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20 Dec 2014

Review: The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies – Wednesday night saw the opening of The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies in Korea, and HJ and I were fortunate enough to receive invitations from the New Zealand Embassy to attend a special screening (the acting ambassador was one of HJ’s students). There was wine and plenty of food beforehand, and before they showed the film they gave out a seat prize—a basket full of New Zealand goodies like honey and LOTR DVDs. So it wasn’t exactly a typical night at the movies, but it was fun. We had been planning to go see the film on Friday morning anyway, but this seemed like a much better deal.

“As the final chapter in the journey of The Hobbit, it left me feeling rather deflated.”

As for the film itself, well, let’s just say that I wasn’t exactly surprised. I’ve written about the Hobbit films several times before, of course (if you’re interested in reading what I’ve had to say, just go to the archives and search for “hobbit” or “smaug”—but be warned that they are all pretty long), so nothing I say here regarding the films as a whole is going to be all that new. Had Peter Jackson and Company surprised me with something out of left field, I might have had something new to say, but things wrapped up pretty much the way I expected them to. I am writing this today not because I think I have anything earth-shaking to say, but because I feel like I have to. We’ve been on a long journey with these films, and I kind of feel like I have to say something.

I suppose I’ll start at the conclusion, as I often do when writing reviews. It should come as no surprise after reading the above paragraph, but I honestly felt let down by this third film. You may be wondering how I could feel let down when I already said that the film went the way I expected it to. Well, it’s one thing to “come to terms” with a fact—to mentally and intellectually prepare yourself for it—and it’s quite another thing to deal with that reality emotionally. I was as prepared for this as I could be, but that didn’t make it any less disappointing. Don’t get me wrong—the film wasn’t a disaster or anything like that. As the final chapter in the journey of The Hobbit, though, it left me feeling rather deflated.

All that remains now is to take this thing apart and see what went wrong, I guess. “This thing” is a somewhat vague phrase, and I suppose that was intentional. I’m going to start by looking at some of the things I didn’t really like about this final film (needless to say, there will be spoilers—I’m not bothering with a spoiler-free entry this time) and then I’m going to dive into the problems with the book (yep, even though I’m an ultra Tolkien nerd, I realize that the book is not without its flaws). I’m going to try to keep things as brief as possible, but again, Tolkien nerd. So we’ll see how it goes. (Hey there, future me here. So, yeah, I failed at being brief; this ended up clocking in at over five thousand words. Oops.)

The niggles with Battle of the Five Armies

I’m not going to do a play-by-play of the film because—well, to be perfectly honest—most of it is relatively forgettable epic battle scenes. Sounds ridiculous, right? Using the words “forgettable” and “epic” right next to each other? And yet, somehow, the epic has become the forgettable. That might have something to do with the overuse of the word “epic” itself, but I think we might be becoming jaded as audience members. The first time I saw massive armies line up against each other on the field of battle in LOTR, it was almost a religious experience. Now, though: meh. You can only see rank upon rank of soldiers crash into each other before it starts becoming... boring. Peter Jackson does seem to have realized this, and he punctuates the battle scenes (e.g., most of the film, which shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone given the title) with individual character heroics, set pieces, and gags, but even that starts to get a little old after a while.

Amid all the dust, blood, and clashing metal, though, a number of things stood out to me, and most of them stood out in a bad way. We start the final film where the second film leaves off: Smaug’s attack on Laketown. This is where Bard shines, killing the dragon with the “black arrow” and saving the town. The book does mention a black arrow, of course, but it is just a regular arrow, not a mammoth ballista missile. So how does he manage to kill the dragon with a regular arrow? An old thrush arrives and tells him of a hole in the dragon’s armor of encrusted gold—a fact that the thrush of course learned by overhearing Bilbo tell the dwarves about it. In the film, though, the black arrow is more a spear, and it is supposed to be the only weapon that can take down a dragon, as normal arrows cannot pierce the dragon’s hide. We do get the impression that Bard is aiming for a particular spot, but it’s the weapon more than the aim that matters.

Why does this bother me? Because, in the book, Bilbo essentially helps Bard kill the dragon. He does it unwittingly, of course, and he is even suspicious of the thrush for listening in, but the fact of the matter is that Tolkien brings these two characters together to defeat Smaug. Of course, Bilbo is also responsible for sending Smaug to Laketown in the first place, so this can be seen as a sort of redemption. But in the film, Bilbo doesn’t get that redemption. That’s why this change in the film really bugged me. And I’m not even sure why the change had to be made. Why couldn’t they have incorporated that into the film? The problem couldn’t have been the idea of a talking thrush (which, incidentally, doesn’t speak the tongue of Men—it is Bard, of the race of Dale, who can understand the thrush’s language), since we had talking spiders in the second film. It’s a very important point in the book, and it just baffles me that Peter Jackson and Company would seemingly go out of their way to take it out.

