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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies — A Purist’s Thoughts

As I reclined in my theater chair and sipped the first of many sips of my Blue Moon, I reflected on what I didn’t enjoy about the last two Hobbit films. The movies, as simply movies, are great. My issues with the previous films have to do with the spirit of the movies, and not necessarily with “which Elf loves which Dwarf” or “This plotline is too convoluted.” The past two Hobbit films haven’t felt “Tolkienian” to me, and it’s a huge issue that I simply could not wrap my head around.

Full disclosure, I owe a massive debt to Peter Jackson for bringing Tolkien’s world alive through film. I became a fan through the movies. After seeing The Fellowship of the Ring in my house on DVD, I went on to read the books. While there are massive changes to some spots of the films, omissions of characters and entire character changes, the books and the movie had something in common: the spirit of the books was realized on screen. With The Hobbit, the childlike sense of adventure and discovery is lost amid the forced love story, as well as the break-aways for the White Council. The titular character, Bilbo Baggins, seems like an afterthought.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
Thorin and his golden horde…though quite Arkenstone-less.

 

I went into this movie knowing that this was the last time Jackson would be making a Middle-earth set movie, and while I have come to love the books more than the movies themselves, I still hold the movies dear to my heart. As the movie progressed, I become enthralled with the film, forgetting all together that there was a 300-page novel made.

To get a few things out of the way from the get-go: Luke Evans makes Bard come alive. The Bowman has always been one of my favorite characters from Tolkien’s novels and Evans portrays the role that is reminiscent of David Wenham’s portrayal of Faramir in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Both were my two favorite actors in Jackson’s movies, and even with the changes made to Faramir’s character, Wenham played the part well. Evans makes the grim Bard stand out among the darker themes Jackson is injecting into the movie.

Also, Smaug dies really early into this movie, almost so early that you wonder why Jackson didn’t just finish the Dragon off in the previous film. The character Benedict Cumberbatch brings to life so well feels almost like an afterthought, a loose-end from the earlier movie that has to be tidied up before we can move on. It’s almost as if Jackson wanted to defeat Smaug in Desolation, but felt he couldn’t use the impending doom of Five Armies clashing on the slopes of Erebor as a good enough cliffhanger to end the film. This is one area I think stretching the book into that third movie really shows as the death scene of the Dragon really feels forced.

Like I said above, knowing that this was essentially going to be one giant battle scene, I was able to put aside my purism and enjoy the movie for what it was: a visual representation of the world of Middle-earth. The Hobbit is actually my least favorite book that Tolkien wrote, and it’s simply due to the fact that I really enjoyed the way The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings were written by comparison. The quick pace and childlike demeanor that Tolkien injects into this first foray into the realm of Arda is something that I couldn’t wrap my head around. Truth be told, I read The Hobbit last after finishing The Return of the King and that stark change of style and literary language probably soured my vision of Bilbo’s journey.

That being said, if we are to consider the three Hobbit movies as adaptations of the book, they need to retain the “feel” and “spirit” of the novel. My issue with the movies has never been the changes made to characters, or any of the additions that Tolkienists usually reference as reasons why they dislike Jackson’s portrayals. My issue has been simple: The Hobbit is trying to tell too convoluted of a story and as a result the original narrative is lost within the winding storylines. Yes, all the side events happened during the timeline of The Hobbit, but they aren’t talked about between the covers of the novel. Rather, they are recounted during The Council of Elrond by Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring. I can understand Jackson needing to inject the story with more content, but it is done so much that The White Council scenes, the love story between Tauriel and Kili and the coming of Sauron take center stage and overshadow the narrative of the original story.

The "Forbidden Love" - Tauriel watches Kili leave as Legolas looks on.
The “Forbidden Love” – Tauriel watches Kili leave as Legolas looks on.

I was happy then to see that most of this takes a backseat in Five Armies. While the White Council still has their moment (and a great one at that), Thorin’s transformation from benevolent, though harsh king into a jealous, fearful and fey shell of his former being takes the film and encapsulates the audience. Bilbo’s struggles with whether or not to reveal his theft of the Arkenstone are well realized and if Luke Evans hadn’t been so great, Martin Freeman would likely be my MVP of the series.

About that scene when The White Council confronts the Nazgul in Dol Guldur – while highly stylized, it was great to see some subtle references to the greater legend simply in the fact that all members of the council could see the Ringwraiths in their shadowy form. This is explained rather simply: Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel all carry a Ring of Power, thus allowing them to see into the Shadow World as Frodo has been able to do so with his Ring. Even without the Ring Galadriel, Gandalf and Saruman would still have been able to do so, simply because they are of Valinor. Galadriel, being the oldest Elf in Middle-earth, is a Calaquendi. This means she dwelt in the Light of the Two Trees of Valinor and holds a greater power above other Elves in Middle-earth. While powerful, I doubt Elrond would’ve been able to confront the Nazgul without Vilya, since he was born in Middle-earth and therefore is a Moriquendi. (Check out The Fellowship of the Ring, the Flight to the Ford chapter.) Watching Cate Blanchette play the Lady of Lorien in her wrath was a treat, one that I will miss now that there are no more movies to be made. (I hope.)

