Last week, the third of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films came out on DVD and Blu-Ray. Wednesday night, I rewatched the film after seeing it in the theater after Christmas, and I think this Tweet summed up my reaction to the film:
Three months later, the third Hobbit film is still tedious. It hasn't improved with age.
— Allyn Gibson (@allyngibson) March 26, 2015
I didn’t write about the Hobbit films as they came out. Indeed, the last I wrote of The Hobbit films was this post about a strange metatextual dream about the first film before it even came out. Except for panels at Philcon in 2013 and Farpoint in 2014, I don’t believe that I’ve discussed them at any length in the off-line world, either. I’ve occasionally defended them or criticized them on social media or in private conversation, but I’ve never said, “You know, this is what I think about The Hobbit films,” largely because I’m not quite sure where to begin.
I might start by saying that my feelings about the Hobbit films are much like my feelings about Led Zeppelin — “I admire them more than I like them.” I recognize that a lot of time and effort went into them (the band and the films), some quality material was produced (again, the band and the films), and I’m left feeling, “Well, that’s nice enough, I suppose” (yet again, the band and the films). Damning with faint praise, I suppose.
Let’s start with the obvious fact of The Hobbit films. There are films, plural. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings was three films, and the films matched up (with a little overlap) to the three volumes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s Hobbit, however, is a single book.
I don’t begrudge Jackson for making multiple films out of the The Hobbit. Perhaps no creator, except for Tolkien himself, has spent more time in Middle-earth than Jackson, and saying goodbye to the Third Age was certainly difficult. I think, because Tolkien’s story was spread across three films (and late in the day at that; the plan, if you go all the way back to 2007, had been for two films, and the second one a “bridge” that connected The Hobbit with The Lord of the Rings), that there are issues of pacing. The narrative isn’t as tight as it could be. Compared to The Lord of the Rings films, The Hobbit films play like they’re on quaaludes.
The first film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (or, as I’ve jokingly referred to it, “The Hobbit: Get the Fuck Out of Hobbiton”), drags horribly and has long stretches with little to no momentum. Because the decision was made late (six months before An Unexpected Journey reached theaters) to expand from two films to three and the planned ending — the barrel ride — was moved back to the aftermath of the escape from Goblin Town, I suspect that many sequences that were filmed for the Extended Edition of An Unexpected Journey were edited into the theatrical release to keep it from running “short.”
On rewatching, I found that An Unexpected Journey improved for me, perhaps because my expectations of the film’s pace have adjusted correctly. There are proper character arcs — Bilbo’s journey from being a homebody to accepting that he’s part of and excited by an adventure, Thorin’s acceptance of Bilbo as part of his company who will reclaim the Dwarven treasure. We have resolution on Bilbo’s arc at the end of the first film, which leads to a problem for the next two — Bilbo does stuff but he doesn’t develop further because there’s nowhere for him to go as a character.
David Mack pointed out at Farpoint in 2014 that the story beats of An Unexpected Journey map onto the story beats for The Fellowship of the Ring — a Hobbit leaves the Shire unwillingly, there’s an adventure on the road that nearly destroys the heroes, there’s a flight to Rivendell, there’s a harrowing mountain crossing, there’s an adventure with goblins/orcs underground, there’s the climactic boss fight between an Orc and the One Who Will Be King. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I can see how he’s right.
The second film, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, is probably the best of the three films. This film gives a Tolkien purist hives because of all the things that it does that aren’t in the book — Legolas, who doesn’t appear in the book, has a major role; Tauriel, captain of the Elvish Guard, is a creation for the film; Gandalf has a battle with Sauron in Dol Guldur; several Dwarves are left behind in Lake Town; the rest of the Dwarves attempt to fight Smaug. In context, these things all worked for me. Of course, Legolas could have a role; his father was the king of the Mirkwood Elves. The Dwarves battling Smaug was a natural idea (they wanted to reclaim the gold, after all, and they would have had to dispatch the dragon to accomplish that) and worked to give the film a cinematic climax.
The third film, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies… where to begin?
What ho, it’s tedious.
The back of the Blu-Ray case calls The Battle of the Five Armies “the defining chapter of the Middle-Earth saga.” Far from it. It’s probably the worst of Jackson’s Middle-earth films. There are things that happen in the film beyond the titular battle — Smaug dies, Stephen Fry dies, Bard takes charge of Lake Town’s survivors, Thorin slowly goes mad, Bilbo steals the Arkenstone, the White Council rescues Gandalf and fights Sauron — but they all feel overwhelmed by the battle itself. It’s not because the Battle of Five Armies is so overpowering. It’s because the Battle of Five Armies is so deathly dull. It’s something that happens to people we don’t know for reasons we don’t fully understand in a way that isn’t explained, and that’s a creative and conceptual failing at the heart of the film.
