The Lord of the Rings and its Extended Movie Universe

I was talking to a colleague the other day about movies, and he revealed to me that he and his roommate are making a concerted effort to watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy in its entirety for the first time ever. After I got over my initial shock that there still exist people in the world who haven’t seen these magnificent pieces of cinematic history, we started talking about some of the scenes he had seen so far (he hasn’t yet got to The Return of the King), his immediate impression of the characters and ideas within, and how he felt overall about the films.

He loved Gandalf, and how he straight up gets blazed with Bilbo right at the outset of The Fellowship of the Ring (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Tolkien wouldn’t have meant it to be actual ‘weed’); he also told me how he was ROFLing at the Gandalf the Grey/Gandalf the White scene where he forces Saruman out of Théoden’s head, but that he nonetheless recognized it as an important scene.

One of the things my colleague revealed to me, however, was how it took him some time to get over the clichés of the movies, until he took a moment to recognize that virtually every medieval/fantasy film ever was in actual fact inspired by The Lord of the Rings, and that the clichés are there because it’s really the originator of so many of them. And he was thinking of it from a filmic perspective of the last two decades – never mind the near-century since Tolkien first started writing about Middle-Earth.

His enthusiasm, however, has made me want to revisit these epic films again (I usually watch the trilogy from start to finish at least two or three times a year) with a naive eye, if possible, and try to remember what it was like when I first saw them back in the early 2000s. Whilst some of the CGI has aged better than others (Gollum: yes; Legolas fighting an oliphant: no), and the more I watch them the more critical I become of everything – despite still loving them to death – there is to this day something magnificent, incredibly epic, and almost magical about these three movies that has (so far) transcended time and allows them to remain as one of the most unlikely successes of modern cinema.

But I find myself also – perhaps in anticipation of Amazon’s extended Lord of the Rings TV series – wanting to revisit a trilogy that has not done as well, and that I have certainly not watched as much: The Hobbit films.

Where the scenes that stick out to me in The Lord of the Rings are usually the ones that are epic, magnificent and truly grand, the ones that stand out the most from The Hobbit films are more often the ones that drag it down into an abyss from which even Amazon may struggle to rescue the franchise from: the barrel scene, or Legolas defying gravity, or even the fact that they completely failed to bookend the trilogy properly (it starts with a flashback from which we never actually return). Whilst some of the scenes are simply poorly adapted from the book, some of the more egregious and unforgivable parts include the love triangle between Legolas, Tauriel and Kili – two of which were never even in Tolkien’s original work.

That being said, I have a soft spot for these films – in descending order of softness as the films go on – partially because, like them or not, they’re what we have as a cinematic adaptation of one of the most beloved books in history, but also because I understand the difficulties and pressures that Peter Jackson et al were under to pull off something that even approached the grandiose heights of The Lord of the Rings trilogy: a foreshortened filming schedule, disastrous reshoots, cast and crew that were in despair of being unable to share sets with each other (Ian McKellen in particular was devastated that he was almost entirely alone in green screen for the entirety of the shoot), and a change of director halfway through all contributed to a project that Peter Jackson would later say nearly destroyed him.

Besides, if we can forgive Legolas surfing on piles of Orc corpses in The Two Towers and Aragorn and crew diving through cascades of skulls in The Return of the King, can we really object so strongly to a CGI orc that didn’t need to be in the film, or side plots that were extended beyond need just to fill time? There was plenty of silliness in the original trilogy, and plenty of deviations from the source material, and in some ways I would argue The Hobbit films are actually more faithful to the book: in order to flesh out three lengthy movies, there’s virtually not a single thing in the book that was omitted from the films.

At the end of the day, I still believe we’re fortunate to not only have all of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings adapted into high-budget films, but to have them done (in the end) by the same team of writers, producers and directors such that they at least have a consistent feel and tone, and feel very much like part of a single cinematic universe (something Marvel took a page from when creating their own magnificent cinematic universe). I don’t know how necessary Amazon’s billion-dollar TV series will feel when it eventually comes out, but I remain hopeful that it will take heed of these thoughts and make it feel like it fits with the films themselves (the fact that it’s being filmed again in New Zealand is a positive thing in this regard).

