My Journeys Through Middle-Earth, by Sean Knight

As we take our final trip to the world that Peter Jackson helped bring to vivid detail, Sean Knight discusses the saga’s legacy and its impact on his life.

I will not say do not weep, for not all tears are an evil.

–Gandalf

Six films, 17 years in the making, a combined budget of almost a billion dollars, nearly 5 billion dollars in box office revenue and counting, 36 Academy Award Nominations with 17 wins including Best Picture for The Return of the King in 2003, and legions of fans the world over – “The Middle-Earth Saga” has quite possibly the most impressive statistics of any film series in motion picture history. Though the Lord of the Rings trilogy was almost universally beloved, the films of The Hobbit have come under more intense scrutiny from casual fans and critics alike.  The complaints are well documented, and the constant bemoaning of the decision to turn J.R.R. Tolkien’s slim Hobbit novel into a three-part epic trilogy will be an unfortunate and unavoidable black mark on the series’s legacy for the foreseeable future.

While it’s true that the Hobbit films have been more for devout fans (of which I am unapologetically one), rather than the cineplex masses that got caught up in the sensation that was LOTR, the critical treatment of director Jackson’s new trilogy has been somewhat embarrassing.  Many critics have reduced themselves to snarky schoolboys bashing not only Jackson’s adaptation, but author J.R.R. Tolkien and the fans themselves.  Perhaps they have just had enough of Middle-Earth, the “geeks” who clamor for it, and Jackson’s experimentation with new technological wizardry (the jury is still out on 48 frames per second, because of the obnoxious way in which it was originally dismissed by the mainstream press with little room for exploration or debate.)  What a shame that is, because what Jackson has created, with great love and undeniable passion, is nothing less than the most complete world ever depicted on screen.

Notice I didn’t write “most complete fantasy world.” That would be a disservice to the accomplishment.  Name me a single film, or even an entire series, this deeply entrenched in lore, geography, and detailed contextual design.  Not even Star Wars comes close, despite the wealth of Extended Universe material (recently jettisoned from strict canon) that was never devised for the screen to begin with.  The breadth of Jackson’s scope and vision is remarkable and is unlikely to be equaled in my lifetime.  It is easy to forget now what a gamble these films were (more so with LOTR), and what an artistic accomplishment they remain.  Jackson’s recreation of Middle-Earth is now taken for granted in a post-Rings cinema world where almost every blockbuster film emulates some aspect of its production.

Despite the pessimism, Peter Jackson has stuck to his guns throughout, and though certain concessions were undoubtedly made to the studio in order to gain the widest possible audience, the “Middle-Earth Saga” remains a singular outsider Kiwi vision that stands out considerably from the mediocrity of other Hollywood fantasy epics. With the release of his last Hobbit film, The Battle of the Five Armies, Jackson closes out his mammoth story with plenty of style, heart, and genuine emotion.  Fans should be pleased to see their journey mirror that of Bilbo’s and truly come full circle.  The ending is meant to pull the heartstrings and manages to do so pretty effortlessly, sliding us right into the start of The Fellowship of the Ring.  But the truth of the matter is that I was always going to be an easy sell with this last film.  For me this series is deeply personal.  To say that it changed my life wouldn’t be far off the mark.  It is for that very reason that it would be near impossible for me to give a completely objective review on this latest film, or any in the series for that matter.  That task thankfully falls to our editor David, though his love of this series runs deep. It should.  He named the site after it.

middle-earth

I can’t remember a time when The Lord of the Rings wasn’t a part of my life.  The words Tolkien, Elf, Dwarf, Orc, and Hobbit were probably part of my vocabulary from the time I could first walk and talk.  My brothers Max, Brad, and Brian had all devoured the writings of Tolkien in their teenage years and salivated over any depictions of his mythic work.  Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 rotoscoped animated adaptation got a lot of VCR playtime in my house, along with the crudely animated Rankin and Bass Hobbit and Return of the King TV specials. I vividly remember my brothers playing a Lord of the Rings version of the D&D board game that I begged over and over again to be a part of, and was quickly answered with a slammed door in my face…which I still resent, now that I come to think of it.

When I was about 7 years old I conceived and directed a 20-minute play adaptation of Bakshi’s version of LOTR for my 2nd Grade class.  I distinctly remember feeding lines to my fellow classmates on the day of the performance, and breaking a couple wooden swords from the neighboring high school prop shop that had so generously lent them to my teacher.  In fact, that may have been my earliest experience with theater performance; a bug that seemingly stuck considering my occupation as a musical theatre actor in Chicago.

By the time I entered high school my brothers had long been out of the house (I am the baby of the family) and my Tolkien enthusiasm had waned slightly.  I had read The Hobbit, attempted to make it through The Lord of the Rings many a time, and had thrown The Silmarillion across the room in disgust. [Ed. note — Nope, not alone there, either!]  The world as created by Tolkien may be vast and impressive, but the density of the material and dryness of his prose had kept his work at arm’s length from me.  To this day I remain more respectful to the source material than completely enamored with it like I am with Jackson’s screen adaptation.