The movie progressed at a good pace, and while some of the individual fight scenes were possibly a little longer than I would want, Jackson’s skill at creating battle scenes was on full display. I was starting to think to myself that I would come away from this movie with nothing really negative to say.

In fact, I remember vividly applauding Jackson to myself, specifically during the scene where Thorin finally emerges from Erebor and rallies Dain’s men on the slopes of The Lonely Mountain. I was taken to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in The Return of the King. The moment where Eomer is surrounded on a hilltop and has begun to realize that the Rohirrim might not get out of this alive. He is enraptured though because he is young, powerful and King. As he see the banners of the Corsairs of Umbar lazily flow down the river, he raises his fist in defiance only to realize, joyfully, that inside those ships was actually Aragorn and a host of Gondorian soldiers. Rallying around the Heir of Isildur and the power of hope that Esteldin brought to war with him was enough to turn the tide. I had that same feeling watching Thorin blast into the Orc horde in front of his home, and as a result I really started to settle in and enjoy things.

Then it happened. A moment that I was anticipating brought me so jarringly out of my trance that mired the rest of the movie for me.

Thorin’s death scene happens a little differently than it does in the book. For one it’s a bit more secluded than the way Tolkien wrote the event. Bilbo wakes after being knocked out by Bolg to find a winter wasteland of orcs around him. As he ambles around he happens upon the Dwarven King, Thorin, dying near the precipice of a frozen waterfall. Ok, so the two characters who matter in this scene are there. Great.

Then Thorin spoke, and a line that has come to encapsulate the outlook many Tolkienists throughout the decades have come to equate to the Professor’s view on life, was changed.

To some this change may seem like a petty thing to get hung up on. Some of my friends liked the change in the line, saying it felt more in line with the themes of the movies and brought a more modern outlook to the audience. Of all the lines to alter, however, this was one that they should have left alone. This oft-quoted line that perfectly captures the vision of Hobbits, and puts the thought in all our heads as to what we really should hold dear, was changed to suit the needs of the movie. And in doing so, it completely brought me back to reality.

Jackson and the writers have used Genuine Tolkien Lines before, and in fact there is a GTL later on in the movie that some will say was a rip off of another Hobbit’s exclamation that was completely unaltered. By changing this one line I began to brood over the rest of the film. Thankfully, Jackson seemed to have heeded the criticisms of The Return of the King and made the end of this film considerably shorter than it could have been. Why did this affect me so much? Why did I care so much?

Billy Connolly was superb as Dain Ironfoot. Too bad they all mispronounced his name throughout the movie.
Billy Connolly was superb as Dain Ironfoot. Too bad they all mispronounced his name throughout the movie.

It’s simple when I look back on what I was feeling in the moment. This change, something most people wouldn’t catch, perfectly mirrors the entirety of why Tolkienists can be so against the movies. If lines as precious to purists as this one can change, it means that nothing was off-limits to Jackson, and that is shone within the scope of his Hobbit films. One of the issues I’ve had has to do with these changes, but till now they have not the reason why I haven’t enjoyed the movies to this point. Let’s be honest: had they made the movie verbatim to the book, one can argue pretty well that the result wouldn’t be all that entertaining. But when the changes start to influence the story, and in some cases with The Hobbit films, they have altered the story itself, that’s taking things too far. The magic Jackson portrayed in Five Armies dispelled my second-guessing nature but that veil was torn asunder when Thorin substituted his line for Tolkien’s. And as a result it completely changed my outlook on this film.

As I sat down to write this review, I thought I would laud Jackson for making me forget there was another version of his story. And for two hours he did just that. But in the end, I left the theater with the same disappointment that I did the previous two movies. Are the movies Jackson created good? Yes. Very good, in fact. Are they good adaptations to a timeless story? In some ways they can be. But for the most part a newer reader to the books will pick up Tolkien’s novel and wonder where all the action we saw went. Where’s the fabulous Tauriel that Evangeline Lily brought to life? Where is Azog, the antagonistic Orc that is actually dead all this time? By the time they realize that the books and movies are completely and utterly different, will they continue reading? Will Tolkien’s story be left in the dust for the more stylized, action heavy portrayal they loved in the theaters? Changing things, no matter how subtle, can alter not only the story itself, but the legacy that follows. And that is what has me sad in all of this.

Should you see The Hobbit films? Yes, but remember and also remind your kids that the version of Middle-earth they are about to see is different from the version that it’s pulling its influence from. By making sure you can divorce the two worlds, you’ll hopefully leave the theater a much happier fan than I did.

 

 

About Joseph Bradford

Freelance Game Journalist, currently covering games for Legendarium. Tolkienist. Once thought he saw a woodchuck chuck wood. Turns out they can't.