Peter Jackson’s J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth Saga: Part 1 (of 6) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (part 1 of 3) finally coming to theaters today — or last night if you’re young, make poor life choices, or young and make poor life choices — it seemed a good time to revisit the first three movies in this cinematic epic. However, instead of exploring the prevalent themes, the plot holes, or the emotional catharses ruined by the too-many endings, topics which have been explored already and better than I ever could, I would rather hold the first trilogy of movies up to another magical fantasy series based on successful novels that were also originally released in the early 2000s. Of course, I’m talking about the Warner Bros. adaptations of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.
Besides the authors’ affinity for name abbreviation and hairy, graying wizards, the two franchises have quite a bit in common despite their obvious tonal and chronological differences. Both feature uniquely talented heroes required to take on immensely powerful dark wizards with a larger fighting force than the ragtag good guys can muster until the very end, and also drinking. So much drinking. Still, probably because they arrived in multiplexes so close together, contain fanbases from great generational divides, and the later series clearly pilfered from the earlier, there is a mostly unspoken rivalry between Harry and Frodo, Sirius and Aragorn, and bumbling House Elves and their far more graceful woodland cousins. The hate among these two groups isn’t nearly as bilious as that of Star Trek and Star Wars fans, and it was probably best illustrated in the “South Park” episode “Return of the Fellowship of the Ring” with a single, derisive word:
Yes, LOTRians simply believe theirs is better because it isn’t kid stuff. While Potterites believe theirs is clearly the best because it’s more fun. It turns out, they’re both right and wrong. How can this be true? All the answers will be revealed if you look into my crystal ball… just ignore that large dog signifying your imminent demise. Or, read below to discover exactly how Harry Potter is obviously superior to Lord of the Rings and how Lord of the Rings easily defeats Harry Potter.
One does not simply walk into a debate without knowing the argument limititations, so
to keep us all on the same page, the only canon we’re discussing here are the three Rings films directed by Peter Jackson and the eight Potter movies by Christoper Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron, Mike Newell, and David Yates. Including the ten books would just be too unwieldy. It is known.
Harry Potter has…
…The Best Big Bads!
What about the Dark Lord Sauron, his white wizard accomplice Saruman, his pale-skinned snake-like lackey Wormtongue, or the vast armies of Orcs and Uruk-hai? Well, sure, they’re pretty dastardly in the most underwritten, generalized sense. What makes Sauron evil? He’s evil. But what makes Voldemort evil? He commits evil acts, but throughout the course of the movies we come to learn just how a bright, talented boy like our hero, Harry, could fall to the darkside after severe personal tragedies if the people who care about him do, well, everything wrong. We also have the Malfoys, a perfect represntative of the classholes we all deal with who think they’re so much better simply because they were born into privilege. There’s also HBC’s Bellatrix Lestrange who, quite simply, just has a blast as the baddest gal around, whereas none of the baddies in LOTR ever look like they’re having any fun, leading one to wonder why they even bother. And then there’s Snape, offering another deviation on the path Harry might have followed, who has perhaps the best arc in the series — going from obvious villain to ambiguous ally to tragic anti-hero, he was the Spike of the franchise with less cool hair. Maybe the enemies in Rings could straight up decimate the Death Eaters in Potter, but we might shed a few tears for the latter side and would only cheer if the opposite happened.
…Actually Frightening Death-like Monsters!
I know what you’re going to say… “But, Rob! The Nazgul (ringwraiths) were first and the Dementors are clearly stone-cold rip-offs!” Well, you aren’t wrong, especially in the matter of character design. Regardless, outside of Fellowship of the Ring, the Nazgul come off as fairly inept in their quest to hunt down the bearer of the One Ring. Hell, even in Fellowship they stab a bunch of pillows and blankets to death, mistaking the inanimate objects for hobbits. (Troy and Abed were said to be inconsolable when they found out.) On the other skeletal hand, Dementors are terrifying every time they show up on screen, whether they’re about to suck one of our favorite characters’ souls out of their body or just floating around, creepily watching all that transpires. “But, Rob,” I can hear you exlaim again, “the Dementors could be defeated with a simple spell and some chocolate!” Yes, and the Ringwraiths could be stopped by a pun. Sure, it was a pun drenched in female empowerment that raised the roof in theaters the world over, but it was still a pun. And that’s just lame.
…A Legitimate Funnybone!
The incongruity of the hobbits, particularly Merry and Pip, and the banter between the dwarf Gimli and the elf Legolas were the most common route toward comedy in LOTR. They were usually successful in raising spirits if not cackles of laughter, in a quaint sort of way. That isn’t to say the HP flicks approached anything close to Apatowian levels of rib tickling, but there are actual, for real jokes in pretty much every movie and they only get better as the characters get older. In particular, it’s why everyone loves Fred and George Weasley, why Michael Gambon’s second Dumbledore (with all due respect to the late, great Richard Harris) was the better of the two for having not just a wink but an edge to his charm. There’s plenty of quaintness to go around here, too, but it’s grounded in the modern reality of present day-ish England, which is far more relatable than Middle-Earth’s distant past. Unless you’re from New Zealand, I guess.
