Usually it takes a long time for a film to reach an untouchable status, but Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings managed to achieve that feat pretty much right out of the gate. Even while the final film was still in theaters, people would give you a dirty look should you have the audacity to admit that you weren’t a fan. This untouchable status has only been reinforced over the years thanks to a myriad of home video releases and rabid fanbase willing to gobble each new box set up -- all of which culminated in last week’s release of the Lord of the Rings Extended Edition Trilogy on Blu-ray.
Well, prepare to direct your most disapproving dirty looks this way, because I’ve got a confession to make: I’m one of those weirdos who doesn’t like Lord of the Rings.
Trust me, no one wants to like these movies more than I do. I saw every single one of them opening day at midnight (and that was back when midnight releases weren’t all the rage, either), but every time I walked away feeling a little sad, like I wasn’t in on a joke that everyone at a party kept laughing about. I never felt all that motivated to watch the extended editions when they first hit on DVD, so the last time I’d actually seen any of the films in full was opening day. I was thrilled, then, to revisit Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and Return of the King in their longer, director-intended cuts on Blu-ray. Perhaps I’d finally see what everyone else had fallen instantly in love with over the last decade...
Nope. I still don’t like the Lord of the Rings. Worse yet, I think I may even like them less now than I did nine years ago. And having finally revisited these epic displays of cinematic wizardry, I can actually pinpoint why I don’t like them. It all boils down to one simple fact: Middle Earth is a miserable place. Sure, I realize that LOTR takes place at the turning of the tide, at a time when the denizens of the world are all on the verge of feeling the returned wrath of Sauron, the land’s meanest jeweler, and that complaining about Middle Earth being a depressing place to live is like walking through a Warsaw ghetto in WWII and complaining about everyone being so glum. But the thing is, even if Sauron weren’t a looming threat, Middle Earth would still be a miserable place.
The best part of the entire trilogy is the time we spend at the shire at the beginning of Fellowship. It’s the only time we get a real sense for what life is like in Middle Earth. We can see how people make a living, how they relate to and define their world. Once we leave the shire, however, all of that enjoyable world building goes out the window. After that our fated band of adventurers just wander from one crappy city filled with miserable people to the next crappy city filled with miserable people. (Apparently there are no villages in Middle Earth -- you either live in a ruined city or you don’t live at all. Hell, even the underground cities are borked.) And all I can think about the entire time they’re explaining the intricacies of inter-race politics is “What the hell do these people do when they’re not fearing a ring?”
Every damned city they go to looks like it was built by thousands of the land’s greatest craftsmen, but is only populated by a few dozen people, all of whom invariably seem to hate their scumbag kings. The only interesting person of power in the movie is the Elf Lord Elrond, and he basically doesn’t want to have a damned thing to do with the entire story because he realizes everyone else is just going to bring him down. All of the other kings and princes and wizards are invariably assholes.
Why am I supposed to care about the future of all these people? Why am I supposed to care if Sauron replaces their already miserable leaders? Or if he just sends his legion of orcs to scorch their lands? Even the Gods forsaken ghosts have to serve a shitheel king. Middle Earth is a crapshoot whether you’re dead or alive.
And don’t even get me started on Gandalf and Frodo. The former is the land’s dullest wizard (Oooh, the room gets dark when his voice gets angry and he can blind the enemy by charging at them with the rising sun to his back -- truly awe-inspiring stuff! At least Saruman shot some fireballs...) and the latter is only given the hero roll because he’s a simpleton. He’s the Forrest Gump of Middle Earth-- everyone else around him does important, heroic things and all he does is be present and screw up whenever possible.
Having said all that, I don’t HATE the movies. I am genuinely awed by the breadth of Peter Jackson’s vision as a filmmaker, I just think the story, in particular the world in which it takes place, is inexplicably both boring and obnoxious. I don’t feel transported at all when watching the film’s because Middle Earth is too threadbare a world for what’s supposed to be such a rich fantasy. It only has three zones: heartwarming shire, desolate wastelands, and miserable city. The former isn’t strong enough to carry the burden of the 12+ hour story on its shoulders, the middle isn’t interesting enough to make the wandering worth it, and the latter is so disappointing it cancels out all the goodwill the fantastic cast and production values bring to the table.