In Defense of Peter Jackson: The Value of Interpretation

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This blog post will no doubt annoy a number of my closest friends, and particularly infuriate those who are the Middle Earth equivalent of the SSPX – i.e., more Tolkien-than-thou.  However my intent is not to make pleasantries, but rather to challenge perceptions and preconceptions in our culture.  To paraphrase Addison DeWitt, my native habitat is the blogosphere: in it I toil not, neither do I spin – I am simply a critic and commentator.

That being said, I will now freely admit that I am looking forward to catching Part One of Peter Jackson’s new film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” this weekend, if I can manage to snag a ticket at my local multiplex.  Rather than review a film which I have not yet seen, I want to address two points which all of us ought to keep in mind, and not just with respect to Jackson’s work.  The first and most important is to remind the reader of the value of variation and interpretation, in expression of the artistic imagination.  The second, which flows naturally from it, is to consider Jackson’s work within that context, as well as to judge it on its own merits.

Our cultural history is replete with examples of theme and repetition, not only because human beings enjoy variety, but also because the human imagination takes new pieces of insight from each reinterpretation of something which is already known to us.  We see this idea all the time, in literature, music, architecture, and so on.  If we look at art, for example, let us consider the subject of David, the shepherd boy from the Bible who became the King of Israel.

Were I to ask you to imagine a work of art representing David, the first image to come into your mind would likely be that of Michelangelo’s giant statue which stands in the Accademia in Florence.  This image of the shepherd-king has been famous since it was completed, an iconic and influential piece of sculpture known all over the world.  The serenity and confidence, the strong determination of this “ruddy youth”, as he is described in the Book of Samuel, who is growing into a man’s body and will soon become a great military leader, may have been intended as an allegory of Florence, but over time has come to represent the very idea of the Italian Renaissance for many.

Yet there are other images of David, created both before and after this particular work, which can bring about other levels of understanding.  Take Bernini’s David in the Borghese in Rome, for example, which was created during the Counter-Reformation as the Catholic Church fought back against Protestantism.  In this image, the young shepherd boy is shown about to slay Goliath with his slingshot.  He is wound up like a professional baseball pitcher, chewing on his lower lip with a look of keen concentration on his unseen target, narrowing his eyes to see exactly where to aim his weapon in order to do the most damage.

Whereas Michelangelo’s colossal David is rather static, Bernini’s is about action.  They are each a product of their time.  The former represents the newly-found confidence of a culture which believed that it was reviving the lost arts and knowledge of the Greeks and Romans, and expressed that confidence in the way it presented saints like King David.  The latter is that of an institution under attack from all sides, which is not going to roll over and play dead, but rather will fight back against those who would see it fail.

Ever since Peter Jackson released the first installment of his film version of “Lord of the Rings” ten years ago this month, there has been a mass of criticism that he has not done proper justice to the books.  Despite the total length of the three films extending to many hours, the refrain from Tolkien fans then was that Jackson had cut too much.  While some of this is made up for in the Extended Editions of the films on DVD, which are even better than the theatrical versions, Jackson admittedly had to make editorial decisions about what to put in, what to leave out, and so on, in bringing the story to the screen.  Similarly, now it seems that a common complaint among the commentariat is that turning “The Hobbit”, a much shorter book – comparatively – than the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy of novels, into three films is making it too long.  In other words, Mr. Jackson is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t.

Let us take what we have considered above with respect to the image of David, and apply it to what we are seeing here, with these films.  What Jackson himself has said in the past about his work, and it is a point with which I wholeheartedly agree, is that we need to keep in mind that these are HIS interpretations of the stories, using his talents and the resources available to him as best he can.  Moreover, he fully anticipates that at some point, another director will come along and make his own film version of Tolkien’s books.

