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. 


Keshalyi said...

I have been listening to some of the lectures you've recorded, recently, and while i have not (yet) been to see Five Armies, the other films left me without the feeling of the frailty of things that both the Hobbit and LotR left me with as a child. It strikes me as part of the alchemy that you talked about with fighting the long defeat, and the idea of the Ruin. I wonder if there were moments in the films (or the LotR films) where you felt that sort of aching sad beauty that exists (albeit a bit more lightly in the Hobbit, maybe) in most of his work? Just curious

Anonymous said...

If my memory serves me correctly, the Aragorn name drop is a major goof. At the time of the battle, wasn't he around 10 years old and living in Rivendell as Estel? I could be wrong, perhaps you could confirm that. You make a good point though, it was good to see Middle-earth on film again. Also, the above commenter mentioned some lectures. I too have been listening to them. It's the ones for BN Professor "Of Sorcerers and Men". Superb work Professor Drout. I am thoroughly enjoying them.

Bob said...

I sometimes think self proclaimed 'experts' go to the movies just to find fault with these films.
Given you're such an expert I suppose you'll be buying the rights to the movies and making them yourself into a perfect adaptation of The Hobbit.

Anonymous said...

"Arrogant, contemptuous of mere mortals, emotionally incomprehensible, deeply scarred and flawed"

But didn't we already have that in a sense with Elrond in the LotR movies? The one person Tolkien noted in one of his letters as standing for wisdom, portrayed as a bigotted train wreck?

Anonymous said...

Bob, no artist's work is beyond criticism, and that applies to Peter Jackson's films as well as to J.R.R. Tolkien's text!

I liked the film and appreciate this thoughtful review of it: both the criticisms and the things that Professor Drout enjoyed.

I totally agree that Thranduil is portrayed as a Silmarillion Elf! - he is one of my favourite movie characterisations.

Philippa, UK

Anonymous said...

It's sad that Peter J. has merely offered us a self-portrait of a Taurine narcissist fellow with a preschool impulse to rub more and more brown marker over a more mature mind's superior artistry, while also attempting to visually ensure that the people who spoke out against the previous caricatures would hear the trampled feet.

Unknown said...

As has been said - a thoughtful criticism. This review has none of the whiny crying tone about "book versus film" and I'm so thankful.

I loved Thranduil, though I found the aforementioned scene regarding Aragorn to be a bit tenuous as well.

Bob said...

@Anonymous, indeed no one is above criticism, but it would appear for many these days it's easier to pull apart the works of others than create something for themselves. People take some sort of weird pleasure criticising rather than putting their energy into something more creative. We'll soon live in a world where nearly everyone is snide spending their days behind a keyboard posting critical reviews of the few people who actually try to create something for others to enjoy.

Marcel Aubron-Bülles said...

Hi Bob,

every time I read a comment like yours I am reminded of those politicians complaining that people criticise them: "Become a politician yourself and then complain about it!"

I don't need to be a politican to understand the flaws and failures in our political system(s) - the same holds true to a film critic.

Peter Jackson could have done better but many things from nearly 20 yrs ago made it difficult; the fact that the script writing team Walsh, Boyens and Jackson obviously considers itself superior in writing abilites to Tolkien; the fact that Hollywood production companies tell you what to do as a director and many more reasons.

It is, for example, blatantly obvious that someone seemed to be keen on adding a key Silmarillion element to the story - why so if not to wrest the film rights to other Tolkien stories from the Tolkien heirs?

And let's not talk about technology. Richard Taylor clearly said he would have preferred biggatures to all-cgi and if you watch closely you can see Bard flying over a greensceen landscape out of sync with its surroundings.

Peter Jackson is one of the most adventurous, successful and visionary film makers rights now - but he is completely incapable of telling stories of either an epic scale such as LotR or a simple children's story such as H.

The only thing he knows how to do this is slow motion. And there should be more than that.

This is a very thoughful review; unfortunately there are too many out there considering PJ to be the reincarnation of Christ as a film maker or who think J.R.R. Tolkien should be given an over-life-size statue in NYC, London, Paris, Moscow, Berlin and ... what was it. Oh yes, Matamata.

Bob said...

Marcel, you presume too much, you assume I see Peter Jackson as a god like figure, this isn't the case; you assume the script writers think themselves better than Tolkien, any evidence for this or just your opinion?
Sadly there are too many self styled 'experts' like yourself thinking they know Tolkien better than everyone else and if anyone should dare to put their opinion forward or dare to make an adaption you spend your day and night picking fault. I enjoy the adaptations, I enjoy the books more, what I don't enjoy is the current trend of critics attacking people because they dare try adapting something for the mass market and not just a select few. And yes it is a sad trend these days of so called fans attacking other fans because they don't share the same distaste for movie adaptations.
I appreciate the hard work put in by the production company for these films, the hours upon hours that concept artists will have spent sketching, the hours the costume department will have spent stitching, the sweat and tears the actors lost during filming. Pity the films didn't come up to your superior standards, pity that people need to pull apart the hard work of others. At least some of us appreciate the hard work of others and don't spend our days pulling them apart.