Smaug is dead before the second title pops up, and the rest of this film is about what happens in and around the Lonely Mountain. Tauriel is back, of course, and as the dwarves who stayed behind prepare to leave for the Mountain, she and Kili have an emotional farewell. I’ve made my thoughts on Tauriel known before, so I’ll just say here that I find the Kili-Tauriel romance completely unbelievable. I realize that it’s not uncommon in films for characters to fall in love in ridiculously short periods of time, but we’re talking about an elf and a dwarf here. I just don’t buy it. It feels like a romance that was shoehorned into the film simply for the sake of having a romance. I’ll come back to Tauriel later, when I talk about some of the problems with the book, so for now I’ll set her aside.

Now I’m going to skip over most of the rest of the film and fast forward to the end—not because there aren’t things I could say about what happens in the middle, but because what happened at the climax bothered me the most. To set the stage, the armies of Elves, Men, Dwarves, and Orcs have met on the field of battle in front of the Mountain. The Elves and Men have retreated to Dale to defend the city from another attack, leaving the Dwarves of the Iron Hills (under Dain) to fight off the orc army at the Mountain. Thorin finally snaps out of his “dragon disease” (basically being enchanted into a stupor by dragon gold) and leads the twelve dwarves into battle. Dain’s dwarves rally around him, but they are still outnumbered. So Thorin takes Dwalin, Kili, and Fili (“his best fighters,” Gandalf comments) to attack Azog, who is overseeing the battle from a nearby peak.

When they get to the top of the peak, Azog is nowhere to be found. So what does Thorin decide to do? He decides to split up the party. If you’ve ever played a role-playing game, you know that you never split the party. Bad things always happen when you do that. RPG logic aside, though, Thorin knows that Azog and his entourage are around somewhere, so why would he send his best fighters out individually to find them? He does tell Fili and Kili to simply report back and not engage the enemy by themselves, but come on. Things would have to go perfectly for that to work, and we know that they are not going to go perfectly. In fact, anyone who has read the book knows that Thorin, Fili, and Kili all die. We don’t actually see this in the book, but we get to see it in the film, and when they split up I feared that their deaths would be more stupid than heroic.

I was half right. Fili is captured without a fight and executed in front of Thorin, while Kili dies fighting Bolg (Azog’s son—but this doesn’t really matter, because he’s just another big baddie in a sea of characters). Thorin has a long, drawn out duel with Azog that he eventually wins, but not before Azog fatally wounds him (Thorin, realizing that he is being overpowered, allows himself to be wounded so he can strike the fatal blow). Tauriel of course shows up just in time to watch Kili die, and she isn’t even able to avenge him—she is nearly killed herself and has to be saved by Legolas.

I’ll get back to Legolas in a moment, but what really bothered me about this very long sequence was how the trio of Thorin, Fili, and Kili—remember, Fili and Kili are Thorin’s nephews, so they are family—die separately. In the book, they die together on the field of battle, with Fili and Kili defending their uncle and king to the death. I suppose Thorin and Kili get heroic deaths here, but Fili is simply executed like a dog. And did I mention that they die apart? Wow. I didn’t realize how much this bothered me until I started writing about it, but it really bothers me (so much so that I had to stop writing for an entire day at this point before coming back to it). Jackson traded love and loyalty for action and spectacle, and I don’t have to tell you which end of that deal is the poorer.

So, Legolas. Purists might argue that he shouldn’t be in the films because he wasn’t in the book, but I suspect that he wasn’t in the book because Tolkien hadn’t invented him yet, or at least had not fully fleshed him out. Legolas is, after all, the son of Thranduil, who features fairly prominently in the book, so it’s no stretch to assume that Legolas might have been one of the wood elves in The Hobbit. Just because it is conceivable that Legolas could have been around for the events of The Hobbit, though, doesn’t mean that it was necessarily a good idea to put him in the film. For one, as a friend of mine argued, he has no character arc. We know what he is going to be like at the beginning of LOTR, and that’s pretty much what he’s like when he first appears in H2, so we know that there isn’t going to be any development.

The bottom line is that we don’t get any new insight into his character. He’s just there as a brainless action hero. If you thought his shield surfing and Mumakil riding of LOTR were ridiculous, wait until you see the stunts he pulls in this film. I understand that he’s an elf, but I think Jackson and Company might be taking the elves-are-magic thing a little too far. The final showdown between Legolas and Bolg, which takes place at the same time and in the same general area as Thorin’s showdown with Azog, is the pinnacle of Legolabsurdity (trademark pending).

