There’s a moment in The Hobbit 3 that I’m going to spoil for you, because nothing else that happens in The Hobbit 3 really matters.
It’s a moment of crisis for Thorin Oakenshield. “Who is Thorin Oakenshield?” is something you might be asking, even if you’ve seen the first two Hobbit movies. It’s hard to keep track of names in these Hobbit movies, even though half the dialogue is just people saying names.
Which is strange. Because when Jackson and co-writers Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh adapted The Lord of the Rings, they found a way to sharpen J.R.R. Tolkien’s dense prose into thrill-drunk poetry. One thinks of Tolkien in fussy terms. The Oxford don. The professor writing fantasy novels as a faux-linguistics delivery system. The oldest and most British of old British fellows, with a perpetual pipe, who always thought his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was more important than anything he ever wrote about rings and hobbits and wise wizened wizards.
But in three Lord of the Rings movies, Jackson found the passionate Tolkien behind the academic. Here was Tolkien the hotblooded: The guy who once told his son that he held “a burning private grudge…against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler.” Tolkien the helpless romantic: The guy who translated his real-life marriage into the Tale of Beren and Luthien, the greatest lovers that ever were in the history Tolkien spent his life creating. (In death, Mr. Tolkien and Mrs. Tolkien and Beren and Luthien become one forever: Beat that for immortal love, Stephenie Meyer!) Tolkien the brutalized: The soldier who fought in the nightmare of World War I, the veteran who once wrote, “By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”
The Lord of the Rings movies changed the source material; how could they not? But all the changes were in service of the central dissonance of two very different creative minds, meeting in some perfect neutral zone across time and space: The English intellectual who spent decades behind university walls etching a world in words, the wild-haired New Zealander who once made that movie where the guy used a lawnmower to turn a regiment of zombies into jelly gore.
It’s fashionable to downplay the Lord of the Rings movies now. There’s the franchise problem: We’ve seen all the same tricks in The Hobbit, history repeating itself as a greatest-hits reunion tour, a reunion tour where the only original member is the bassist. There’s the Game of Thrones problem: It’s hard to go back to Middle-Earth (a fantasy world where lots of nice people spend nine hours preparing to fight a big evil Satan eye) after you’ve seen Westeros (a fantasy world where naked amoral incest freaks crush heads and talk taxes and say “f–k” whenever they f–king want to). There’s the Citizen Kane problem: Every movie or TV or videogame fantasy in the last decade looks a bit like Lord of the Rings, or wishes it did.
Whatever; to my eyes, Jackson’s first Tolkien trilogy is great cinema, pure action, myth in motion. Sometime in 2006, I was in Italy, and I turned on the television, and The Two Towers was playing dubbed, and so I watched the last 90 minutes of The Two Towers on a tiny pre-flatscreen TV set with a bunch of disinterested Italian voices unmatched to Viggo Mortensen’s mouth movements.
It was captivating. There’s a sharp rhythm to how Jackson makes his movies. You watch Lord of the Rings and you feel how Jackson is a low-budget filmmaker, in the sense that he took a $300 million budget and made it look like a billion. (The Hobbits cost twice as much, look half as good.) People always say that Return of the King is too long—it’s all anyone really says anymore; it’s an easy joke that got easier when The Hobbit became three endless movies—but I remember watching Return of the King in a movie theater in 2003 and wishing it would never end.
What happened with The Hobbit? Did Peter Jackson really want to make these movies? Not originally. Guillermo Del Toro almost did, but then left. Jackson was only going to make two movies, but then he made three. Was this a purely financial decision—an attempt to turn one billion dollar into three billion dollars? Or should we take the creative team at face value—did they really feel like The Hobbit deserved three movies?
Because it’s hard to believe the latter, when you watch Hobbit 3. There is so much wheel-spinning, so many honorifics, so many shots of Lee Pace looking vaguely vexed by almost everything. So many dwarves. There’s a brief appearance by Sauron that might be the absolute low point of the whole Middle-Earth franchise. How bad is it? Remember at the end of Revenge of the Sith, when Darth Vader—one of the greatest villains in the history of badness—screams “NOOOOOOOOO!” like an actor run amok in an Ed Wood drama? The Sauron appearance is worse than that: Cheap and unnecessary, requiring brilliant actor/national-treasure-of-the-global-community Cate Blanchett to wave her hands in the air and turn Sauron into a ball of light for some reason. (Who knows why? Read Appendix D.)
