The Hobbit: Farewell and thank you to Middle-earth

As The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies lands in cinemas, James looks back at what the Middle Earth movies have managed to do...

The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies has arrived in cinemas, and it’s here to bring what started as An Unexpected Journey to an end – an end with Dwarves, Elves, Men, Orcs, and Eagles all going at it on the slopes of The Lonely Mountain. This hasn’t just been an unexpected journey for Bilbo Baggins, though – his sedate life in The Shire abruptly swapped for epic adventure questing alongside a wily wizard and Thorin Oakenshield’s company in search of their long-forgotten gold.

The truth is that the The Hobbit‘s arrival on screen was something of a surprise for all of us – a very nice surprise, I’d say, and definitely the kind of surprise I like. I don’t think anyone would have thought that JRR Tolkien’s first novel – a single book around 300 pages in length, and a seemingly simpler affair than the later Lord Of The Rings trilogy – would come to be realised as three massive blockbuster films.

Even though we’re talking Peter Jackson here – a man who’d already made a trio of Tolkien adaptations – few anticipated his return to the director’s chair for another movie set in Middle-earth. It’s also worth remembering that for a while back there – back when The Hobbit was a freshly revealed project – it looked like Guillermo del Toro would be holding the reins until Jackson took charge again.

The Hobbit series has happened and been a success in spite of some obstacles and difficulties, just like The Lord Of The Rings series that preceded and for which it stands as a prequel spin-off. In fact, while we’re here and contemplating ‘unexpected journeys’, we can probably figure the first movie trilogy in those terms as well.

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Cast your minds back, if you will, to a pre-millennium age – a time when no one had heard of mo-cap, when people were ignorant of “one does not simply walk into Mordor” memes and when the most iconic movie dwarves were still of Walt Disney’s Snow White. In this era the idea of The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit as we know and love them are inconceivable. Tolkien had been adapted to radio and Ralph Bakshi’s rotoscope animation experiment had surfaced in 1978, but few would have imagined a Middle-earth-based motion picture experience of the magnitude and scale that Peter Jackson and his fellowship produced at the turn Of The century. 

The vision of Jackson and his co-conspirators Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens was extraordinary. The ambition, audacity and obsessive devotion required to bring the books to life as a contemporary blockbuster spectacle of such scale were immense. Hitherto, Jackson was renowned as a cult lo-fi splatstick auteur. Now he was trying to make some of the biggest movies of modern times with a huge budget and jaw-dropping production demands. There were legal wrangles in the build-up, difficulties in development and a great many doubts both from inside Hollywood and from die-hard Tolkienites fearing the worst.

They were all so, so wrong and Jackson’s ‘enormous folly’ turned out to be anything but. The Lord Of The Rings trilogy went on to become one of the most successful film franchises of all time in terms of box office performance, in terms of reaction from cinemagoers and critics and in terms of impact. It’s true that Tolkien’s works were already very well-known and treasured as an essential bastion of fantasy literature, but the films opened up Middle-earth to whole new contemporary audiences worldwide.

I also reckon it’s reasonable to suggest that the movies affirmatively legitimised the fantasy genre where once it was more likely to be ‘ghettoised’, regarded without seriousness or shunned by the mainstream. Seventeen Academy Awards (eleven of those for Return Of The King) is an explicit indication Of The establishment’s approval, but the real impact on the film industry extends far beyond shiny “Precious” prizes and box office takings.

The Lord Of The Rings ushered in a new popular approach to franchise building. It boosted the careers of many – most particularly Orlando Bloom, Andy Serkis and Jackson himself who finally received the global acclaim and clout his creative genius deserved. We’ve seen how motion capture technology has developed and taken filmmaking and videogame production by storm off the back of Gollum and, subsequently, Smaug. New Zealand has a revitalised film industry of its own now and has become a tourism hotspot since it eagerly embraced its new status as ‘Middle-earth on Earth.’

I’d also argue that the first trilogy played a large part in the ascendance of ‘geek culture’ and the conquering of the mainstream, alongside such things as the superhero blockbuster boom, Harry Potter and the rise of the internet. Even if The Hobbit trilogy hasn’t quite had the wholesale impact and resonance of its forebear, Peter Jackson’s cinematic Middle-earth has continued to leave its mark on the pop cultural landscape. It has moved a lot of people and this rich, immersive world has captured the imagination of so many and become an indelible part of our collective memory. I am one of those people and Middle Earth has come to mean a lot to me.