As I mentioned above, Tauriel is nearly killed by Bolg. Legolas sees that she is in danger, but he is on a neighboring peak and cannot reach her. So he stabs a troll in the head with a sword, steers it toward a stone tower, and knocks the stone tower over to form a bridge over the chasm. There is so much ridiculousness here (swords to the brain generally do not act as rudders, a stone tower with no reinforcing skeleton would simply collapse upon striking the walls of the chasm) that I’m already having a hard time suspending my disbelief. I don’t know, maybe Legolas managed to thrust the sword into the troll’s brain just right, and maybe the stone tower was built with super-strong mortar. These things are unlikely, but not entirely outside the realm of possibility.

Legolas and Bolg of course end up fighting on the tower/bridge, and the masonry begins to fall apart. Stones begin to plummet into the chasm. Then, the section that Legolas is standing on gives way. Elf-boy is screwed, right? Nope. He starts leaping from one falling stone to another, climbing higher and higher until he reaches the safety of a stable section of masonry. I just want to make this clear, because I’m trying to explain in words what happened on the screen, and it is so ludicrous that you might not believe me. As the stones are falling through thin air, Legolas launches himself off of them to climb higher and higher. Hmm. That’s not any better, really. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find any clips of this scene online yet, so you’re just going to have to take my word for it that this happened.

When this happened on screen, it looked so fake that everybody in the audience laughed. And it wasn’t an “Oh my God, this is hysterical!” laugh, it was a laugh of disbelief and, dare I say, discomfort. Why did it look so fake? Because it was physically impossible. The stones are not anchored to anything, so extending your legs isn’t going to lift you up off of a given stone—it’s just going to push the stone down, and you’re going to plummet into the chasm. We saw in LOTR that Legolas can walk on top of snow as if it were solid (“swift as a runner over firm sand,” the book says), but no one in the books is ever shown defying gravity. There is magic aplenty in Middle Earth, but none of that magic involves flying or even levitation. And if Legolas could fly, why did he need the bridge in the first place? But this is getting absurd; there is no way to rationalize this away.

I know it may seem like I am harping on what it is a very brief stunt/gag in the film, but it feels important to me. Everything else Legolas has done in the films, however improbable, has at least been possible. But this... this tells me that Jackson, in the final push in his ongoing efforts to top himself again and again, has finally become unmoored from reality. We have now passed into the realm of the ludicrous, and the only consolation is that it can’t get any worse because it’s all over now.

This is not to say that the entire film was horrible. It wasn’t; there were definitely good moments. I enjoyed Bilbo’s return to the Shire in the midst of the auction at Bag End, and the way Jackson brought things full circle, back to the beginning of LOTR, was a nice touch. But the film as a whole was marred by its failings. I’ve ranted about a few of the details that bothered me here, but in the end it wasn’t really about the details. It was about the whole thing put together, and how it drifted farther and farther away from the spirit of the book over the course of three films. Each of the first two films had their moments, but this film didn’t have anything to equal those moments, unless it was the end credits and the song sung by Billy Boyd. It was a beautiful song and a great way to end the trilogy—I just wish I could have believed that the films had earned it.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit...

I think that here, at the end of all things, it is important to go back to the book in order to address some of the issues with the films. I think it’s safe to say that filming the book as written would not have worked. There were always going to be changes that would have to be made to adapt the written word to the silver screen. Beyond that, it is also true that the book has its flaws, and I think a film made in our day and age would have to address these flaws.

It has often been said that Tolkien cannot write female characters—that he places them on pedestals rather than treating them like real human beings. I could note that Tolkien idealizes most of his characters, and almost all the good ones, but that doesn’t change the fact that Tolkien’s word is largely populated and run by men. The LOTR books do have some women in them, but they do not play very active roles (with the exception of Eowyn, who still gets married off in the end). The Hobbit, however, has no female characters at all. There are women who are mentioned (namely Bilbo’s female relatives), but they never appear in the story. There’s no denying it: The Hobbit is a sausage fest.

Tauriel was apparently Jackson’s remedy for this flaw. The idea of a strong female character is not in itself a bad thing, but is that really what we got in Tauriel? Now that the final film is finished, if you look back at her character arc, it would appear that her ultimate function was to fall in love with Kili and ratchet up the emotional content of his death. In dramatic terms, that is not a completely useless function, but it certainly doesn’t make her a strong female character. And, like I said above, I still find the romance between Tauriel and Kili to be completely unrealistic. We are not given any reason to believe that these two characters might fall in love—we’re just expected to accept it. Well, I never really accepted it, and for that reason Tauriel didn’t work for me as a believable character; had she never gotten involved with Kili, I might have found her more believable, but if that had been the case there might not have been a reason to create her out of thin air in the first place.

