A recent internal poll of Polygon employees found a split editorial edifice: The office was deeply divided on whether Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was best watched as a Thanksgiving movie marathon or a Christmas movie marathon.
2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies’ 20th anniversary, and we couldn’t imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we’ll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon’s Year of the Ring.
The only answer was to dig deeper, weigh the arguments, and then decide in our hearts which late-year extravaganza was truly in the spirit of the Lord of the Rings. Is it the trilogy’s themes of fellowship and cooperation that speak to your turkey-loving heart? Or is it the elves, trees, and bearded old men that really captures your Christmas spirit?
Or is there a third, galaxy brain answer that blows the previous two out of the water and infuriates everyone who reads it?
Polygon assembled a panel of three experts to decide the issue for once and for all.
[Ed. note: The findings of Polygon’s experts are non-binding on any person reading this now and on all future holiday seasons. If you really have a dog in this fight we encourage you to share it politely in the comments or on Twitter, although you should log off and watch the Lord of the Rings movies at some point.]
Case #1: The Lord of the Rings movies are Thanksgiving movies
Presented by Jeremy Gordon
Perks of attending a fancy-pants magnet high school: Every Thursday, my normal class schedule was swapped for two 90-minute seminars covering an array of specialized subjects, taught by teachers thrilled to cast aside the pedantry of standardized test prep and dive into a subject they really gave a shit about. In my freshman year, the first seminar I signed up for was on J.R.R. Tolkien.
The Fellowship of the Ring had hit theaters just before last Christmas, and though I hadn’t read the books, the saga — of good and evil, of men and elves and orcs, of Magneto recast as my wise wizard grandpa — immediately sucked me in. This seminar seemed like an excellent way to accentuate the knowhow I’d picked up from the original text (a last-minute Christmas gift, wolfed down in a few days) and message board forums.
Only the teacher, a middle-aged woman who dressed like a librarian Stevie Nicks, did not want to titillate our minds with adventure. Instead we were to make our way through The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s dense collection of stories about the greater Middle Earth mythology stuffed with proper nouns and plotless exposition. I was a never-been-kissed nerd who owned all of the needlessly obscure Star Wars action figures, but this was too much.
For Tolkienites like my teacher, that kind of lore was the real treasure of The Lord of the Rings — an epic and rich tapestry upon which Tolkien’s explorations into invented language and allegorical religious conflict unfurled. For newcomers like me, and the millions who would see The Lord of the Rings in theaters over the next few years, all this was beside the point. Not that the concept of Ents isn’t awesome; I would love to talk to you about the Ents. But the resonant appeal of the trilogy had nothing to do with the fleshing out of Middle Earth, which is why the Hobbit trilogy was a small failure.
We cared about the Lord of the Rings trilogy because we cared about the characters, and the ways their relationships developed as they progressed along this journey to defeat true evil. Lord of the Rings wasn’t the only 21st century action blockbuster adapted from a series of popular novels — there’s Harry Potter, Twilight, and the Hunger Games, to name a few — but it offered the most poignant demonstrations of how this action actually changes people. This is just basic storytelling, but success is often a perfect execution of an established formula.
Notably, this change is oriented around friendship and loyalty as experienced by adults. These relationships are familiar, even though we’re ostensibly watching a movie about the fictional races of hobbits and elves and dwarves. Frodo and Sam are best friends. Pippin and Merry are Frodo’s cousins, and also best friends. Gandalf is Frodo’s uncle, basically. Aragorn, Boromir, Legolas, and Gimli are some guys they all meet, and while they don’t get along at first, they learn to. Their brotherhood is invented, but it’s no less meaningful for that. At the end of the first movie, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli should join the war efforts against Sauron … only they have to find their homies first. “We will not abandon Merry and Pippin to torment and death,” Aragorn declares, and have you ever been more roused to the cause of friendship in a franchise film? NO!!!!!!!
