Break out the Gaffer’s homebrew and stuff that long-stemmed pipe full of Old Toby — the time has come once again to celebrate Hobbit Day. September 22 marks the birthdays of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, both of them the literary creations of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Though this date also marks the Long-Expected Party (by non-Shire reckoning, of course) and celebrates fictitious characters, “Hobbit Day” as it is now known has become a reason to celebrate everything and anything having to do with Professor Tolkien and his works — not that I ever need much of an excuse.
Last year I celebrated the day by recounting the highly underrated performances in the highly underrated trilogy based on The Hobbit, but this year we’re going to dive into the one true trilogy to rule them all. The Lord of the Rings movies, directed by Peter Jackson (and adapted from Tolkien by Jackson, Philippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh), is also fit to burst with brilliant performances, and all of them deserve attention and celebration.
I’m going to use a smaller net here in an attempt to be more in keeping with the tone of the day. If I started going through every insanely wonderful performance in The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, we’d be here until next year's Hobbit Day. This is why we’re going to focus on the Hobbits.
Because of this, I won’t mention how Sir Ian McKellen gave iconic and perfect life to my all-time favorite literary creation, or how Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn is a man I would follow anywhere, anytime. I will not mention how Liv Tyler is often overlooked for the quiet, spellbinding genius she brought to Arwen. I will not mention how Miranda Otto triumphs eternally as Eowyn, or how Bernard Hill puts you right into the head and heart of King Theoden. I won’t mention that Andy Serkis is a f**king god. Nope, not going to mention any of that.
Instead, it’s time to take a look at the four performances that are at the very heart of these films. Are there better characters to look at on Hobbit Day than the four Hobbit leads themselves? Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Sean Astin (Samwise Gamgee), Billy Boyd (Peregrin Took), and Dominic Monaghan (Meriadoc Brandybuck) are certainly actors due for some celebration.
Instead of another gushing torrent of love directed solely at these actors (which I could provide, but I’ll spare you), it might be better to look at what could be the best scenes (or my favorites, at least) from each actor. It’s not easy to choose, so I don’t know why I’m doing this to myself. We’ve gone too far to turn back now, so forth Eorlingas!
MERRY — I KNOW I CAN'T SAVE MIDDLE-EARTH
Monaghan’s Merry is highly effective as part of a comedic duo with Boyd’s Pippin, but ROTK splits them up. While Pippin has Gandalf for company, Merry is left alone in the middle of the Rohan army ... until he joins forces with someone else who is somewhat unwanted and has been left behind, Eowyn. Nobody asks them to go to war, but they both need and want to help however they can. They both have swords, and they are going to use them.
In a scene from the Extended Edition of ROTK (don’t bother to watch any other version), Merry displays his “simple courage” to Eowyn, who does not have much hope. It’s a very soft scene, and Monaghan lays out Merry’s feelings in expert fashion. In the grand scheme of this saga, can one Hobbit (one not entrusted with a ring, or any particular quest) make a difference? It’s all too big for him, but he’s seen enough of the world to know that he can’t just sit idly by. He's still a member of the Fellowship, after all.
Merry knows there’s not much point in hoping, he “just wants to help his friends.” Helping his friends means riding right into the middle of the biggest battle in this trilogy. Maybe he’ll see his friends again, maybe he won’t. He’s going to do what he can despite the odds of survival.
Monaghan’s delivery of this monologue is masterful, but the grand cap is a little smile toward the end that makes the darkness feel just a little bit lighter. Monaghan is consistently wonderful as Merry, but this is one scene that always sticks out to me.
PIPPIN — ALL SHALL FADE
Possibly none of the Hobbits have an arc like Pippin, and the arc is so clearly drawn because of Billy Boyd’s work. The Pippin in ROTK is not the perpetual “fool of a Took” from FOTR. Parted from the entire Fellowship (save Gandalf), Pippin selflessly joins the Citadel guard of Minas Tirith. He befriends Faramir, and he even makes Denethor smile.
For all of his jokes and pipeweed, Pippin has not forgotten Boromir’s efforts to save him and Merry. He proves that he’s finally grown up, and it is in the midst of his service to Denethor that Boyd delivers his most heartbreaking moment.
It’s the song — of course, it’s the song. How could it not be the song? Denethor has lost whatever soul he had left, and he’s sent his son Faramir (the one he doesn’t like) off on a suicide mission. The awful, tomato-eating bastard of a Steward then turns to Pippin and asks, “Can you sing, Master Hobbit?”
Of course, he can. We’ve heard Pippin (and Merry) sing a few times before this, but they’ve always gone for bawdy drinking songs. Pippin doesn’t choose one of those. Over footage of Faramir’s doomed attack (and Denethor disgustingly eating), Boyd’s Pippin sings a haunting song of melancholy and homeless doom.