It is a bit unfair – and frankly rather illogical – to expect one artistic medium to be able to express itself in the way that another does.  King David, after all, was a real person, who lived a long time ago, and his deeds are described in the Bible.  That, in itself, is an interpretation of his life through the inspired Scriptures.  Do we complain that Michelangelo or Bernini’s statues are unfair representations of David, because they do not actually move?  Do we whine because paintings of David by artists like Castagno or Caravaggio do not speak?

Rather, if we are honest with ourselves, we look at these works of art, and value them based on their own merits, but also in how they bring us back to the person of David and the stories about him in the Bible.  If Mr. Jackson tells an otherwise good story in a way which is unwatchable, then his film will fail; if he tells that story in a way which draws audiences in and makes them interested, then he will succeed.  And in so doing, then perhaps his work will cause people who have never heard of Tolkien or read his work, to go read the books for themselves.

The value of cultural reinterpretations of our values and virtues is that they constantly remind us to reflect on great topics, which with all of our everyday cares and concerns we so often do not get to do.  Tolkien himself was a novelist, not a filmmaker – and neither were Count Leo Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, or any of the other writers whose works are coming to the big screen this season.  While some may not like Jackson’s particular interpretation of Tolkien’s writing, the real question to be asked is not whether it is a complete representation of Tolkien’s work on screen, but whether there is enough virtue in what appears in the film to reflect favorably on at least some of the author’s concerns.

In the spirit of cultural maturity, we need to give Mr. Jackson the chance to tell his version of Tolkien’s story, and enjoy the good parts of it even as we acknowledge those portions which we may not like.  For the next cinematic interpretation of these novels will no doubt be just as different from Jackson’s version, as Bernini’s David is from Michelangelo’s.

Hobbit

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63 thoughts on “In Defense of Peter Jackson: The Value of Interpretation

  1. Pingback: 7 Quick Takes: Books, Books, Books (books!) » Restatement of the Obvious

  2. I saw this on Friday night, and even as a Tolkien nerd (my street cred: I let out a giddy “hell yes” as soon as Gandalf referenced Gondolin), I absolutely loved the movie. I first read The Hobbit when I was eight years old, and it was like a dream come true seeing it on the screen. Yeah, the movie has problems — particularly the pacing — but it was a worthy effort.

    Thanks, PJ.

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      • Not a problem. :) and people’s expectations when it comes to adaptations will never live up to the final product. People have a way of putting pieces of art on a pedestal, which is natural to me when you love something, but this also comes with the knowledge that I — and the others of my Tolkien-nerd ilk — have no authority to dictate what makes an adaptation “faithful” or “pure.” I was just happy to see other asses in the seats, enjoying PJ’s interpretation. I like to think that Tolkien himself would accept whatever adaptation came from his work.

        And besides, I’m way more nervous about the “On The Road” adaptation.

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      • As I pointed out in the piece, stories can be interpreted in many ways – music, art, film, etc. If the interpretation is good, it brings some new insight to the tale, no matter how familiar we may be with it already. Jackson like any creative artist is just bringing his interpretation to the screen. So long as Smaug does not turn out to be the Gmork from “The Neverending Story”, I think we’ll be okay.

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  3. I think the “purity” of the movie is dependent upon the way our favorite scenes are treated. For me, seeing the water of the river Bruinen assume the shapes of horses and wipe out the Nazgul in “The Fellowship of the Ring” meant Jackson was going to treat the stories right. It didn’t matter that Frodo wasn’t carried by Arwen in the book. It was seeing that visual I’ve always had in my mind come to live on the screen. I think Jackson will do right by “The Hobbit”.

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  4. I completely agree with you here. Although I had mixed feelings about some elements of the Hobbit film, I think Peter Jackson’s interpretation is respectful and valid and I think the films can be appreciated distinct from the books.

    I also loved the David analogy – I’ve always preferred Bernini personally and I’m glad to see someone else of that opinion!

