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Austin Gilkeson

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies Is a Bloody Slog

The extended edition of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is rated R for violence. That’s right: the third movie adaptation of the classic children’s book is rated R. Meaning that if anyone under the age of 17 wished to see this adaptation of a children’s adventure novel, they’d need to be accompanied by an adult. This fact has gnawed at my mind, like some deep nameless thing, since I learned about it. Granted, I have not seen the extended edition of this movie, nor the extended versions of any of the other Hobbit movies. The extended editions of The Lord of the Rings movies are essential and make the movies all the richer, but I don’t have any desire to spend more time with the Hobbit trilogy than is strictly necessary. And I certainly see no reason to see an R-rated version of The Hobbit.

It’s not, of course, that children’s stories can’t be told for an adult audience. Many fairy tales are deeply brutal and bloody in their earliest tellings. Artists like Alan Moore have taken the subtexts of children’s classics like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and reimagined them in very adult ways. But The Hobbit is not an old fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm, nor are Jackson’s movies reinterpreting J.R.R. Tolkien’s book in new, experimental ways: they are fairly straightforward adaptations. That one of the movies ended up meriting an R rating means that something went oh so very awry. We are a long way from the cinematic masterpieces of the Rings trilogy.

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The Desolation of Smaug Soars to New Highs and Plummets to New Lows

A long, long time ago, in a quiet little room somewhere in the medieval quadrangle of an Oxford college, a professor named J.R.R. Tolkien found a blank page in a pile of examination papers and idly scribbled the words, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Tolkien likely did not know that the sentence he wrote would become one of the most famous opening lines in English literature, and one of the most influential. This story began very modestly and quietly, after all, but it has continued with us ever since, for nearly a century now, reshaping children’s and fantasy literature, then role-playing games, movies, and global pop culture. The Hobbit wasn’t the first Middle-earth story Tolkien wrote, but it was the first one published, and the one that made everything else possible.

Rereading The Hobbit, it’s easy to see why it was such a success. It’s told with a wry voice, great charm and wit, and is wonderfully imaginative. Bilbo Baggins is one of children’s literature’s great heroes, despite being a fussy, wealthy, middle-aged man. What he lacks in childlike years he makes up for in childlike size, and the book aptly portrays the childlike wonder and fear of finding oneself thrust out into a bigger world, whether one likes it or not.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Makes Some Puzzling Detours in Its Quest For More Box Office Gold

Before we begin looking at The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and its two sequels, let us pour one out for the Hobbit film series that could have been. After the phenomenal success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, it was inevitable that a live-action Hobbit movie (or movies) would follow. The studios had to delicately untangle the various film rights for Tolkien’s children’s book, but they must have known it would be worth the effort: a Hobbit movie would almost certainly rake in hundreds of millions, if not billions, at the box office.

When the Hobbit movie was finally announced, it was to be a duology, with Guillermo del Toro as director and Peter Jackson in a producing role. I was excited. I’m not a huge del Toro fan, but he seemed like a good choice for the material, and would allow for the Hobbit movies to both fit the world of Jackson’s Rings movies, and be their own thing. That latter point is key: The Hobbit is a very different book than The Lord of the Rings, in genre, tone, and style, and a director like del Toro would help ensure the movie versions kept that distinction.

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The Return of the King Crowned a New Ruler in Hollywood

The Academy Awards were established in 1929; in the almost-century since, only three films have won 11 Oscars: Ben-Hur (1959), Titanic (1997), and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). Despite their vast differences in plot and setting, the three have a lot in common: all are epics, set in the past (in Return of the King’s case, an imaginary one), and brimming with special effects-laden spectacle. They are, in other words, the exact sort of movies one thinks of when one thinks of the word “Hollywood.” Return of the King was made mostly by Kiwis, filmed entirely in New Zealand, and based on the book of a South African-born British author whose stated goal was creating “a mythology of England,” but it’s also the epitome of American filmmaking: big, brash, and perfect for popcorn.

That an SFX-heavy epic won so many Oscars isn’t surprising; that a high fantasy film did is. Or at least, it would have been surprising only a few years before. Jackson’s films changed the equation.

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The Two Towers Brings War and Trauma to Middle-earth

Middle-earth was born in the trenches of the First World War. It was there that J.R.R. Tolkien began writing the stories that eventually became The Silmarillion, and it was there where Tolkien experienced “the loss and the silence” that informs his entire mythic cycle. Tolkien famously served in the horrific Battle of the Somme, in which 300,000 men died for six miles of broken, ruined territory. The losses in the war for Tolkien were personal. “By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead,” he once wrote.

