Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Many variants of the story Sigurd the Völsung survive from the Middle Ages, and all of them are not quite right. Taking the texts and references all together, you can piece together the general idea of the story, but it seems as if none of the poets were really familiar with what they were writing about. They knew the characters' names and that there was something going on with Sinfjotli and poison, and that the two queens had a dispute that led to death and destruction, and that the hero killed a dragon and took its treasure, but they weren't entirely clear on how all the pieces should fit together. 

Peter Jackson's Hobbit films give the same impression. It's as if he and screenwriter Philippa Boyens had heard an oral traditional version of the story of Bilbo Baggins, which they supplemented with information from some partially burned leaves of the text in a museum and a few chapters of a very old Chinese translation, but had never actually read The Hobbit for themselves. 

And maybe that's the best way to think about The Battle of the Five Armies, not as an adaptation of Tolkien's book, but as a reconstruction of someone's recollection of a lost text for which no original exists. Because that if this were the case, the immense flaws in the film, flaws which are not present in Tolkien's text, would at least be understandable. 

Now, before I become too much of a curmudgeon, let me say that I don't object in principle to converting a somewhat light-hearted story into a full-on epic more in the tone of The Lord of the Rings than The Hobbit as it is written. Tolkien himself thought to revise The Hobbit in the style of the later book, and the "Quest of Erebor" shows that he had thought about the geopolitical implications (in Middle-earth) of the dragon, the mountain, the exiled dwarves and the ruined town of Dale. Adding the War of the Dwarves and Orcs and the assault of the White Council upon Dol Guldur was a good idea, as these events provide context. Nor do I have a problem with side stories, the development of additional characters or the conversion of formal speeches into more colloquial character interaction. Every one of these changes could have been incorporated into an effective film that extended beyond the journey of Thorin and Company to the Lonely Mountain. 

And I'll also excuse Jackson for being trapped on the Hollywood escalator. George Lucas faced the same problem of needing to make each film's action sequences be bigger, faster, brighter and louder than the previous film's. Even though the Battle of the Five Armies was never intended to be larger than the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, Jackson had to continue to escalate, and so we we get even more elaborate set-pieces, choreography and cgi. 

Nevertheless, it was frustrating to watch these films because they could have been better. 

Some of the failures in the Hobbit film are the same as those in Jackson's The Lord of the Rings and spring from the same root problem: Middle-earth is much too small, physically, temporally and demographically. 

Physically, Middle-earth seems to be not a continent, but a theme park, the size of Disney World, or maybe, if we're generous, Rhode Island. Legolas and Tauriel make a (completely useless) journey to Mt Gundabad, about 300 miles from Erebor, in what seems like, maybe, a half hour of traveling. They return even more quickly to warn everyone of the army that is 10 minutes behind them. Dain arrives on his Armored War Pig (which is awesome) seemingly less than an hour after Thorin sends a raven message. 

Time-wise, everything from the death of Smaug to the final battle is compressed into 2 or maybe 3 days. Since there are many cinematic methods for passing rapidly through days, weeks or months, I don't understand the rush. Armies on the march can be terrifying. They don't have to be running faster than Usain Bolt the whole way. 

And everybody knows everyone else -- even people who aren't on screen. My favorite example was that Thranduil knows that Arathorn's son Aragorn is likely to be an important leader some day (at first I thought it was just a lucky guess by the Elvenking, but then I realized that Thranduil probably just had copies of the books). Having the characters already know each other and thus be able to give a quick disquisition on background does speed up the pace--so that there was more time for slow-motion shots of flying rocks, I guess--but it also serves to make Middle-earth seem to have about the same size population as a large high school. You might not know everybody, but all the cool kids know each other. 

However, these flaws were baked into the original cake of the films, and some, at least, are probably the result of Hollywood playing to the lowest common denominator of audience--people who are watching distractedly and do not want to figure anything out. That's unfortunate but explainable. 

But what was incomprehensible to me were the times that a perfectly good scene in the book was replaced by a really dreadful one in the script. For example, the immensely touching and powerful scene at the end of The Hobbit where the Elvenking lays Thorin's sword on his tomb and Bard places the Arkenstone on his breast, saying "there let it lie til the mountain falls" is replaced by an awkward exchange between Thranduil and Legolas that accomplishes nothing more than the Aragorn name-drop. Thorin's dragon-sickness isn't just overpowering greed, but outright insanity, and so the sadness of his fury at Bilbo is lost in an unconvincing scene in which he orders the other dwarves to throw the hobbit over the wall. The audience never for a moment believes that this will actually happen, so there's no drama the way there would be if the scene in the book had been followed. There are many more examples: having Thorin die on some frozen waterfall away from the main battle undercuts the emotional power of the scene (which is acted extremely well by both Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage). No one will ever care about Lake Town politics and so all of the screen time spent developing it, putting Inigo Montoya Bard in prison, etc. is wasted: Tolkien's version, where no one believes Bard until it is too late is quite enough drama when you also have a fire-breathing dragon. The confusing geopolitics of the kingdom of Angmar, Mt. Gundobad, Sauron's plans, etc., are much worse when made up in unconvincing fashion than if Tolkien's points had simply been followed. The side plot of the multiple threats to Bard's children wasted screen time that could have been spend on the main characters or simply used to shorten the film. 

The nicest thing I can say about the script is that it demonstrates very clearly how remarkably tight, sophisticated and effective Tolkien's original story is. 

But I don't want to end on such a negative note, because there are many good things about the films as well: 

  • The landscape, the architecture, the artifacts and the attention to detail is even more superb than in the original films. 
  • The actors are, for the most part, excellent and in fact their performances save a number of poorly written scenes.
  • Smaug's attack on Lake Town is far more horrifying than in the book. The suffering of the people in the face of the aerial assault is emotionally powerful. 
  • There aren't a lot of lore Easter Eggs, but those I noticed were nice, especially Gandalf wearing the red ring at the Dol Guldur fight, the use of the term "were-worms" (though they themselves were superfluous), the mention of the Cold Drake in film two...
  • Although I don't think what we see in the film is what Tolkien envisioned when the White Council expels Sauron from Dol Guldur, I enjoyed Galadriel going all scary. 
  • Armored Battle Pig, War Elk, Military Goats. 
  • And to me the best lore-related element: Thranduil is a Silmarillion elf. Arrogant, contemptuous of mere mortals, emotionally incomprehensible, deeply scarred and flawed: he's not Thingol (Tolkien's very early idea for the identity of the Elvenking), he's Curfin or Celegorm, one of the sons of Feanor in all their power, beauty and total jerkitude. I give Jackson for credit for making an elf different than those we have seen before. 

It was good to see Middle-earth again. The price paid in terms of story was high, but if that's what it took to rebuild the world and let us have another glimpse, it was probably worth it.