I’ve only seen BotFA twice so far, which probably made my ruminating phase slower than most. Despite my misgivings about it, and the trilogy as a whole, I’ve been drawing towards a contradictory conclusion about my thoughts and feelings about The Hobbit (TH) trilogy vis-à-vis The Lord of The Rings (LotR). Yes, despite my disgruntlement and passive-aggressive efforts to fix-it, I am more emotional invested in the former, though I enjoy the story of the latter more.
Fair interest disclosure – I’m a movie-firster. That first FotR trailer I saw near the premiere (I was living under a rock, clueless and spoiler-free, the way I like when it comes to movies) started a desperate attempt to read the book before I went for my first screening. (Managed to finish the book, but it led to a strange, and raw, sense of noveau déjà vu watching the movie. Not something I want to repeat again.)
As a life-long science-fiction/fantasy nerd, both were a foregone conclusion where my geekdom was concerned. Loved the book, loved the movies, with the clarity of understanding on the difference between the two mediums.
Thereafter, I threw myself in the fandom, even starting to write fan-fiction. And of course, in service of both nerd and muse, I read other Tolkien works that spoke to the LotR narrative. And that meant knowing TH. That book I read before TTT premiered. And felt for it probably much as many who read it after LotR did. That is, it was a nice fantasy for a lucky child’s bedtime read but it was no competition for LotR. But I really loved the short book’s gap-fill, especially the Riddles in the Dark chapter and Thranduil (yes, if it wasn’t obvious yet, this is a card-carrying fangirl of the Elvenking, thanks to Legolas).
When news of The Hobbit going to film as well broke, I tried to keep with my live-under-a-rock MO, because with LotR, being online as it happened quite spoiled the in-movie surprises for me and took a lot of the wow away. So AUJ was quite a nice surprise, and I thought I was right to keep my MO and was in fact doing well. But, my success was blown to the netherworld as soon as Thranduil started speaking in DoS.
I do not regret delurking and living virtually in the Thranduil Appreciation thread of the one Middle-earth board I frequent. Still, strangely, even through the plot changes and bizarre creative decisions that seemed to have characterised this trilogy, I find myself invested in The Hobbit’s storyline. With BotFA finally here, I find myself both disappointed at the loose ends and certain plot(gaps), and yet happy for its conclusion.
Unlike most emotionally invested fan(girl)s, I did not cry in the sad moments of BotFA – it’s a RARE movie that can make me wail. Having said that, here at the end, I do find myself feeling more for the characters of TH, and missing them, than I ever did for the denizens of LotR. Which is a surprise since LotR is the fuller story, and the movies were when I was at the more excitable younger-by-a-decade age while TH is a filler to LotR the book, and as I said, is quite the kiddie read to me.
I wondered what was the divisive factor(s) and pondered on it for a fair bit. Ultimately, (while it may conceivably change – there is still the Extended Edition of BotFa to come, I really think my opinion is now quite set), I find that LotR scores for me in terms of story, respect for canon, and treatment. When held up against that, TH’s shortfalls are all the more glaring and frustrating. But despite the problems I have with TH, the conflicts, ambivalence, morality of the the characters in these movies are where I feel affinity for characters more deeply and find my favourites through all six of the Middle-earth films.
Thranduil will always top my list. He is THE ELF of Tolkien’s world for me. But Bilbo in TH is my favourite Hobbit. Ever. I have even found some Dwarves I could get on the bandwagon for – Balin, Fili, Dwalin, and yes, even the most disagreeable one of all… and his worse cousin, Mr Ironfoot. I even find Gandalf here more interesting. Along with the swashbuckling Elrond. It is also quite something to see Galadriel dishing it, and that first sly, voluntary, step onto the other side by Saruman, was just something else.
Grey morality. Yes I think grey morality and conflict is a common thread here and it appeals to me, more than the more clear-cut character arcs of LotR.
While it is true that in LotR there is also fellowship and friendship, those were, more or less, through defined racial and cultural lines, and hot-housed at times. For lack of a better comparison, the Fellowship was formed for a specific purpose. But the Company of Thorin, barring the bit of Gandalf contrivance on the Burglar, was more organic, if that made sense, and even then, by the end, there was no divide between Dwarves and non-Dwarf. Of course, the Company’s camaraderie would have provided such an interesting contrast to the greater tangle of dynamics in the Armies of the Good Peoples as they worked their way through strategy and the annoying details of logistics, if only we had at least some of that in the movies.
But going back to the theme of morality, it is clear that in LotR, bad is bad, and good is good, except for a few niggling details, like the demonisation of Denethor, and the trivialisation of Faramir’s character arc. Even Elrond’s reluctance to give his blessing to Arwen and Aragorn was justified by his love for his daughter. He was also spectacularly redeemed twice: via the levelled-up Haldir, for the movie-contrived plot point of sending Elves to Helm’s Deep, and personally delivering Andúril, and thus his tacit acceptance, of the union.
In contrast, in TH, the clearly Good boasted quite a few characters who appeared on the fence, or were, maybe, even closet Baddies. Thranduil and his antagonism of the Company’s quest for one, and Thorin’s intense focus on dispensing his goodwill and faith only in his own kind. Even Bilbo seemed to have his moments of weakness. The only boring Good Guy, as it turned out, was Bard, who was transplanted with Thranduil’s reluctance for war in the book. But to be fair, he had his “grey” moments too, if only in the interest of moving the plot when the Dwarves first met him.
Also, I think the existence of places and denizens outside of Mordor that was also perceptibly grey, in the form of Beorn, Thranduil and Mirkwood, and even the malcontent of Laketown adds to my affinity scorecard on the morality issue. And Spiders! Those were another bonus.
In the end, I believe that the grey morality of characters in TH resonated, for me, because of two things: it was enabled and made possible in great part to Jackson’s great eye for casting, and to the actors for succeeding beyond expectations, and ironically overcoming the strange creative choices of Jackson himself, that worked against their efforts in service of their characters.