Chapter 22: Hobbit-alized
We were first with this, but it became our most ignominious and unnecessary failure. Please weep with me as you read this chapter. I coulda bin a contendah…
Snyder did come up with some amazing things. In 1964, before anyone but a few obscure Brit kids ever heard of it, Bill handed me a faded little 1937 children's book named, The Hobbit. He recognized it was a great story, and he obtained the film rights to it and the other works by a fusty old English philologist, named John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Snyder's rights extended to June 30, 1966. Just enough time. He set me to the task of making The Hobbit into a feature-length animated movie.
After reading the book, I caught the fever, and intensively began working up a screenplay. My dear old friend Bill Bernal, the same man who led me to UPA, and who later came to The Jam Handy Organization with me, flew to Prague to collaborate. The great sweep of the adventure, the fabled landscapes, and the treasury of fantasy characters, made the story a natural for animation. Although the first book of the later trilogy, The Lord of The Rings, was published in 1954, we did yet not know of it. The Tolkien craze was still a few years in the future. Snyder had happened onto something of major value, and he had gotten the rights for peanuts!
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, 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 of The Rings into my script so as to logically allow for a sequel. First Bill Bernal, and then I worked on the script for most of a year.
In January, 1966 Snyder asked Zdenka and me to come to America to do a presentation to 20th Century-Fox. It would be Zdenka's first trip to America, and I wanted her to get the feel of the distance, so I decided we should go by ship. The six-day crossing would also give me time to do the last-minute rewrites. There were only typewriters in those days, but I did achieve a sort of high-tech breakthrough: The rocking of the ship gave me automatic carriage returns on almost every line!
Before the time of CGI, I had proposed an impressive visual effect, combining cel-animated figures over elaborate 3D model backgrounds. I know that Max Fleisher had once tried something like it, but I intended to take the idea to greater heights and atmosphere. I even attached a special name to the technique: "ImagiMation!" I was thinking big!
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.
But the worst was yet to come. Months later, when I was back in Prague working on some other filler projects, Snyder managed to get a phone call through to Zdenka's office. (Phoning to Prague in those days was like trying to contact Uranus.) He had a preposterous order for me: Make a one-reel version of The Hobbit, and bring it to New York within 30 days! I thought he had been smoking something wilder than his contraband Cuban cigars. Not possible!