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Once The Battle Of The Five Armies has run its course, it’s all over. Acknowledging that, I’m devastated. I should have expected such emotions, because I’ve been here before – when Return Of The King ran out of false finales and eventually drew The Lord Of The Rings narrative to an effective end. There were tears. The successful destruction Of The One Ring and all Sauron’s evil in the fires of Mount Doom was a bittersweet victory. I was utterly bereft, at least until The Hobbit came along.

Now The Hobbit is going to do exactly the same thing to me and I have only consciously realised that in recent days as it hit me that, yes, it’s December and The Battles Of The Five Armies is about to be released. I’m a highly emotional sentimental soul and, fool of a Took that I am, I’m very aware that I needed to prepare myself a little more for this occasion. Because I haven’t done the necessary mental coping exercises I know that at some point today it’s likely that I’ll be weeping freely in the dim-light of a movie theatre. 

I repeat again – Middle-earth means a lot to me, as it does to many other people. I recommend reading Andrew Blair’s own personal reflections on the Lord Of The Rings trilogy for this site from last week. In that article he turns to face the denouement of The Hobbit series and poses the question “Is the magic still there?” My own answer to that question is “Definitely yes” and I know that the magic is real and powerful, because Gandalf is not a conjurer of cheap tricks.

Contemplating my own relationship to the Rings and Hobbit trilogies ahead of the new movie, I’ve come to see clearly that these films have been formative, life-affirming features and I don’t think that’s an overstatement. I figured that writing down some of my thoughts would be worthwhile as it might help me get a hold on something I’ve unconsciously taken for granted.

Furthermore, it might be therapeutic as I face up to the moment of parting and it may also be of interest to fellow fans of the Tolkienverse. After all, these movies do show us that the personal stories of all the small creatures have potential relevance and may provide perspective on the bigger picture. (Don’t worry. I’m not going to start writing an bloated tome titled ‘There and Back Again: One Pint-Sized Anti-Hero’s Journey Across the Realms of Fantasy Cinema Fandom’ that will subsequently be turned into three colossal blockbuster movies with special expanded edition Blu-rays and an awkward video game tie-in.) 

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The first cinematic trips to Middle-earth occurred and made themselves felt oh so emphatically during the early years of my teenagerdom. If Star Wars, Indiana Jones and James Bond had been the movie series that defined my childhood, The Lord Of The Rings was the analogous fresh franchise for my adolescence. Those are critical years and I can’t help but come to the conclusion that I did a lot of internal growing up with those films.

As an even younger littl’un I’d enjoyed fantasy novels (including Tolkien’s tales), had got a thrill out of cheating my way through Fighting Fantasy books and had got a kick out of The Baldur’s Gate videogame. Jackson’s adaptations, however, really brought high fantasy to life and sparked up an even brighter enthusiasm for the genre. That torch still blazes and is a bright light in the dark patches (and dark patches are frequent in those tough transitional years of puberty).

Middle-earth was now manifest and tangible as a vivid and enticing alternate universe for us to immerse ourselves in as an escapist diversion. The Rings and Hobbit pictures have given us ample time and space to explore the diverse geographical locations and various rich cultures and races of Tolkien’s mythos. It exists as a stimulating and imaginatively-captivating realm but it’s not merely an inconsequential fantasy space. These films reflect real world concerns and in many ways mirror the mundane lives and travails happening off-screen and outside of the multiplex. 

Focusing on the core thrust of the narrative – Frodo’s Ringbearing quest – The Lord Of The Rings is a rite-of-passage chronicle that echoes the trajectory towards adulthood. It’s an identity-shattering journey in which little people are forced into the graver spheres dominated by the bigger creatures and they have to take on new, heavy responsibilities and undergo tremendous physical, mental and emotional changes.

In this alienating new reality they truly realise the full might of dread unseen forces previously unheard of or only vaguely conjectured. Naivety and ignorance fading as they’re exposed to the true dark nature of existence, they find that there are actual monsters out there and they come to comprehend a wider world fought over by insidious industries driven by greed. The safety Of The known and familiar – the eternal peaceful springtime of the Shire and childhood – is violently cast aside as individuals realise that there’s something more than their own myopic little livelihood. There’s an entire overwhelming universe and, though it’s exciting, rich and diverse, it’s also fraught with dangers, with despair, with war and evil.

The trilogy is replete with thematic concerns and intellectual matter and that undoubtedly enlivened my growing mind as much as the audiovisual spectacle and the storytelling. As a teenager, The Lord Of The Rings taught me fundamental life lessons in a fresh, compelling format and I came to absorb – and firmly grasp – ideals about heroism, sacrifice, friendship, courage of conviction and social responsibility, to name a few.