I think I may re-approach this set of films in the near future (hey, maybe even tonight!), starting with An Unexpected Journey and going all the way through to The Return of the King. This way I can get a feel for the entire story from start to finish, and still end on the strongest film of the six. I feel The Hobbit films deserve a second chance, at least from me, and I want to experience the good parts (the Misty Mountain song near the beginning of An Unexpected Journey, or the battle of wits between Bilbo and Smaug in The Desolation of Smaug) despite the worse parts, many of which I’ve broached already.

And of course, I feel for Peter Jackson. He’s personally one of my favorite directors, and not just because of his work on The Lord of the Rings; I adored his take on The Lovely Bones, and even the more recent Mortal Engines was a decent film, despite the logical fallacies of the entire concept, which of course is more to do with the original book than anything Peter Jackson did. I just think that his career and reputation were ruined by The Hobbit films, and it really wasn’t his fault; when he took over the helm from Guillermo del Toro, the studio refused to allow him any additional time for rewrites and reshoots, meaning some of it was filmed without even a basic storyboard.

What are your thoughts on the entirely of The Lord of the Rings cinematic universe? Do agree that The Hobbit films ruined it, or do you think that – for what they are – they should still be respected as the best cinematic adaption of Tolkien’s masterpiece that we likely will ever get?

Why Peter Jackson Is One of the Most Underrated Filmmakers of Our Age

I, like most of the world, was introduced to Peter Jackson through his seminal and utterly game-changing film adaptations of Tolkien’s timeless classic, The Lord of the Rings. For me, those three movies represent perfection on celluloid (so to speak), and remain to this day my favorite movie(s) of all time.

And yet, today, Peter Jackson is more often than not looked upon as a pariah, a dismal failure who could never live up to his former achievements. Films such as King Kong, The Lovely Bones, and even Mortal Engines are looked upon with disdain by the critical population as an outright abuse of style over substance, and an over-reliance on CGI. In fact, it’s hard to think of a film of his since 2003 that anyone has truly loved the way they loved The Lord of the Rings. Even the sequels, the three Hobbit movies, have been thrown away as an abomination to Tolkien’s vision, and, to some, something that should have never been made. Once gold, everything Peter Jackson touches these days turns to crap.

Except … I couldn’t disagree more. After The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson has either produced or directed no less than eight feature films: King Kong, District 9, The Lovely Bones, the three Hobbit movies, The Adventures of Tintin, and Mortal Engines. I’ve seen all but one of them (District 9, for some odd reason), and I’ve personally loved every one of them, often for different reasons. I shall, below, attempt to explain why.

Many of Peter Jackson’s movies are adaptations, typically of novels, but sometimes (e.g. King Kong) of previous movies. We all know, of course, what an incredible job he did with The Lord of the Rings, so we’ll skip those and move right on to the first post-Rings film he was involved with: King Kong.

King Kong (2005)

When it was announced that Peter Jackson was going to follow his success with The Lord of the Rings with an adaptation of the original 1933 creature feature, I recall people being uncertain what would be in store. So far removed from the grandiose scenery and epic battles of The Lord of the Rings, it seemed an odd project to take on. And I think that, when it was released, people didn’t know what to make of it. If Peter Jackson is to have a fault, it’s that he doesn’t know how to be succinct, and at over three hours long, it seems simply excessive.

And indeed, it does drag along at times, but no more so than The Lord of the Rings did. The key thing to understand about about Peter Jackson’s King Kong is that it most definitely is not a creature feature; despite featuring numerous fantastical beasts, including the titular great ape, these aren’t the point of this movie. Instead, King Kong is an ode to the art of filmmaking, both through the character of Carl Denham and his obsession with creating the best film possible, and through the actual movie itself. It’s a subtle jab at the Hollywood executives who first rejected him, and then demanded more of him. And, above all, it’s an outreach to the outcast and misunderstood, a way of reflecting the part in all of us that longs for belonging, even in places where it is never to be found.

King Kong is a film about film, a story about love, and an example to Hollywood of what you get when you throw money at a project without truly understanding it. And for this, I love it.