I have a different theory about the Hobbits, and it goes back to that moment—the key moment in the whole Hobbit trilogy, it turns out. See, Thorin Oakenshield is the actual star of these three movies. You’d be forgiven for assuming that the star of The Hobbit is the hobbit—but that’s the kind of thing that goes out the window when you decide to turn a lovely little book into a three-film sword opera. Bilbo Baggins isn’t one of those heroes who does a whole lot of things; he’s a bemused and smart little fellow who watches other people do a lot of things. Bilbo is also the star of The Hobbit, a book that’s episodic in the worst way: Goblins and giant spiders, people captured and recaptured, a villain who dies with a quarter of the book still to go, a sudden final battle that just happens (mostly while the hero is asleep.)
There was probably a way to translate The Hobbit into a movie and maintain that rough outline. It’s important to remember that everyone was very excited about The Hobbit, because everyone loved Lord of the Rings, and so these movies could have been anything. At one point, when Del Toro was still around, there was talk about doing one Hobbit movie and then one original movie bridging the Hobbit–LOTR gap. At every step since then, you could feel everyone involved in The Hobbit trying to figure out how to make a story that runs on fairy tale logic into a movie that runs on actual logic. Maybe that was the wrong move; maybe the best Hobbit would’ve been fully episodic, with chapter titles onscreen. (Hey, Tarantino does it.)
Have you ever seen Fellini Satyricon? The movie begins with a young man named Encolpio, some kind of aristocrat in ancient Rome. Encolpio’s in a bad mood; his rival stole his lover. So the movie is about Encolpio rescuing his lover from what appears to be an ancient vaudeville act. Then there’s an earthquake, and suddenly Encolpio is hanging out with a poet and going to a wild party where the host play-acts his own funeral. Then Encolpio’s taken captive on a pirate ship. Then he meets a hermaphrodite. Then he meets a minotaur. At some point, Encolpio’s most bitter rival becomes his closest ally; then his closest ally gets killed. Weeks or years seem to pass between scenes; it feels like ten different fairy tales combined together, or like an unfinished story written by ten writers across ten centuries.
Bizarrely, that’s kind of how The Hobbit feels in book form: A series of incredible events, linked together by not much beyond fake geography. These Hobbit movies try to add sense and produce nonsense. The dwarves want their kingdom back, but meanwhile Sauron wants to get his kingdom back, but meanwhile Lee Pace is just feeling very frustrated right now, but meanwhile what this is really all about is Bilbo Baggins’ journey of self-discovery, and somehow it takes two movies and then another two freaking hours just to get five armies together. Imagine if Gladiator started with seven hours of Maximus marching to fight the Germans. Imagine if King Kong started with one hour of people sailing towards King Kong.
The point is, it takes about two hours for anything to happen in The Hobbit 3. And remember at the start of this essay, when I said that I was going to spoil a moment from The Hobbit 3? Is it weird that I’ve gone down every possible rabbit hole besides mentioning that moment—is it weird that I’ve talked a lot about stuff that happened before The Hobbit and stuff that happened after The Hobbit? That’s how all these movies feel. Characters are haunted by the past. And the future haunts these movies: Every time Bilbo looks at his cool magic ring, the camera LINGERS and the soundtrack OOOMMMMS and the shadows CREEP and you can feel everyone involved in The Hobbit nudging you in the stomach until your ribs hurt, GET IT? GET IT? THAT RING IS EVIL. But the ring doesn’t have to be evil; nothing that happens in The Hobbit makes it evil; nothing that Bilbo does in three movies ties into the greater notion of the corrupting influence of the ring.
With one exception: At the end of The Hobbit 3, which spoiler alert is just the beginning of Lord of the Rings, the last sight of Young Bilbo Baggins is him, all alone in his ruined house, trying desperately hard not to put on that ring. He’s an addict at the beginning of an addiction that will curse his lifetime, and Martin Freeman—a great actor who’s spent the last three years doing great work in everything besides anything called The Hobbit—plays that moment to the hilt.
But that’s not the moment I’m thinking of. Thorin Oakenshield spent the first two movies trying to get his kingdom back. In Hobbit 3, he has his kingdom—and it’s turning him into a miserable maniac. He has all the gold in the world, and won’t share it with the elves. He has enough room to support a couple cities of people—and he turns away everyone. The tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free: Thorin doesn’t care about them at all. Here is a man who has spent decades toiling away, dreaming of sitting on a beautiful throne in a kingdom of his own; here is a man who remembers what it was like to work for a living. Now he is surrounded by gold and consumed by it—literally consumed by it, in the only scene added to The Hobbit that tries to explain what characters are thinking using something besides stupid dialogue.
