Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is considered one of the greatest cinematic feats in Hollywood’s history. Jackson somehow took one sprawling, epic and practically unfilmable story and transformed it into three fantastic films. The trilogy’s conclusion, The Return of the King, was awarded with eleven Oscars, multiple endings aside. When Jackson announced that he would be returning to the land of Middle-Earth for The Hobbit films, fans salivated at the prospect of more tales set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnificent world.
Unfortunately, Jackson’s return to the director’s chair was less out of desire and more as a result of necessity. The Hobbit was originally Guillermo del Toro’s project (the man who brought us Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth and Pacific Rim). Del Toro planned to make two films based off of Tolkien’s 300 page book, until his plans were derailed by MGM’s financial troubles. In 2010, MGM, the primary studio in charge of financing the production of the Hobbit films declared bankruptcy, jeopardizing the future of its two largest properties: The James Bond franchise and The Lord of the Rings movies.
By the time MGM’s financial woes had been righted, del Toro had left the project. Warner Brothers, the film studio co-financing the films, pushed for Jackson to return to direct the movies, and midway through pre-production announced that the book would be split into a trilogy. Fans were skeptical of the announcement: How on (Middle) earth would a 300 page book be translated into three three-hour movies?
The result so far has been mixed. Many critiqued the first two films, An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug as being too long, poorly paced, and too reliant on action sequences generated by CGI akin to that of a well-produced video game. Still, the films have been financial successes. Certain aspects, such as Martin Freeman’s brilliantly understated performance as Bilbo Baggins, Ian McKellen’s return to the role of Gandalf, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s menacing voice-work as the dragon Smaug, all work excellently. The final film in the Middle Earth saga, The Battle of the Five Armies is set to be released in December, and promises plenty of epic action sequences from the titular battle.
Even if The Battle of the Five Armies achieves the heights of Jackson’s preceding films, The Hobbit trilogy will not come close to matching the quality of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. There was a certain passion that permeated throughout the original trilogy, as Jackson poured his heart and soul into the production. CGI was mixed with practical effects to give the film an authentic feel, and each prop seen on camera had a history. Jackson’s direction of The Hobbit movies feels strangely detached: He seems content to sit back and let the CGI do the work, and has traded in actual camera work for computer-based establishing and tracking shots.
Perhaps this stems from the mentality behind the films. The beauty of The Lord of the Rings films was that Jackson (and fellow screenwriters Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh) was forced to take a massive amount of source material and strip it down to a well-paced and exciting story. He cut out several extraneous sequences in the books (like the bizarre encounter with Tom Bombadil, which probably would have been quite creepy on the silver screen) for the sake of the story. With The Hobbit, Jackson’s been forced to do the opposite. He’s had to take a relatively short, simple 300 page story and expand it into enough material to fill nine hours of screen time. Such characters as the primary antagonist Azog the Defiler, and such set pieces as An Unexpected Journey’s rock giant fight were referred to by throwaway lines in the books. This has given the movies a bloated feeling, and the idea that Jackson doesn’t particularly care about what he puts on film.
With this being said, I personally have enjoyed The Hobbit trilogy immensely. I adore Jackson’s attempts to expand the mythology behind the films, and find certain additions (Sylvester McCoy’s Radagast the Brown is a quirky delight) quite excellent. I don’t think that the trilogy comes anywhere near to the achievements of The Lord of the Rings. Still, come December, I’ll be in the cinema opening night, ready for one last venture into the land of Middle Earth. Unless Jackson decides to do The Silmarillion. But that’s an entirely different matter altogether.