Whilst my girlfriend was out last night (she’s not really a fan of Middle Earth) I finally caught up with ‘The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies’, which kind of confirmed all my worst fears for the adaptation dating right back to the announcement that Guillermo Del Toro’s planned two-parter was being upscaled by Peter Jackson into a trilogy.
You only have to look at the Lord of the Rings (three books, 1,200 pages) compared to the Hobbit (one book, 400 pages) to realise that somewhere along the way there was going to have to be an awful lot of elf-noodling or bloated action to fill out three movies. Well, that prediction turned out to be accurate, with most of the noodling taking place in the first Hobbit movie and most of the storm and fury coming in the ‘Battle of the Five Armies’.
I’ve been an immense Tolkien fan ever since I was in shorts. I am the living embodiment of “forty years, man and boy” when it comes to rings, dwarves and destinies. I’ve even read ‘The Silmarillion’, which is the fantasy equivalent of ‘À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu’: a novel that many people claim to have read when they haven’t actually got past the end of the first chapter. If I could wade through the legend of the Noldor, surely three Hobbit movies wouldn’t be a stretch? Well, I made it to Ian Holm and the segue back into ‘The Lord of The Rings’, but it was a close run thing.
I thought the first Hobbit movie was okay. It was nice to return to The Shire and Martin Freeman has been the most convincing of all the actors to don the furry toes, right unto the end of this one. The second installment, ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ was definitely a lot more pacy and racy and all the better for it. But at the end of that film, when the dragon heads off to wreak his terrible vengence on Laketown and Bilbo turns to camera and cries in anguish “What have we done?”, he could have been talking about the decision to ‘have it large’ with a third film. Whereas the last battle spans just a handful of pages in the book, in the movie, it’s the third act and lasts for well over an hour of mostly invented action.
The computer graphics, which were truly awe-inspiring in the ‘Lord of the Rings’, have gradually become more and more undisciplined as Jackson has progressed through ‘The Hobbit’ series. Once upon a time, they were used to create Tolkien’s world but in this film they just seem to be used to create whatever visual effect the director had in mind. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear we’re going to get ‘Transformers v Orcs: The Ultimate Showdown’ for Summer 2016. Some of the scenes – like Legolas running up the falling stones of a disintegrating bridge – are frankly ridiculous and they reduce the majesty of Middle Earth to just another CGI-fest. It’s as if Jackson set out to make an arcade version of a best selling strategy game and ended up ruining all the things that made his original work so special.
Other things grate. I don’t doubt for a second that Peter Jackson and his team have read more Tolkien than anyone on the planet in recent years. But, however, many times you read something, it doesn’t change what’s actually written on the page. There have been so many creative licences and departures in the Hobbit series that the three films are now a bit like Mozart’s Requiem: mostly original but with a great deal of stuff tacked on because the creator was no longer around. I could just about look past Tauriel in the second film because films are different to novels and feminism clearly had some way to go in Middle Earth. But in order to stretch the story of ‘Battle of the Five Armies’ we have a spurious side quest to some made-up orc fortress, Gundabad; ludicrously conflated set pieces like the storming of Azog’s lookout; an Elf king whose mystical grandeur is somewhat undermined by the fact he rides into battle on a moose, and even Billy Connolly (“Will ye all just sod off?!)
And for those who once had a half working knowledge of Elvish, there’s even more affrontery. Thranduil’s suggestion to Legolas to go find Aragorn is pretty incredible given that the future King of Gondor would be little more than a child in the time of The Hobbit. The rescue of Gandalf by Galadriel, Saruman and Elrond is full of Mortal Kombat but little else that feels right unless you are a fan of super-attenuated wizards leaping around like mythological Ninja Turtles. And why is Galadriel transformed into Carrie during her moment of power? Why does she literally meet dark fire with dark fire when in the ‘Fellowship’ film, it is the corrupting influence of the One Ring that makes her look so terrible and when we know she has the light from the star of Eärendil, the light of Telperion and Laurelin, at her disposal. I thought Galadriel’s ring, Nenya, as one of the Three, was supposed to be hidden from Sauron, as its strength lay in being a force for preservation and concealment. It’s hardly concealed any more after she gives Old Red Eye a straight right cross. And aside from giving Cate Blanchett something to do and strike a blow for gender equality, why is it Galadriel, not Saruman The White, who leads the assault on Sauron’s fortress anyway? When the giant bunnies rolled into Dol Guldur, it was all I could do to stop myself from giggling and making rude comments about Ewoks. Randal Graves wasn’t a big fan of Lord Of The Rings to begin with, but I shudder to think what he would have said about the flying rabbits.
As Joe Jackson (no relation) once sang, “I could go on but what’s the use”. The ‘Lord of the Rings’ juggernaut steamrollers on, with all of its twenty-first century baggage of merchandising and franchise value maximisation. Ironically, Joe Jackson’s song continued with “Just think of this as just another tiny blow against the empire”. It’s how I feel about this blog; it’s a tiny blow of dissent against something that has become too powerful for its own good. Wingnut Films has become an empire in relation to Tolkien’s work but Peter Jackson hasn’t taken the advice of his character. Galadriel warns Frodo in ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ that with the absolute power of the One Ring, she would start with good intentions but soon end up resembling the very thing she hates. I am sure that when Jackson first began making ‘Fellowship’, he was determined to be as true and faithful to Tolkien’s vision and different to all the other blockbuster action directors just overdosing their audience on cheap thrills. It’s sad, therefore, that the cycle finishes with his movies being closer to Michael Bay than Middle Earth.