My long-standing love of Lord of the Rings has been covered here multiple times. I’ve written thousands of words on both books and films, devoted countless hours to watching Peter Jackson’s magnum opus trilogy, and read and re-read the original novels at least yearly ever since 1999. You might call me a Tolkien nut.
And yet, my dread is growing greater and greater as the days go by. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies comes out this Wednesday, and that terrifies me beyond measure.
Like anybody else who cared about the original film trilogy, I was super excited at the prospect of getting to revisit Middle-Earth. I followed the casting with fevered interest, incredibly pleased that such notables as Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), and Andy Serkis (Gollum). The new characters were being filled by capable and exciting actors, particularly Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins) and Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield). The long, chaotic production inspired a little bit of trepidation – Guillermo Del Toro’s leaving the position of director, Peter Jackson returning to helm the films, and the expansion from two to three movies – but at the end of the day, I was happy just to return to the world which inspired so much joy and good feelings. I was sad that my mom couldn’t make the opening of the first movie, but we did get to watch the first teaser for An Unexpected Journey together, which stands as a beautiful memory.
When AUJ (I’ll abbreviate the three movies titles from here on out – Desolation of Smaug = DOS, etc.) was released, I was…less than stunned. Sure, there was an emotional rush seeing the movie. Sure, watching Ian McKellen return to the role of Gandalf the Grey, one of his finest cinematic roles, was beautiful to see. Sure, just being in Middle-Earth for three hours was everything I could have asked for. But the overall movie was…less. It was bloated and filled with characters that didn’t need to exist. There was an intense reliance upon CG for too many of the villains where, in the original trilogy, make-up and costumes had sufficed. The climactic trip through Goblin-Town was as if Hook and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom had a bastard child and stuffed it in a goblin hole. The centralizing of the conflict around Azog the Defiler (of the movie) was unnecessary, and the addition of chaotic chase sequences dragged out a lengthy running time.
Having said that, there were more parts that worked for me than not. Martin Freeman was a younger version of Ian Holm’s Bilbo, no easy feat to pull off. Moments such as the Dwarves’ lament for the lost kingdom of Erebor (music above) brought back memories of walking through Moria in Fellowship of the Ring. Walking back into Rivendell awoke the same feelings of awe that I had felt back in 2001. It was a less than perfect movie, certainly not as ideal as the original trilogy – but then again, what could be? The originals were some of the greatest movies of the past decade, pieces of cinema that resonate even today. I could forgive the lapses of the first movie.
The second grew harder to defend. It was, again, long. It was, again, over-reliant upon CGI villains. It was, again, over-reliant upon extended chase scenes that grew out of…well, nothing. The book was a slim, one-volume quest story – these movies had to be dragged out to meet the apparently necessary three-hour running time for each movie. It was about halfway through that I finally admitted to myself that perhaps two movies would have worked fine.
But I wanted more movies! I wanted as many treks to Middle Earth as I could get! I wanted more scenes of Bilbo and Smaug (voiced deliciously by Benedict Cumberbatch) riddling each other in the ultimate game of cat and mouse. I wanted to see the elven kingdom of Mirkwood. I wanted to watch Bilbo grapple with the early corruption of the ring. I really wanted to see Gandalf match wits with the Necromancer in Dol Guldur. I wanted more! More, damnit, more!
And we got more. And it turns out you can have too much of a good thing. Now there’s a new, three hour movie centered around two things happening: a dragon destroying Lake Town and five armies fighting a small-scale battle outside of the mountain. In the book, that’s literally all that happens. This movie will add in further story lines to flesh out a lengthy running time. Elf on dwarf love! Gandalf and Galadriel fight the Necromancer! More warg-riding! The resulting movies have, to say the least, not lived up to the high standards of the originals. That’s not a fault of the source material so much as a fault of trying to do too much with too little. It could be said that it was always going to be this way, that nothing could ever be as awesome as the original three, but that’s no excuse for throwing in the kitchen sink. I don’t pretend to have the answer to what would have even potentially met 1/10th of the expectation that these movies carried – their heaviest burden – but it’s safe to say that, for many fans, they have been rather underwhelming.
End of an Era
I’m dreading the upcoming movie because it’s probably going to be a lackluster, overstuffed, overwrought blockbuster. I’m also dreading it because it really means saying goodbye to Middle-Earth. It’s going to be hard for me to let these movies go. They’ve been a part of my life for so many years, it’s hard to even fathom a time when I didn’t have the movies to fall back upon.
When Fellowship of the Ring came out, I was pulled out of school by my mother, who took me to see it on opening day. I didn’t do midnight showings then, and I never have – if only because getting pulled out of school to see them multiple times because a family tradition. I saw FOTR twenty-eight times in theatres. (I still have the ticket stubs somewhere in my old room in Ohio.) I made it to The Two Towers fifteen times, and The Return of the King a mere six. I’ve seen them enough to memorize whole chunks of the films, sound effects and music cues included. While the Hobbit movies have been lackluster, I’ve patronized them a fair amount as well.
It’d be easy to say that a big part of my devotion is the tie to my family, specifically my mother. We would regularly discuss passages from the book, debating philosophical issues and themes like “Can Gollum truly find redemption?” or bantering about which changes from book to film excited and enraged us the most. The following scene was one of several moments in art and culture which helped get me through her death in 2012 – ten months shy of getting to see AUJ.
Because of my experiences (as with any cultural object we fall in love with), I’ve forged a deep emotional bond with these movies, one that has enriched my life and brought me joy over the years, as well as healing. The Hobbit movies, lackluster though they may be, are part of my love for the universe of Middle-Earth. They may be imperfect, but they serve as reminders that nothing can ever be perfect. They’re the awkward in-laws of my extended Tolkien family, always welcome with a place at my table. And I’m dreading the fact that I’m nearing the end of discovering new experiences within the Middle-Earth universe, barring Peter Jackson unwisely attempting to helm a Silmarillion adaptation (a largely un-filmable story), and I’m dreading the fact that the release of this movie brings me one step further from an experience which I shared so deeply with my mother.
It’s been hard to attend these most recent movies – the knowledge that they are lesser shadows of the first trilogy is further weighted by my not getting to share it with the person closest to me. However, I will still be there on opening day, and I will have a seat saved next to me, and I will love the ever-loving shit out of every awkward moment of the movie, because god damn it, I will be in Middle-Earth, and no matter what may happen, Peter Jackson has made that place a wonderful place to be, to travel through at any time, as I will decidedly do a hundred times over, revisiting there, and back again.
One last time.