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With dashings of realpolitik, a heavy environmentalist subtext and explicit depictions of death and the true devastating effect of conflict – to note a few of the underlying themes – I became conscious of the way the real world around me worked. I also got my first real insight into the ravages of mental illnesses and affliction in the dissociative schizophrenia of Sméagol/Gollum, in the depressive inertia of King Théoden and in the Ring-sickness experienced by several characters. Perhaps because I was older and more able to understand or perhaps because this film series really was darker, I was engaging with mature issues at the multiplex. 

In addition – though I’m really not enthusiastic about Freudian projections polluting my beloved Middle-earth – there are also readings that tie The Lord Of The Rings into sexual development. These theories point to male characters simultaneously fixated on and frightened by vagina-shaped objects. Defining themselves in traditionally masculine warrior roles and joined together in sacred brotherly bonds they seek to conquer and quell the said fearsome ‘O’ (the Eye of Sauron, the crack of Mount Doom). There are many more weird and wonderful interpretations of the saga, and that’s both a testament to the sophistication and depth of Tolkien’s original writing and in the filmic creations of Jackson and his collaborators.

Regardless of the myriad possible readings, from a child’s perspective these chronicles stand as a lavish illustrated guide on ‘how to be a good grown-up and make your way through the seemingly insurmountable challenges of adulthood’. In many ways The Hobbit movies have echoed the messages and re-stated them, Gandalf our constant guide and Hobbits functioning as our screen surrogates.

Subconsciously and possibly without realising it, many people have learned a great deal from these fantasy features. The humanitarian lessons are the most vital and for all the technical wizardry and rooting around fantasy worlds and creatures, the Middle-earth movies are perhaps most striking for their overt humanity.

I’ve already noted some of the ideals championed by the two trilogies and I cherish Jackson’s masterworks all the more for their unrepentant optimism and celebration of human spirit (even if it is embodied by Dwarves, Elves and Hobbits). These films – family-friendly films, remember – are honest with viewers and don’t seek to shelter them from the disturbing darkness on one side Of The ‘good-versus-evil dichotomy. The journey – to destroy the Ring, to reach Smaug’s gold, to make it through real life – is a long and torturous one marked with tremendous adversity and the desired objective appears, oftentimes, impossible. Nevertheless, in spite of it all there is always hope and belief in both the ability to succeed in the endeavour and in the triumph of good.

“There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for”. Sam’s impassioned words at the end of The Two Towers resound and pretty much sum up the beautiful sensibilities of this whole enterprise. Even if you aren’t a forlorn teenager struggling through growing pains and adolescent angst, I can’t see how you can’t experience The Lord Of The Rings trilogy and not be moved and inspired. The same can be said for The Hobbit, albeit in slightly different ways. These pictures are the most epic of all underdog movies and the blockbusters that you ‘feel’ the most (and I mean that in terms of heart and emotion and not just in terms of audiovisual sensation).

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The most important thing that The Lord Of The Rings trilogy gave me was belief – in magic, in victory against impossible odds and in goodness. The Hobbit came later to rekindle that belief and I embraced it like an old best friend. We’ve been through a lot together – we’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve mourned, we’ve marvelled, we’ve feared, we’ve hurt and, ultimately, we’ve shared euphoric joy. I’ve had so much fun and these movies have been cinema at its most awesome – very special, spectacular motion pictures that reached out to me, entertained me, affected me, raised me and opened up my imagination.

Middle-earth movies have been a life-affirming fixture for the past decade or so – a sure and comforting presence in my mind and on the December cinema schedule. With no more forthcoming, I’m caught up in melancholy that’s only eased by the knowledge that soon I’ll have fresh Star Wars features to fill the hole. There’s another childhood friend to rekindle nostalgia and stoke up psychic memories, but as far as the fantasy genre goes I’m going to be feeling a certain sense of wistful loss.

“My work is now finished,” says Gandalf, “I will not say ‘do not weep’, for not all tears are evil”. With that in mind, I’m now going to take a journey out to the cinema to wave farewell to cinematic Middle-earth and I’m going to cry and smile and feel like a 14-year-old all over again. I’m going to savour the sensation of Middle-earth on the big screen for the final time and enjoy the grand climactic boss battle that closes The Hobbit story.

I’m going to appreciate the experience and, subsequently, appreciate all the moments and memories from all the journeys across Tolkien’s stunningly realised world all the more. It has been an absolute pleasure. Farewell, and thank you, Middle-earth.

James Clayton is a wizard, and a wizard should know better. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

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