Perhaps the most noticeable problem with the book is the Battle of the Five Armies itself. The lead-in to the battle, with all the embassies going back and forth and futile attempts at diplomacy by both Bard and the Elvenking (incidentally, in the book Bard is eager for battle, while the Elvenking is quite reluctant to begin a “war for gold”—the opposite of what we get in the film, where Thranduil is a jerk and Bard is pretty much a saint), occupies many pages, but the battle itself, joined when the forces of evil show up, is described in a total of four pages. At least, it is only four pages before Bilbo sees the eagles and then gets knocked unconscious while wearing the ring. The remainder of the battle is summarized after the fact in about a page of text.

I must admit that, when I read The Hobbit as a child, I always felt a little cheated by this. After all the adventures Bilbo and the dwarves had been through, how could Tolkien leave this great battle at its climax and only come back to it later, almost as an afterthought? It wasn’t fair! Now I have a better understanding of what Tolkien was trying to do. Even though I think you would be hard pressed to find an editor today who would advise such a course of action, Tolkien’s madness was not devoid of method. Simply put, the story was not about grand armies meeting in great battles, it was about a little hobbit and the courage and wisdom he showed when he had his moment on the epic stage. Bilbo missed the climax of the battle for the same reason that LOTR (the books, that is), after all the great events the characters witness, ends with the scouring of the Shire as its final “action set piece”—because when all is said and done, it’s about the little people on the big stage.

What we get in the film is a long, drawn-out battle that exceeds the book by an order of magnitude. It’s not just armies crashing into each other, of course—as I mentioned near the start of this entry, Jackson is wise enough to know that audiences get “battle fatigue,” so he breaks the action up with careful editing and creative set pieces. But that doesn’t change the fact that we essentially have an entire film that revolves around the battle, and a lot of the battle scenes are hero showdowns that go on far longer than they have to.

Of course, missing the climax of the battle isn’t the only problem with this part of the book. We do get the touching reunion of Bilbo and Thorin before Thorin’s death, but Fili and Kili get a single sentence to commemorate their passing: “Fili and Kili had fallen defending him with shield and body, for he was their mother’s elder brother.” That’s it. We don’t even get a funeral or ceremony for them. How could Tolkien be so callous? This leads us into the final major problem with the book: The dwarves, with a few exceptions (Thorin and Balin) are essentially interchangeable. Fili and Kili have lines in the book, for sure, and they do... things, but they are not really anything special, like most of the other dwarves. They are the youngest, which means that they have the keenest eyesight, and this is what they are most known for in the books. Balin is the lookout, Oin and Gloin are the fire starters, and... that’s about it. The dwarves are distinguished by the colors of their hoods and beards, and occasionally by what instruments they play, but they are not really individual characters. They are an ensemble. This works in the book, but it’s still problematic, and it becomes much more problematic when you have to translate the story to the screen.

We’ve seen how Jackson dealt with the problem of not having any female characters, and I’ve already made it clear that I’m not impressed with the results, so I won’t beat that poor, bloated equine corpse any longer. How did he deal with a cast of thirteen dwarves who are mostly interchangeable, though? In the book, you can forget individual dwarves for chapters at a time with no problem, but that doesn’t really work on the screen. So Jackson and Company decided to spend a lot of time, effort, and money making each of the dwarves unique and individual characters. They each have very distinct personalities, quirks, even hairstyles. Pop quiz: Which one was Bifur? If you can picture him in your mind right now, you’ve got a better memory than I do. I could, with complete confidence, pick Thorin, Fili, Kili, Balin, Dwalin, and Bombur out of a line up. I remember the faces and characteristics of most of the remaining (seven) dwarves, but I would have to guess at their names.

The truth is that, if you’re going to have a set of films that is heavy on the action and not a character-driven drama, thirteen characters who are more or less the same is way too many for an audience to keep track of, no matter how hard you try to distinguish them. So was Jackson doomed from the start? I kind of think he was, at least with the sort of films he wanted to make—and by that I mean films that tried to make the world of The Hobbit feel as vast and expansive as the world of LOTR, to the point that he introduced an entirely separate plotline. I think it might have been possible to distinguish the dwarves enough so that at least the Tolkien nerds could remember which was which, but you would have to have given each of them moments where they could shine as individual characters.