Sarah Beach said...

Bob, first off, with your opening comment about "self proclaimed 'experts'", you dismiss Professor Drout's genuine expertise. There's nothing "self proclaimed" about his stature as a scholar of Tolkien's work. He's worked long and hard to achieve that standing. So your dismissal of that qualification comes across as lacking in any substance - you don't know what you're talking about.

Your following sniping remark (an activity that in your second comment you condemn when it is apparently applied to critiques of PJ's work), about "buying the rights", etc. is gratuitous. Do you even understand how rights licensing works? They are not commodities sitting on the shelf waiting for purchasers.

In fact, you do not directly respond to anything in Prof. Drout's review. Your second comment you focus on the dichotomy of critique versus creation. Apparently you believe that critique is a useless activity and that only creation should be valued. What you do not address is that is that Prof. Drout's critique of PJ's films is specifically directed at PJ's failure to respect Tolkien's creativity.

I, for one, thank Prof. Drout for his critique. I have not been able to see the film yet, so his observations give me fair warning of what I can expect. I have not found Peter Jackson's storytelling to be superior to Tolkien's anywhere along the line.

For me, the saddest thing about The Hobbit movies is that we have such a fine actor playing Bilbo -- and the film story isn't about him! There's not enough Bilbo!

Michael said...

I really appreciate the comments, critical as well as supportive. But I also don't want things to descend into a comment flame-war, so I deleted the comment that I think was rude towards another commenter; the same idea could be expressed in a more polite way.

Bob, I get where you are coming from with regard to the idea that critics are parasitic upon creative artists. I have a fair bit of sympathy for the idea, possibly because I don't think of myself as a critic, but as a scholar, so the criticism doesn't sting as much as it might.

But I tried to be fair and to address both the strengths of Jackson's work as well as the weaknesses as I perceive them. We are in agreement about celebrating the hundreds of artists, technical people, musicians, etc. who were essential to the film. We disagree, apparently, about the script. I think it could have been better.

Now by itself that means nothing, since there is theoretically always some Platonic form of a story that could be better. But my point was that the story in Tolkien's The Hobbit seems to be straightforwardly more effective than the story that Jackson and Boyens wrote. I'm not comparing the film with an ideal film, but with a story that exists in the world, and I gave specific arguments for my case.

I would be interested to hear from you about which points you disagree with. For example, do you think that the elimination of Thorin's funeral and its replacement with the Legolas / Thranduil dialogue was an improvement on JRRT's story?

Bob said...

"I deleted the comment ..."

So you approve of censorship then on the Internet, no free speech if it questions others views?

"Do you think the elimination of Thorin's funeral Andrew its replacement [...] was an improvement". I don't believe it was a replacement scene for scene, however adding the Legolas scene was probably done for the mass market where the film makers decided to add a theoretical story line to give some form of tie between characters in the films that didn't exist in the book. It's a minor detail, the Legolas scene lasts a very short period of time in comparison to the length of the film (we're talking seconds). We do know that film makers are constrained by time limits as to what they can put on the big screen, we also know that the extended edition is closer to what the director would have liked to have shown in screen. So before damning the film makers perhaps you should see the extended edition and see what they wanted to put on the screen, such as the funeral scene which has been filmed.
You'll admit that the book couldn't be filmed exactly as written I presume? So given that it couldn't have been filmed exactly as written, what scenes would you have changed or cut, and would your adaptation have received the acerbic reviews and comments as PJ's adaptation has.
I feel sorry for the creative people of the world today, every time they put something 'out there' someone is waiting to pick fault.

DanaMR said...

I saw the film Monday, and have been reading the reviews. Yours is closest to what I feel.
I have, in general, enjoyed PJ's interpretation of Tolkien. The movie making craft employed in making them is superb. The writing is generally very good, and in most cases, the acting is strong. The Hobbit expanded on the characters in the book and that added a life to the movie. Smaug is wonderful, the best worm I have ever seen. Gollum. Gandalf. Bilbo and Thorin!
The Easter Eggs were fun.I will have to look for Narya, I did see Nenya on Galadriel during the fight in Dol Guldur. Do we ever see Vilya?
The comment about distance was good. It was something that had bothered me also. Maybe they used the same space wrap that was used to bring Sand Worms from Arrakis...
I really feel the worst problem of the Hobbit was that it needed to cover three movies instead of two. I you look at the Deathly Hallows, and currently Mockingjay, splitting into two, gives you plenty of room to tell a story, but keeps the fluff in check. These three films edited into two longish films would be great.