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  5. I’m interested in the 48fps effect, did people like it? What did it add to the experience? I have found that a higher frame rate can make movies look like a cheap soap opera:

    http://ryesofthegeek.wordpress.com/2012/11/02/setting-up-your-new-hdtv-the-perils-of-the-soap-opera-effect/

    I hadn’t read Tolkien prior to seeing Jacksons Lord of The Rings Trilogy. It did inspire me to check out the books, which I must say, were really enjoyable to read.

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  6. Talking about personal take-out from any movie is about 90% projection of self onto that “mirror”. Tolkien’s genius made his books a collection of “mirrors” for virtually anyone. Books are generally better than movies at that. Jackson was good because he did not give the viewer just one, his own “mirror” of Tolkien, but offered a whole collection of them, as many as he could keep, given the movie format. Psychologically, it is a very well calculated project, from scene selection to the cast. Really. It is a calculated piece of art.

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  7. I admit, I am a total snob when it comes to adapting books for film. After a childhood filled with adaptations that fell lightyears short of the original classic books (see: every adaptation of PETER PAN, THE SECRET GARDEN, A LITTLE PRINCESS, or any Edith Nesbit book ever made), I expect to be disappointed by adaptations.
    That said, Peter Jackson’s interpretation and presentation of LOTR in film actually saved the trilogy for me. I loved THE HOBBIT as a kid, and was very discouraged by FOTR. I tried to get through the first 100 pages of FOTR three times, eventually forcing myself through it as I heard the movies were going to be coming out. I hated the trilogy the first time I read it – too many names, histories, and poems that weren’t directly related to the story itself left me confused and unable to keep track of the primary story threads. Jackson gave me a face for each of the main characters and a firm hold on the plot. Since then I’ve become such a Tolkien-head that I actually managed to get academic credit for studying LOTR and The Silmarillion three times – once in high school, twice at Stanford. The reviews for the Hobbit films are not encouraging, but I hope to enjoy the films anyways.

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  8. I went in with high expectations, and I was pleased with what Jackson put forth. Was it a little bloated? Sure, but that is to be expected when he brings in Silmarillion content.

    Was it faithful to the source text? Hell yea. And at the end of the age, I think that is all that really matters.

    I wrote my own review, but you captured a lot of what I said here.

    Nice work and congrats on Freshly Pressed!

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  9. Pingback: The Hobbit: Adaptation’s Pitfalls | Wildness

  10. I was as excited as a child at Christmas on my way to the theater this past Saturday to watch “The Hobbit” in spite of reading reviews that were less than favorable. I don’t usually let others opinions influence my own expectations in a film, especially critics, otherwise I would have missed out on many a good movie. Most of the negative comments were about the speed of the frame that caused some viewers to get nauseous which was showing in only a few selected theaters. The only fear I had was that “The Hobbit” would not be as wonderful as the Trilogy of LOTR. I was pleased to be wrong. The very idea of another hobbit movie “challenged my perceptions.”

    I have never read the books written by Tolkien. I have only come to know his works through Jackson’s movies. I am a spiritual person who believes in the Bible and so was Tolkien. I was immediately drawn to the parallels in the LOTR trilogy more than “The Hobbit” which was my only disappointment although, I must say that I think most of us can relate to the subtitle “An Unexpected Journey” when our lives take a turn we could not have expected. I wonder what Tolkien would think of the movie; not only the telling of the story but the special affects. In this era of digital artistry, I am overwhelmed by the amazing technology that can enhance any story and bring it to life.

    The cliffhanger of this event has made me feel like a real “Halfling” junkie. I am eager for the next installment. Thank you for your interesting piece….and I also congratulate you on Freshly Pressed.

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  11. Truthfully, I went in with no expectations, given I read the book over 15 years ago and remembered only the broad strokes of it [and the fact that I loved it]. The movie did not disappoint me and I do believe it is a valid interpretation, which even tries to draw from the Silmarillion to stay sort of true to the original intent. Also, I have to commend his efforts for undertaking Tolkien content, when you are guaranteed to get criticized regardless of what you do. So, not the movie of the year, but definitely worth watching!

