Did we really need The Hobbit trilogy?

"You could call it a multimillion dollar test case of pathological Hollywood risk aversion," says Andrew Collins

If you decided you were up to the epic quest and sat down to watch the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, from Shire to Mordor, it would take you nearly eleven hours – assuming you were true to director Peter Jackson’s vision and selected his “Extended Editions”. Should you wish to tackle the full monty (or, if you will, full Mithrim) – that is, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, plus the Hobbit prequels so far – add another six hours to your fantasy marathon. If you pressed play at 7am, you’d come up for air at midnight.

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The final part of the Hobbit trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies, arrives in cinemas tomorrow on Friday 12 December. Assuming its running time is similar to Hobbits one and two, An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug, it will clock in at around 160 minutes. In the not-too-distant future, die-hard Tolkien nuts will no doubt attempt the entire, immersive saga in one go, and they’ll be watching this intricately plotted picaresque from a time “between the Dawn of Faerie and the Dominion of Men” for the best part of a day. That’s a lot of Ian McKellen puffing on a long pipe.

The two trilogies, even without the forthcoming third Hobbit, already constitute the fourth highest-grossing franchise in movie history with takings of £3.8 billion worldwide, beaten only by Harry Potter, the Marvel universe and James Bond. (Star Wars may, of course, move up the rankings a place or two with the much-fanfared new sequels starting next year.)

You might say that, as with Potter, this saga has provided a kind of bookish Star Wars for a new generation. It’s also concerned with a hero’s journey and good’s eternal struggle over evil, and is just as predicated on massive punch-ups.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit trilogy

The Hobbit, written by JRR Tolkien in 1937 while he was professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, was the first book read to me at school, aged five. I remember being entranced by it, and imagined the whole thing in my head. (I know for a fact that I imagined Gollum to look like the Tasmanian Devil from Bugs Bunny.) Like the Narnia books, which were also read to us – it was the parallel universe that I really fell for, and for which I still maintain a huge affection.

Never having read follow-up adventure The Lord of the Rings, I was able to enjoy the films without pre-conceptions when they were adapted in 2001. Jackson and his co- writers, his partner Fran Walsh as well as Philippa Boyens and Stephen Sinclair, seem to have done an impressive job of condensing the material. (After all, it took Tolkien over ten years to write and was published over three volumes.) By contrast, The Hobbit is one volume and a much shorter one at that, and yet they seem to have dragged it out over three films, bringing in extra characters and adding more exposition and protracted chase sequences.

This may well be a case of the commercial tail wagging the creative dog. Jackson embraced the technique of shooting individual films back-to-back, an accounting wheeze also used by The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean. So although Lord of the Rings seems relatively highbrow with all those fancy names (Galadriel, Elrond, Saruman), and it certainly beats films based on Hasbro toys or theme-park rides, the series adheres to the industry’s preference for big brands and proven properties. You could call it a multimillion dollar test case of pathological Hollywood risk aversion.

Even the verdant, tourist industry-friendly New Zealand landscapes now seem secondary to endless walls of CGI. No wonder star James Nesbitt, who plays dwarf Bofur in the Hobbit saga, complained to Radio Times back in October that the experience was “frustrating in terms of acting, of what you were given the opportunity to do.”

So is that it? What about The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s unfinished, posthumously published collection of Middle-earth writings that span tens of thousands of years of history? Well, Christopher Tolkien, son of JRR and executor of the estate, felt that Jackson had “gutted” The Lord of the Rings, making merely an action movie for 15–25 year olds and had “reduced to nothing” its philosophical content. That’s Jackson off the Christmas card list, then. But considering he’s currently at the helm of Spielberg’s next Tintin film, he very likely doesn’t care.

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The Lord of the Rings trilogy is showing all day today (11th December) on Sky Movies Greats