The words didn’t come from Boyd, but the tune did before composer Howard Shore made a few little tweaks and such. You finally realize that Pippin isn’t all about the jokes and that he is not just comic relief. The depth and sadness that Boyd displays here are staggering. He has the voice of a Hobbit angel, with a shining spirit to match. Peregrin Took is a fool no longer.
SAM — ON THE SLOPES OF MOUNT DOOM
Again, this one is fairly obvious. Sean Astin provides so many insanely great moments as Sam that picking just one is almost impossible. That said, this moment on the slopes of Mount Doom is one of the most powerful moments in all of cinematic Tolkien, and yes, it has the right angle, the right look, the right music, and involves Elijah Wood being brilliant — at the core of the moment, though, you have Astin.
I’ve always remembered this shining diamond of a line from the book, but I’d never imagined the line spoken like this. “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you,” was always something despondent and tired in my mind. Not here, because Astin makes it a defiant last stand. To hell with the ring, to hell with Sauron, to hell with this war — let us be rid of all of it, once and for all. It's time for a last blast of strength.
Sam has been carrying Frodo emotionally and spiritually for two and a half movies now. It’s finally come to the point where he is dragging Frodo up the side of the mountain, and the look on Astin’s face as he fights through every step is utterly sublime. Frodo would not have gotten far without Sam, this much we know, but Sam wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without Astin, who gives him a wholesome heroism that perfectly encapsulates the strength of Hobbits.
Many believe that Samwise is the real hero of this story, and I can see it. It’s there in the books. But in the films? There’s no doubting the power of Samwise, or Sean Astin’s performance.
FRODO — EVERY SINGLE SCENE
I’m totally gonna cheat with this one. Not only was Frodo Baggins the hardest role in these movies to get right, I also think that Frodo is a somewhat thankless role. He doesn’t get big heroic moments like the other Hobbits — instead, he has a very tortured inner battle with a completely private doom. The actor playing Frodo has to slowly portray themselves being seduced by a small piece of jewelry, and that is an acting feat on the level of making Romeo interesting.
If you get Frodo right, then he’s easily overlooked in favor of flashier characters. If you get him wrong, then nothing would have worked. Nothing, whatsoever, in any of these three movies would have worked if Frodo didn’t work. You’d notice it immediately, because if you don’t care about him, if you don’t believe in him, then none of it’s worth a damn.
The movies do work. They’re the greatest fantasy movies ever made (fight me, I don’t care), and they wouldn’t be what they are without Elijah Wood.
A kind and carefree Hobbit from the Shire goes on a quest. Sounds familiar! Sounds like The Hobbit! Not this time.
Frodo is not Bilbo (as he himself points out), and this quest is not about dwarven gold. This is an inward journey into darkness and addiction, with Frodo bearing the greatest temptation ever known around his neck for three movies.
How Wood manages to slide into that Gollum-prodded mire of misery is astonishing. It’s a very slow progression, marked every now and then by an emotional outburst. He doesn’t know what’s happening to him, or why he can’t stop looking at this ring. It’s his, though, and he’ll be damned if you’re gonna take it from him. When he finally succumbs (lasting longer than any other character in the story would have), Wood has set you up perfectly for the moment. It’s devastating.
Thankfully, because of the pity of Bilbo and Frodo, the ring is destroyed. The day is saved. The Shire has been saved ... but not for Frodo. He’s past that point. There are some hurts that go too deep, and some wounds that never fully heal. That’s an easy thing to type, but it’s a very, very hard thing for an actor to embody in their heart and soul. Wood does it.
Watch him in his final scene at the Grey Havens. The other three Hobbits are raining buckets from their eyes, but Frodo is past grief. He’s sad, but he does not weep. Wood makes you feel a pain that is past the point of tears before he turns back and smiles. Frodo lets his friends know that he's going to a better place, and Wood lets the audience know that it's going to be all right.
Elijah Wood deserved award attention for this role, but as I’ve said, Frodo is easily overlooked because he works so well. The massive attention that the movies got at the Academy Awards owes a very large debt to this keystone performance.
Toward the end of ROTK, Aragorn leads the entire city of Minas Tirith in bowing to the four Hobbits. It’s not a scene from the book, but it is a perfect invented scene for the films. King and commoner alike all bow before the four pure, selfless souls who all saved Middle-earth in their own ways. Everyone might as well be bowing directly to the actors themselves.
The work of Wood, Astin, Boyd, and Monaghan is something special, a bit of real magic, and something very pure in the true spirit of Tolkien. They are essential facets in the telling of these great stories, the precious ones that really matter. They bow to no one.