…The Best Friend!
The aforementioned cameraderie between Merry/Pip and Gimli/Legolas, as well as the deep (:snicker:) partnership of Frodo and Sam, are unquestionable some of the best aspects of the Rings films. However, outside of Sam literally carrying Frodo on his back in order to complete his damn quest, I wouldn’t necessarily call these relationships profound. Nor would I say that about the friendship between Harry and his ostensible bestie, Ron. After all, they’re two awkward boys who share most of the same interests. Who else were they going to be friends with? Well, obviously, Hermione. But she’s more than a sympathetic ear or shoulder to lean on, she’s just about the bloody damn hero of the entire franchise. Yes, Harry Potter is the chosen one — sure, fine, good for him. But Hermione is the one who saves the day, or enables Harry to do so, at practically every turn. She figures out the significance of Nicholas Flammel and the philosopher’s stone, and from there proceeds to solve most of Harry’s problems for him. All by herself, Hermione is the three best friends anyone could have.
…Major Character Deaths that Matter!
Similar to the big bads, it isn’t like LOTR has a dearth of dramatic demises. Let’s go through them quickly: Boromir and Gandalf in Fellowship; none in Two Towers unless we count Saruman, who should be discounted due to Gandalf’s near immediate return in the same flick; and then Theoden in Return of the King. That’s it. There are plenty of dead CGI warriors, but only three champions perish and one of them is resurrected with an software upgrade. Arguably, the two human deaths aren’t even that powerful emotionally — we barely know Boromir and it’s mostly Sean Bean’s performance that sells it and Theoden is an old king whose time is up. Boo-freakin’-hoo. But Harry Potter is lousy with death. Even before the movie begins, Harry’s parents are slain and Neville’s are driven to madness, and each tragedy takes on greater retroactive meaning as the series progresses without the aid of hours of extended cuts. In Chamber of Secrets, before anybody but Rupert Grint hit puberty, we learn that children like Moaning Myrtle can just as easily perish as the adults. And then we get to Goblet of Fire and the horrific-in-its-ease dispatching of Cedric Diggory…
After that, so many of our favorite characters begin to fall like fruit flies about 10 days after they’re born. Like Sirius Black…
Lupin and Tonks…
And, in one of the best death scenes ever in a “children’s” entertainment, Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore…
Oh, right, spoilers. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is definitely the biggest, baddest, longest fantasy movie that masquerades as a series ever put on film. It certainly has affecting and arresting moments to go along with its increasingly large battles and apocalyptic sensibilities, but it fails to achieve the personal, emotional connection to audiences the way that the Harry Potter series did; no matter who was directing. The movies based on Tolkien’s work may even be better than the movies based on Rowling’s, but it’s certainly easier to love the latter and merely admire the former. Admiration is great, but love is much harder to come by and ought to be cherished when discovered. Huh. That may even be the point Rowling was trying to make.
Okay, okay, okay. That’s fine and dandy like Honeydukes candy, but The Lord of the Rings has…
…The Best CGI Sidekick!
Say what you want about Dobby, sir, but I never cottoned to the little guy. His actions mostly meant well but they were always illogical, which was intended as cute but always struck me as terribly dangerous. He broke Harry’s arm and nearly got him expelled from Hogwarts and, thus, Dumbledore’s protection. He was a menace and his animation was rough in comparison to the brilliance of Gollum. Yes, Dobby’s eventual death in Deathly Hollows Part One was heartbreaking due to his sacrifice, but he simply never gets past the artifice of his digital origins. On the other hand, Gollum, as portrayed by a combination of technical genius and Andy Serkis, was the first fully realized computer generated humanoid character moviegoers have ever seen. He was more than just a program, but a living, breathing person-like being that could have easily been as cloying as Dobby. That just goes to show, like with Dumbledore, a little bit of edge goes a long way to being awesome.
…Justifiably Legendary World-Building!
Obviously, Tolkien is held in high esteem for the amount of detail he put into all of his hobbit stories. From the thoroughly mapped out terrain to the histories of those regions to the completely fabricated, but completely useful Elvish language, Middle-Earth feels as real as Ancient Rome or Egypt. And then Peter Jackson and his effects and production teams brought all those elements to perfect, visible life. It’s easy to take the painstaking details in the movie for granted because there’s simply too much going on to take it all in while you’re watching the movies. So if you’ve never done it, watch the special features on the Special Edition DVDs/Blu-rays to see exactly how much time and effort was spent in crafting a world as fully realized as Gollum was a character. George Lucas got a lot of credit for making his galaxy in the first Star Wars trilogy feel and look lived in, but Jackson improved upon that so much that there’s an explanation for everything in every single shot. On the other hand, the magical world of Hogwarts in the movies is just as nebulous as the one in the books. You could argue that setting Harry Potter in a contemporary setting abdicates that responsibility, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But that doesn’t make it impressive or interesting.
