Lord Of The Rings & The Hobbit: is the magic still there?

As The Hobbit's third and final film approaches, are anticipation levels as high as they were for the original Lord Of The Rings trilogy?

I love Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings films. They’re a go-to happy-place for me, including the DVD extras. And yet, when The Fellowship Of The Ring came out, I was not clamouring to be first in the queue, or following the production in any detail. It was merely a film that my friends and I went to see on a Monday night, based on those books I remembered from childhood.

This resulted in a dynamic shift from ‘Apathy’ to ‘You have my total and utter attention for the next three years’ in the space of time it took for the screen to go from black to swooping over a vast battlefield. The exact point my brain chemicals sloshed into adoration mode was the second time the camera buckled and fell across the final battle, and I suddenly recalled watching the Ralph Bakshi version at Christmas, with its foundry red backdrop silhouetting the action. That had been exciting at the time, but it hadn’t blown my mind (though it had, in places, freaked me the hell out). This was something else.

It was instantly A Thing. We left the cinema talking excitedly about it. You can tell when you’re in a full on geeking out binge when you start immediately hoovering up every single piece of information you can about the subject. This hadn’t happened with Harry Potter. It took a fair few films for that series to become similarly involving, but those have yet to receive the range of extras and expanded edits that they could hopefully sustain.

Also worthy of note was that this film had mass appeal. People would come up to me at school and say ‘Andrew, you’re weird. What happens next in Lord Of The Rings?’ to which I would laugh politely, and then lie.

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Another side effect of this comes from pop culture now being deliriously efficient

at generating memes. A comedian can now say a variation of ‘One does not simply walk into Mordor’, and enough of the room will get the reference. Lord Of The Rings became ingrained into popular iconography and culture with seemingly little effort.

This was Star Wars for my generation, in many ways. The opening battle, coming after a dark screen and opening monologue, is similar to the text scrolling across the stars followed by that gargantuan spaceship moving into shot. The contrast, the immediacy of ‘This is what this film is’, both built on. There is a huge world out there that’s only being touched on. Not only did The Fellowship Of The Ring entertain in its own right, but it left you excited for what followed. That few seconds of swooping camera work and ominous score remains one of my defining cinema-going experiences.

I know I’m not alone in this. It managed to become a shared experience, the practice of going to see The Fellowship Of The Ring for the ninth time by yourself, so much so that I’ve seen people bonding over it.

Now, approaching the third Hobbit film, do you remember the anticipation for The Return Of The King? No matter how many endings it may have had (fewer than the book, at least – imagine if the Shire had been scoured), there was a feeling of melancholy at its end, as a major cinema experience came to an end.

Distancing the films from the traditionally underwhelming summer blockbuster period, The Lord Of The Rings stood out as event cinema, anticipation building as soon as the leaves fell off the trees and the air turned crisp. University and school terms ended, and the films were watched multiple times in different social groups: with friends, with family, and sometimes just by yourself.

The Hobbit, though, hasn’t quite caught the imagination in the same way. It’s in the shadow of Lord Of The Rings both as an event and as a story. We know, even without reading the books, that certain characters in The Hobbit will survive. Also, I don’t know if you’ve read The Lord Of The Rings, but it’s really bloody long. I don’t know if you’ve read The Hobbit, but I suspect that if you started the first film and began reading the novel, it’d be quite a close finish. That said, that point has been well made, and that’s not where this article is going.

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Instead, essentially, The Hobbit is suffering because of Lord Of The Rings’ success, and the ensuing effect it had on cinema. Trilogies became quadrilogies became Marvel Cinematic universes. It became entrenched that event cinema must have such a scale to it, that in this case it’s widely acknowledged The Hobbit is being told at unsuitable length. There’s a feeling that, in trying to replicate The Lord Of The Rings on some levels, The Hobbit is suffering as a result.

It’s also true that The Hobbit is a very different book, tonally. It’s more playful in places, though just as dark in some, as its sequel. It’s very episodic, and the dwarves that make up most of its characters are lightly sketched. Where Lord Of The Rings’ mini-narratives are varied, focussed and perilous, The Hobbit has fewer plot strands and they’re all centred around a band of characters we don’t know that well, and the characters who we know won’t die.

Personally, I was quite interested in seeing Gandalf’s off-page explorations, particularly after a preview clip showing the tombs of the Nazgul, but ultimately in the film this amounted to four scenes. Coming after Lord Of The Rings, The Hobbit inevitably follows on in a similar style, with a similar production team producing a similar tone, but it also has moments that simply wouldn’t happen in Lord Of The Rings.

Can anyone imagine the scenes of sledging over molten metal in the original trilogy? It would seem jarring, as indeed it does in The Hobbit. It’s a clash of two tones occupying the same universe, and The Hobbit films don’t feel consistent in this respect. They veer from Goblin Town to Riddles in the Dark, and it feels problematic.

While it’s certainly a decent action-adventure series (albeit a bum-numbing one), so far it lacks the resonance of Lord Of The Rings. The most memorable music from The Hobbit was first heard in Lord Of The Rings. So, overall, it’s hard to be as excited over The Battle Of The Five Armies as I was for Return Of The King. It hasn’t grabbed me in the same way, there hasn’t been a moment of pure, unfiltered geeking out excitement that there was back in 2001. Elizabeth Fraser has been replaced with Ed Sheeran. The Renfield Street Odeon is closed. No more standing on the street corner outside, buzzing excitedly and waiting for the bus home.

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In all likelihood, there probably wasn’t going to be. It’s unfair to expect lightning to be bottled twice, especially when the story is being told out of order, and I have a different set of expectations.

But still, despite all this, I saw the trailer for The Battle Of The Five Armies at the cinema on the weekend, and I am just a little bit excited.

It’s unfair to expect lightning to be bottled twice, but of course that doesn’t stop us hoping.

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