I am on a major Middle Earth kick right now, and just started rewatching the Hobbit movies, which I think are severely underrated and over-hated. I just finished the extended version of Unexpected Journey last night. It was wonderful.
They pale in comparison to LotR. Because of course they do. But if you pretend LotR was never made, these remain some of the best, most ambitious, and most interesting fantasy movies ever made.
Yes, they get silly in places. But this world is big enough for some mirth and whimsy. Especially since the story takes place after 400 years of relative peace, compared to the bleak and increasingly hopeless world of LotR. And even more so when I remember that this is a story being primarily told from Bilbo’s perspective and memories. He is the first Hobbit to leave the Shire, and everything seems so big and strange to him. He is prone to exaggerating. He is not a reliable narrator, but for much of this tale, he is the only one we have.
Bilbo saw Stone Giants throwing boulders at each other in the mountains. And we know giants are a thing in Middle Earth lore. But did Bilbo actually see them himself? Or was he just exaggerating a really bad/scary thunderstorm he experienced the mountains, using the language and folklore of his time to make sense of it or to make the story more compelling? Clever little hobbitses.
The dwarves are like indestructible fighting machines in the goblin city. Maybe that’s because they are the ones recounting that part of the story!
Which fits in with Tolkien’s style, actually. Tolkien doesn’t do the “omniscient narrator” thing very often. He frames the big questions about Middle Earth in terms of what the people in that actual world would or wouldn’t know. Where are the Entwives? Where are the Orc women? What is orc society really like? If the people living in the world don’t know, then Tolkien doesn’t either. For the most part, anyway. Tolkien does not submit to the Myth of the Given.
This is largely because Tolkien didn’t actually use “facts” or “stories” or even “characters” as the primary lego blocks of his world-building. He used language itself, reverse-engineering an entire world and an entire creation myth (one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen!) out of a handful of languages that he invented. “What kind of culture and society would emerge around the idioms and grammar of a language such as this, and how would that culture interact with another that emerged around THAT language and grammar?” It’s such a fascinating way to create a universe – and I think is one of the reasons the world is as immersive, authentic, and lived-in as it is.
This is how I reconcile the conflicting tones of the trilogy. I imagine the Necromancer scenes are being recounted by Gandalf, and the travels of Thorin’s Company are being primarily recounted by Bilbo. Again, I think Middle Earth is big enough for all of these different kinds of narratives.
And this is not to say I don’t have major criticisms of the films. The elf/dwarf love story was unnecessary and cloying. Legolas was kind of ridiculous (one of my favorite characters from the books, and one of my least favorite characters from the films.) Many action scenes were goofy and weightless. But all of that is okay too, particularly when I remember that this is a story that is largely being told in a child-like way (both in terms of Bilbo’s innocence, as well as Tolkien’s original intent as an author.)
I will be forever fascinated by this world, by Tolkien’s writing, and by the film adaptations. It’s a place I enjoy returning to at least once per year. And to me, these stories represent one of the most fascinating kinds of art – art that is simultaneously fundamental and significant. Art that represents both the cornerstone and capstone of a particular genre.
Like the Beatles.
Tolkien is the Beatles of modern fantasy and literary world-building.