Peter Jackson has spent some time in Middle-earth, producing six movies and oceans of profit, and fostering more childhoods than he could have anticipated. The Fellowship of the Ring hit theaters in 2001, thirteen years ago. Feel old yet? If you don’t, that’s because you’re too young, and you missed The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Ah, let me tell you, that was a good time to be nine. Movies and books and culture in general harbor a magnificent capacity to influence young folk, and thinking back, I don’t know if any movie changed me quite the same way The Lord of the Rings did. It’s a funny thing, to think that a decade later, a whole new generation of children not unlike me went through a similar process with The Hobbit trilogy. It introduced them to fantasy, changed the way they saw the world, igniting the sparks of imagination.
I pity those children.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)
The Plot: After finally completing the natural climax of the previous film, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and company (twelve other actors) at last reclaim their homeland of Erebor and the riches therein. Under pressure from the men of the recently destroyed Laketown, led by Bard (Luke Evans), and the elves of Mirkwood, led by King Thranduil (Lee Pace), Thorin must confront whether he values his own prosperity or honor more. This conundrum is interrupted when a massive army of orcs, led by the villainous-and-superfluous Azog (Manu Bennett), shows up at his doorstep. Urged on by his followers, and his recently shirked friends Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Thorin must lead the defense of his homeland, before it slips from his fingers once more. There’s a lot of leading in this movies, apparently.
I think I may have read a bit too deeply into some of the character motivation going on, here. For that I apologize. I did not at any point intentionally give the impression that this movie possesses any depth whatsoever. It doesn’t. In preparation for this article, I revisited the four previous articles I’ve devoted to Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth saga, of which this claims to be the “defining chapter.” I learned a lot about myself in the process. When An Unexpected Journey came out, I was brimming with excitement. I was cautious, of course, but I desperately wanted to like that movie, and it shows in the review. Last year, I was, again, in a weird place and turned to my old familiar imaginarium for comfort, and entertained a forgiving demeanor. Well, I’m older now, I’m somehow more jaded, I’m more willing to recognize the terrible faults in these movies, and, conveniently for me so I can save face a little, they have gotten worse.
I entered into this film with impossibly low expectation, but it was still somehow worse than I thought it would be. Nothing about it works. It fails as an adaptation, but also just as a movie. I think I’ll begin with the latter. We need to have some sort of organization, after all. The Desolation of Smaug ends right before its climax. That means BOFA begins with a climax. It’s a funny thing, to think that your middle school teachers were on to something when teaching you about plot arcs. Anyone remember that little triangle? Here it is:
So, when you’re making a movie you want exposition, rising action, a climax, and a resolution. Sure. Makes sense. When you’re making three movies that all connect, you want the entire ensemble to follow that arc. But here’s the thing: each individual movie still needs to have an arc. Every movie in The Lord of the Rings trilogy does, and each functions well on its own and as part of a bigger project. An Unexpected Journey was the exposition, Desolation of Smaug was the rising action, and Battle of the Five Armies was the climax, but if you separate all of those things, none of them work. Explain to me why anyone would want to watch two and a half hours of exposition. That’s just boring. All you’re doing is setting up for things to come, but if the things to come don’t carry any weight because they lack their own establishment or climax, then they, too, feel like a waste of time. Two and a half hours of climax is, unsurprisingly, just as boring to watch. There’s the rub: The Battle of the Five Armies is nearly non-stop action, and it is painfully tedious to look at. Cells in my eyes probably died so I could watch this movie. That was a waste of cells.
You’d think that with a tagline like “The defining chapter of the Middle-earth saga,” someone would put a wee bit of effort into earning that claim. Hopefully no one expected this movie to actually top any of The Lord of the Rings in importance or severity, but I wholeheartedly understand anyone who thought that it might, at the very least, define its own trilogy. Since the previous installments were nothing if not parts to a whole, now at last we complete that whole and rest easy, right? We give a climax to our rising action, and the entire story is complete. What I’m trying to say here is that this was Peter Jackson’s last shot at justifying every previous decision he’d made in the trilogy. If he made this one good, then he could theoretically validate all of the earlier flaws, he could make sense of the nonsensical, necessitate the superfluous, and explain to audiences and critics the world over why he had to make three movies out of a short book. This was his one shot.
Okay, so I think people are wrong to criticize him for making an epic trilogy from a short novel. That idea is not inherently bad in and of itself. People make full-length movies out of short stories, and even poems, and those can be good. Look not at the what, or even the why, but at the how. That he did it is not wrong. How he did it is wrong. I’m going to quote myself here, “He [elongates the story] in three ways: 1) Fleshing out Bilbo and Thorin as deep characters; 2) Adding stuff from Tolkien’s notes to create more of a connection between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; 3) Adding action sequences.” Forgive me; I was young and naïve, and actually not entirely incorrect. He did do some nice character work in the first movie. It gave me hope for the second and third. Given the initial groundwork, it wouldn’t be difficult to make Thorin and Bilbo really engaging characters, but he gave up on that promptly in Desolation.
At the time, I also thought that adding things from Tolkien’s appendices made sense, and it could have if it bore any weight at all in the end. You know all that stuff from Dol Guldur? Gandalf investigates this dude named the Necromancer and it turns out he’s Sauron and then some stuff happens. Yeah, that… turned out not to matter. They wrap that up about twenty minutes into BOFA in a stupid and meaningless way, ultimately rendering the entire subplot utterly pointless. So, you could have saved us that forty-five minutes or however much screen-time it took up. He failed to justify his extraneous additions. Simple as that. This includes, by the way, that awful love triangle between Kili (Aidan Turner), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Girl Elf (Evangeline Lily). That was bad in Desolation, but here it reached Attack of the Clones levels. Every bad, drawn-out, melodramatic, gushy, disgusting romance you’ve ever seen got packed into one small space here. Let’s just not talk about it anymore.