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  12. Good post. I’m listening to the audiobook version of The Hobbit before seeing the film next week. I’m more than willing to give it a shot.

    FYI -The Lord of the Rings isn’t a “trilogy of books.” There are six of them in total.

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  13. “It didn’t really go like that! In the book…”
    This is what you always hear in the movies based on books
    I do it do I must admit. Its too much fun.
    But good point made here. Let us take interpretations as interpretations

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  14. Hello! I grew up in Tolkein Country, in Birmingham UK, less than a mile from his childhood home, his childhood haunts were mine – and even today I live in another part of the city but my flat looks out over Perrott’s Folly and Edgbaston Water Works, the two towers that inspired him on LOTR. My boyfriend loves to tell people that I grew up in The Shire! I am not looking forward to this film :-( Having to study it every school year has borne in me a certain hatred for all this hype. Still, I’m sure it’s a fantastic film – and my guilt – as a Brummie – over not wanting to see it is mind-blowing!

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  15. The Hobbit movie was a dream that I dreamed when I was young. It was fantastic for me. I know, it is not the perfect movie, it was too long for a small book. But Martin was Amazing. It was different, but LotR was different too (I miss a lot of things in the first movie) but even so it was a great trilogy. We might not enjoy all the things, but that does not make it bad. I think There was “enough virtue”. And I loved it.

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  16. My wife and I saw the movie last Friday and loved every minute of it.
    Since I’ve never read any of Tolkien’s books, I’m spared the inner conflict of comparing.
    But Mr. Jackson did a DARN GOOD JOB.
    And you’re right, Mr. Newton, every work should speak for itself – and every artist too.

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  17. I saw the movie a few days ago (in 24fps, by the way) and absolutely loved it. Yes, Peter Jackson changed many things, or moved them around, but I understood all the changes he made (as opposed to some in LOTR) and I think it made for a stronger movie. In some ways, this movie is for the fans more than the uninitiated. He brings in and shows so much of the background that is only implied or hinted at in the books. It made the whole thing so much fuller. I hope others like it. I want it to do well, but for me, it was pretty close to perfect.

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  18. Great post! I’ve loved Tolkien’s work since I was a child, and loved Peter Jackson’s interpretation of the Lord Of The Rings. For me it’s about the spirit of the books being represented, not a blow by blow retelling of them. So I’m hoping I’ll feel the same way about “The Hobbit”.

    A quote which I came across which relates to your post is this one from John le Carré talking about the film adaptation of “The Constant Gardener”:

    “The job of the movie as far as I’m concerned – the novelist – is to take the minimum intention of the novel and illustrate it with the maximum of freedom. In movie language, in movie grammar. There’s hardly a line left,there’s hardly a scene intact that comes from my book, yet I don’t know of a better translation from novel to film.”

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  19. Tolstoy is a good reference – the latest adaptation of Anna Karenina (expressionist, cuts out large chunks of the narrative) would seem to be pretty diametrically opposed to the book (realist novel, arguably different moral conclusions implied vis a vis karenina and society).

    Point being that films are adaptations of novels, and like you said, you can hardly criticise one medium for not being another medium.

    Purists will always sniff, especially about films because they’re never going to be the picture you see in your head while you read. Hence the book ‘always’ being ‘better’ than the film.

    Personally a fan of neither LOTR books nor films, liked the Hobbit (book), not desperate to see the film. But I can see that they were ambitious, fully realised takes on Tolkien’s world.

    And that’s surely all you can ask for.

