Posted by: kshayes513 | December 21, 2014

Watching The Hobbit and Kissing Middle Earth Good-bye

Should The Hobbit have been 3 movies? Almost certainly not. But not for the reasons most people give.

(Spoiler warning: this is not a “should you go see it?” review. This is a spoiler heavy analysis of whether and why The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies succeeds as a movie and as an adaptation of Tolkien. If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, continue at your own risk.)

They may be pretty, but they're not main characters.  Image: New LIne

They may be pretty, but they’re not main characters. All images: New Line

Many critics talk about the book of The Hobbit as a “slight” little story. They’re wrong, fooled perhaps by the tone of Victorian children’s story whimsy that Tolkien uses in much of it. I always thought that at least 2 movies were doable, partly because of the book’s length (300 pages and 19 chapters is hardly a “little” story).  And even more, because of the real reason The Hobbit has endured. We don’t come back to it for the quaintness of the hobbit world, nor cherish it because Bilbo Baggins is flummoxed by having an unexpected Dwarf tea party, or learning to “burgle” a stone troll.

We come back because it draws us gradually but inexorably from the world of a fussy “respectable” hobbit into the ancient realm of the epic. There are not just chapters, but ages, between the pompous Thorin Oakenshield falling on Bilbo’s doormat with 5 fat Dwarves on top of him, and the King Under the Mountain storming into the middle of the battle, cutting through his enemies like a war god, and calling out with a voice like mighty horns, “To me! To me, Elves and Men! To me, oh my kinfolk!”

Oh, how desperately I hoped for even one grand moment like that in this movie. Even after my disappointment with The Desolation of Smaug, I didn’t think my hope was unreasonable. The great battles in The Lord of the Rings movies all prove that PJ knows well how to give us epic battle heroism:  the Bridge of Khazad Dum, the death of Boromir, Helm’s Deep, the charge of the Rohirrim at the Pelennor Fields, the duel of Eowyn and the Nazgul – oh, yes, PJ and his team can definitely pull it off.

Then how did they fail so completely here, not just with the grand heroic moments, but with almost everything else? I think they lost sight of whose story they were telling.

An Unexpected Journey works overall (despite what some consider its talkiness) because it focuses mostly on Bilbo’s relationship with Thorin – a rather fraught relationship, since both Bilbo and Thorin believe the Hobbit has no business on this quest. And that’s a large part of what the book is about, too. Chapter after chapter shows Bilbo evolving from useless baggage in need of rescue, to a leader who rescues his friends again and again. In Unexpected Journey, Bilbo finds his inner hero earlier than in the book, but his rescue of Thorin serves as a satisfying conclusion to this stage of the story.

If you want main characters, maybe you should consider these two.

If you want main characters, maybe you should consider these two.

I expected Desolation to build on this, with Bilbo growing into more leadership, and perhaps setting up for his later conflict with Thorin over the dragon hoard. Instead, PJ and his team began to lose control of the plot almost at once. They moved away from Bilbo and Thorin to spend time (a lot of time) with Legolas and Tauriel; with Bard’s troubles with the Master of Laketown; with Kili’s crush on Tauriel; and of course, with seemingly endless videogame sequences of dwarves in barrels being shot at by orcs, and dwarves running through caverns pursued by a dragon.

Let me state now that I’m not a blind book purist. I don’t mind if a movie makes changes even to a beloved book’s plot, as long as those changes work dramatically and help the movie capture the essence of the story. It was okay to have Azog be a living enemy, not a dead one, because a living enemy serves to personify the age-long hatred of the Dwarves and the orcs that will lead to the final battle. It was okay to leave a few of the Dwarves behind in Laketown, so they could be our point of view characters during Smaug’s attack on the town. Even the addition of Legolas and Tauriel might have worked well, if the script had used them the way supporting characters are supposed to be used: to provide new perspectives on the central characters and conflicts.

In any trilogy, the middle movie or book is notoriously difficult. But after a few muddles with The Two Towers, PJ was able in The Return of the King to balance as many as 5 separate narrative threads, before pulling them together at the fall of Barad Dur. So I hoped that the scattered focus of Desolation would get pulled back together for The Battle of the Five Armies.  Instead, PJ and his team seem to get even more lost among all the shiny baubles he added to please fans and the studios. Legolas! Hot Dwarves! Dwarf-Elf romantic triangles! Battles even bigger than LOTR!

