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One Good Thing: The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the perfect late-quarantine binge

Why Peter Jackson’s masterpiece is still the one trilogy to rule them all, 20 years later.

Gandalf and Frodo.
Who cares, watch the Lord of the Rings.
New Line/WireImage

There’s a quote from Peter Jackson’s 2001 film The Fellowship of the Ring where Gandalf says, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” (If you want to be a real nerd about it, in the original J.R.R. Tolkien novel the last “to” isn’t there, but whatever.) I used it as my high school senior quote, because I was very cool, and while certainly appropriate for an occasion in which one’s path in life feels suddenly mapless, I also think it applies to right now — for Americans, collectively.

According to our new president, we’ve got about two months left before most adults in the US will have access to at least one of three available coronavirus vaccines. Summer, we are told, might be somewhat close to normal. After an entire year of misery and despair, there is, literally and figuratively, a light at the end of the tunnel.

So now is the perfect time to decide that what you are going to do with the time that is given to you is watch The Lord of the Rings. Do you really need a recommendation to watch one of the most widely beloved film trilogies ever made, which is itself based on one of the bestselling books in history? Of course not. Hundreds of people are watching The Lord of the Rings at every minute of every day, all of their own volition.

Right now is different, though. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the release of The Fellowship of the Ring, which is being celebrated by an (in-theaters-only!) three-part reunion hosted by noted Tolkien head Stephen Colbert, as well as several online articles discussing crucial subjects such as which orcs are the sexiest. Plus, the bulk of the events that compose The Lord of the Rings take place, canonically, in March (the Battle of Helm’s Deep begins around midnight on March 3; the One Ring is destroyed on March 25).

To be honest, I had to stop myself from submitting to a Lord of the Rings binge in the earliest days of lockdown, when that’s what seemingly everyone else was doing. (“One does not simply get through quarantine without watching Lord of the Rings was Esquire’s delightful headline.) Audiences return to it in times of extreme boredom: Google searches for the films tend to peak in December, when many of us are presumably enjoying some time away from normal life and possibly searching for something to occupy the endless non-days between Christmas and New Year’s. It was almost as if I was saving it for something, maybe a particularly gray day or a bout of pandemic despair.

Instead, I held out until the darkest time of the year: late winter and early spring, which where I live is even worse than late winter because it seems like it should be getting warmer but never actually does.

The Fellowship of the Ring premiered on December 19, 2001. It had been in development for years before that, of course, but the timing was such that Jackson’s recreation of Middle-earth provided a perfect escape from what was happening in the aftermath of 9/11, a soaring tale of good versus evil taking place in a universe that was equally foreign and familiar. Yet Jackson, just like Tolkien did, vehemently resisted his audience’s natural inclinations to compare the story to anything historical.

In a 2003 interview, Jackson said, “It is not fixed to a particular moment in time, whether it’s post-September-11 or pre-September-11 or World War Two or World War One or any of these cataclysmic times in our age. They’re not related to current events, they’re just timeless themes.” (Despite online petitions, the film version of The Two Towers was not renamed.)

There are analogies one could make about how suited the Lord of the Rings trilogy is for any moment in history, anywhere on the globe. Here is my best case for why you should watch it at this particular one: You have been living through a pandemic for a year, endured unthinkable political and social upheavals, and have possibly not been touched by another human being in [redacted] months. You have maybe forgotten what you used to do on the weekend or what people talked about in normal times. You are almost certainly, in one way or another, burnt out.

In short, you are primed to watch The Lord of the Rings, where a lot of bad things happen but ultimately the good ones win out, and in the meantime you get to go on a zillion adventures and meet a bunch of interesting-looking characters in cool places that, if you grew up learning about Western mythology and Christianity or consuming any kind of high-fantasy fiction, will feel comfortingly familiar. In Middle-earth, your mostly melted brain can exist for a total of almost 12 hours (if we’re talking extended editions, and of course we are) using only its most basic functions: eating, napping during the Battle of Helm’s Deep, and getting horny for Aragorn.

This brings me to another reason why The Lord of the Rings belongs at the top of your watch list: Despite the fact that there are basically three female characters (not counting the terrifying giant spider and iconic #girlboss Shelob), only one of whom is a fleshed-out human being, The Lord of the Rings offers plenty in the way of entertainment For Women™.

Anecdotally, all of the people with whom I discuss The Lord of the Rings are my female friends, which likely has something to do with the fact that the films do a much better job than Tolkien’s novels in telling the women’s stories. (Liv Tyler’s Arwen is barely present in the books, for instance — could it be because the films wanted to give Tyler more to do or because two women co-wrote all three screenplays? Who can say!). Without falling too far into the trap of gender essentialism, I personally could barely stay awake reading what felt like endless descriptions of military strategy in the books, descriptions of the sort that are irrelevant to a film in which you can simply show people chopping the heads off of orcs rather than describe it. Also, it is an inarguable fact that every woman regardless of sexual orientation can be classified as either a Legolas Girl or an Aragorn Girl.

Life is tough right now, and to be clear, life in Middle-earth seems pretty depressing too, unless you’re an elf in the mystical treehouses of Lothlorien or a hobbit whose daily schedule involves clogging at the pub with your extended family. It is basically still winter in many parts of the country, a lot of us are still mainly spending our free time indoors, and everything is still technically bad. There are still some miserable hours left to fill, cold and rainy Sundays that demand roughly a dozen hours of classic high fantasy. You might not get another proper excuse to indulge until next fall, and who even knows what the world will look like by then.

Hollywood doesn’t really make films like The Lord of the Rings anymore. The Vox Media site Polygon has been cataloging the lesser-discussed aspects of the trilogy for its 20th anniversary, and Susana Polo, herself a Tolkien expert, has written beautifully about the delicate optimism that can be found in both the books and films as a counterweight to more recent fantasy projects:

Blockbuster film didn’t embrace the sincerity of the Lord of the Rings movies — the way they elevated deep and pure emotions to the level of an adult epic — in the same manner. There are still a few films of that kind that break into the cultural consciousness, either as cult favorites (Pacific Rim) or unexpected successes (Mad Max: Fury Road), but they are the exception to the Marvel Studios/DC Films/Sony Pictures/HBO rules of self-referential, self-effacing, sometimes-even-fully-cynical fantasy and hero tales.

The Lord of the Rings is, in other words, pleasant to watch without attempting to subvert that pleasantness into something supposedly more cerebral. Whether the forthcoming billion-dollar Amazon series will honor the precedent set by the original films remains to be seen, but for now, the trilogy is a welcome reprieve from what sometimes feels like “gotcha!” cinema, where the audience is made to search for meaning via surprising plot twists rather than the intangible nature of how we feel when experiencing film. The Lord of the Rings, to me, feels at the same time easy and exciting to experience no matter how many times I watch it. And that, ultimately, is what I want from art right now.

Plus, Tolkien is one of the rare fantasy authors who created a beloved universe and then wisely died before Twitter was invented. Therefore, his absolute worst takes — and he probably had some bad ones! — are lost to time. All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you. I can think of no better way than this one.

Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is streaming at HBO Max. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.

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