RINGS, Snyder had to “produce a full-color motion picture version” of THE HOBBIT by June 30th 1966. Please note: It did not say it had to be an animated movie, and it not say how long the film had to be!
All Snyder had to do to keep the rights, was fulfill his contract. If he had the rights, he could sell them to the highest bidder. Deitch assembled just about the best talent that could be considered in the circumstances, nixed almost all actual animation from the adaptation, sliced the story liberally, and managed to turn out what is actually a very cute short film… if an understandably loose interpretation of The Hobbit.
After a quick test screening – and Snyder was duly impressed – I ran downstairs and stopped people on the sidewalk, asking them if they would like to see a preview of a new animated film, for only 10¢ admission. I handed each willing customer a dime, which they handed back. After the screening, the few, puzzled audience members were asked to sign a paper stating that on this day of June 31, 1966, they had paid admission to see the full-color animated film, “THE HOBBIT!”
Snyder had the rights, and sold them shortly afterward for $100,000 in 1966 money.
For the rest of the story, including just how Deitch managed to do all this in a month, see his website.