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  20. “And in so doing, then perhaps his work will cause people who have never heard of Tolkien or read his work, to go read the books for themselves.”
    –this is true, because I first saw LotR way back 2001 (or New Year of 2002) in our country, and at that time I really didn’t have any knowledge about it or of Tolkien. But the movie was beautifully done it encouraged me to read the books. I still don’t know much about Middle Earth but the movies made me appreciate works of literature like Tolkien’s. When I read that there really were no Elves in aid at Helm’s Deep, I was a bit disappointed of the film version, but I still respect Peter Jackson’s decision why he added it. And until now I still have.

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  21. Firstly let me say this was an excellent blog entry. Sadly, though I don’t agree with most of it. Personally I feel Peter Jackson just saw a window to make a mountain of money, but by doing so turned what could have been an incredible 3 or even 6 hours into a boring, slowly paced film. The beauty of The Hobbit over The Lord of the Rings is it is more accessible by younger audiences. A credible version of The Hobbit may have encouraged some of them to put down their iPads and pick up the book. After watching the film now, they will probably imagine that the book is as boring as the film and give it a miss.

    I feel this work has nothing to do with ‘artistic-vision’ and everything to do with making money!

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    • I agree with you somewhat re the money-making of it. PJ obviously had a tighter budget on this one (at least if the excessive CGI is anything to go by) and more than a little pressure from the producers, so that is understandable :).

      The trouble is, I am not sure whether the fact that everyone loves PJs rendition is testament to the great imagination of the tolkien-literate masses (it takes a fair amount of imagination to match the film to the books) or a nearly complete lack thereof (1. those who had read the book and enjoyed the movie obviously didn’t get in touch with enough of the magic behind the former that they are satisfied with the film and 2. those who had not read the book prior to watching can only be partially forgiven, because of their enjoyment of something so substandard.

      I think the film is only successful if non-literates start with it and end with the book (without looking back). As someone who has read only a fraction of Tolkien so far, I selfishly see no benefit in the films for me, whatsoever, except (unselfishly) as an opportunity for healthy discussion. As Lewis might say, it’s like choosing to build mudpies in the slum, not being able to conceive of a holiday at the seaside. But, Lewis would also agree that there is hope for all. We were all ignorant once and luckily Tolkien is not the be-all and end-all :)

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  22. I saw the movie at the midnight showing Thursday night/ Friday morning. A couple of months before the release I had started getting qualms about it, because I had built it up so much in my head, I thought the end product could never match up. However, come December 14 midnight I couldn’t have been more excited. I loved every bit of the film and left the theatre absolutely satisfied and pumped for the second installment.
    Many people have complained about the length to me, yet I didn’t find it long at all. It ended when it had to to end, it seemed very natural to me. Another thing everyone cribbed about was the pacing. I mean come on, they are on an adventure which means that there are slow moments as well as action packed ones. In a film you cannot have a perfect balance of both, sometimes you need to throw out the slow moments to get the non-fans into the movie.
    All this is just my opinion anyway. I hope you enjoy the movie when you watch it! I will be seeing it again in a couple of weeks :D

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  23. Thank you for reminding readers and movie-goers that, when it comes to both mediums, there is no right or wrong answer or interpretation. I remember being asked in English class that dreaded question about a book-“And what do you think that means?”-and finding that everyone in class had a different idea. I hated the exercises, but understand their point now as I attempt to describe my own views on both. It’s refreshing to find others who can step back from fighting over opinions and see it for what it is.

    I haven’t read The Hobbit in many years, but I do disagree with the overwhelming amount of critics who claim that the movie was too long and too slow. Did everyone expect them to meet Smaug in the first installment?? Frankly, I wasn’t even expecting them to meet Gollum yet! This is a story, and like any story worth telling, it requires development, and I loved how Peter Jackson introduced and let us get to know the different characters just a little bit more. I believe this is a trilogy that will be great, and one that will always be on my favorite movie shelves, no matter the disdainful sniffs of the critics.

