It’s safe to say that in the current film climate, studios are chasing franchises. Standalone films and tv shows are no longer considered safe bets; instead, every new release should be a part of a trilogy or cinematic universe – focusing on the forest, not the trees. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (and its competitor the DC Universe), Harry Potter, and Star Wars have all been astronomical successes for their studios and everyone is now keen for a piece of that franchise pie. However, it’s possible that none of these franchises would be where they are now without the original Peter Jackson-directed trilogy of The Lord of the Rings movies, still watchable today and the originators of the modern blockbuster trilogy – made in a very different way to how these new kids on the block might handle it. Now that Warner Bros is planning to return to the setting of Middle-Earth for more films, it’s hard to imagine that they can reach the same level of unique quality that the original trilogy set for the franchise.
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When one of the first major trailers for Spider-Man: No Way Home was released, one line drew a significant amount of ire from fans. When well-known supervillain Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) tells our main cast his name, one laughs and asks what his ‘real’ name is. The line isn’t really unusual in the MCU, but it illustrated a continuous problem: characters always act like movie characters. Characters can feel a bit too confident in their surroundings and abilities, and thus the audience doesn’t really buy when something serious is happening because it’s always fizzled out by some self-aware joke that reminds them they’re watching a movie. If the audience can’t get immersed, they won’t care as much as they would otherwise.
Lord of the Rings understands this, and it always approaches Middle-Earth with a level of respect and regard that feels a bit lost in other big-budget movies. The premise might seem a bit silly at a first glance (all evil is somehow contained in a small golden ring in a village of “leaf” smoking, heavy-drinking farmers), but throughout all three movies, there is not a single joke at the story’s expense. The ring is serious business, and therefore by extension, Sauron and his legions of evil are also serious business. Whenever Ringwraiths beset our heroes, the film is enveloped with sinister chants and choirs. If the Hobbits are caught, death and enslavement are waiting for them. Since the wraiths and Sauron are never joked about, the audience grows to have respect for their presence. In the scene where a wraith has seemingly found our four hobbits under a root, there’s a real palpable tension that they’ll be found. You might find yourself holding your breath with the others. That level of immersion has power – the movie’s getting in your head in the best way possible.
It’s not just fear that the movies easily get across to their audiences, it also succeeds at communicating the grandeur of the setting itself. Middle-Earth is given the beauty it deserves through the awe-inspiring vistas of New Zealand, and every area feels dripping with history and a real sense of space. The films also communicate sadness quite well, giving room for moments of true despair when it’s warranted. When things are truly hopeless, the audience is left in that space. No quips or jokes can save them from this feeling. Though that’s not to say there are no jokes, they’re just cleverly spaced out so that they never trample over a different emotion that the audience should be feeling. Even the two closest characters the Fellowship has to comic relief, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), still have dramatic moments and important roles to play in the events of the story.
While focusing on setting and character makes the world of Lord of the Rings feel lived in and real, the reason that the franchise has fared so well is its focus on sincerity and honest emotion. Movies and TV shows these days can feel a bit insecure about their big emotions, lamp shading them with quick quips and jokes, or even a fourth wall break. This is usually in place to ensure that the audience never assumes the work is “pretentious” or “melodramatic”. There’s nothing wrong with that, in theory, but overuse means that nothing can feel genuine anymore. If the writers are too afraid to leave the audience alone to experience big emotions for fear of judgment, everything ends up feeling immature, and the audience is never allowed to immerse themselves. It’s as if a film interrupted its story every ten minutes to yell, “Oh, but don’t worry, it’s a movie!”.
Lord of the Rings never gives in to the impulse to undercut scenes or interrupt genuine emotional moments. This has a cumulative effect that makes everything in the movies feel impactful because the audience is properly immersed in the world. Lord of the Rings juggles big world-ending stakes, it deals with grand emotion in the context of old operatic stories of good and evil. The movies are made with this tone in mind and aren’t ashamed of it.
One of the best examples of this sincerity coming through in spades is in the relationship between Sam (Sean Astin) and Frodo (Elijah Wood). While the cast is expansive, and we follow several different groups of characters throughout the story, these two are the closest the series has to “main characters”. As ringbearers, their job is the most important in the entire cast, if they fail, the world falls into pure darkness, no matter what anybody else in the story accomplishes. However, juxtaposed to the grand heroes that make up the rest of the cast, the two feel remarkably grounded, just two regular guys from back home who need to do the impossible. As they travel, their friendship grows as the tension and evil of the rings drive them into conflict after conflict, the journey becoming more painful with every step. This informs their character arcs and actions, the companionship of Sam is one of the few things keeping Frodo from straying from the path. Through every action and interaction in the story, it's clear that this friendship is the core of the franchise.
The existence of any new Lord of the Rings movies not only has to contend with how well the original trilogy succeeded, it also has to work with the fact that The Hobbit trilogy failed. Mired with directorial changes, a complete lack of pre-production (compared to the original’s years-long pre-production), an over-reliance on CGI, and largely weak character writing, The Hobbit trilogy is a disaster in almost every sense of the word. While lucrative (it would’ve probably been impossible for a sequel series to the Lord of the Rings to flop), the films declined in critical and commercial success as the movies went on, leading to the mess that was The Battle Of Five Armies, the lowest grossing Middle-Earth movie ever to be produced (the sixth highest grossing of 2014, but the point still stands).
The movies feel decidedly absent of almost everything that made the original movies good. The world is still beautiful, but it feels less tactile and lived in since the CGI is stretched far beyond its ability in order to compensate for shortcomings. While every member of the fellowship felt alive and grounded, most of the dwarves fade into the background and are completely forgotten most of the time. The films feel desperate to capitalize on nostalgia for the previous films by shoehorning in characters like Legolas, Sauron, and the White Council (who never appeared in the book), and adding a love triangle that feels embarrassingly shallow and motivated entirely by a studio-mandated attempt to broaden the film’s appeal.
There are still moments of sincerity and good character work in these movies, but when they appear, they feel like exceptions to the rule. The first movie is the best because it still remembers to be “about” the main characters, a trait the sequels largely ignore. Overall the trilogy feels frustratingly cynical. At its best moments, it only barely manages to recreate what the original trilogy did so well, and at its worst, it just feels like a poorly managed mess without any real heart behind it.
The philosophy of the Lord of the Rings series (and the reason it’s still the perfect trilogy) is in its attention to little details. Small character interactions and steps make up a greater epic story of good vs evil and friendship and companionship triumphing in the face of unbelievable odds. This attention to detail is reflected in the production of the movies themselves, with master craftsman hand-making props, costumes, and prosthetics, down to even making lightweight chainmail for the minor background actors to wear. It makes the audience believe and appreciate the small stuff, which makes it far easier to sell the big stuff when it comes around.
This message is delivered quite handily in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (even stopped clocks are right sometimes) when Gandalf (Ian Mckellen) answers Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) why he brought Bilbo (Martin Freeman) along for the quest. He answers that while Saruman believes great power is what is required to keep evil at bay, Gandalf believes it is regular folk being kind and ‘showing love’ that makes the real difference. This focus on elements that don’t seem to matter is a distilling of what makes Lord of the Rings so special and so different from most franchises. There are grand heroes and saviors galore, but it is in its sincere attention to the small, simple things that resonate with people even today.
If Warner Bros wants to be successful in making more Lord of the Rings movies, these are the tenets they need to follow. If they skimp out on deep characters, respect for the setting, and genuine emotion, they might still be able to deliver good films, but they won’t deliver anything close to the quality of the original three.2023-03-18T22:04:45Z dg43tfdfdgfd