The Lovely Bones (2009)

Since I haven’t seen District 9, we’ll skip over that one for now and move on to Peter Jackson’s next effort, an adaptation of Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel of the same name. Telling the story of a thirteen-year-old girl from her perspective in the afterlife after being tragically murdered, it is a touching and heartbreaking tale of tragedy and hope, loss and renewal. Torn between remaining with her family and passing on into the afterlife, Susie Salmon can’t rest in peace until her family finds their own, and so she helps them in whatever way she can to find closure with her untimely death.

As always, this is a stunning spectacle, with vast dreamscapes filled with giant ships, flowering trees and demons in the shadows, but this is only the backdrop to what is ultimately another story of love and despair. Like King Kong, there can be no happy ending, but the final moments, when they come, are bittersweet nonetheless, and certain to bring tears to your eyes.

At only 2 hours and fifteen minutes, it also showcases that Peter Jackson is able to learn from his previous efforts, and condense a novel adaptation into a movie that can actually be watched in one sitting. And like he did with The Lord of the Rings, his adaptation here is beautiful, moving, and faithful to the source material.

The Hobbit (2012 – 2014)

We come now to perhaps the most contentious of Peter Jackson’s films, the three Hobbit movies (An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug, and The Battle of the Five Armies). Panned by critics and audiences alike, these are movies people love to hate.

And unfairly, I believe. When looking at the outcome of filmmaking, it’s worth taking into account the background and context of the project itself. The Hobbit movies were not originally what Peter Jackson wanted to do; in fact, he intended to be involved only in a production capacity, and leave the direction to Guillermo Del Toro. Del Toro even began work on the film before leaving the project altogether, and faced now with the challenge of directing reshoots, finishing the film, and a deadline that Hollywood refused to budge, Peter Jackson very nearly worked himself into an early grave. Forced to produce a trilogy (he originally only wanted two films), Peter Jackson was forced to dig deep into the lore of Middle Earth, restricted again by the renewed copyright on The Silmarillion, held by the Tolkien estate, who refused to allow its characters or events to be used.

Considering all of this, I think The Hobbit movies came out surprisingly well. Whilst they do decline somewhat in quality as each movie progresses, I firmly believe that Jackson did his best to bring to life such a beloved book, and there are many exquisite scenes, such as the dwarves singing before Bilbo’s fire, or the incredible motion-capture performance of Benedict Cumberbatch as the terrible Smaug. I appreciate the fact that, again, Peter Jackson takes his time with the plot, giving due screen time to small details that could have easily been glossed over, such as the stone giants in the misty mountains, or the detailed set pieces of Laketown. The biggest problem with these movies is simply that there wasn’t enough source material to make three movies – something Peter Jackson understood, but Hollywood didn’t. Are they on the same level of The Lord of the Rings? Of course not. Do they stand well in their own right as a very faithful adaptation of Tolkien’s original book? Of course they do.

Mortal Engines (2018)

I wrote about Peter Jackson’s most recent film, Mortal Engines, a few days ago, so I won’t go into it in too much depth here, but again, we have a young adult novel adapted to film, and spectacularly so. From the tiniest details of the steampunk machinery to the epic landscapes of a ruined earth, this is truly a magnificent film, and the plot is classic YA, involving teenage characters battling against obvious evil to save the world.

The thing I’m getting at, I suppose, is that I think Peter Jackson is deeply misunderstood. To me, it’s abundantly clear that he adores reading, books, and literature in general, and the only thing he’s ever wanted to do is bring those beautiful, imaginative books to life. How many of us have read a book and wondered what it would look like on the big screen? How many times have you finished a final page and thought, this would make a good movie? All Peter Jackson has tried to do is exactly that: make the movies that we wanted all along. His films are works of a dedicated and loyal fan, tributes to the great storytellers of our times.

And this, I think, is what Hollywood doesn’t get. Peter Jackson doesn’t make movies for the box office. He doesn’t make movies to please the critics, or to win Academy Awards. When that happens, it’s nice, but his true love and dedication – the reason he makes his movies – is simply because he wants to bring to life what he always imagined when reading the books.

And for this reason, I think Peter Jackson is criminally underrated. If everyone in Hollywood took a leaf from his book, they might realize that you don’t make great films to make money; you make them for the fans. You make them for the people who love the stories, and want to see them visualized.

Peter Jackson makes movies for us, but first and foremost he makes them for himself. And I deeply, deeply respect him for this.