Tom Adams said...

An interesting critique of the film which reminded me of some of the plot elements from the original book (which I have not read for at least 15 years - interestingly, my daughter wants me to read it to her again after seeing 5 armies, a chapter a night. And she is 18 years old!)
Anyway, I have to say that the film is brilliant. Anyone who remembers Ralph Bakshi's LOTR from 1978 will realise how far things have come with Peter Jackson's interpretation of Tolkien's most well-loved books. I know he swore that this was the end of his herculean craft, but there's a wealth of stories in the Silmarillion waiting Pete ... Just saying. As regards the criticisms of the plot and characterisation in 5 armies (both here and elsewhere) I would like to point out that these fantasy sequences rely on suspension of disbelief. For example, I quite like the analogy of Middle-Earth being quite like a theme park. The lake District, over here in the North of England can be quite like this in terms of topography. So many amazing geological landscapes compressed into about 885 square miles. You could spend the rest of your life exploring these fells and mountains and still be surprised by a hidden valley or rocky edifice. It is also  worth remembering that Tolkien spent many months calculating the dimensions of Middle Earth and was quite accurate in representing travelling times and sequences of events. But Jackson is presented with many dilemmas. One is the need to keep an epic film within a manageable time frame. ( I was very relieved in all senses of the word to access the men's restroom after two and a quarter hours of total absorption!) I am in no doubt that Jackson has had to cut many minutes of footage to make the viewing experience fulfilling, yet satisfying in terms of plot. This is probably testament to Tolkien's ability to express wealth of meaning in few words.
For me, the depth of the characters and their emotional involvement allowed me to forgive the potential plot loopholes e.g. Legolas and Tauriel's journey to Gundabad. Yes, it might seem a distraction on one level, yet the awesomeness of the orc stronghold, with fearsome bats and and it's significance in terms of the massing black armies made the spectacle worth it.
Before signing off, I'd like to mention the extra-Tolkien interaction/creation of Legolas/Tauriel/Kili. I thought this was tastefully done and nearly moved me to tears at the end of the film (believe me, I am not a great sentimentalist). I understand that Jackson's wife had an input into this part of the screenplay - Ah the deftness of a woman's touch!
Anyway, thanks for a sensitive appraisal of the film, Michael. I don't agree with many of your criticisms but I thought it was good of you to mention all the positives at the end.

Anonymous said...

I am thinking that if your 18 year old daughter wants to hear you reading the Hobbit aloud, you should consider doing audio book readings as a paying job ;-}

On the overall debate about the discrepancies between the book and the movies, and artistic license by PJ, I am, more or less, considering the movies as a creative adaptation "inspired" by the original work of Tolkien, and enjoying their cinematic artistry on its own merits - something along the lines of fan fiction.

Live and let live...


Unknown said...

Professor Drout, thank you for the critical yet fair review. I LOVE the LOTR films. I think they are a cinematic masterpiece. For me, they capture everything there is to love about Middle Earth, despite the changes and flaws. The hobbit films, however, don't quite do that for me.

Now, I enjoy them. And I particularly enjoy the second film because to me Smaug was just spot on. He was everything I'd ever imagined. But films 1 and 3 just don't quite have that emotional draw for me. And your review nails down the reasons. It should never have been stretched out into three movies, which I believe was a decision of the studio not PJ. When Del Toro was on board it was 2 films. It is indeed great to visit Middle Earth again but that special Magic of the LOTR films just isn't present. I would hope that some day Christopher Tolkien allows another film interpretation of the hobbit, perhaps one where he was some creative control.

Unknown said...

I have listened to several of Michael Drout's lectures and found them VERY enjoyable as well as intellectually stimulating. I don't understand your implied point that one cannot create AND critique.

nikwin said...

Having been a Laketowner in films 2 & 3, I wish there had been more of the destruction of Laketown :-) I really liked Billy Connolly as Dain too, though his pig isn't as cute as ours... ;-) I had a chance to banter with him in the catering tent one day, but he wasn't looking well, and I heard a rumour that he had to stop filming early, which might explain why Dain appears to be primarily CGI.

I have loved Tolkien's books since I was a child, and I love the LOTR and Hobbit films too (though I think there are scenes which could do with shortening or cutting). I think they need to be seen as two completely different things, created for different reasons and with different audiences in mind.

Jon said...

"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 etc etc"

Ah! That was also my first observation to my friends once the movie was done. Such a great character moment for Thranduil in the book, and they leave it out.