In 1966, animator Gene Deitch collaborated with Czech illustrator Adolf Born to create the very first film version of The Hobbit. This version — which took some sizable creative liberties with J.R.R. Tolkien's original story — never saw the light of day. What the heck happened?

As Deitch tells it, the story began his producer, William Snyder, briefly acquired the rights to The Hobbit in 1964. Deitch wished to film The Hobbit using cel-animated characters and 3D-modeled backgrounds, an ambitious procedure for the time. He also retooled Tolkien's original story extensively:

In 1964, before anyone but some 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 [...]

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!

After reading The Lord of The Rings, he further revised the script. After Deitch and Snyder were unable to find any takers among the studios, Deitch returned to his animation studio in Prague. The project languished until he received an impossible demand from Snyder — he had 30 days to deliver an animated adaptation of The Hobbit to New York City:

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!

The Tolkien estate had now been offered a fabulous sum for the rights, and Snyder's rights would expire in one month. They were already rubbing their hands together. But Snyder played his ace: to fulfill just the letter of the contract – to deliver a "full-color film" of THE HOBBIT by June 30th. All he had to do was to order me to destroy my own screenplay – all my previous year's work, and hoke up a super-condensed scenario on the order of a movie preview, (but still tell the entire basic story from beginning to end), and all within 12 minutes running time – one 35mm reel of film. Cheap. I had to get the artwork done, record voice and music, shoot it, edit it, and get it to a New York projection room on or before June 30th, 1966! I should have told him to shove it, but I was basically his slave at the time. It suddenly became an insane challenge.

After hastily screening the film for an audience in NYC (notes Dietch, "I handed each willing customer a dime, which they handed back") and securing their signatures ("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's rights to Tolkien's works were extended. He promptly sold them off and made $100,000. Dietch made doodlysquat.

As you can see above, Born's animation is charming, even if the production was comically rushed. The Hobbit wouldn't be animated again until a decade later, when Rankin/Bass created the enjoyably freaky TV movie version in 1977.

[Via Cartoon Brew]