Thirteen years, six movies, 18 hours of footage, thousands of beards, wigs and bushy eyebrows, not to mention hundreds of miles of toupee tape to attach them to actors’ faces. And now, with the release of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, the saga of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit is finally over — at least until the extended versions in special-edition embossed Blu-ray boxed sets, possibly festooned with hair shaved from the feet of an actual living hobbit, arrive on the shelves in time for next Christmas.
But rather than carping about the myriad ways in which audiences will be entreated to pay again for these films or about the pernicious effects of money and riches on the souls of mortals, let us think instead of all the ways in which Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies changed the landscape of cinema. Just as there are nine members of the Fellowship, here are nine things we have learned from Peter Jackson’s six-picture behemoth …
1 It’s big. But how big?
There are other franchises ahead of Jackson’s Tolkien films in the box-office stakes. But that hardly seems fair when those outrunning it include Harry Potter (eight films), Marvel’s Avengers and its offshoots (10) and the James Bond series (23). $1.6bn and counting doesn’t look too shabby for five films — with one yet to open.
2 Good things come to audiences who wait
In this Netflix-fixated age of instant gratification, the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies did something both antiquated and radical: they restored to cinema-going the old-fashioned thrill of the serial cliffhanger. The difference is that 1940s and 1950s audiences had only to wait a week to find out the resolution. Middle Earth enthusiasts, on the other hand, had to while away an entire year between episodes.
Future generations consuming the whole shebang over several days of binge-watching will do well to remember that – and to raise a tankard of mead to those comrades who fell before the finishing line, or who said: “Sod this for a game of soldiers, I’ll wait for the DVDs so I can fast-forward through all the boring bits.” (One character in Kevin Smith’s comedy Clerks II described the first trilogy as: “Three movies of people walking to a fucking volcano!”)
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released in November 2001, a mere month before the first Lord of the Rings film (The Fellowship of the Ring).
But with the exception of the seventh and eighth outings, the Harry Potter films are self-contained, with no explicitly loose threads left dangling between pictures.
Audiences had experienced little to compare with the protracted suspense at the end of The Two Towers, when the slithering Gollum is apparently poised to murder Frodo and Sam. Jackson played the long game and took a gamble that audiences might want to play it, too.
3 Take the risk
Other parties had tried to adapt Lord of the Rings, including the Beatles. (Their 1965 film, Help!, which revolves around a sacrificial ring lodged on Ringo Starr’s finger, pictured left, could be seen as the nearest they came to Tolkien: it certainly has better songs.) In the 1970s, John Boorman shopped around a script featuring a scene in which Frodo Baggins has sex, which is as incongruous as having dinosaurs running through a second world war movie. Ralph Bakshi made an atmospheric 1978 animated version, but its commercial failure precluded any follow-ups. So it would be uncharitable to mock the various studios and financiers who rejected Jackson’s idea of making the project as two movies. Wizard hats off to Bob Shaye at New Line Cinema, who took a leap of faith by suggesting a trilogy might work better.
4 It almost didn’t happen…
Earlier this year, Viggo Mortensen (drafted in at the 11th hour to play Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings films after Jackson was unhappy with the Irish actor Stuart Townsend) revealed what was really unfolding behind the scenes on The Fellowship of the Ring. “Anybody who says they knew it was going to be the success it was, I don’t think it’s really true,” Mortensen told the Telegraph. “They didn’t have an inkling until they showed 20 minutes at Cannes in May of 2001. They were in a lot of trouble, and Peter had spent a lot. Officially, he could say that he was finished in December 2000 – he’d shot all three films in the trilogy – but really the second and third ones were a mess. It was very sloppy – it just wasn’t done at all. It needed massive reshoots, which we did, year after year. But he would have never been given the extra money to do those if the first one hadn’t been a huge success. The second and third ones would have been straight to video.”
5 Go large!
When it came to adapting The Hobbit, Jackson and his co-writers (including Guillermo del Toro, who was originally scheduled to direct the Hobbit films until extended production delays forced him to pull out) settled on a two-part format. But in 2012, after viewing a finished cut of An Unexpected Journey and part of The Desolation of Smaug, Jackson announced that the project had put on weight: “I’d like to announce that two films will become three.”
Once again, it might seem that Harry Potter got there first, splitting one novel (Deathly Hallows) into a pair of movies. But that was 607 pages. The Hobbit is only 300 in total. To flesh out the world on screen, Jackson incorporated Tolkein’s notes, appendices and, quite possibly, his discarded shopping lists and telephone doodle-pads. Jackson himself had travelled in the opposite direction, shedding a large amount of his bulk after finishing the third Lord of the Rings film — anywhere between three and five stone depending on whom you read and whether the director removed his shoes before stepping on the scales.
6 There are parts of the world that have yet to be seen on screen
One of the revelations in these movies has come in the form of eyefuls of handsome New Zealand landscapes previously unexploited in cinema. And the movies have done wonders for the country’s tourism industry: 13% of those who visit identify the Hobbit films as a key factor in their decision, an improvement on the 6% rise in the wake of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, according to Tourism New Zealand. Wellington is also home to the director’s production facility, Stone Street Studios, which employs more than 500 people.
7 An actor doesn’t have to be visible to give a great performance
Motion-capture technology has advanced immeasurably in the years that Jackson has been making Tolkien movies, but even at the time of the first film it was evident that Andy Serkis’s performance as Gollum was a formidable piece of acting. No wonder Serkis has bemoaned the Academy’s decision to declare motion-capture ineligible for Oscar consideration. He had to play his scenes in a blue bodysuit peppered with dots, each corresponding to a different joint. Whenever he moved before the camera, the computer-generated Gollum, modelled on Serkis’s body, would move correspondingly.
“Peter and I agreed early on that Gollum was an addict,” the actor revealed. “I thought it was a good idea to use the ring as a metaphor for addiction.” James Cameron has said the Gollum scenes gave him the confidence to make Avatar. It continues in the Hobbit films where Benedict Cumberbatch is technically unrecognisable but there in essence as Smaug the dragon.
8 Special effects aren’t always special
The films owe much to the various spectacles patchworked together through the use of miniatures, CGI, motion-capture, studio sets and even polystyrene models (which explains how Osgiliath, the former capital of Gondor, once blew away in a high wind during filming).
But the decision with the Hobbit films to experiment with 48 (rather than 24) frames-per-second was not popular. Critics were shown a 48fps version of the first Hobbit film, only to complain in their reviews that it resembled an over-lit BBC studio production. The remaining two, while still available for audiences in 48 or 24fps, have tended to be shown to critics only in the latter format.
9 There are as many Lord of the Ring/Hobbit drinking games as there are characters
Have a drink every time Gandalf says “fool of a Took”. Or whenever there’s a bromance moment between Frodo and Sam. Or whenever you hear a Ring Wraith scream (a noise based on co-writer Fran Walsh shrieking through a throat infection) or when Gollum says: “My precious.” Take your pick. Whichever you choose, you’re likely to end up feeling worse than Gimli the dwarf being tossed over Helm’s Deep.