Listener's Guide to Middle-Earth
With the December premiere of THE RETURN OF THE KING, the last of three epic film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's famed LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, movie fans and Tolkien aficionados alike will be able to see for themselves how Hollywood translates the author's singular vision to the big screen. However, audiobook enthusiasts have for years enjoyed solid and entertaining adaptations of Tolkien's famous works. We'll suggest the audio adaptations that a Tolkien purist would probably enjoy most and note the audios that are geared more for the casual listener who just wants to enjoy an engaging, relaxed introduction to the wonders of Middle-earth.
Let's address two basic questions: What is THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and what audios would be most useful and enjoyable for those who want to experience a bit of the original Tolkien mythology before seeing the film adaptation this holiday season?
First, THE LORD OF THE RINGS is Oxford University Professor J.R.R. Tolkien's most famous work of fiction, written during the years of WWII, published in the 1950s, and first noticed in a major way on college campuses in the 1960s. The title THE LORD OF THE RINGS collectively refers to the three works that make up the trilogy: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, THE TWO TOWERS, and THE RETURN OF THE KING. Prior to THE LORD OF THE RINGS, Tolkien wrote THE HOBBIT, which was his first major venture into fantasy fiction. The novel features a separate and complete story, but many of the characters central to the trilogy, such as Bilbo Baggins and the great wizard Gandalf, first appear in THE HOBBIT.
If you're excited about THE LORD OF THE RINGS movies but want a bit of grounding in Tolkien, what do you do? Well, you don't need to go crazy and gather up a pile of audiobooks encompassing everything Tolkien has ever written. In fact, simply picking up a recording of THE HOBBIT will probably do the trick nicely. For starters, you will probably enjoy the movies a bit more if you go into it with this earlier story under your belt. Pointedly, the ominous Ring of Power itself, which hero and villain alike fight over during the entire course of the trilogy, first surfaces in this important prelude.
What audio version of THE HOBBIT should one seek out? There's an excellent 7-cassette unabridged Recorded Books production produced in the early 1990s, performed with grit and enthusiasm by British stage actor Rob Inglis. This well-regarded, engaging performance, available for years as a rental as well as in libraries, has now been repackaged in a new retail edition on cassette and CD. If, on the other hand, you enjoy multi-voiced adaptations, BBC Radio's full-cast dramatization, laced with music and sound effects, is a good bet. Every bookstore in America always seems to have a copy or two on its shelves.
Of course, one doesn't have to stop with THE HOBBIT. Audiophiles who don't need to be surprised by the events of the LORD OF THE RINGS movies and want to first familiarize themselves with Tolkien's text before seeing the story on the big screen can't go wrong by picking up Recorded Books's unabridged production of FELLOWSHIP, also performed by Rob Inglis, and available, too, in a new retail cassette or CD edition. Inglis's narration is initially whimsical, then slowly takes on an ominous air, as the story quickly adopts the darkly mystical tone that will come to dominate the entire trilogy. Another popular choice is the BBC Radio full-cast adaptation, which until recently has only been available as one unit adapting the entire trilogy. Now, with the advent of the RINGS movies, the BBC's latest full cast-adaptation of Tolkien's epic can be purchased either in a CD or cassette package dramatizing the entire trilogy, or as single units adapting the individual books.
The BBC Radio adaptations might be the way to go for some listeners, even purists who tend to prefer single-voice unabridged readings. Why? Simply put, Tolkien tends to, well . . . go on about things, such as anthropological details about the various races and cultures of Middle-earth, their respective legends and customs, and all manner of esoterica about his mythological world. Most Tolkien aficionados revel in these details, but others may hear themselves occasionally saying to themselves, "Oh, just get on with the story!" As successful as the Rob Inglis unabridged Recorded Books productions may be, such individuals may appreciate the judicious blue pencil applied to the proceedings in the BBC adaptations, which are essentially colorful and fast-paced radio dramas aimed at a mass audience.
So now it's time for you to fortify yourself with a flagon of ale, grab your broadsword and shield, and steer your faithful steed down that mysterious fog-shrouded path. Middle-earth awaits!--Joseph P. Menta, Jr.
View J.R.R. Tolkien's Audiography
December 2001/January 2002
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