Thank God they have each other, because no one comes back the same. Boromir — a gigantic prick, at first — sacrifices himself for the gang. Legolas and Gimli, who initially can’t stop being racist towards each other, realize they have more in common than not. Aragorn, a generational shirker of responsibility — suck it up and be the king, man! — accepts his role as everyone’s big brother, and also the king. Sam abdicates his own personhood to make sure Frodo reaches Mordor, but in doing this he becomes his own man. (He’s the only character we see as a parent, which is to say that canonically, Sam Fucks.) Pippin and Merry cut the shit, and find meaning, in the twin cities of Gondor and Rohan. Frodo is the rare hero whose life is ruined by his heroism; he can never shake the wounds of what has happened to him, no matter how many years go by.
To satisfy the prompt of whether Lord of the Rings is a Thanksgiving movie, I will point out that the films take place in fall climates and the food is excellent and some cousins get stoned. But Thanksgiving is a holiday where you are supposed to reflect on the things in your life, and the people around you, and the gratitude you might feel for all this. Life changes people. Life changes you. We can all use a moment to pause and breathe and note the passage of time and all its breathtaking and quiet revelations — preferably in the fall, the season of change, surrounded by good food and potentially some weed breaks with the cousins. So I will resist the impish urge to contort myself into some whimsical argument about Why The Lord of the Rings Is Actually a Thanksgiving Movie because the dynamics I have described so clearly sync up with the holiday, and are why I, and millions of others, remain touched upon repeated viewing. (Even if I do also watch the movies around Christmas, when there’s more free time, because I always go for the Extended Editions.)
Case #2: The Lord of the Rings movies are Christmas movies
Presented by Daniel Dockery
When picking out Christmas movies, there’s the obvious family friendly fare (How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Elf, It’s A Wonderful Life,) the “This is actually a great Christmas movie” internet darlings (Die Hard, Batman Returns) and the stuff that just seems to fit for some reason. More than one person has told me that, around the holidays, they like to nestle in and put on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, which definitely slots nicely into that last category. I should know, because I, too, like to enjoy the near twelve-hour experience that is the Extended Editions in the days leading up to Christmas.
The method in which I engorge myself on these films has changed, but for over five years, the base tradition hasn’t. What once was a marathon session to fit them all in on Christmas day (adjusted because exposing my two-year-old to the deliciously spooky Mines of Moria and Shelob sequences would get me arrested in most states) became a sort of Six Days of Christmas affair, where each night, my wife and I settle in to half of one of the films.
This is made extremely easy because even with the magic of technology, Jackson’s films are so long that they’re split over two discs. It might seem like a callback to J.R.R. Tolkien’s splitting each book into two sections, but the timing doesn’t quite line up. And with little exception, each provides a satisfying little conclusion to cap off the night (The only outlier is Return of the King, which ends with the introduction of Grond, the giant, flaming battering ram that’s certainly rad, but “Oh, man. GROND’S HERE” just doesn’t carry the weight of, say, the conclusion of the Council of Elrond.)
So, what makes the trilogy work as Christmas films? They’re obviously feel-good movies, but I think the warm satisfaction you get from them is particularly of the Christmas variety, one where the power of the spirit overcomes that of greed or malicious decadence. Elf ends when James Caan decides that he shouldn’t be so cutthroat in the world of, umm, children’s book publishing, and accepts the magic of Santa and/or family. It’s A Wonderful Life concludes when Jimmy Stewart learns that it was pretty solid for him to be so nice all the time. These moments of triumph are littered throughout LOTR, whether it’s Frodo deciding that he has to be the one to take the ring to Mordor, or something as grand as the tree-like Ents marching on Isengard, a stronghold of industrial terror and natural demise.
It also doesn’t hurt that there’s something inherently communal about Lord of the Rings. You get the sense that when Saruman falls, it isn’t just because he’s a conniving old weirdo, but because he’s a conniving old weirdo who has no friends. Christmas, or at least most Christmas movies, tend to be about that feeling of family, and how special it is that, even if it’s just once a year, you can gather together with people you love and kinda wallow in it all. It’s a reason that they form a Fellowship to take the Ring rather than Aragorn and a platoon of jacked dudes. And when Aragorn kisses Boromir’s forehead or Frodo and Sam hold one another on the lava-drenched side of Mount Doom, there’s real love and open admiration untethered to any self-aware sense of masculinity. Comfort in the presence of another that you adore.