A prime example of how very far they strayed from the real story in Five Armies is its approach to comedy. In Unexpected Journey, PJ devotes significant time (too much, according to many) to establishing each Dwarf as an individual, creating relationships among them, and establishing them as The Comic Relief. While there’s not a lot of comedy in Desolation, in Five Armies, PJ apparently decides we need some humor, perhaps to offset the grim finale. But instead of going back to his delightful Dwarves, he gives all the comedy to Alfrid, the Master of Laketown’s henchman.

Remember that in Desolation, Alfrid is not a funnyman, he’s the straight man to Stephen Fry’s buffoonish Master. As a sneaking toady who manipulates the Master’s most venal impulses, he bears a strong resemblance to Wormtongue. But in Five Armies, while most of the Dwarves get few or no lines, Alfrid inexplicably mutates from creepy Wormtongue wannabe into a screen-hogging “lovable coward.” In this role he returns again and again, ad nauseam, missing no hackneyed punchline, not even the comic cross-dressing with boob joke. Is there no embarrassment he won’t embrace to save his life? Who cares? The movie should have been done with him about 5 seconds after Bard saves him from being lynched.

I could make a pretty long list of the failures of tone, focus and coherence in this movie. Legolas’s “daddy and dead mum” issues. The muddled mishmosh of Dol Guldur, where the White Council shows up to fight Sauron by themselves, when we know that both Elrond and Galadriel can command armies. The preposterous plot twist that the two goblin armies in the battle are Sauron’s deep-laid plan to capture the Mountain. Which means he had been building these armies for years on the assumption that someone, somehow, would get rid of a dragon everyone thought was indestructible. And finally, the stupefyingly predictable fight between Thorin and Azog, which hits every preposterous cliche of the hero-villain duel, from getting the two generals of a major battle way off alone to fight each other, to the seemingly dead villain springing back to life just when we thought it was over.

What I have the hardest time forgiving though, is the way the movie treats the deaths of Fili and Kili, especially Kili. In the book, Bilbo learns afterwards that they died in the battle. Tolkien gives them only one sentence of farewell:

“Fili and Kili fell defending Thorin with shield and body, for he was their mother’s brother.”

Yet there’s an entire epic in that sentence: the sacredness of ancient blood ties, the warrior’s fealty to his lord and kinsman, the perpetually doomed, self-sacrificing heroism of the northern lands. If Tolkien just hinted at the heroic tragedy of these deaths, PJ had a chance to give them real dramatic weight. Unlike Tolkien, he had made Fili and Kili into three-dimensional characters, with a real and deeply felt relationship to each other, to Thorin, and to Bilbo. What a moment that could have been.

I'd happily give all the treasure of Erebor to get this scene.

I’d happily give all the treasure of Erebor to get this scene.

PJ doesn’t just miss that chance. He vomits all over it with the romance movie idiocy of having Kili fight and die for Tauriel. Not to protect Thorin, his uncle and king, not to avenge his beloved brother, whom he has just seen butchered, but for Tauriel the made-up movie Elf.

Even worse, PJ has the unspeakable, the unforgivable tone-deafness to make that death more important than Thorin’s. He actually cuts short Bilbo’s moment at the dying Thorin’s side, to return to Kili and Tauriel, thus giving their death scene more emphasis than he gave his two lead characters.

That cut was the moment The Battle of Five Armies finally lost me for good, both as a drama in its own right, and as a treatment of Tolkien. Everything Bilbo and Thorin have been through together in 3 movies – all the moments of contempt, admiration, doubt, trust, betrayal and obsession – all of that drama should have been building towards this moment when these two main characters say their final farewell. But somehow, PJ thought Kili and Tauriel were more important.

What a waste.

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Responses

  1. I am a much shallower person than you. I will likely not see the movie, disappointed as I was with Radagast the Clown – I mean, Brown, the George Lucas “Let’s put every damned character from the first trilogy into the prequel trilogy” maneuver, the inclusion of Azog as perpetual filler, the video game antics, and the snubbing of Beorn (I’d rather they not have had that sequence at all, than the scant sad minutes grudgingly yielded out of a damned 6-hour epic). It all completely negated my happiness in having “I was off taking care of The Necromancer” turned from a sentence into a sequence, and the myriad other niceties that carried the first installment and allowed me to not walk out of the second.