Despite that, Tolkien’s writings are never explicitly anti-war. After all, most of the battles he depicts are explicitly between good and evil. But like the Old English, Norse, and Germanic tales that so inspired him, Tolkien’s view of war is complex, one that both glorifies the bravery and camaraderie of warriors in battle, and ruminates on the death and loss that inevitably follows. Much as a hero’s quest, like Frodo’s, forever changes a man, so war inevitably reshapes the countries that fight in it. There’s no going back. Every war means the end of a world.

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The Fellowship of the Ring and the Memes of Middle-earth

The other day, I opened Facebook and saw a Boromir meme. You know the one. Fingers and thumb forming a circle, golden light about him, the words “One does not simply [something something]” embossed over the image. This one has the Center for Disease Control logo below that, with the PR announcement, “Fully vaccinated people may now simply walk into Mordor.” Below that, Boromir rubs his temple in frustration. Twenty years on from the debut of The Fellowship of the Ring, and that line from Sean Bean’s Boromir, and I think we can safely say that the “One does not simply” meme is, like the Eldar, immortal.

As befits their popularity, J.R.R. Tolkien’s works are full of lines and turns of phrase that have embedded themselves in our collective consciousness. The Hobbit’s first sentence is among the most famous opening lines in English literature. I don’t even need to write it out for you: you know what it is. Gandalf’s sage wisdom about what to do with the time that is given to you has graced countless email signatures and Facebook bios. My wife Ayako is particularly good at sneaking up on my son and me, and then menacingly whispering, “My precioussss.”

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Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring Turned Tolkien into a Pop Culture Behemoth

“How do you know about Gandalf?” Sam Wilson asks Bucky Barnes in the second episode of the Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, after Bucky mocks Sam for talking about fighting wizards. Bucky snaps back that he read The Hobbit when it was first published in 1937. It’s a fun character moment, one that sparked some debate on social media about whether or not a guy like Bucky Barnes would have read a kid’s book, but what’s interesting to me about the scene is the source of Sam’s confusion. Why would he assume Bucky, a contemporary of J.R.R. Tolkien, wouldn’t know about Gandalf? It’s because Sam thinks of The Lord of the Rings as a 21st-century cultural phenomenon, one that a man out of time like Bucky would need to catch up on.

And the thing is, Sam’s not wrong…

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Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings Brought Tolkien From Counterculture to the Mainstream

In a previous article, I wrote about how Rankin/Bass’s TV movie The Hobbit , which debuted the same year as Star Wars, served as a prophecy for the future of entertainment. These days, Tolkien’s legendarium isn’t just mainstream: it’s the foundational text of mainstream pop culture, from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones to Star Wars —Tony Stark even calls Hawkeye “Legolas” in The Avengers.

It wasn’t always so. In the 1970s, the main places for Middle-earth references in the greater pop culture were Rush and Led Zeppelin songs, and graffiti declaring “Frodo Lives” on subway station walls. Tolkien was a conservative Oxford don, but The Lord of the Rings had found its first popularity in the counterculture.

It’s fitting, then, that the first person to bring Tolkien to the big screen was the counterculture cartoonist Ralph Bakshi, aided by screenwriter and The Last Unicorn author Peter S. Beagle. Most famous for the X-Rated cartoon Fritz the Cat , Bakshi brought a distinct artistic approach to The Lord of the Rings that simultaneously fit its countercultural caché and helped to bring the story out of funky hot-boxed rooms filled with lava lamps and into a more mainstream consciousness.

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Middle-earth’s Weirdest Movie: Rankin-Bass’ Animated The Return of the King

Watched all in a row, the animated movies The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Return of the King form their own peculiar Tolkien trilogy. Granted, they’re movies made by two different studios with two different styles, and they don’t really align storywise, and one was a feature film while the other two were TV movies. But all together, they form a vaguely coherent story of the One Ring, from its finding by Bilbo to its destruction by Frodo and Gollum. It’s almost fitting, really, given the wildly divergent versions of the Germanic myths and legends that inspired Tolkien in the first place. If The Lord of the Rings really were an ancient tale handed down over centuries, as this movie proposes in its gobsmackingly weird final moments (we’ll get to that), it would likely resemble the animated trilogy more than any other version.

That’s not to say all those versions are equally good. Rankin-Bass’s 1977 The Hobbit (previously discussed here) and Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 The Lord of the Rings (covered in Part I and Part II here) are both masterpieces. The Rankin-Bass 1980 TV movie follow-up to those movies is… not. In fairness, Rankin-Bass had a task almost as impossible as Frodo’s: How do you make a stand-alone Return of the King movie that is both a direct sequel to your own The Hobbit and an unofficial, quasi-sequel to Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings? The answer is: awkwardly.

[“Where There’s a Whip, There’s a Way!”]

