Seventeen years after Peter Jackson won the rights to film The Lord Of The Rings, he is finally taking leave of J R R Tolkien and Middle-earth with the conclusion of The Hobbit. The new film marks a magnificent, Wagnerian-style finale, full of sound and fury, and with an unexpected emotional kick. The Hobbit trilogy started in tentative fashion, picked up momentum and ends in a way that is likely to satisfy even the most die-hard fans of one of the most popular franchises in movie history.
Stars past and present were reunited on the green carpet for the world premiere of the final film, Tolkien.
Martin Freeman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Luke Evans, Richard Armitage and Evangeline Lilly joined some of the Lord Of The Rings cast such as Sir Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom and Andy Serkis in London's Leicester Square to celebrate the third and last instalment of The Hobbit trilogy.
Thousands of fans, including some who had camped outside for five days, gathered to catch a glimpse of the stars at the premiere which was streamed live to over 160 countries.
The film, which stars Freeman as hobbit Bilbo Baggins alongside Sir Ian reprising his role as Gandalf the Grey, is the culmination of Sir Peter Jackson's 14-year adventure in Middle Earth.
Sir Peter, 53, who finished editing the movie a week ago, said it was "emotional" saying goodbye to the cast but admitted the full impact has yet to hit him.
"I have a lot of memories (of these films) although the Lord Of The Rings are a fog now," the New Zealand film-maker said.
"Saying goodbye to the cast was like this agonising long torture over 10 weeks. But on Sir Ian's, I thought, 'He's never going to wear that Gandalf cape and staff again' and that was hard. To me, it wasn't goodbye until then.
"But the real emotions will hit me in days to come," he added, joking: "It's all downhill from here. My career that is!"
If you haven't seen the first two episodes, expect to be baffled. Jackson doesn't make any concessions at all to newcomers to The Hobbit. The Battle of the Five Armies begins just where last year's The Desolation of Smaug finished off. Generally in big budget fantasy epics, the film-makers go to great lengths to establish character and set the plot rolling before they introduce the real spectacle. Here, Jackson, obviously feeling he has done the groundwork in the earlier episodes, starts letting off the fireworks right at the outset and doesn't let up. The film is shorter than its predecessors and is essentially one long series of battles.
At times, the storytelling is very dark and violent. There is one phantasmagoric scene involving Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) fighting off evil spirits that plays like something from a Satanic thriller by Dennis Wheatley. Jackson doesn't skimp on the beheading, impaling and disembowelling either. The look of the film is grey and brooding. The cute, pastoral world from which Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) emerged at the beginning of the trilogy seems a very long way away indeed. There is very little comic relief here outside Billy Connolly's cameo as the fiery Glaswegian-sounding Dwarf, Dain Ironfoot, and Ryan Gage's role as the venal, cowardly Alfrid.
Almost all the action is set against the backdrop of the lonely mountain of Erebor. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his dwarves have taken control of the castle but Thorin's character is being corrupted by the gold. He forgets his honour and his promises to the people of Lake-town.
By the end of the film, several armies have converged on Erebor. Elves, dwarves and humans are all at loggerheads and seemingly unaware of the threat posed to them by the hordes of murderous Orcs about to converge on them.
A movie comprised almost entirely of battles could have become very tedious indeed. Jackson, though, is always able to give an intimacy to even the biggest, noisiest scenes. Howard Shore's music plays a crucial role in driving the action forward and in providing emotional shading. Freeman's role as the down-to-earth Bilbo provides much-needed contrast to the bombast that runs through The Battle of the Five Armies.
As the different armies collide, the film risks becoming chaotic and confusing. There are some moments of mawkishness, especially at the finale. We get the sense that Jackson is struggling to drag himself away for the last time from a kingdom to which he has devoted so much of his working life and that he can't quite work out how to make a tidy exit. But for all its loose ends, The Battle of the Five Armies is the strongest, boldest film in the trilogy and provides just the send off the series deserves.
Both Sir Peter and Freeman paid tribute to the franchise's strong fan base with the director telling the crowds: "We hope you enjoy this film. We make it for you, for the fans and the people who enjoy these movies so I hope you like this one."
Freeman, 43, added: "The reason I'm not sad is because we are handing it over to the audience and sharing it with you. You're the best fans in the world - you're loyal and mad - so thank you so much."
Sherlock star Freeman revealed he wasn't feeling too sad over the franchise's end.
"This is nice. It has to end so why not enjoy the end? I really enjoy things ending actually because if we went on and on and on you'd soon hate us," he said. "What a way to go out. It's fantastic."
His co-star Armitage, who plays dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield, agreed, saying: "It's the most amazing feeling to be here when you step out of the car and the crowd erupt because they love your character. Tonight is going to be a party, a big celebration."
Cumberbatch, who portrays Smaug the dragon and Sauron, said leaving a legacy with his dual role is "amazing":
He added: "They're two iconic baddies and they serve more than just stories. To get to play them on this kind of scale is just dreamy, it's just amazing."
The 32-year-old actor added: "Peter's body of work is exceptional so to be part of that as well is very special."
Other stars who attended the film's premiere included Stephen Fry, James Nesbitt and Billy Boyd.
The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies opens in cinemas on December 12.
There are undoubtedly many Middle Earth devotees who would have loved him as their teacher – but the feeling may not have been mutual.
In a previously unseen letter addressed to a fellow teacher, JRR Tolkien said that “all teaching is exhausting and depressing”, with few comforts.
In the note, dating from 17 January 1984, The Lord of the Rings author thanks a Mrs A Mountfield for sending him an epistle written by one of her pupils.
Tolkien types: “The Hobbit seems to go down well at school; I have had several letters telling me of class activities arising from interest in it. Not all as well penned as this."
However, at the end of the letter is an additional hand-written message, in which he champions a rather more sombre view of teaching.
“All teaching is exhausting and depressing and one is seldom comforted by knowing when one has had some effect,” he writes.
“I wish I could now tell some of mine (of long ago) how I remember them and things they said, though I was (only, as it appeared) looking out of the window or giggling at my neighbour.”
Mrs Mountfield said she had forgotten about the letter before coming across it years later folded away in one of her books, shortly after she received another letter from a former pupil citing her influence on his life.
“I like to attribute the coincidence to a little touch of Gandalf magic,” she told The Guardian.
“How right Tolkien was that teachers are seldom 'comforted by knowing that one has had some effect' and how very nice when, 50 years after the event, it happens.”
Tolkien was Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, but dedicated much of his time to writing.
He revealed that the first line of The Hobbit came to him while he was marking English exam papers:” I wrote on it: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’.”