So he added a bunch of stuff without reason. Oh well, at least he still has all the material from the book to work with, right? He wouldn’t sacrifice that stuff for the sake of his own crap, would he? Anyone remember Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), the man who can transform into a bear? He’s sort of important in the books, but makes such a brief and needless appearance in Desolation that you wonder why they didn’t cut him entirely. I assumed they didn’t because he would play a pivotal role in the titular battle of the third film, you know, like in the book. He’s in one shot of this movie. One shot. Okay, let’s just leave the bear man on the cutting room floor, then, shall we?
There’s a lot of other stuff like this I could go on and on about, but I’m only going to address the biggest and worst ones: Erebor and the Arkenstone. SPOILERS IF YOU CARE. Okay. We set out from the Shire in the first movie with a single goal: reclaim Erebor and the Arkenstone. Erebor is home, and the Arkenstone is the ultimate McGuffin. Upon retaking the Kingdom Under the Mountain, locating and possessing the Arkenstone becomes the only thing on Thorin’s mind. It nearly drives him mad, in fact, and he has to eventually put it aside for the sake of fighting a massive battle and finally killing that stupid orc. After Smaug’s initial attack decades before, this quest bore singular importance for Thorin. Everything he did after that until the time of his death was for the sake of reclaiming his homeland for his people. And yes, he does die for it. What happens to Erebor and the Arkenstone after Thorin dies? If I hadn’t read the book, I wouldn’t know. Peter Jackson somehow thought it’d be a good idea to shave off the conclusion. He still has Bilbo’s journey home and even includes the scene where the Sackville-Bagginses are auctioning off his things, but he cut out Thorin’s burial. The fact that the Arkenstone is interred with the last of the line of kings doesn’t seem important to anyone? The part where Thranduil also places Orcrist, an ancient elven sword of great value and provenance, in the tomb with his political enemy; no one thought that mattered? You couldn’t even include a line about it? No one could mention that Dain Ironfoot (Billy Connolly) was going to assume the kingship and that working together with Bard he would restore Erebor and Dale to their former states. Killing the orc didn’t matter. The sole objective of the entire f*cking trilogy was ensuring that dwarves could once again live in prosperity and happiness in the Lonely Mountain, and they omitted that resolution, thereby essentially deleting the conclusion of Thorin’s whole character arc. What made it into the final cut of the film so this could be removed? Radagast?
No, not even that. It was the damn spectacle. This movie is all CGI and spectacle. His understanding of physics has disappeared so entirely as to make the action sequences in the previous two films look plausible. I kind of assumed that these fights would have to be more grounded, simply because they’re large-scale battles involving hundreds of people. Nope. There’s even a part where Legolas, falling through the air, runs up a scattering of bricks, also falling through the air. I have complained a lot about the overuse of CGI in these films, so I’ll try not to do it too much, here. I’ve found one image that perfectly captures my point, though:
I recently read an interview with Jackson from Hypable.com. When asked why he extended the films into a full trilogy, Jackson answered:
“What it does is allow you to let the characters drive the story. In a novel, the writer of the novel is often the person who narrates the story, the person who takes you on the journey. Tolkien’s voice is obviously fantastic at doing that. You feel like he’s right beside you, telling you a bed time story. In the movie, you don’t want me on screen talking about what’s happening. So, in a film you have to have the story told through the dialogue of the characters, through the actions of the characters.” (Source)
Could it be possible that he just didn’t realize what he was doing? Did he think that he was making something on the same level as The Lord of the Rings?
“I didn’t want to make The Hobbit feel any more simple. We wanted it to feel like it was the same [as The Lord of the Rings].”
Ah. I also recently read some good news. First, Tolkien’s estate is holding onto The Silmarillion for dear life, so we won’t be seeing any filmic adaptations of that. Second, when asked what he was planning to do next, PJ expressed a desire to return to New Zealand and make some small, low-budget movies, and get back to the basics. Hallelujah. If anyone desperately needed to make a small movie… of course, he continued to say that no one ruled out the possibility of more adventures in Middle-earth. I joked a few months ago that given the rate at which he fabricated material rather than drawing on the wealth of the written legendarium, the next Middle-earth franchise installment will be an entirely made up Legolas spinoff. That joke was funny until the deliberate setup for one that came at the end of BOFA.
Legolas: Dad, this is dumb. I need to go off into the world and find my own way.
Thranduil: I can dig it, G. Go North. There’s this real cool dude I think you should meet. His name is, well, I’m not going to say it’s Aragorn, but it’s totally Aragorn. Anyway, you two would probably get along. Go have adventures.
Legolas: Okay, cool. You’re the best dad in the world.
Thranduil: I know.
That’s the actual dialogue, if you were wondering.
I did really want to like these movies. I tried for a while before admitting to myself that they just weren’t worth the effort. The most frustrating thing about them is not all the bad; it’s all the good. Remember the scene in the first movie where the dwarves are singing in Bag End or Bilbo’s nice speech after goblin caves. Remember Bilbo’s first confrontations with Smaug in Desolation. Remember the acorn scene in this movie and Billy Boyd’s excellent song. There are moments wherein the Peter Jackson we all once knew and loved peaks through to remind us what we could have had. Those moments just make it all harder. I guess, as we proceed, we have to decide whether or not the good makes up for the bad. Do those good scenes forgive the anticlimaxes and the stupid action? Or maybe it’d be better to put it this way: is a reasonable price to pay for The Lord of the Rings? Man, you can try and try, but nothing is ever going to ruin The Lord of the Rings for me.