  2. John, I couldn’t agree more about Beorn. Production coverage suggests they apparently devoted a lot of thought and effort into designing the character and his home, yet somehow ended up with an entirely forgettable character. I won’t spoil Beorn’s role in the battle, but remembering Tolkien’s description of how he suddenly shows up, “no one knew how or from where” – PJ’s interpretation is entirely laughable.
    Yet I still found this movie better than Desolation – which ain’t saying much, of course! I walked out of the theater at the end of Desolation with no desire at all to see any of it again. There are parts of this I would like to see again, and might enjoy more now that I no longer have expectations of seeing a story that remotely resembles the last chapters of The Hobbit. That’s mainly, I think, because Bilbo and Thorin get a fair amount of dramatic screen time in between the idiotic action movie decisions. The second movie seemed to me to have very little drama and even less of Bilbo, except for his one too brief scene with Smaug.

  3. I think one of the big mistakes was all the non-canonical stuff in DoS. I’ve been viewing the appendices from DoS EE and it turns out they found out 2 months before opening that they were 20 minutes short, and Boyens woke up in the middle of the night and thought “Dwarf forges!” — and so we get the whole steampunk silliness. Moreover, they spent the final 48 hours before sending the print for opening doing sound editing. No wonder I thought that entire thing felt rushed and chaotic, and not thought out!

    Ironically, PJ has said that there were 15 minutes he REALLY wanted left in the theatrical cut of BoFA, and the studios said “No”; maybe including them would have helped the equally rushed sense I felt in this one. Thorin’s funeral, anyone? They gave it such an incredible set-up with the horns of Dale sounding the Dwarf theme — and then nothing. And, of course, there’s another 30 minutes of material coming in the EE for this one.

    In reading your analysis, I realized that I had let Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage distract me from the gaping holes and dreadful omissions you point out so brilliantly. To continue in the literary vein, JRRT was writing medieval epic, and PJ&Co were doing Hollywood Shakespeare. Thorin’s mad king descent was deeply moving, with all of Bilbo’s involvement; even more moving was his recovery, and his reconciliation with his loyal followers. The final scene between Thorin and Bilbo satisfied me very deeply, but I am sorry that they had to do all the Thranduil/Legolas/Tauriel stuff. (BTW, Legolas is going off to befriend a ten year old boy named Estel whose father died 8 years ago, not a young Strider!) And I’m convinced the only reason Tauriel didn’t die was so she could survive to provide some sort of salvation for Thranduil.

    I think if PJ had left out the forges dreck and orcs all over Laketown rooftops, and ignored “comic” Alfrid, he could have had time to put into the third movie all the material that he was denied by the studios. End the second one AFTER Smaug destroys Laketown in a suitably dramatic fashion, and there you are.

    Even the music was weakest in this one, though I’m wondering how much Shore actually crafted it. I suspect he created themes, but the arranger (Conrad Pope?) did more of the scoring. It was [Pope] and not Shore who actually conducted for the film. I’m wondering if Shore is ill, or just incredibly busy with other projects….

  4. Yes, it’s really a shame that they didn’t just shift Smaug’s entire story to part 2. That would have spared us from the ridiculous forges sequence, given Part 2 a strong ending, and left more time for the stuff PJ really wanted to include in Part 3.
    Perhaps the extended edition of 3 will also fix the one big problem that I only touched on briefly in my post: that so much of what the characters do seems to have no thought at all behind it. In The Lord of the Rings, and in most of An Unexpected Journey, people make decisions and take actions for reasons that always make dramatic sense. Most of this movie doesn’t make any sense at all. I mentioned Dol Guldur and the Sauron orc army plot, but there’s tons more all through the movie. Much of what the Elves and the folk of Laketown are doing through most of the movie makes little sense (or only a stupid kind of “dumb action movie” sense); the giant worms drilling through the mountain are totally preposterous; and where the heck is Dwalin while Thorin is fighting Azog?

    PS the dwarf forges are not steampunk! Steampunk is Jules Vernian adventure in a pseudo Victorian setting with technology based on steam engines, pistons, gears, dirigibles etc. and sometimes a little alchemy thrown in.

  5. It has been a long time since I read The Hobbit and I haven’t seen Part 3 yet. I kept thinking as I watched Desolation of Smaug, “was that in the book? I don’t remember that.” glad to know it isn’t just my memory. I don’t remember all the romantic elvin/dwarfish romantic subplot at all and I think it’s sad when I’m thinking I’d like an action sequence to be done and over — like the whole gold smelting thing. I also kept thinking that things were added to tie into LOTR. For me, the Hobbit was watchable but not as uplifting as LOTR.

