(Amazon seemed to have moved my audiobook review so here tis again.)
What can one say? This magnificent production would easily find a high place in any countdown of the greatest things done by the BBC.
Peter Jackson's films of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic novel may offer a bright fantasy of swords and sorcery for those so inclined, but at no time do they get to the heart of what makes that ever popular story so enduring: language. More specifically, the English language. For this radio adaptation is second only to the novel itself: indeed, according to the liner notes, many who couldn't stay with the novel were gripped by the tale as it unfolded, week after week, on BBC radio.
Truly faithful to the story and the language of the tale, the great glory of this adaptation is to be found in its voices, its character acting, as well as in its music, which is in the best English pastoral tradition - though wisely with redolences of early music ballads and Renaissance church music. That is another joy of this production: it is entirely, indubitably, essentially English. No phoney 'Oirish" twangings or mid-Atlantic accents, here.
All are superb, but special mention of course belongs to Ian Holm as Frodo, the now ever popular Bill Nighy as Sam, and especially, Peter Woodthorpe as Gollum (reprising the role he took in the unfortunate animated movie of the late '70s, and putting Andy Serkis' feeble effort for the Jackson movies firmly in the shade). The many timbres and colours of voice brought to the characterisation of this skulking psychopath is a cause for wonder and celebration. Ian Holm, like Frodo, fifty at the time of recording, conveys more gladness, more revulsion (just listen to his response to the eyes of Shelob), more mania and more anguish (his nightmares after the return home nearly brought a tear to my eye) than the too youthful Elijah Wood (Jackson's films) could ever have managed.
Bill Nighy is everything Sam should be, as is Michael Hordern as Gandalf and Robert Stephens as Aragorn, though I won't say that either are superior to William Squire or John Hurt (1978, dir. Bakshi). The clear but authoritative voices of the elves and the ladies were a particular joy. Sound effects are strikingly evocative, especially for things like the beasts of the Nazgul and the hissing of Shelob. There being little aural interest in battles, these are generally passed over, except for key incidents such as Eowyn's defence of the dying Theoden. I might have wished for more grandeur, more of a sense of space and a great gathering, for the ceremonies at the end, but at least the producers of this radio serialisation never go OTT.
As you might have guessed, I have a very low opinion of those massively popular, overlong and appallingly disrespectful LOTR films so recently made. "I now wish that no appendices had been promised!..those who enjoy the book as an 'heroic romance' only, and find 'unexplained vistas' part of the literary effect, will neglect the appendices, very properly" (Tolkien, 1955). The kind of nerds who bombarded the author for all kinds of irrelevant detail, about geography and botany and genealogies of kings and elves and everybody's horses and what not, are the kind of people who took to those boring and arrogant attempts to imprint on the mind the exact nature of Tolkien's Middle Earth, with zero respect for his language or the personalities of those enduring characters who make up the fellowship. Frodo most of all. If you are such a one, you may not wish to bother with this, but I hope not. The listening is closer in spirit to the act of reading, and characters and words can come alive in the voices of 'skilled' actors in a way that one's own voice in one's head never manages. Some beauties and some horrors are the more evocative for not being seen clearly. This purely aural experience will not dictate to you the beauty of Galadriel, nor the terror of the Balrog, leaving you free to imagine them as suits you best. The producer Jane Morgan and scriptwriters Brian Sibley and Michael Bakewell don't fall into the trap, unlike Peter Jackson, of treating LOTR as "some vast game" (Tolkien, ibid).
As a delightful bonus, the complete music is presented separately on the twelfth disc. The musical settings of the poems and lays is no mean achievement, especially when you remember that it is the verse that is so often maligned by those that scorn the novel. Listening in 1981 every week must have been a wonderful journey. Don't miss out now.
The BBC adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings. Praise it with great praise.