By 2001, I was already anticipating the arrival of Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring with childlike eagerness. After September 11th, I regressed even further, confining myself to my room, forsaking friends and family for hours at a time in an attempt to finish all three novels of Tolkien’s trilogy before the first film’s Christmas premiere. I’d read the books as a teenager and loved them, but this behavior was clearly more than a nostalgic impulse. It was a coping mechanism for dealing with overwhelming feelings of fear, uncertainty, and sadness.
When the film finally did premiere, I made a grand day of it, inviting friends and family out to see it en masse. That was years ago, but I can remember that it helped…a little. This year has also been rotten — maybe not in the epochally tragic way that 2001 was — but anyone with an eye open to racism, sexism, violence, and human rights violations of any kind can see that there is a long, painful road ahead. Earlier this week, I went to a screening of The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, Peter Jackson’s sixth Tolkien adaptation, and it did not make me feel better about a goddamn thing.
In 2001, Middle Earth seemed like such an easy and reassuring place to retreat, although I have never been exactly sure why. Maybe it’s because the antagonist suddenly rang truer than ever before. I’m not talking about the orc minions or Tolkien’s “dark men of the south” — the racial implications of whom are impossible to ignore. I’m talking about Sauron, the trilogy’s ultimate enemy. Named yet faceless, holed up in distant, dangerous mountains, Sauron eerily mirrored the forces behind the World Trade Center attacks. Or maybe the story appealed to me because, in some ways, it was so hopeful. In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, evil is almost like a virus, a tangible infection that, no matter how corrupting, can, with careful effort, be removed from a person like a ring from a finger. It is not this confusing, polarizing concept that arose from thousands of years of culture and conflict that varies according to belief. Evil is scary but constant and, therefore, vanquishable.
Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, like Tolkien’s book, is a prologue to the momentous events that take place in The Lord of the Rings. As such, the evil that dominates those earlier films is in its infancy when The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey kicks off. In Five Armies, rather than a multi-faceted campaign against an encroaching malevolence, we are presented with greed as the villain — the vanguard of worse things to come. Here, a handful of dwarves fight to withhold their birthright, a massive stockpile of gold, from various factions that also feel they have a claim to it. The pursuit of wealth above all else, as any Occupy Wall Streeter will tell you, is a perfectly respectable specter in any epoch. But, in this particular film, its burdensome mantle is thrown off in a manner that feels unearned — even a little silly. Spoiler Alert: A stubborn dwarf coming to his senses makes way for the introduction of the greater evil with which we are familiar from the first three LotR films, and the titular Battle of Five Armies ensues.
I’m a defender of the first two Hobbit installments within reason. Tolkien’s Hobbit is a children’s fantasy; Jackson honors that in both Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug with large-scale action sequences that feel like rollicking, fanciful Rube Goldberg devices. Five Armies is a much grimmer adventure consumed with avarice, doomed love, betrayal, and ultimately war. It’s as dire as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but somehow not as resonant.
As you might expect, the different coalitions — dwarf, man, elf, and, yes, beast — eventually recognize the greater threat at hand and unite to stand against it. This isn’t really that much different than what ultimately happens in The Lord of the Rings. And the fact that it doesn’t resonate as much as those films once did probably has as much to do with the context of Five Armies’ release as it does with the fact that it’s not a very good movie. (Although, don’t get me wrong: It really isn’t very good.)
Times have changed. Certainly, fear of the enemy that loomed in 2001 still persists. Osama Bin Laden’s death signaled the end of terrorist threats from that region of the world about as much as Zero Dark Thirty signaled the end of Jessica Chastain’s career. But, this year — particularly this fall — much of the country’s attention has been focused inward on domestic issues. Nowadays, only the most naively patriotic would maintain that the only serious threats to the nation’s stability and the well-being of its citizens come from outside its borders — not when some orcs carry badges.
At the end of the day, Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations are, like most Hollywood fare, escapist — often wonderfully so. The problem with escapism is that sometimes the scene right outside your door is so troubling that you can’t even begin to dream of getting away.