'The Hobbit' film series: What will its legacy be?

The (presumably) final film in the 'Hobbit' series, 'The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,' hits theaters on Dec. 17. How will casual moviegoers and Tolkien fans remember the movies?

Mark Pokorny/Warner Bros. Pictures/AP
The 'Hobbit' films star Martin Freeman.

The last “Hobbit” film (we presume), “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” hits theaters in a couple of weeks, and with its release, the story of Bilbo Baggins's adventure will be over (time will tell whether more stories set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s world of Middle-earth will come to theaters). So how will the “Hobbit” movie series be remembered? As the inevitably inferior younger sibling of the critically acclaimed and box office smash “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, or as its own satisfying movie series?

The “Hobbit” film trilogy always had a lot to live up to. When director Peter Jackson, previously of such films as “Heavenly Creatures” and “The Frighteners,” took on the task of adapting Tolkien’s most famous work, the groundbreaking fantasy trilogy “The Lord of the Rings,” many were doubtful. “Rings” is full of expensive battle scenes, takes place in geographically diverse landscapes, and includes many fictional languages, like Elvish. How would a director bring a creature like Gollum to the screen? And Jackson went ahead and shot all three movies at the same time, before the first was released and he knew whether it was a success. At the time, Monitor writer Bonnie Churchill noted that “many are calling [the decision to shoot all three] ‘Hollywood’s biggest gamble’… the reported $270 million for the three films is still daunting, especially because, as Jackson points out, ‘fantasy films in Hollywood have seldom been a successful genre.’” 

But we all know how that turned out. The first “Rings” movie, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” became the second-highest-grossing movie of 2001, while the second, “The Two Towers,” became 2002's number two film, and the trilogy’s finale, “The Return of the King,” was the top-grossing movie of 2003, according to the website Box Office Mojo. All three were nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars and “King” won, still the only fantasy film to take the prize. 

So the adaptation of Tolkien’s previous work set in Middle-earth seemed inevitable. The book, which clocks in at more than 300 pages (“Rings,” when combined, is over 1,000) was first set to be filmed as two movies, then Jackson announced it would be three, with supplemental material by Tolkien also figuring into the story. This is a decision that displeased some fans – Deadline writer Mike Fleming Jr. titled his article about the decision “Say It Isn’t So!,” writing, “There wasn’t a wasted second in LOTR… I read The Hobbit numerous times and I don’t think that Bilbo Baggins has three films in him” and MTV writer Kara Warner writing, “We can’t ignore the fact that a third movie will make loads of money no matter how pure and good the intentions that go into it,” though she noted that “Jackson is not just a writer/director, he’s a total fanboy himself and knows how important Tolkien’s work is to the massive fanbase.” 

And many reviewers remarked on the decision to make two films three when writing about the first movie. Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune wrote that “turning the relatively slim 1937 volume “The Hobbit” into a trilogy, peddling seven or eight hours of cine-mythology, suggests a better deal for the producers than for audiences” and NPR critic Bob Mendello wrote of the movie, “You’ll sense that there’s a bit of padding going on here… it's mostly technology this time rather than story that's providing the depth.” Overall, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” holds a score of 58 out of 100 on the review aggregator website Metacritic, while “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” the second film, scored a 66. “Armies,” the final film, has only been reviewed by a few publications so far but currently holds a 62 score

It’s true that “Lord of the Rings” provided an extremely high standard to live up to when adapting the “Hobbit” films, and the “Hobbit” movies do have their entertaining points. But when looking back at the “Hobbit” movies, many will most likely point to the decision to split the story into three films as having stopped the movies from being all they could be. In addition, there’s the unavoidable fact that, since the “Hobbit” movies followed “Rings,” some felt Tolkien fatigue. (Monitor film critic Peter Rainer wrote in his review of “Unexpected,” “My first thought in watching ‘The Hobbit’ was: Do we really need this movie? It was my last thought, too… By the time the last of the “Rings” movies wrapped, I had had quite enough of orcs and dwarves and rings and Gandalf and Middle-earth.”)

However, if the "Hobbit" movies had never been adapted, many fans probably would have called it one of the biggest missed opportunities in Hollywood history. In the "Hobbit" films, “Lord of the Rings” fans got to check in again with heroes Bilbo, Gandalf, Legolas the elf, and others, and meet new ones like elf maiden Tauriel (an addition some critics praised), and for some, that’s enough.

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