Thor: Ragnarok Takes on Masculine Stereotypes and Shows Us a Better Way

Near the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War, the Guardians of the Galaxy happen across a catatonic Thor Odinson floating in space. Thor’s ship of Asgardian refugees has been decimated by Thanos and his Black Order. Thor is the lone survivor, and that but barely.

“How is this dude still alive?” Peter Quill asks after they pull Thor into their ship. “This is not a dude. You are a dude,” Drax replies, “This is a man.” This sets off a crisis of masculinity in Quill that begins with him trying to one-up the God of Thunder and ends with him inadvertently allowing Thanos to kill off half the population of the entire universe. Oops.

But perhaps Quill might have taken Drax’s jab better—and saved trillions of lives—had he known that Thor’s own journey from “dude” to “man” was pretty recent, having happened in the Marvel movie that sets up this one: Thor: Ragnarok. At heart, Ragnarok is about Thor’s arc from cocky hero to self-sacrificing leader, and his journey from trying to prevent Ragnarok to instigating it. Along the way, he comes into conflict and enters into alliances with a whole bunch of characters who have their own way of being “a man,” and none of them have anything to do with being male.

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Ralph Bakshi’s Animated The Lord of the Rings Shows the True Perils of Power

As you’ve probably heard, Amazon has announced that it’s producing a show set in Middle-earth, the world created by J.R.R. Tolkien in his landmark novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. With the new series reportedly headed into production in 2019, I thought it was time to revisit the various TV and big screen takes on Tolkien’s work that have appeared—with varying quality and results—over the last forty years.

Today we finish our look at Ralph Bakshi’s feature-length animated The Lord of the Rings, released in November 1978. The first half of the movie is discussed here.

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Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings Brought Tolkien from the Counterculture to the Big Screen

As you’ve probably heard, Amazon has announced that it’s producing a show set in Middle-earth, the world created by J.R.R. Tolkien in his landmark novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. With the new series reportedly headed into production in 2019, I thought it was time to revisit the various TV and big screen takes on Tolkien’s work that have appeared—with varying quality and results—over the last forty years.

Today we look at the first feature film adaptation of Tolkien, Ralph Bakshi’s animated The Lord of the Rings, released in November 1978.

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1977’s The Hobbit Showed Us the Future of Pop Culture

As you’ve probably heard, Amazon has announced that it’s producing a show set in Middle-earth, the world created by J.R.R. Tolkien in his landmark novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. With the new series reportedly headed into production in 2019, I thought it was time to revisit the various TV and big screen takes on Tolkien’s work that have appeared—with varying quality and results—over the last forty years.

First up, Rankin/Bass’s animated version of The Hobbit, first released as a TV movie on NBC in November, 1977.

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Who Would Win in the Ultimate Dragon/Balrog Showdown?

No question animates the mind of a young speculative fiction fan more than “Who would win?” It’s a question that provokes our firmest cultural loyalties in the lizard part of our brain that enjoys nothing more than smashing action figures together.

One cultural phenomenon that’s largely escaped “Who Would”-ism is the legendarium of J.R.R. Tolkien. Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy gave us a few battles we didn’t know we wanted, and still don’t (Legolas vs. Bolg; Thranduil vs. The Scenery). Sure, there have been a few articles imagining Aragorn facing off against Jaime Lannister and the like, but they’re relatively rare compared to the heated “Captain America vs. Batman” or “Ninjas vs. Pirates” discussions that pop up regularly over pizza and pipe-weed.

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Gods and Spirits (….and Whatever Totoro Is): Exploring Miyazaki’s Fantasy World

There’s a moment in Hayao Miyazaki’s film My Neighbor Totoro that’s stuck with me since I first watched it a decade ago. Satsuki Kusakabe is searching for her missing sister, Mei. Looking for help, she sprints towards the huge camphor tree where the magical creature Totoro lives. She pauses for a moment at the entrance to a Shinto shrine that houses Totoro’s tree, as if considering praying there for Totoro’s help. But then she runs back to her house and finds her way to Totoro’s abode through the tunnel of bushes where Mei first encountered him. Totoro summons the Catbus, which whisks Satsuki away to where Mei is sitting, beside a lonely country road lined with small statues of Jizo, the patron bodhisattva of children.

It’s Satsuki’s hesitation in front of the shrine’s entrance that sticks with me, and what it says about the nature of spirits and religion in the film. We don’t really think of the movies of Hayao Miyazaki as religious or even spiritual, despite their abundant magic, but some of his most famous works are full of Shinto and Buddhist iconography—like those Jizo statues, or the sacred Shimenawa ropes shown tied around Totoro’s tree and marking off the river god’s bath in Spirited Away. Miyazaki is no evangelist: the gods and spirits in his movies don’t follow or abide by the rituals of religion. But the relationship between humans and gods remains paramount.

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