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First published January 1, 1987
Review of the BBC dramatized audio version:
While on a massive road trip this summer, our family listened to the BBC's dramatized audio edition of The Lord of the Rings. It was first produced in 1981, airing on BBC Radio 4 in 26 half-hour episodes. CD releases, including the 1999 reissue that we listened to, have remixed the content into 13 hour-long episodes. Though I've been a fan of Tolkien for most of my life life, and I've heard good things about this dramatized version, this was my first time listening to it--and I loved it. The two obvious questions are how it compares to the original books, and how it compares to Peter Jackson's film versions. Predictably, I'll say that it's not as good as reading the books, but it's a lot better than the movies. There's no substitute for immersing oneself in Tolkien's creation through savoring the words on the page. However, the audio drama did an excellent job of presenting the story, and even drawing out some aspects of it that I might not think about so much in my own personal readings. The dramatized version follows the book very closely--though still, sadly, leaving out Tom Bombadil, the barrow-wights, and various other details that I've grown fond of in the books.
The comparison to Jackson's movie trilogy: At the time the films were released in theaters (can it really be almost 14 years ago now?), I loved them. I saw each movie multiple times in the theater, and on DVD, and on extended edition DVD, and even once at an all-night marathon in a theater. I recently re-watched the trilogy with my two oldest sons, and I find it hard to remember how I liked the movies so much a decade ago. They haven't aged well, and the clunky expositional speeches and odd changes from the books are more annoying to me now than they were then. The BBC audio version tells the story much better in a number of ways. With 13 hours, there is time for the slower, introspective moments that are so important in the story. The words, mostly straight from Tolkien, convey the weight of Middle-Earth history in a way that I find more satisfying than the visual spectacle and attention to detail from the films.
What do the movies do better than the audio drama? The big battle scenes are of course much more exciting in the purely visual format of film; the audio drama minimizes the time spent on the battles, because just the sounds without the visuals don't really work so well. The other thing I continue to love about the movies is Howard Shore's score, which will always be the way I hear The Lord of the Rings musically. The music in the BBC production is fine, and some of the songs are very appropriate to the story, but overall the music is not one of the standouts of the production.
A great script, such as adaptor Brian Sibley has crafted, requires really good voice acting, and this production is excellent. Ian Holm plays Frodo, which is initially jarring since he played Bilbo in the films; but I quickly got over that and thoroughly enjoyed his performance. The way he portrays Frodo's transformation as the ring takes over, especially as he nears Mount Doom, is astounding. I liked this take on Frodo much better than Elijah Wood's performance in the movies. Most of Holm's scenes also feature Bill Nighy as Sam, and Nighy--one of my favorite actors--is amazing as Sam. He really makes the story into the story of Sam's development, which is a wonderful way to understand The Lord of the Rings. When the story ends with Sam's return to the Shire, it makes perfect, poignant sense. The supporting cast is great. The listener feels that this is a cast that is putting their full creative energy into the performance--not simply reading the lines. (In fact, so many of the voices in this production are so similar to the way Jackson directed the films, it sometimes feels almost like Jackson was plagiarizing the BBC audio drama.) The last episode had me in tears (as the end of The Lord of the Rings always does), reaching into the depths of what Tolkien was writing about--beauty, sacrifice, sadness, duty, truth, .
In short: I loved the BBC audio drama of The Lord of the Rings, and will very likely listen to it regularly, in addition to my regular read-throughs of the books. I highly recommend it to Tolkien fans with the patience to spend some hours listening to Tolkien's world. A note for anyone considering listening to this in the car: the CDs are mixed rather softly, and sometimes unevenly. We had to turn the volume in the minivan up a bit louder than usual for other CDs, and there is a lot of up and down in the volume of the production, so that we sometimes had to adjust the volume in the middle of an episode (and were then sometimes startled by a very loud sound effect or voice!). Also, we felt that the hour length of episodes was a bit long (though some episodes went by very quickly). Half-hour segments, as originally broadcast, might have been a better way to break up the story.