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There and Back Again

The inspiration for a thousand New Zealand holidays.

A young filmmaker, a familiar door, a journey begins.

In December 2001, a group of friends gathered in a cinema on the outskirts of Dublin. They’d known each other for six or seven years at that point, having met in college and bonded over roleplaying games, science fiction and fantasy. They were in the cinema to watch a film they’d been waiting years to see: Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings. It didn’t disappoint.

Earlier this morning, I was in a cinema in central Dublin, watching the last of Jackson’s Tolkien films, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. None of those friends were there, but there was another group of cinephiles around me. It was a very different person watching as the credits rolled for the last time. The experience was never going to be the same, but even so, some of the spirit of that first night carried over.

The Fellowship of the Ring was one of those events you never expect. We were all lovers of Tolkien to one degree or another, and there had been one very patchy animated version years before. Scepticism about Jackson’s version was high, but we weren’t about to miss it. One of us had just flown in from California that morning, and was fuelled by caffeine and Ben & Jerry’s as he took his seat.

From the opening credits and Cate Blanchett’s voiceover, the doubts washed away. Through the combination of music, actors, New Zealand scenery, artists and computer wizardry, Jackson had summoned Middle Earth to life. If it wasn’t what we’d seen in our minds’ eyes, it was undeniably a complete creation: the Nazgul were terrifying, the One Ring a force of evil bound in a band of gold, the Fellowship a believable cast of characters flawed and noble. Even moments that veered from the book, such as Gandalf and Saruman’s duel in Orthanc, worked. The sight of two elderly actors acrobatically battering each other somehow balanced perfectly with the gravitas that Ian McKellan and Christopher Lee have to spare.

We were sold, and most of the cinema-going world were too.

The arguments began with the sequel, The Two Towers. Though they’d all been filmed together, here and there Jackson’s vision failed to please everyone. For example, I liked the changes to the character of Faramir, who I’d never been fond of in the book. Others found the same changes annoying.

So it went through the next film, The Return of the King. A fine end to the trilogy, but more and more niggling arguments about how the books had fared in the translation. We disagreed, we debated, the films were over, we went on with our lives. Our lives changed, and years passed. Many of the events that nine years can bring were visited on us, but we stayed friends for the most part, drifting but not severing the ties.

Then came another Jackson film in Tolkien’s world: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Scepticism was higher yet, but it wasn’t something to be missed. Those of us who were able to made their way to the cinema. We watched it, we discussed it and it was clear that it wasn’t the same experience at all. As is often the case, I was looking for the good points, playing devil’s advocate against those annoyed by the bad. Even I couldn’t argue though that Jackson was suffering from auteur syndrome, which had previously afflicted J.K. Rowling, George Lucas and George R.R. Martin: he’d become so successful that either everyone else bought into his vision or no one dared to tell him when to rein it in.

The thing that has bothered me about the second Jackson trilogy is the lack of subtlety. Many of the best moments of the first trilogy came when actors interpreted words straight from Tolkien’s book. But The Hobbit is a much shorter book than The Lord of the Rings and written in a very different tone. It’s a children’s adventure that draw on fairy tales and Arthurian romances, with the mythic history of the later book very far in the background. In stretching a slender book out to three lengthy movies, Jackson had to fill in the gaps with much that Tolkien only hinted at, or material that he didn’t even write at all.

It can’t have been an easy job, and as much as he might be attached to the project, I imagine that he’s happy to put down it and move on to pastures new. Throughout the Hobbit movies, the need to provide something truly cinematic has been at the forefront. Stretched though they might have been, they’ve also been packed with incident, drama, action, humour and scares. Roller coaster cinema, with all the good and bad implications of that.

The final film is perhaps the strongest of the three. It’s also the shortest, showing signs of having been cut very tight. There are some impressive moments, and some annoying ones. I suspect most of my friends from that long-ago night would have been mostly annoyed, but I enjoyed it for what it was. I’ll not spoil any of it for those of you yet to see it, but I will mention one scene from right at the end, so if you don’t want to know about it, skip the next paragraph and know that I recommend the film.

In that scene, Martin Freeman as Bilbo and Ian McKellan as Gandalf sit quietly together in the aftermath of battle. No words are spoken, but you understand perfectly all that the two of them have been through. Jackson knows well enough to let the two actors, who between them have been the moral and emotional heart of six films, carry the weight of the moment. It’s beautiful and it’s subtle and to my mind it’s worth the price of admission on its own. It made me think of absent friends and shared experiences, of those who’ve gone and yet remain in memory and affection.

For all their ups and downs, Jackson’s films stand as a remarkable achievement. That they happened at all is impressive. That they built a recognisable world of their own, attracted millions of viewers and sparked a rebirth of fantasy and science fiction on our screens is something to be thankful for. HBO’s Game of Thrones wouldn’t exist without Jackson’s films, to say nothing of many other works, both lesser and greater. And while opinions may be divided between my friends and I, it’s a pleasure to have so much to argue about.

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