The Lord of the Rings Film Trilogy
Marathoning explores what happens when you remove the serial quality from a television show or film series and instead become a habitual binge-watcher. Is something lost when you watch every episode of a show in a single weekend? Is something gained when you explore a set of movies that originally spanned a decade in one night? How do you wrap your brain around an entire body of work without diluting it, or drowning in it?

The Lord of the Rings Film Trilogy
Directed by Peter Jackson

The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002), The Return of the King (2003)

Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Orlando Bloom, Billy Boyd, John Rhys-Davies, Dominic Monaghan, Sean Bean, Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett

Over the course of Confessions thus far, I have travailed some pretty dark corners of nerdom. Across the Review to Be Named universe I have discussed my love of Firefly, explored the world of celebrity gingers, discussed the delights of Downton Abbey, and much, much more. But until now I have avoided perhaps the inner sanctum of true nerdom.

I've kept away from the dangerously geeky grounds of Middle Earth. But I won't stay away any longer.

I'll admit that I've never read the books by J.R.R Tolkein. This stunning gap in my geekery isn't actually all that surprising: for one thing, I'm really not actually all that into fantasy; the books have a pretty hefty reputation (and are, in fact, just generally hefty); and, in all honesty, by the time I got around to picking a sweeping fantasy series to dedicate my childhood obsession to, Harry Potter had hit the scene, and I wasn't looking to split my allegiances. Until recently, I hadn't even seen all of the movies in their entirety, despite the zealous following both series have garnered. It was a pretty classic instance of me being afraid of a series' reputation. The Lord of the Rings is, in a way, too beloved. I see how dedicated people are and I'm afraid of it, because, well, I'm jaded enough by people, I don't want to be disappointed by pop culture, too.

So one cold, rainy day, some friends of mine, upon hearing about my surprising lack of LOTR experience, decided it was time to snuggle up, settle down, and watch the first movie. I'd seen parts of it before, but nothing about it ever really hooked me. There was some fighting, and some running away, and lots of sweeping green landscapes that were pretty, yes, but did little to appeal to me, coming from the land of neatly manicured suburban laws and strip malls. These are also probably not the kind of movies that my computer screen really does justice to. But either way, I decided to suck it up and go full nerd, with extended editions and all.

Most people know the story, at least at the basic level. There's a ring (duh) created by an evil lord, Sauron, who seeks to use his power to dominate Middle Earth at the expense of the land's other races, including man, dwarves, elves, and several other beings. While Sauron possesses the most powerful rings, others have been given to the various races, who temporarily unite to defeat Sauron. But when faced with the chance to actually destroy the evil ring, the human king given the task decides to take the ring for himself. Well, that screws everything up, obviously. But eventually the ring escapes, falling into the possession of Gollum (an interesting creature, somehow between species, unclaimed, who I could spend an entire column talking about, particularly because he is so perfectly portrayed by Andy Serkis), who carries it around as he deteriorates mentally and physically, because the ring overpowers all those who prove unequal to its strength (which, btw, is everyone); it "wants to be found," we're told in an eerie voiceover at one point early in the telling of the tale. Time passes and, as we're told "history became legend. Legend became myth," and we wind up on the shire with Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who found the ring years before and is starting to feel its effects. His friend, the wizard Gandalf, realizes and convinces Bilbo to give the ring up to his nephew, the innocent Frodo, to journey to Mt. Doom, where the ring was forged, the only place it can be destroyed. Over the course of the trilogy and the journey it chronicles, Frodo learns the true meaning of friendship and responsibility, encounters some honorable and even more not-so-honorable leaders, and takes part in an honest-to-god adventure.

Even if this isn't really my thing, I have a great appreciation for the series' ability to completely establish a world of its own. I have no idea if this is the world created in the beloved books, but to a novice, it seems pretty comprehensive. And as much as there are times where I feel like I don't really know what's going on, exactly, ultimately it is a world that is inclusive and relatable, one that makes me want to be there rather than drives me to claw my way out (even in the scary moments). It's in the little details ("It's LongFEET!"), even more so than the epic battles or sweeping views, that make this a story I'd love to read to my children some day (even if they'll basically have no idea what's going on until much, much later). All Bilbo (and most of the other characters, for that matter) wants is a little adventure, capped off with a beautiful, quiet place where he can finish his book. It seems like the ideal life to me, I can't fault him for that.

I love the storybook feel of these movies, the excessively ornate atmosphere, the over-the-top performances, as if everyone has just stepped out of a (slightly twisted, politically complicated, rather dark) fairy tale. This is a story to be told, even more so than it is one to hear. I'm particularly impressed by the way the core hobbit groups plays their part as the Middle Earth equivalent to adolescents without being excessively petulant or irredeemable.

Speaking of the acting: is there a role that Ian McKellan doesn't just absolutely own to death? I mean, that man is brilliant, simple as that. His Gandalf totally makes sense; I'm never left wondering why people are willing to follow him, or doubt his ability to come through when it matters. Also, Viggo Mortenson is significantly hotter in these movies than he is in real life. On a similar, slightly more serious, note, Hugo Weaving as the leader of the elves is just insanely good"”perfect part distantly removed from the conflict but involved enough to play the part he must, a sort of impenetrable font of knowledge who deigns to help out in a way that smoothes his edges, but only just a bit.

O and, speaking of elves"¦they confuse me and intrigue in almost equal measure (the first probably causes the second, but lets not get tied up in that). They have this intricate political structure, some kind of strange second life in a different place where they never die, superb powers of healing and craftsmanship"¦basically they're good at everything and supremely beautiful, and they speak a strange language. They seem generally awesome, and are probably too cool for me to really know anything about me (the hipsters of Middle Earth! Except they're actually good at things, so I don't know"¦), but I can't help wondering if they're better explained in the books. I don't wonder enough to actually read the books, however.

It is hidden histories, like that of the elves, which make these movies sort of hard for me to follow. They've already got the strike against them (thrown by me personally, at least) of being sweeping adventure/fantasy movies. Being incredibly complicated, twisted adventure/fantasy movies, with mythologies we learn only in pieces and mostly backwards, doesn't help. It makes sense for the story to unfold backwards, considering our protagonists are the hobbits, who are late in entering the game. We start at the middle and have to learn the way we've come along with Frodo, as the other races of Middle Earth help the story of the ring come together. But, considering so many characters seem to have the same name, save a single letter changed, and a bunch of the actors look almost exactly alike, and they're just so long that its hard to keep all the threads straight, I sometimes feel on the outside.

That's another thing: these movies never end. Even watching one of these movies at a time feels like a marathon. I mean, the last one is the worst, but really, in each of the films, I feel like I hit the end and then there's another hour of movie left.

Ultimately, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is an interesting note on the simultaneously arbitrary and yet fated mechanisms of power. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the old adage goes, and balance is absolutely imperative in keeping the world going round. Those most capable of power often prove the most suited for tyranny as well, and must therefore be kept within check, be it by political alliances, power structures, or magical rings (note to career politicians: you're probably doing it wrong). It seems that the fear that "the race of men is failing" has been a culturally prescient concern basically forever, which I guess makes me feel slightly better about our current political situation: concerns have always been around. But the petty bickering and innate prejudices between the races, which keep them, at least at first, from recognizing that they share a fated doom with the ring's destruction, is enough to keep the story timely. Who can't see the same close-mindedness on the news every day, causing problems where they don't need to be, out of silly pride and a quest for power?

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