In brief, it’s The Hobbit made into what it was after LOTR. In the appendices to LOTR JRR manages to fit the two novels together, sorting out the role and nature of Gollum’s ring, and making the Necromancer in Mirkwood, whom Gandalf drives from Dol Guldur, into Sauron. It’s now been filmed as a proper prequel, with the same atmosphere as the other films: no longer does it stand out as a slightly embarrassing kiddie story. That said, there are nods to this, in particular the anachronistic jokes (“crochet – a fine game if you’ve got the balls for it”; “and also invented the game of golf”; and “do you have any chips?”) and the characterisation of the dwarves.
What does become clearer to me, however, as the gentle fading of my teenage passion for LOTR helps me see more clearly, are Tolkien’s limitations. It’s not a problem per se that there are no female characters at all in the film apart from Galadriel, but it does suggest something about this Catholic’s make-up. LOTR continues the narrowness of vision, with Aragorn’s wooing of Arwen in Appendix A being something no Tolkienite can want to show his mates. The women are all unattainable Marian elves, or fairy-tale princesses (Eowyn gets a fuller role, as does Shelob…). Second, the battle scenes are pathetically limited, because we can only cheer when orcs get sliced up: conflicts between groups of ‘goodies’ do happen, but in the back story. The Iliad, in the 8th century BC, saw, more fully than anyone since, the tragedy inherent in war; Tolkien doesn’t manage to convey it – his morality here is Odyssean. And lastly, racism. I’m sure it’s unconscious, but (as with Lewis’ Calormen (“hot men”)) the human baddies (e.g. the Haradrim) are clearly drawn as Ottomans/Muslims/Arabs, with darker-skinned allies from further south. It’s (western) Europe vs. the Middle East, a Crusade. Related to this are the (conscious: Tolkien has admitted this in interviews, and even made the dwarves’ language Semitic in style) similarities between the dwarves and Jewish stereotypes (more): I’d kind of noticed this before, but only when watching the film, seeing the dwarves desperate to return to their ancestral home, did it all click. I don’t know much about Wagner, but there are I think gold-keeping dwarves in the Ring… Wagner’s friends aren’t as nice as JRR’s. On a similar but related note, to me orcs and elves are like Swift’s Yahoos and Houyhnhnms – separations of the bad and good sides of human nature; Tolkien does say that orcs are corrupted elves.
And the film didn’t seem long at all: as things drew to a close I thought it was probably a false ending, but it wasn’t.