Ten years ago, Stephen Fry ate balls in the Hobbit films. If that doesn’t ring a bell as something from Tolkien, don’t worry. Not only is it from the second film in the culturally forgotten Hobbit trilogy, but this specific sequence only exists in the Extended Edition.
That’s right. The Hobbit films, an eight-hour trilogy of movies best known for being perhaps needlessly padded adaptations of a 300-page children’s book, have an even longer cut. And unlike the Extended Editions of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, which fill out those masterpieces with nearly three hours of more character and world-building, these ones are all about PJ letting his freak flag fly.
The Hobbit Extended Editions are a welcome return to form for an auteur who got his start making self-proclaimed “splatter” films. That’s Bad Taste, a $25,000 sci-fi film about aliens attempting to harvest the human race for fast food; it’s also Meet the Feebles, a puppet musical wherein a busty hippo carries out a mass shooting while a fox sings about sodomy; and it’s Braindead, in which the protagonist massacres an army of zombies with a lawnmower.
Fry references those films in his behind-the-scenes interviews on the under-discussed testicle eating scene. “He’s developed a reputation as a sort of filmmaker of great flair and artistry,” he says. “But ultimately he’s the same Peter Jackson who made Braindead, Bad Taste — movies of the goriest, most disgusting mud-splashed, blood-splashed [sort]. And that little part of him is still alive.”
Frankly, it’s been hard to tell. This isn’t to say that Jackson’s road from indie rebel to Hollywood mogul has stripped him of his charming freakishness. Indeed, one of the most magical things about the Lord of the Rings trilogy is its combination of epic bombast and personal idiosyncrasy. A giant talking tree floods an anti-environmentalist empire, but still finds time to dunk his head in the water when it catches on fire; the tide of one of the greatest battles in cinematic history is turned when a dwarf reticently allows himself to be tossed.
Still, making some of the most iconic films of the 21st century has a way of changing a man, and by the time Jackson made King Kong and The Lovely Bones, a depressing sort of anonymity had crept into his work. The rogue who stretched his measly budget to hack off as many limbs as possible had developed a reputation as a hired gun tackling long-gestating IP, a criticism not helped by the fact that he didn’t even want to direct his only other post-Rings narrative features, the Hobbit films.
As many die-hard Rings fans know, Guillermo del Toro was initially hired as the director, and spent a full two years of pre-production work on the films before disputes between MGM, Warner Bros., and New Line stalled a greenlight and forced his departure for other pastures. There’s a tacit sense from the behind-the-scenes Hobbit material that Jackson really only accepted the gig to save the jobs of the immense team of crew members and craftspeople who’d already dedicated two years of their lives to the project. In that same footage, Jackson calls the task “impossible,” saying that he “just started shooting the movie with most of it not prepped at all.” This isn’t to excuse what are ultimately fairly confused films, but rather to argue that their lackluster reception and legacy bury the lede about a filmmaker who got thrown into the wilds of production and somehow managed to regain his inner weird.
That weirdness, that cheeky sort of Jacksonian humor that’s equal parts Tea-Drinking Professor and Naughty Schoolboy Who Puts a Spider Down His Sister’s Dress, is on full display in the original cut of the first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey. After all, this is the film where Sylvester McCoy plays Radagast the Brown, a hippy wizard with bird shit in his hair who rides a sled pulled by rabbits, for no discernible reason other than vibes. It also features a giant goblin king voiced by Barry Humphries whose scrotum-coded chin is sliced open like a sack of potatoes by Gandalf’s sword.
Such grace notes seem to promise a series of films not only more in line with the whimsy of the source material, but with the sensibilities of Jackson’s earlier works. Alas, the film’s sequel, The Desolation of Smaug, almost immediately squanders this vibe for that of a cluttered fanfiction. Despite a well-realized dragon and a high-flying amusement park-style set-piece with barrels, there’s just far too much gobbledygook about Sauron, about Legolas and Galadriel and Saruman and Elrond and an elf warrior named Tauriel, all of whom hardly figure at all into the original text. By the time we’re at The Battle of the Five Armies, Jackson finds himself adapting what is essentially a sentence from Tolkien’s book: “So began a battle that none had expected; and it was called the Battle of Five Armies, and it was very terrible.”