Peter Jackson has done big battles before. There’s Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers and Pelennor Fields in The Return of the King. These battles, which last about forty-five minutes on screen, are never less than compelling. We have multiple characters in whom the audience is invested involved in the battles. We even get some characterization moments for the orcs on the opposing side; there are reaction shots from orcs when others in their company fall, and there’s the fun moment when Gothmog spits on the boulder that was thrown from a Minas Tirith trebuchet. Jackson used CGI and digital trickery to make his armies huge, but he also used real actors to lend the battle scenes verisimilitude.
The Battle of Five Armies has none of that. Thorin and his company of dwarves — the characters we’ve been following for two films — sit out most of the battle. The characters involved in the battle that we do know are Bard and Thranduil, neither of whom is a particularly warm character, and Thranduil is practically an anti-hero. We have no characterization moments for the orcs. The only people who seem to have any reaction are the survivors of Lake Town. The result, until Thorin gets involved in the battle, is something that looks like giant armies of identical CGI characters fighting in a video game world. Then when Thorin gets involved, Jackson loses interest in the battle altogether and the film turns into a series of boss fights far from the battle itself as the heroes battle and finally defeat the orcs Azog and Bolg. Ultimately, the Battle of Five Armies feels as though it has no stakes because the audience isn’t emotionally invested in those fighting it; it doesn’t happen to anyone we know or care about.
Perhaps if there were more living actors involved in the battle itself, perhaps if they were characters that we had seen prior to the battle, perhaps if Jackson lingered on the carnage and cost of war as he did in The Two Towers and The Return of the King, The Battle of the Five Armies might have worked better. Instead, it’s a dull ending to a long and drawn out story.
Here’s the thing. I’m going to give Jackson a partial pass on this. He was adapting The Hobbit, and he fit as much of the book as he could into the film. Yes, he invented new material — the White Council’s machinations, Tauriel, the battle with Smaug — but there is a fairly complete adaptation of Tolkien’s novel within the three films, albeit one filtered through the visual style Jackson established in his original Lord of the Rings films. Basically, Jackson accomplished what Tolkien attempted and did not complete — he reimagined The Hobbit in the style of The Lord of the Rings.
And that touches on the real problem with The Hobbit films — the source material may be a lovely and beloved novel, but it’s terrible source material for a movie, let alone three. Tolkien’s story is episodic in nature, characterization is nil (the Dwarves, outside of Thorin, are frankly interchangeable), and the ending (namely, the battle) feels tacked on and out of place. A good film could have been made from this — Rankin-Bass made a good attempt in 1976, and whatever its faults, the animated Hobbit had a good structure — but that would have meant grappling with Tolkien’s problems and — dare I say it? — editing Tolkien. Jackson did this with The Lord of the Rings films; he identified scenes in Tolkien that he didn’t need to make a film and dispensed with them. The better comparison for The Hobbit may be Andrew Adamson and the Chronicles of Narnia films; Adamson and his writers took similar material (episodic children’s novels) and fashioned screenplays that took C.S. Lewis’ novels and made something that fit the movie paradigm.
That’s what Jackson needed to do. He needed to edit. I don’t know how he would have edited. If it were up to me, I probably would have done something radical like reduce the company of dwarves from thirteen down to seven or eight. I might’ve eliminated Beorn (as Rankin-Bass did). Perhaps I would have introduced Thorin’s cousin, Dain Ironfoot, earlier in a flashback sequence. I would definitely have wanted the audience to feel the stakes through characters they knew in the Battle of Five Armies.
I would have structured the three films differently. I would have left the ending of the first film with the barrel ride and the escape from the Mirkwood Elves. The second film ends with Bilbo’s journey home. The third film, though, would have been the “bridge film” talked about so long ago.
We begin with Gandalf visiting Bilbo sometime after the events of the Battle of the Five Armies. Bilbo asks Gandalf where he went after Beorn’s House. And here we get the White Council material. Obviously, the material for that that we have in the three films couldn’t fill an entire film (and I would have left the scene in Rivendell in An Unexpected Journey), so there would have to be other things. Perhaps Saruman’s investigation of the palantir and his battle of wills with Sauron. (Because who doesn’t want more Christopher Lee?) Perhaps Gandalf’s discovery of Gollum. Perhaps a young Denethor making his first plans at reclaiming Osgiliath. The point of all this would be to show evil creeping back into the world between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring. I would have ended it all with the arrival of the infant Frodo Baggins at Bag End. And I would haved called it The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the Shadow.
Of course, I’m not a director, and no film studio would ever entrust me with millions of dollars to make a movie, so that will forever remain a pipe dream.
I’m glad The Hobbit films exist. I’ll rewatch them in the future, but probably not as much as I’ve rewatched The Lord of the Rings films over the last decade-plus. I was entertained by them, but I wasn’t involved by them. The Rankin-Bass Hobbit remains my preferred version of the tale.