Peter Jackson’s first professional foray into J.R.R. Tolkien’s universe began in 2001 with “The Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy. His fanboy-rooted artistic and commercial quest concludes Wednesday with the opening of “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” the final chapter in a three-part adaptation of Tolkien’s “Rings” prequel. This looks to be the stalwart director’s last journey through Middle-earth, which makes it an excellent time to take stock of his legacy.
There are those who would call the two trilogies a combined masterwork, worthy of installing the New Zealand filmmaker alongside fantasy franchise heavyweights Steven Spielberg and George Lucas in pop culture’s firmament. But while most fans swooned for “Rings,” not all are in agreement about the success of his later trilogy.
If nothing else, with “The Battle of the Five Armies” Jackson has fully woven his trio of “Hobbit” films into the warp and weft of “Rings.” To do so, Jackson and his co-screenwriters and co-producers, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, mined Tolkien’s other works and appendices to turn the modest “Hobbit” into a combined 7-hour-and-54-minute behemoth.
“Peter Jackson had an unenviable task in marrying his preexisting films with Tolkien’s book,” says Shaun Gunner, chairman of the Britain-based Tolkien Society. In a phone interview, he praises Jackson for his “superb skill in marrying the two film trilogies into the same universe.” And they are different, Gunner emphasizes: “The Hobbit” is a “300-page children’s book” whereas “The Lord of the Rings” is a “1,200-page tome” — and a dark one at that. “It’s easy for Tolkien fans to criticize Jackson for making changes to the source material even though Tolkien wrote a book and not a screenplay,” Gunner adds.
Jackson’s decision to change the third part’s more innocuous title “The Hobbit: There and Back Again” (the book’s full name) suggests a change in tenor, too. This installment is, at minimum, all-out war. When Smaug the dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) is defeated, conflict explodes among the Elves, led by haughty Thranduil (Lee Pace), the Company of 13 Dwarves headed by their king Thorin (Richard Armitage), and Men, whose leader is dragon-slayer Bard (Luke Evans). Another faction is commanded by a newcomer, the Dwarf warlord Dáin Ironfoot, played with curse-hurling bravado by Billy Connolly. Into the power vacuum pour Orcs, Trolls, and other nasties, driven by Middle-earth’s born-again Necromancer (a.k.a. Sauron, also voiced by Cumberbatch).
Also back are the wizards Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and Saruman (Christopher Lee); Elf heroes Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Elrond (Hugo Weaving); and Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), whose own story is more or less lost amid the fray.
The choices Jackson made in parts one and two caused some fan communities to grumble. Even without having seen “Five Armies,” many are already grousing that character development and restraint have been sacrificed to Jackson’s penchant for action sequences and love triangles that defy credibility. Others complain that computer-generated showdowns between heated foes resemble unrealistic video game smackdowns. The changes involved in turning a short book into a three-quel, and the incessant stakes-raising, can feel like a far cry from the spirit of Tolkien’s beloved book.
“This story with too many invented characters, too many stray subplots, doesn’t feel right,” says Larry Curtis, senior writer for the Tolkien fan site TheOneRing.net. “[Jackson] gave us a dozen well-designed Dwarves but they were only set dressing, it turned out.” Curtis does applaud Jackson for his casting decisions, especially hiring Freeman to play Bilbo. “Perhaps nobody in cinema does action like Peter Jackson,” he says. And he has high praise for the computer-generated Smaug and Gollum, “nonhuman characters that can act and feel and connect with an audience.”
But he faults Jackson for “not trusting the story.” And he’s not alone in that criticism.
“The ‘Hobbit’ movies demonstrated that a good franchise should stop when it’s on top,” says John Garth, author of “Tolkien and the Great War.” “Jackson has said his films are nothing to do with Tolkien’s books, and that’s certainly true of his ‘Hobbit.’ ”
Corey Olsen, author of “Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit,’ ” calls the attempt to contextualize Tolkien’s kids book within the grander, high fantasy “Rings” a “fascinating thought experiment.” The problem, Olsen says, “is that the Hobbit films are simply not as successful as films.”
Regardless of one’s opinion of the “Hobbit” and “Rings” movies, there can be no doubt that Jackson’s instantly popular, insanely lucrative sextet redefined geek culture in the eyes of Hollywood. “[Jackson] introduced a whole new generation to Tolkien’s works while legitimizing the fantasy genre as adult entertainment,” says Noble Smith, author of “The Wisdom of the Shire” and a narrative designer at Microsoft Studios. Cosplay, Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy TV series like “Game of Thrones,” and video games are “all cool now,” he adds, in large part because of the “Rings” and “Hobbit” movies. “They’re no longer on the fringe, and Jackson played a huge part in making that happen.”
Garth says “Rings” has “real gravitas, and showed millions that Tolkien was not the whimsical escapist he had often been painted as.”
Jackson also proved that blockbusters could put down roots anywhere. Made by New Zealanders, these films brought Oscar gold to a small nation, and transformed Weta Workshop, the studio behind the props, sets, and digital tricks, into a world-class special effects house. “He transformed the perception and economy of New Zealand on a global scale,” says TheOneRing’s Curtis, “and inspired many young people to flex creative muscles and dare to dream.”
‘[Peter Jackson] introduced a whole new generation to Tolkien’s works while legitimizing the fantasy genre as adult entertainment.’
Gunner, of the Tolkien Society, says that Jackson’s wider cultural legacy is that he “reshaped cinema.” That studios turned down Jackson’s proposal to make a “Lord of the Rings” film trilogy in the 1990s now seems inane. But before “Rings,” fantasy, sci-fi, and superhero films weren’t guaranteed box office slam-dunks. Partly as a result of Jackson’s risk-taking, these genres have since “ballooned and blossomed” to “prevail” in modern cinema.
“Tolkien is often credited as the father of modern fantasy literature,” Gunner says. “It seems Tolkien is now the father of modern fantasy cinema as well.”
If so, Jackson surely shares custody.
As for Noble Smith, he thinks future generations will consider Jackson’s Middle-earth films a “cinematic masterpiece” when taken as a whole. “Ultimately,” Smith says, “I think people will forgive the indulgent bits and the places where he and his team strayed from Tolkien’s original tale.”
ETHAN GILSDORF- Bests and worsts of ‘The Hobbit’ on film firstname.lastname@example.org.