I think there were opportunities to do this. You know what scene I was really looking forward to in the second film? The introduction of the Company to Beorn. So Gandalf brings Bilbo with him to meet Beorn and tells the dwarves to come in pairs at set intervals, so as not to overwhelm their host, who is not used to having lots of guests around. It works really well in the book because Gandalf tells the story of their travels so far to Beorn, gradually increasing the number of companions he mentions just as the next set of dwarves arrives. It’s quite clever and amusing, and of course would not work at all in the film—which is probably why we didn’t get it. But it would have been the perfect opportunity to let the dwarves shine as individual characters and not just members of the Company, even if it had to be tweaked a bit for the screen.

Anyway, that’s not what we got, so we are left with half the Company being little more than an amorphous blob in the minds of the audience. Before I leave the issue of characters, though, I want to mention something that I didn’t realize until well after the film was over (today, in fact). Remember how much of a clown Bombur was in the first two films? Well, guess who we saw next to nothing of in the third film. That’s right: Bombur. Like I said, I didn’t realize this until today, but there is precious little levity in the film until the very end (during Bilbo’s return to the Shire), and thus no call for the comedic stylings of Bombur. In a way, though, this was welcome, because the whole “Ha ha! Fat people are funny!” thing was getting a little tired. Do you know what Bombur’s defining trait is in the book? I suppose this is subjective, but I think he was defined by his sympathy for Bilbo. The rest of the dwarves were fit and accustomed to adventure, and only Bombur understood what poor Bilbo was going through. That’s what I remember about Bombur—not that he was a bumbling oaf who was always stuffing his face and getting stuck in barrels.

Final words

I said at the beginning of the previous section that shooting the book as written would not have worked, and I stand by that. But I am not convinced that Jackson’s remedies are any better than the problems they try to fix. In fact, I think I honestly would have preferred the book filmed as written to what we got in these three films. OK, maybe that’s a bit harsh, because there were definitely moments of brilliance in the endeavors of Jackson and Company. The scenes in Bag End in the first film were pitch perfect and filled me with hope for what lay ahead. Even after the disappointment that followed, “Riddles in the Dark,” the meeting of Bilbo and Gollum, was everything I could have hoped for. (Erratum: I had originally placed “Riddles in the Dark,” in the second film, but was reminded later that it was actually in the first; as far as the second film goes, the scenes with Bilbo and Smaug stick in my mind.) So I think it’s clear that Jackson was capable of bringing the book to life, of doing it justice; he just chose not to, most likely because we live in a post-LOTR world, and the simple story of The Hobbit just wasn’t going to cut it.

Well, I’m not too sure about that. I think I would have liked a simpler story. I knew I wasn’t going to get it—I mean, it was obvious what the films were announced as a trilogy that we weren’t going to get a simple story—but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept now, when it’s all over and I’m looking back at what could have been but wasn’t.

I did not intend for this to become as long as it has. It was supposed to be a brief review, not another five-thousand-word tome. It feels very ragged to me, very disjointed, but I’m not going to try to fix that beyond the usual (and generally ineffective) attempts at proofreading. I guess this is less of a review and more of an exercise in writing therapy. I just needed to get all of this off my chest—or, at least, part of it, because there is a lot more I could say, but I am tired of writing. I need to put this out there and thus hopefully exorcise it.

I wonder if this disappointment I feel now is temporary. I seem to remember being annoyed by things in LOTR at first that I later came to accept as being part of the films. I came to terms with the fact that the books and the films were two separate things, and I could enjoy them separately. Will I be able to do that here as well? Right now, these films feel a lot more disappointing than LOTR did. I saw Return of the King four times in the cinemas, and I can still remember how my heart swelled each and every time the film reached its climax. No, I’m afraid that The Hobbit films will never be on par with what Jackson achieved in the LOTR films. They feel more like—and I hate to say this—the trilogy of The Matrix. But we shall see what wonders Time weaves.

It’s time to wrap this up. There is more that could be said, but I’m sure others will say it, if they haven’t already. I will say one thing in closing, though. I saw this coming way back before the first film even opened. I didn’t know the details, or how exactly things would play out, and I did hold out hope that Jackson would still be able to pull a rabbit out of his magic hat... but I think deep down I knew it wasn’t going to happen. Still, I wonder how much of this we can lay at Jackson’s feet. We were spoiled by the brilliance that was LOTR, and by all of the grand, epic films that have been produced since then that have had to live up to the standards that LOTR set. Would we—and by “we” I mean the public at large, not just Tolkien nerds like me—have been satisfied with less spectacle? Would we have been content with a simple children’s story? I don’t know. I can’t help wondering if this ideal film I have in my mind is the one we deserved, but not the one we needed right now.

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