Note: May contain spoilers for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings films.
At last the Hobbit film trilogy is complete, after last Wednesday’s release of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Overall, I’ve loved the film versions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s tale by Peter Jackson, director of the acclaimed Lord of the Rings films. But before I could enjoy The Hobbit films I felt I had to fight my own battle of five armies — and against my own One Ring.
In fact, whenever Christians in a sin-corrupted age try to enjoy stories, songs, or even holidays like Christmas, we must fight these same battles. Only then we can enjoy gifts with thanksgiving to God (1 Tim. 4:1–5).
The Ring: Our Own Sin
Before we fight external armies, our worst temptation is to abuse gifts for our evil desires. Like Thorin Oakenshield, we see wealth not as a means to help others, but to greed. Like Bilbo, we see a magic ring not as a means to help our friends, but to cheat or deceive.
And as sainted-yet-sinning Christians, we often fail to see stories as a means of thanksgiving to God. We first see them as means to our own mindless entertainment, infatuations with “sacramental” art, or vehicles that merely convey cargo of moral teaching or evangelism.
Scripture promises God will renew creation, including everything good in human culture. But until then, we cannot sentimentalize this age and skip sin-fighting to enjoy victory.
I’ve been tempted to hope more for the Hobbit films than I should. I wanted to have joyous experiences that matched my (likely revisionist!) memories of The Lord of the Rings films. I loved the first Hobbit film, but after the second one scorched me, I sought to get rid of this golden idol. Then I was better able to enjoy all three films and see their positive qualities.
Army 1: The Filmmakers’ Flaws
We vainly argue over whether we can read novels or see stories based on whether their creators are especially bad sinners, because all popular culture is tainted with human sin.
My wife is fond of saying, “Peter Jackson is a megalomaniac.” I’ve taken up the phrase and we both say it with a combination of affection and skepticism. Surely many filmmakers do prize power, wealth, and adulation, and can abuse these gifts for sinful ends. But if we get stuck on these flaws, we will miss the delights even flawed filmmakers can share with us.
Army 2: Ignorance of the Original Story
Casual fans and critics have spread many little myths about The Hobbit and Tolkien’s original story, such as 1) Lord of the Rings heroes such as Saruman, Radagast, and Galadriel were not even in the original book (Tolkien later clarified they were working behind the scenes), 2) Bilbo Baggins is the central hero of The Hobbit rather than the Dwarves (the actual book’s latter half makes Bilbo on onlooker and chronicler of the Dwarves’ quest), or 3) The Hobbit is only a nice, simple children’s story that only Jackson made dark and gritty (see the book’s nearly postmodern subversion of the “good returning king” theme).
I’ve found I can enjoy stories better by knowing more about the source material. That way you can embrace the extra steps that filmmakers take to honor the spirit and scenes of the original story, as Jackson and company do frequently in all their Middle-earth films.
Army 3: The Story’s Actual Shortfalls
In all three Hobbit films, everything touched by Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf the Grey, and Thorin Oakenshield and most of the Dwarves becomes (in a good way) enchanted cinematic gold.
Alas, then there’s the Tauriel subplot. An elf maiden whom the filmmakers made up falls in love with the Dwarf Kili. This clashed with the story’s themes and gave the last two films their most cringe-worthy moments. Jackson himself called the Tauriel addition “a very cold-blooded decision” to appeal to young female viewers. This weakened the second film and then devastated the third film’s finale in which Kili dies to protect Tauriel rather than Thorin.
Yes, many films are made to appeal to different viewers: hardcore fans, casual fans, and folks who “go to the movies” and merely pick a title while standing in line. Thus we get plot holes, dumb romances and action sequences, and just plain poor filmmaking decisions. But if you don’t fight these shortfalls to enjoy the overall story, you’re going to have a bad time.
Army 4: Grumpy Fans
Some fans of The Lord of the Rings and other popular stories seem determined to taint their own experience. They make movie announcements into a giant lifelong-sports-rivalry-style competition, such as attempts to pit DC’s superhero films against Marvel’s. They focus on box-office revenue reports like they’re game scoreboards. They reject stories wholesale because of one adaptation or casting choice. They feign shock to discover that the entire filmmaking process has all along been an Industry designed to sell tickets, merchandise, or a franchise.
I want to live in and appreciate the world I’m given. A day may come when we craft films that are utterly free of special-effects overindulgence and are fully faithful to the original books. A day may come when New Hollywood filmmakers worship only God and not franchise mammon, and fans don’t care who wins the box office. But it is not this day!
Army 5: Cynical Critics
More than disillusioned fans, apparently many critics seem to want the Hobbit films to fail. Jackson’s company already had their chance to take the “small hero saves the world” role, so now critics seem to say, “We’re bored with him. And by the way, we’re too old for these fairy tales about wizards and hobbits and Elves. And what are scenes ‘of dwarves wandering the hills or sitting around a table singing’ doing in a film? Just get rid of those” (ignoring the fact that these Tolkien-created scenes give the story much of its delight).
“Jackson delivered an incredibly brilliant and wildly successful film trilogy,” wrote Mark Hughes at Forbes. “And so like any artist who has great success he became the target of backlash as a certain predictable segment of folks in the press and just the population at large waited for him to fail and rooted for it to happen.”
Such cynicism explains some (not all) of The Hobbit hate-watching. But when filmmakers make bad films, I do not want to indulge in cheers or jeers. I would rather be disappointed when their films are not beautiful, good, and truthful. And when they are, I hope their creators will get credit for their work, and even better will credit their own Creator.
You may not enjoy or even see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. But for the stories you enjoy, please: toss the Ring, take up arms, and fight to delight in them. I will be there beside you, and at the end we’ll go home. We’re only little fellows in a wide world, after all.