In a cabinet of an entertainment center there was a trilogy. Not a low-budget, lazy, shoddy trilogy of b-quality and lackluster directing, nor yet a polished, well-planned, and executed set of films with consistent-worldbuilding: it was The Hobbit trilogy, and that means divisive fans.
The past couple years I have tried to have a yearly tradition of watching The Lord of the Rings (Extended Edition, of course) over my birthday weekend—a cozy movie a day, spaced evenly, and preferably with copious amounts of food and drink (just tea, thank you.) Recently married to a husband with a birthday only a handful of days apart, we had temporarily put off the fledgling tradition due to a packed schedule and over-commitment. Weekend after weekend passed of calendar engatements until at last we came to the crisis of current events.
Now quarantined at home for the week or so, we pondered how to spend our time. A satire-news site joked of it being the perfect time for an Extended Edition marathon and the idea stuck.
“...Do you want to do The Hobbit movies too?”
Despite being the one to think of it, the suggestion was given with a reticent and half-disgusted tone. Here were the films that were synonymous with the word disappointment. Here were the films I referenced with an empathetic nod to the Star Wars fans who lamented their latest theatrical release. Betrayed! Oh the pain! A stain upon all that is decent and wonderful within the fanbase of original film-fans and book-lovers alike!
Or, so I thought.
The softening had started a couple years ago talking to an older fellow-Tolkienite who, to my surprise, vented their disappointment with many aspects of the first Peter Jackson trilogy. I could see their point and empathized with expectation not meeting reality... but still! Those were the films that had helped me fall in love with the books! They were a cult classic! The ship that launched a generation of fans!
“At least those films were well-made.” I would argue and ultimately we would both come to the consensus as other fans of other bases would: “At least it’s not as bad as...”
Yet later on, (last year, actually) another blow was given to my unshakable deride of the films by Lindsay Ellis’ Youtube docuseries on the production of The Hobbit. The analysis was spot-on in terms of the gradual disappointment felt in each film and the things that just felt off which I initially questioned and later considered as a loss of childhood wonder.
The reality was more heartbreaking. Legal stickiness. A greedy and impatient studio, anxious on its next cash cow, losing faith in one director and hastily replacing it with another so as not to lose too much money already invested. Sketchy treatment of stunt and local work guilds. Hardworking cast and crew that were ignored or snubbed outright. And a deadline that kept being bumped forward instead of bumped back when it should at the loss of the first director. I highly recommend the videos because it’s clear the team did try their best against dragon-sized odds of a studio.
At that point, I now viewed the films as a tragedy made with the best intentions even if it fell through. I pondered a means of viewing the film to enjoy it more via a different lens. (Star Wars fans have machete order and the Darth Jar Jar theory—which is a pretty solid one that made the prequels more tolerable.)
The idea struck me after the first film.
I could imagine it as Bilbo debating whether or not to tell the “true” story or the entertaining one he was used to passing onto wee hobbit lads and lasses. Or perhaps he was trying to boastfully retell the tale at the Hall of Fire to elves. Even book-wise it’s fairly credible. He lived in Rivendell for years and was teased for having the audacity to tell the tale of Eärendil the Mariner and had a knack for translating old elvish epics. Perhaps the pressure of writing an entertaining tale is what made him prefer poetry instead. And Merry (in the books) stated he knew Bilbo had several versions of his adventure and had only found out “the truth” by sneaking a glimpse of Bilbo’s book.
The soft-glossy CGI (of almost everything in general) could be viewed as nostalgic day-dreaming in old age (especially for one as old as Bilbo). The unnecessary drama/padding of the film in moments could be an attempt to impress master storytellers who have lived through many a tale. The inconsistency and over-digitized orcs could be conceived as something not really understood but Bilbo’s attempt to imagine the terrifying foes despite being knocked out for much of the battle and invisible in-process. The seemingly left-field romance of Tauriel and Kili chalked up to a life-long bachelor hobbit trying his hand at star-crossed romance fan-fiction (After all, if Beren and Luthien were all the rage to sing about, why not something different?)
As I continued to ponder this hypothetical route, I was reminded of similar eccentric dramas within Tolkien lore. Fëanor leaving paradise (and his wife and daughter) to chase after his shiny things Morgoth stole, murdering some elves, and cursing generations including his sons to war and strife; Thingol falling in love (at first sight) so hard for Melian he was frozen in time for years; Creepy Eol kidnapping his wife; Turin accidentally marrying his sister….etc.
So yes, even book fans can’t exactly take a moral high ground for common-sense plots and occurrences. Indeed, Tolkien modeled his stories off myths and legends, and few could argue that “common-sense” hardly makes for interesting tales in any of them save as the moral of the story.
Mind, this is not to render the beauty of the books irrelevant—no! Rather, this was the realization that this proud Tolkienite was indeed too proud. I was reminded of that fact particularly at Dain Ironfoot’s introduction. The actor, Billy Connolly, hated anything written by Tolkien on account of the arrogance and elitism of his university peers who judged anyone who hadn’t read any of J.R.R.’s work. Gatekeeping only muddies the waters and pollutes all welcome to interested visitors. (We’ve seen that in too many fandoms as of late). Just as some of my friends, O.G. book fans took issue with the fact it was Arwen who saved Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring as opposed to Glorfindel while my 9-year-self stared in wonder (and made my first email address after her, took it as my codename in writing letters to cousins, and hoarded all the wallpapers I could find), there were probably similar 9-year-old girls in awe of Tauriel or Galadriel as they watched The Hobbit.
Even myself, despite the initial chaffe of departure from a well-loved book, I began to like the very characters I initially bemoaned—not so much for their Tolkien-nature...but archetypes found in tabletop and fanfiction. I wrote (hilariously bad) LOTR stories as early as 6th Grade, and I’ve been running a campaign set in Middle Earth with a small group of friends for almost three years. I’ve seen Tauriel-like characters and contrived wild plots to keep the game running that would have the beloved author critiquing me as he did with his friend regarding Narnia.
We tuned into The Fellowship of the Ring today, and while my fondness is more favored to the first trilogy than the second, the film-per-day viewings have shown the same love they tried to offer. An overabundance of CG? Sure. But still startlingly beautiful set designs and craftsmanship of Weta’s finest where it counts. A little too heavy-handed with the Lord of the Rings references and tie-ins? Perhaps. But no different than the Star Wars prequels tried to do. It’s the nature of movies to try and make sure the audience knows to watch/buy anything related.
Chiefly, and regardless of execution, I think the core messages hold true for both trilogies: It is better to work together to face an oncoming threat than deal with crisis in the heat of the moment; amid darkness, there is always a kernal of light; “If more of us valued home above gold, it would be a merrier world”; and, perhaps most of all, “there is still some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”