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  24. Thanks for this. I must say that I agree with and appreciate your views on the subject of interpretation, especially in this case. I am an avid Tolkien fan and loved the LOTR films… after the initial shock that is. I, like many others of my ilk, balked at many of the changes -particularly in The Two Towers- but once again agree with you that the Extended additions are really much better than the theatrical releases. A point that I would like to make here is the undeniable fact that Jackson and his merry band are clearly Tolkien fanatics, but they are also film-makers and yes, that means having to be concerned about making money. However, anyone that truly knows Tolkien’s woks will have recognized the depth of the references to obscure texts beyond even The Silmarillion. All that said, I must also note that I am glad that LOTR came first, for my heart will always be with The Hobbit first and knowing what to expect from Jackson -and his interpretive sense- before seeing it I was able to appreciate it that much more…and yeah, Gondolin. Right on!

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  25. Take into consideration that Jackson is not making three movies out of one book. He is making three movies out of one children’s book written in the 1930s, one more mature audience oriented set of appendices formulated and published 10 to 20 years later, and one (or more) other Tolkien books that were technically unfinished but made whole by his son another 20 years later. On top of that he is trying to connect the movie the Hobbit to the movie the Lord of the Rings in ways that Tolkien did not (its not that he didn’t, its that the way that he did it would bore most people, who don’t have time to read everything Tolkien wrote, just the three or four more well-known works, and then not always in their entirety.) Were he entirely faithful to the Hobbit, there would be a disconnect with the Lord of the Rings movies, for which he already took artistic license. I did see the movie. It wasn’t perfect. The types of things I was critical of at age 21 may have been the types of things that were also in the Lord of the Rings movies, but I didn’t notice how strange they were because of how young (10 or 11 to 12 or 13) I was and now, because I am used to them I wouldn’t want the movies without them.

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  26. I enjoyed reading your thoughts about the difficulties inherent in the process of adapting works from one medium to another. Jackson’s LOTR adaptations are not “like the books”. They are popular and repected because they are fine films, and they work as films. In the books, Hobbits are much more down-to-Earth and far less comical. Most of the Hobbits are real doofs in the movies, but it’s needed to balance all the dark elements.

    Whoever said something about Silmarrilion content in The Hobbit film didn’t realize that New Line, the producers, are legally barred from using that content. The backstory stuff in The Hobbit is from footnotes and appendices in the LOTR trilogy, which they have rights to.

    Having seen the film, I do think it’s okay, not great, and nowhere near the quality of the previous trilogy. The bloat others have mentioned was created by trying to make this film more like the previous successful ones. It’s a high-quality, high budget exercise in selling out. It looks terrific, and has a number of boring slow parts, and big battles that look like video game material. It should have been made as a single film. Reading the book makes that obvious.

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  27. I watched the film and found it enjoyable. Like others movies adapted from books it has its differences ( I say differences because as you said it is his interpretation of the story). It is not a play by play of the book but have yet to find a movie that is.

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  28. Pingback: More Tolkien than Thou? « The Road Goes Ever On

  29. Twists and surprises! As one who has read the novel probably a dozen times, I wasn’t expecting to be entertained. I went as a critic and an expert, but left inspired. Good heavens, I forgot my handkerchief!

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  30. It will always astound me that anyone could find anything to complain about with Peter Jackson’s interpretations of Tolkien’s work – and I challenge them to do better.

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  31. Hey, I enjoyed reading this post. I also recently saw the film and thought it was a good film. I didn’t think it was great nor did I think it was a waste of time. However, I think he went way overboard with the visual effects and the walking. I also enjoyed the first three films (I have my qualms, but still enjoyed the film.) and thought the length wasn’t bad. However, I did and still do think that making the Hobbit into 3 films is a lot. I could understand two, but three? Maybe if he cut out some of the walking, it would have been able to fit into two films. But I guess we will have to wait to see what happens.

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    • I actually heard recently that the first 2 Hobbit movies are based on The Hobbit book, but that the third focuses more on the undercurrents that lead to LOTR, basically showing what Gandalf does with the time in between the two series…

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