When the first teaser-trailer arrived in 2000 announcing the impending release of one Lord of the Rings film every Christmas for the next three years, I was instantly intrigued.  It didn’t show much, but it was enough to get me and my brothers talking.  This was the “unfilmable” book that was so deeply cherished by millions finally coming to the big screen after all.  If this succeeded it would be as big as Star Wars.  If it flopped… film history would be very different, and the poorer for it.  When the theatrical trailer for The Fellowship of the Ring landed in 2001 my siblings and I were euphoric.  I remember Max visiting home and completely geeking out over Gandalf’s “Is it secret? Is it safe?” line from the trailer.  This film was certainly going to be an event to remember.

On December 11th, 2001 my parents relented to my constant nagging and consented to go see The Fellowship of the Ring on opening night with me.  It was a pretty big deal for them.  The only other film I can remember them taking me to on opening day was The Phantom Menace (yes, Star Wars is another fandom I inherited from my brothers).  Though my parents certainly like The Lord of the Rings and have never claimed otherwise, I think the joy it brings their children means much more to them than the books or films themselves.  From the eerie opening voiceover set against a black screen to the film’s final shot of a fiery Mordor in the distance, I sat wide-eyed and in awe of the experience.  Though film had always been a love of mine from a young age (I was raised on copious amounts of Spielberg and Lucas), this was the first time I can remember being completely transported to another world and simply not wanting to leave it.  Never had I seen real-world locations, characters, costumes, make-up, models, sets, and special effects blended so seamlessly together.  For those first three hours of the trilogy, Middle-Earth became real to me and I never wanted to leave.

The following two years were spent in continual anticipation of the next film.  I wasn’t content to keep my adoration to myself; my friends were also pulled into my obsession whether it was watching the extended editions over Thanksgiving with my next-door neighbor and sister from another mother Ellen, or buying my childhood best friend Aaron tickets to the next film for his birthday.  Middle-Earth was a constant fixture in my life.  I cherished the conversations I had with my brothers about the adaptations themselves, especially those with Max, whose Tolkien enthusiasm showed no bounds.  For whatever reason, whether it was missed phone calls or a slip of the mind, when The Return of the King hit theaters and the trilogy came to a close, Max and I never spoke about the film… and we never would.

On May 17, 2004 my brother Max died of a massive heart attack caused by hypertrophic cardiomyopathy at the age of 30.  That single event changed the dynamic of my family forever, and to an extent we are all still dealing with the fallout.  It’s hard to lose a brother, but even harder to lose a son, and my parents’ grief was difficult for them to bear.  At the funeral my brother Brian included a poem by J.R.R. Tolkien on the program whose title now escapes me.  I remember it being a moving and fitting tribute to Max whose life was a series of great adventures (he spent years saving up money and traveling to far off places).

It wasn’t until several years later when I was watching The Return of the King on DVD with my fiancé Elliot that it sunk in that I had never gotten to talk about the final film with Max. To me that conversation would have meant more than ever being able to say goodbye.  Suddenly my own grief, which perhaps I had never fully dealt with, washed over me and I became a hysterical mess.  It took several hours, a couple drinks, and a phone call to my parents to finally calm me down.  To this day I have a hard time sitting through The Return of the King and I have never been able to finish the book itself.  To quote Frodo Baggins in the film, “There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep, that have taken hold.”

As the years have rolled on I find myself coming back to The Lord of the Rings more and more often (specifically The Fellowship of the Ring).  I have certainly seen them more than any other film in my life, I have screened the making-of appendices at least 100 times,* and have even begun to do a yearly marathon of all three extended editions (the only cuts of the film any respectable fan will watch) in a single day.  The emotional attachment is palpable.  The Hobbit trilogy has been a different experience, but no less rewarding.  The films are a bit sillier, the fantasy quotient much higher, and Jackson’s indulgence in over the top action more prominent.  But his artistry and love of the material has not faltered.  There are nitpicks to be made and gripes to be had about certain story elements or portrayals of characters, but in the end who the hell cares?  The Lord of the Rings were not perfect movies, and neither are The Hobbit films.  What is important is the larger picture.  Jackson has crafted six films that flow together as one large story, in a world so rich and dense that fans will be coming back to them for decades to come.

*[Ed. note — those exhaustive DVD appendices were often just as delightful and exciting as the films themselves, especially to young filmmakers like us. The LOTR trilogy box set is the crown jewel of our collections.]

Knowing that The Battle of the Five Armies is the last Middle-Earth film likely to be released in my lifetime is a bittersweet feeling.  There is a moment late in the new film when the Jackson created She-Elf Tauriel cries out “If this is love, I don’t want it. Take it away, please! Why does it hurt so much?”  She is answered with “Because it was real.”  I suspect that is how many fans will feel at the end of this journey, and in a way it is Jackson’s own acknowledgement of how hard it will be to say goodbye to his creation and the people who made it a reality.  When I saw that moment I instantly thought of my brother Max, and how I wish he could have lived to see Jackson’s final six-film vision.  I sense he would have largely approved while simultaneously griping about one change or another from Tolkien’s beloved source material, just like a true fan.  And these films have been a love letter to us, the fans. For that, all I can say is thank you.

In September of this coming year I will be getting married to the love of my life, Elliot.  When we started planning the wedding there was no question of what our theme would be.  And so Middle-Earth continues to have a prominent place in my life and will continue to do so when we move to New Zealand in October on a working holiday.  Talk about a honeymoon — and just imagine how incredible that next marathon screening will be, surrounded by Middle-Earth itself! I may never leave.  But who knows where the journey will take us.  The road goes ever on and on…

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