Our sixth child, who is now thirteen, was born the year the first of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy came out, our seventh when the third hit the theaters.
As a family, we read the entire book—all one thousand and eight pages—out loud. Every day we gathered, for I don’t know how many months, to hear the tales of Middle Earth unfold. My children have read and reread it again. I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve watched the movies.
And then came the Hobbit trilogy. The children still remaining at home have seen all three in theaters with me. Of course, we’ve read the Hobbit out loud as well.
That’s fourteen years of Tolkien entwined in our family history—intricately and intimately entwined.
But with the just released The Battle of Five Armies, the cinematic Tolkien cinematic era has come to an end. And I must admit that I was sad when it was over, but not disappointed. Sad that we have nothing more to look forward to from Tolkien and director Peter Jackson, but satisfied enough with the finale of the Hobbit.
That doesn’t mean that I am without criticism of either movie trilogy. When I saw my first of Peter Jackson’s offerings, The Fellowship of the Ring, I was disturbed by how much depth and breadth he had left out, and even more so when I watched The Two Towers.
But then I settled down and truly enjoyed The Return of the King. I realized that there is only so much one can do with a movie, and Jackson had, on the whole, done a very good job. The book is far, far greater than the movies, but the movies are far better than any other in their genre.
Those looking for a similar majestic epic in the Hobbit movie trilogy will be disappointed, but for all the wrong reasons.
The Hobbit was Tolkien’s first book. It was meant to be a children’s book, with silly elves and dwarves, a not overly menacing dragon, a bumbling wizard, and of course, Tolkien’s own dear creation, hobbits. The Lord of the Rings is a great epic, displaying a kind of biblical depth that is rarely achieved in literature. The Hobbit aims for entertainment; The Lord of the Rings at revealing the essence of good and evil, courage and fecklessness, binding faith and destructive betrayal, glory and ruin, honor and profanation.
Hence the great difference in tone between The Hobbit and Tolkien’s follow-up masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, and the difference between the two movie trilogies.
The Hobbit was never meant by Tolkien to be anything but entertainment for children. After the literary success of The Hobbit, Tolkien was asked to write a follow-up by the publisher—something just as happy and light—but his efforts ended in epic failure. That is, he failed to create an equally airy and entertaining sequel, and instead created an epic, an entire world with its own story of creation and fall, its own intermingled histories, its own languages, its own menagerie of creatures and races, and its own epic struggles. That epic—The Lord of the Rings—was formed by Tolkien’s deepest ruminations about good and evil, the nature of fairy tales, his Christian faith, his fantastic philological imagination.
Peter Jackson did things in the reverse. He tried to capture the greatness of the epic on film, then finished up with its light and happy predecessor. That’s why in the first of The Hobbit movie trilogy, The Unexpected Journey, the dwarves and Gandalf are silly rather than serious—all except for their dwarf king, Thorin Oakenshield. He is Peter Jackson’s bridge to the depth of The Lord of the Rings.
In the next two, Jackson made things more and more serious, so that in the finale, The Battle of Five Armies, we feel like we are dovetailing with Jackson’s far more profound Lord of the Rings. That makes sense if we watch the two trilogies in the reverse order that they were made, a privilege that DVD’s make possible.
What criticisms might be made of this new movie, the end to all of Jackson’s efforts?
The problem, as others have pointed out, is that The Hobbit is by comparison a very short book. While much had to be let out of The Lord of the Rings to get it down to three very long movies, much had to be added to stretch the Hobbit into a matching trilogy. My copy of The Hobbit is only 305 pages. Jackson’s Battle of Five Armies picks up on page 247. Jackson was trying to knead 50 pages into 2 ½ hours.
The result is that there’s really not much in The Battle of Five Armies except a quick torching of the lake town of Esgaroth by the soon-to-be slain dragon, Smaug, and then a rather drawn out battle of five armies. It fits well on the end of the Hobbit trilogy, but it isn’t nearly as good as the first two.
But, if you wait until it’s out on DVD, and watch them all in a row, you’ll be suitably and satisfactorily entertained.
I’m sure I’ll be doing just that with my family—perhaps with my grandchildren on my lap.