Spoiler alert: It was very terrible. At least theatrically.
But the material in the Extended Editions reveals a far more playful Jackson, one who seems almost so at a loss of how to balance the whimsy of Tolkien’s book and the studio desire to make a proper prequel to The Lord of the Rings that he can’t help but muck around a bit. Why else would he have dreamt up the aforementioned scene where Stephen Fry chomps on goat testicles? It’s certainly not in the text! Yet there is Fry, as the Master of Lake-town, in his Dickensian finery and stringy red comb-over, plotting by his window when suddenly his servant, Alfrid, appears behind him, holding a plate of swollen animal scrotums.
“Bollocks, sire,” he says. “Ram and goat, sauteed in a lovely little mushroom gravy.” Thus begins the feast, with Fry tearing into said bollocks like a five-course meal, gristle dangling, scraps spewing down from his mouth and onto his chin. In the documentary footage, Jackson can be seen prompting giddily, “I think it would be great if you had one by the string like a bobbing apple.”
This sort of deranged madness goes full blast in the Extended Edition of the trilogy’s finale, The Battle of the Five Armies, which almost plays like an entirely different movie from the original theatrical cut. Re-rated R for “some violence,” it completely transforms a flaccid closer to an unnecessary trilogy into a Fury Road-meets-Evil Dead piece of cinematic anarchy.
Forget an emphasis on richer character interactions or more textured world-building; Jackson utilizes nearly all of the added 20 minutes of his extended run time to fill out his battle with all manner of gnarly deaths and decapitations. For instance, the previously discussed Alfrid, himself the Jar Jar Binks of this film in its original cut, running around in full-on Monty Python drag to avoid the battle, is given a fitting end when he is literally catapulted into the mouth of a troll. Alfrid gets lodged, the troll chokes, and both die.
But the real pièce de résistance is a five-minute chariot race, Jackson’s demented twist on Ben-Hur. After turning the tide of the battle, lead dwarf Thorin Oakenshield turns his attention to the top of a mountain called Ravenhill, where antagonist Azog the pale orc awaits. Hopping onto what can only be described as a war-goat, he charges to the peak followed closely by his compatriot dwarves, steering a rickety chariot through a whole host of foes. The chariot is equipped with not only a crossbow, but (in a detail that feels distinctly Jackson in its potential for gore) two spiky propellers on each of the wheels. These serve as the incidental weapon of choice as the dwarves plow through a field of orcs, ramping off of the battlefield and handily decapitating six trolls in one fell swoop (and one perfect shot).
From the battlefield, Jackson shifts the terrain to an icy path, unleashing all manner of foes from trolls to orcs to wargs on his heroes, dispatching them all in intricate explosions of gore, his inner sadistic showman finally unleashed. It’s the best part of a movie that, at least theatrically, didn’t have one. Best of all, it’s a clear cinematic handshake between the mogul Jackson who knows how to stage a big-budget action set-piece and the younger man who gleefully charged a lawnmower through a pack of zombies all those years ago.
The Hobbit movies still don’t totally work. They’re a tonal mishmash of Tolkien, the original Rings films, and the del Toro movie that sadly never came to be. But the Extended Editions reveal a lost element: Jackson’s personal touch. Upon its initial release, Bilge Ebiri wrote in his review of Five Armies for Vulture that “Peter Jackson has lost his soul.” But this added material seems to demonstrate that he actually may have found it, even as he lost control of the movies themselves.
In an age where visible authorship of blockbuster films seems fewer and farther between, it’s exciting to see these flickers of inspiration from an old pro in a series of movies that was written off as soulless at the time. Jackson may have not been the man to make The Hobbit into cinema, but his unexpected journey managed to reignite many of the impulses that made him such a singular filmmaker in the first place. Such flickers may have all wound up on the cutting room floor, but their inspired lunacy flies in the face of naysayers who would claim Jackson has lost his touch. To them I have but one response: “Bollocks.”