  6. You and I have talked some about Desolation. The video game sequences didn’t bother me like they did you because I practically expect it with action movies nowadays — it’s the way they are making them to hook in the gamers, I think. And if the story had returned to the end of the Hobbit, and the real battle of Dol Guldur (as it should have been) and Azog had not figured so prominently (kind of like how Jar Jar became less a part of the later movies once Lucasfilm realized it’s horrid mistake) in the last movie, I would have liked Five Armies better. Changing the Faramir sequence in LoTR didn’t bother me because it didn’t significantly alter the story as a whole, and gave Faramir something to do other than look two dimensional and perfect. But to shift the focus to an invention instead of the real story was disappointing. I can only hope that the 30 missing minutes will correct some of that off-focus-ness. I’m one who did not like Two Towers until I saw the extended cut, and I may feel that way about Five Armies. You know, the frustrating thing is that there were moments that showed the beauty of the story, but they weren’t the main focus. I will hold final judgment until I see the extended cut, hoping the missing 30 minutes fixes some of what was so wrong with Five Armies. And, for what it’s worth, I didn’t care for Alfrid resembling Wormtongue so much Desolation … And really didn’t care for his character in Five Armies. I think that was a non-risk-taking acting choice. I’m glad small things happened — like Beorn making an appearance in the battle, as he does in the book, and the way the movie ended. Lots of warm fuzziness there … Though I was surprised that PJ didn’t do what he did at the end of LOTR — use the final pages almost verbatim (e.g., one night there was a knock on the door. It was a dwarf, and the dwarf was Balin) … Although I loved going back to the Red book scene and Gandalf knocking, it would have been cool to see the final scene from the book instead. Also, it would have been nice to have seen a more realistic version of Gandalf getting the true story of the ring out of Bilbo … Or skip it entirely, since I don’t think it happened on the journey back to the Shire ….

  7. P.s. I am hoping that the missing minutes are a Thorin sequence after his death ….

  8. Finally, I don’t mind that it was three movies (though the original 2 would have been better, I think), because I knew the story was being expanded to a “The Hobbit and what else was happening in Middle Earth at the time” — but the story should have stuck more closely to what we know from the appendices and other writings …

  9. Re: the video game sequence theme – I saw one review of the movie where the headline was “worst video game capture ever!” or something to that effect. And that’s the problem. It’s not about whether some action sequence looks like it might be in a videogame, because a lot of videogames look great. The problem is when that action sequence is as interesting as watching someone else’s videogame capture – in other words, interesting to no one but the player himself. That level of “action”, when it has no role in developing character or advancing the story, puts us right back to the level of the cliched studio executive thinking about big budget sci-fi or action movies: “Don’t worry about the script, let’s just put in a lot of cool-looking fighting and special effects, then the fanboys will think it’s really good.” That’s precisely the approach they used for the dwarf forges sequence in Desolation, and its just sad to see PJ and Philippa Boyens and the rest of the team, who did such a brilliant job with so much of LOTR, falling to that level of storytelling.

  10. The biggest video influence in my mind was “the boss battle”, begun in AUJ (Thorin and Azog), a second one (Legolas and Bolg) begun in DoS, and both complete in BoFA. I’ve asked Indiana to consider writing about the influence of gaming on retellings of pre-game fantasy lit; maybe you, K, would consider it as well? Or have you already done some?

    OK, it’s a bit scary that my spellcheck recognized Legolas’ name but none of the others! Box office hero!

  11. I really can’t speak to the influence of videogames on movies, because I have never done any gaming; I recognize videogame action in movies because 1. I’ve had knowledgeable folks point it out 2. I’ve sometimes watched my son and others play their games 3. videogame style action always stops the dramatic action dead, because it’s just about showing off cool fight moves, not about the cause of conflict between the people fighting. From what I’ve seen of my son’s videogames, many games (at least the shooter games he sometimes plays) don’t have any real cause of conflict, just “you’re the good guys, those are the bad guys, go fight them and capture that castle/satellite array/hilltop.”

    However, there is another influence on movie fights that predates videogames, and that’s the Hong Kong action movie, where the fighting is highly stylized and balletic, and there’s a lot of wire work. In the best movies of this type (such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or House of Flying Daggers) they do carry on the personal dramatic conflict through the combat. I remember after Fellowship was released, a guy I know complained that the fights were “terrible” because they didn’t look “artistic.” He apparently was expecting Hong Kong style action; and at that time, PJ was still giving us blood, brutality, adrenaline and terror. I wish he’d kept it up.


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