His friends all tell him: Thorin, leave the gold behind! Leave the safety of your kingdom! Go outside, do battle as you once did long ago!
Thorin sits on his throne (made of gold). Stares at his beautiful armor (made of gold or something shinier.) Looks down at his vault (gold, gold, gold, golf courses of gold, Liechtensteins of gold.) He has everything he has ever wanted—doesn’t he? Or is it possible that his kingdom has become a prison? Is it possible that, by draping himself in dull decadence, he has lost touch with everything that made him a good, true warrior?
Is it strange that Thorin is the only character Jackson seems to really understand? Is it strange that the guy who once made that zombie movie with the lawnmowers has spent the last five years remaking his most popular work with more pomp and less circumstance: Pretending that a cool little story about dwarves and dragons is Lawrence of Arabia on steroids? Never underestimate how boring it must be to run an empire; never forget that half the reason George Lucas made the Star Wars prequels was because Industrial Light & Magic and Lucasfilm and Skywalker Sound needed the work. What does it feel like, to work on your sixth Hobbit movie, to have everything a filmmaker could possibly want—forget the money, how about a government?—and to know that, in the end, something is missing?
Thorin has a vision of himself swallowed by gold—not really something most people can relate to post-Recession, but certainly something you could relate to if you’re the sort of filmmaker who can get $200 million for a movie as long as you make sure there’s a hobbit in there somewhere. And then the moment arrives. Thorin calls his dwarves together, tells them to armor up, and leads them into the battle.
Suddenly, the movie becomes a real Peter Jackson movie. The battlefield geometry makes no sense: You have to somehow believe that the whole tide of a five-way battle gets turned when a dozen dwarves start swinging swords around. But forget the Battle of Five Armies—the movie sure does. Thorin leads a gang of The Only Dwarves You Vaguely Recognize up to a remote frozen waterfall to take out the One-Armed Orc who has spent three Hobbit movies looking mean and one-armed. In like two seconds, the dwarves seem to climb out of a valley in the summertime into the peak of a snowy mountain: It’s like that moment in House of Flying Daggers when, in the middle of a climactic battle, winter just starts.
The dwarves have to kill the bad guy. There are multiple planes of action: Thorin needs a final-vengeance showdown with his one-armed nemesis; Elfangeline Lilly needs a final punctuation mark on her moony-eyed romance with the world’s prettiest dwarf; Legolas needs to do something acrobatic. People die. Barely a word is spoken. I don’t think a single element of that final fight is in the original Hobbit book. (At least one of the main characters was long dead in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth; another one never existed at all on the page, because Tolkien didn’t realize that The Hobbit would only be complete when Kate from Lost cosplayed Brave.)
And for once—for once!—Jackson comes up with compelling images in The Hobbit that don’t just feel like self-rehashes. Forget the sweeping camera shots of armies, the travel-porn New Zealand helicopter photography. Give me the stillness of the final moments between Thorin and the One-Armed Orc, staring at each other across a frozen river. The Orc sinks into the river, and you think he’s dead, and Thorin sees his body floating underneath the ice: A mad and mythic moment, like that first time the Fellowship of the Ring boats past skyscraper-statues built in the middle of nowhere by someone eons ago. The orc’s not dead; he jumps through the ice, has a sharp object pointed right at Thorin; Thorin lets himself get stabbed, but only so he can get close enough to impale the orc. His sword goes straight through the bad guy, and then—the detail!—straight through the ice.
Thorin dies, of course. Thorin always dies; the Hobbit movies add a lot without changing anything worthwhile. (You wonder how boring it must be to spend half a lifetime following a rigid blueprint; you wonder how much more exciting it must’ve been to be the guy who drew the blueprint, to be the man who just jotted down “Azog” on a napkin one day.) Hobbit 3 can’t end before Bilbo says goodbye to Gandalf, and Legolas runs off to meet Aragorn, and Lee Pace tells Evangeline Lilly that love is a great thing. But your mind goes back to that frozen waterfall. It’s a marvelous thing, to see a director suddenly rediscovering his mojo—and to see him rediscovering it, hours and years deep into the least essential work of his career.
You walk out of Hobbit 3 wondering what will happen when Peter Jackson leaves his golden throne behind. You look back on three Hobbit movies—shining, empty—and hope he still can.