The fact that The Fellowship of the Ring basically begins with a big party (after all of the epic, sweeping battlefield shots and Cate Blanchett exposition) makes it a good kickoff game for Christmas. There’s something holiday-ish about Bilbo’s birthday party, with everyone eating and pouring ale and lighting fireworks. The Hobbits’ need for feasting while their clothing looks like something from a Charles Dickens adaptation gets me in the mood for copious amounts of eggnog, and sleeping after eggnog.
Meanwhile, the sheer amount of promise that, in the end, it’s all going to be okay, means that when Christmas begins to wrap up, hope for what lies ahead still remains. It seems that every few minutes, a character in Lord of the Rings pauses to basically affirm that life isn’t totally terrible, whether it’s Gandalf looking at Frodo in his little travel garb and smiling at his naive enthusiasm or later reminding Frodo that even when all seems dire in “the time that is given,” we still decide what to do. Sam has two separate moments in Two Towers where he speaks of the stories that will come through the characters just holding on and even Gandalf’s description of death and passing on in Return of the King feels hopeful. There is a new year ahead.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there are elves in Lord of the Rings. Santa has elves. That’s gotta be something, right?
The Lord of the Rings trilogy is easily applied to the constructs of Christmas flicks without constantly reminding us of Christmas itself, and that’s key for allowing it to remain fresh. Existing during the holidays means being inundated with Christmas as a brand name, a driver of merchandise and movies. So by the time you pop in a Christmas movie, it can be a little tiring to pray at the red and green altar when you’ve just spent hours fighting your way out of the checkout line at Target. LOTR is devoid of this kind of hustle, and becomes the best choice for anyone that likes watching the good guys succeed without feeling like they’re trapped in a commercial.
Case #3: The Lord of the Rings movies are New Year’s Eve movies
Presented by Susana Polo
If you hit play on the theatrical version of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (and you are watching the theatrical versions, right?) at exactly 9:13 p.m. and 24 seconds, the Eye of Sauron explodes at midnight. I figured this out last year, when exploring ways to usher out 2020 from this mortal coil.
Knowing I’d be spearheading Polygon’s Year of the Ring anniversary coverage through all of 2021, I thought a New Years marathon with a friend would be both fun and edifying. On a sort of whim, I thought I’d time the Return of the King to put Sauron’s demise at midnight. All it took was pulling up the movie on HBO Max, scrubbing to the moment, checking the timestamp, and using an online calculator to work backwards through the films’ runtimes to make sure I got everything right. We would kick off in the early afternoon and even have time for a half hour intermission between each film and at the mid points of Fellowship and Two Towers.
It seemed a bit silly at the time, but fun. Whimsical, perhaps. One last middle finger to 2020. I didn’t expect it to be actually cathartic.
What I hadn’t realized was that the span of time, from the moment Gollum disappears beneath the lava of the Crack of Doom, to the moment the tower goes boom, is actually over two minutes of movie. After a full day of movie-watching, snacking, and relaxing, Gollum falls, and you know that midnight is nearly here. But it’s not here yet.
Sam implores Frodo to reach for his hand, and choose life over the thrall of the Ring. After what feels like an eon, the Ring finally sinks beneath the molten waves. Orcs and trolls hesitate and flee at the Black Gate. Aragorn, Gandalf and the rest of our heroes look up in renewed hope, and they realize exactly what we’ve realized: This whole long fight is about to end, and here, in the darkest dark, a new era is starting in spite of all expectations.
The tower begins to shift and crumble, tears well up in Ian McKellen’s eyes and then … POW, the Eye of Sauron explodes and takes the year with it.
I don’t think I’d do it every year — only on years that really, really deserved it. And I can’t say that the Lord of the Rings is more a New Years marathon than it is a Thanksgiving or Christmas one.
But let me tell you. As a dark horse challenger in this clash of holiday titans, it deserves an honorable mention.
As of the time of publish, all three movies in the Lord of the Rings trilogy — theatrical and Extended Editions — are available on HBO Max.