…Seriously Impressive Battles!
If you think I’ve given short shrift to the epic epicness of Jackson’s movies, that’s only because by the time Return of the King is over I just want them to stop. But their spectacle is truly unparalleled and Hollywood should just take a break from large scale scenes of war for a while because nothing will top LOTR. (Though, the urban setting of The Avengers’ final showdown mixes it up enough to be engaging.) Jackson’s insistence on upping the ante each time has it’s merits, too, raising the stakes in every movie — from the briefly glimpsed prologue to the Battle of Helm’s Deep to the Battle of Gondor and then the storming of Mordor — until eventually our heroes are fighting for the continued existence of every non-Sauron controlled race left. Sadly, the wand-waving antics in the Potter films just can’t live up to that. They’re more or less exciting in their own right, especially when Voldemort and his laissez-faire attitude toward life are involved, but they can’t hold a torch to any of the ones in Rings. Even comparing the gigantic arachnid skirmishes, Shelob wins by a webbed mile. And, really, Helm’s Deep alone might just be the best battle sequence ever put to film.
…The Best MacGuffin!
It’s true that each and every one of the Harry Potter installments featured a MacGuffin of some sort featured prominently in the movies’ titles — the sorcerer’s/philsopher’s stone, the chamber of secrets, a prisoner from Azkaban, the goblet of fire, the Order of the Phoenix, the textbook of the half-blood prince, and the various deathly hollows. Often these weren’t even important enough to mention until the end of the story when Harry’s got to do something about them to justify those titles, with the last two actually serving as plot thrusts for the entire narrative. (Azkaban sort of works that way, too, but it only drives the plot at the very beginning and the very end.) However, the One Ring and its destruction are the entire point of all three of Rings movies and they don’t stop until Frodo finally hurls that thing into the fiery pits of Mount Doom. Okay, the story stops several times after that, but that just proves what a fantastic MacGuffin Sauron’s ring of power actually was — it prompted every action in the course of three films but wasn’t ever really the point of telling the story. If the deathly hallows were introduced, or the concept of horcruxes were named, in Sorcerer’s Stone, they would vie for the title. But they weren’t and so the context of each tale had to be refocused every time. The One Ring is the ultimate horcrux and, thus, the ultimate MacGuffin.
…Mindhole Blowing Cosplay!
Besides prep school uniforms, modern teen hipster outfits, and a seemingly endless supply of black robes, there isn’t a lot of style or imagination in the costumes in the Potterverse. There are occasional bright spots like Ron’s tuxedo for the Yule Ball, Mad-Eye Moody’s mad eye, and the Jackie O-ness of Dolores Umbridge, but it’s all rather drab and boring. Utterly British, one might say. You don’t see a lot of people dressing up at conventions as characters from Harry Potter, because it’s just too easy and unassuming, and cosplayers care about their craft nearly as much as they care about their craft. But what you do see is a lot of folks trying to replicate the intricate designs of Middle-Earth armies, both good and bad, as well as perfectly tailored clothing that would fit right into the Shire or Rivendell, or even the forests surrounding Isengard. Die hard fans of the Rings movies aren’t just trying to look hot or cool, they desperately want you to think they stepped right off set and into the con. Alternatively, they have great senses of humor if not logic. Behold, Hobbits, and Aragorn and Arwen…
And, yes, even the ever watchful flame-wreathed eye of the Dark Lord himself…
Of course Harry Potter is great, but it’s best viewed as an allegory for growing up more than a thoughtful, expansive fantasy series. It begins as fluff and matures into self-seriousness, but it’s never meant to be anything more than a very expensive coming of age tale. Had Harry himself died, and stayed dead, it might be a true representative of the hero’s journey. Frodo may have survived his ordeal, but because of it was fundamentally changed, even ruined. He saved Middle-Earth but he almost destroyed himself in the process and will never be able to return to the life he once had. Harry just grew up fast, but he got to live a very happy life when it was all over. So scarred was Frodo that he had to go the way of the Elves, to the West, never to see his friends and family again. That’s the true hero’s journey and Peter Jackson made damn sure his was the best looking, most involved one in film history.
All that said, neither franchise is better than the other overall. Clearly. And both are worth rewatching for years to come, just take several long weekends to do it. Instead of fighting each other with our wands and swords, let’s take aim at those damn bow hunters in The Hunger Games. As not-terrible as they are, we all know that Suzanne Collins’ books are a transitory series that won’t stand the test of time or achieve the likely immortality of Harry, Ron, Hermione, Frodo, Sam, and Gandalf, no matter how successful the movies are, right? Right. Long live the wizards!
Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. He’s got nothing against Hunger Games, he’s just got nothing for it, either.