Return to Middle Earth

When Peter Jackson first set out to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien, the original plan was a trilogy beginning with The Hobbit and covering The Lord of the Rings in two sequels. But film rights for The Hobbit weren’t available—and plans to make The Lord of the Rings stalled when studio bosses at Miramax wanted to compress Tolkien’s three-volume epic into just one film.


Happily, New Line Cinema stepped in, and Jackson completed The Lord of the Rings in three long films (very long in the extended editions). Now, with rights to The Hobbit resolved, Jackson and company have gone full circle with a vengeance, making one book into three films.


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (in theaters December 13) will be followed a year later by The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and in 2014 by The Hobbit: There and Back Again. The last film is intended to bridge the two trilogies, using material from Tolkien’s appendices in The Return of the King.


Uniting all the films are Ian McKellen’s magnificent interpretation of Gandalf, the vocal and physical gymnastics of Andy Sirkus as Gollum, Hugo Weaving’s intimidating Elrond, and some extra-textual returning characters: Saruman (Christopher Lee), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Legolas (Orlando Bloom). Ian Holm, who played old Bilbo in the Rings films, briefly reprises the role (along with Elijah Wood’s Frodo), but the younger Bilbo of The Hobbit is played by Martin Freeman—a remarkably apt choice for a young Holm.


The Lord of the Rings is an historic achievement. As Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was the first great science-fiction film and John Ford’s Stagecoach the first great western, The Lord of the Rings was the first great cinematic work of its kind, a genre I call epic western mythopoeia. The Hobbit presents a new wrinkle, though, with the slender book’s more lighthearted, fairy-tale mood. The challenge is to somehow honor this spirit without departing too jarringly from the world of the Rings films.


Glimpses from trailers and other sources show promise: Scenes from the “unexpected party,” with harried Bilbo and the boisterous dwarves, strike the right tone, while the dwarves’ evocative song about their lost gold captures the haunting air of longing suggested by Tolkien’s text.


The new series’ three-film sprawl is a concern. For all the virtues of the Rings films, the series was increasingly prone to self-indulgent lapses and inappropriate additions. The nobility of Faramir in The Two Towers was marred by extending his detention of Frodo and Sam, and the longer version of Return of the King included numerous missteps—most glaringly the atrocity of the Witch-King shattering Gandalf’s staff.


Tolkien famously called The Lord of the Rings “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” and the Rings films honor the books’ spirituality in many ways. The spiritual themes of The Hobbit are less talked about, but the same vision of providential benevolence runs through the story, and the pity and mercy of Bilbo to Gollum, so crucial to the Rings story, is central here. However it turns out, I’m eager to follow Bilbo’s big-screen journey through Middle-earth to the end.


On Home Video

Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films are available in a variety of DVD and Blu-ray formats, offering both theatrical and extended editions. The extended editions are generally more satisfying and worthwhile, particularly for The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers.


Parents of children too young for Jackson’s PG-13 adventures, take note: Tolkien’s entire story is more or less covered by a disparate trio of decent animated films from two different studios.


  • The Hobbit (1977) is a made-for-TV cartoon from Rankin/Bass (best known for their holiday specials). The animation is serviceable at best, with mixed character design ranging from decent interpretations of Gandalf and Smaug to a disappointing Gollum. However, the voicework is quite good, with Orson Bean as Bilbo, John Huston as Gandalf, and Richard Boone particularly excellent as Smaug.


  • The Lord of the Rings (1978) is a more ambitious and mature effort from animator Ralph Bakshi, covering about half the story in a sometimes impressive style. The visualization of Tolkien’s world ranges from startlingly effective (creepy Black Riders; spidery Gollum) to disappointingly wide of the mark (unappealing elves; unimpressive Balrog). Released in theaters, the film was a success, but the planned sequel was never funded.


  • The Return of the King (1980) sees the Rankin/Bass team return to finish the job…sort of, although their Saturday morning­–style animation works less well here than in The Hobbit. Still, the voicework remains solid, with Orson Bean returning as both Bilbo and Frodo, John Huston again voicing Gandalf, and Roddy McDowell playing Samwise. The landscapes, too, are evocatively painted.


Film & Television
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