I love The Lord of the Rings. The book, that is. The movies? How I love and hate them. The scene-setting is generally perfect (when not overdone). The casting is perfect (except when it’s not: the estates of Faramir and Merry and Pippin should all sue). The plot tweaks are annoying, as if J. R. R. Tolkien needed to be schooled on how to set up a story; but some of the gender-balancing is undeniably helpful. The dropouts (Old Man Willow, Tom Bombadil, the Scouring of the Shire) are missed but understandable.
So they made three three-hour movies of The Lord of the Rings, which is 1400 pages long. That went pretty well (at the box office). Why not take The Hobbit, one fourth as long, with a smaller cast and a far simpler plot, and make—three full-length movies? What could go wrong? Well, not in any order…
- The orcs
All look alike. And we spend far too much time with them and their stupid motivations.
Azog (or Bolg?) even has a Noooooo! cry at the end of the first movie. The Battle of Five Armies goes on forever (more on that later) and there are a whole lot of bald tattooed orc giants, and I could not tell one from another, much less keep straight which one of them was peeved at which good guy for what reason.
New Zealand is beautiful. It makes great mountains. The Misty Mountains, the White Mountains of Gondor, the mountain ranges that skirt Mordor: lovely casting. So Mr. Jackson could be forgiven for wanting a lot of those mountains in The Hobbit. There’s one big problem: the quest in The Hobbit is all about a place called the Lonely Mountain, so called because it’s all by itself. No other mountains around. As is clearly shown in Tolkien’s own map of the local area, which is prominently shown several
times in the movies.
- Dol Guldur
In The Hobbit, the Necromancer of Dol Guldur is a mysterious figure. Gandalf goes off to deal with him, leaving the dwarves and Bilbo on their own in Mirkwood. Reading The Lord of the Rings, it’s kind of important that the Necromancer is mysterious: they don’t know (and Saruman is less than helpful about) who and what he is, until they chase him out of his stronghold. And it’s an important plot point in LOTR that Sauron only provides a token resistance at Dol Guldur before retiring to Mordor to work on his actual plan.
In the movie, we spend what seems like hours fighting it out at Dol Guldur. We get Galadriel and Elrond and Saruman throwing their magic weight around. We get Gandalf (who gets dirtier and dirtier through the movies; don’t they let Sir Ian wash his face?) get beaten up by another of those giant orcs (which one? Don’t ask me) and stuck in a cage. Eventually, Galadriel gets to be the one to turn purple and utter wild curses and somehow drive the Necromancer away. It’s action, but it’s also distraction; someone who has read The Hobbit and LOTR is already a bit incensed, and someone who hasn’t is mystified, because the Dol Guldur brouhaha has nothing, literally nothing, to do with the Lonely Mountain. A vague explanation of the importance of the Mountain in terms of the grand strategy is unconvincing. (Gondor would be threatened? Really?)
Please don’t get me wrong. I like Tauriel. The Hobbit on paper has exactly zero actual female characters, and I am very much in favor of rectifying that. I thought the addition of Bard’s family, and a few tough old Lake Town broads, was heartening and not distracting. And having a bad-ass elf maid on screen is excellent, especially as she shows no cleavage whatever.
But the love interest between her and Kili (or Fili) is not only an invention out of whole cloth which Tolkien would never have countenanced, it’s also a distraction. And that’s my problem with a lot of the Peter Jackson plot additions: they don’t add to the central idea, they distract from the central idea. And while Tauriel is not any kind of damsel in distress, this sort of love interest does reinforce the unfortunate idea about female characters that if they’re not in a relationship already, then one needs to be found for them, as if unattached women have their antennae constantly buzzing for someone with a Y chromosome, anyone with a Y chromosome. The same rule is not applied to the male characters.
And, of course, it also plays into one of the films’ other little problems.
- Dwarves who look like humans
Did anyone else have trouble distinguishing, in the heat of the battle, between Thorin and Bard and sometimes Fili (or Kili)?
Live action fantasy films have a basic issue about how to portray size differences among
races. The Lord of the Rings movies managed this pretty well, since the hobbits were all played by adult humans, rather than midgets. The Harry Potter films had midgets as the goblin bankers and Flitwick, but they had the problem of giving Hagrid the proper height as a half-giant, and they managed this too, with camera angles and a gigantic body double (a body quadruple, perhaps) for Robbie Coltrane, who is six foot one and manages to look twelve foot two in some scenes. The problem can be solved.
So dwarves. They’re supposed to be short. They’re also supposed to be stout, dour and heavily bearded. So Balin, Dwalin, Bombur, Dori et al manage to be properly dwarfy, but, perhaps because only the three of them are Durin’s direct descendants, Thorin and his two nephews look just like “men,” and in particular, just like the Laketown men. Is that why Tauriel falls in love with Kili (or is it Fili)? In any case, it makes the battle scenes very confusing, and the battle scenes are already very confusing: more later.
- Worms? Bats?
It’s the Battle of Five Armies, but two armies get invited that Tolkien did not include: the
war bats and the giant worms. The war bats are at least vaguely referred to in the book; in the last film, a big deal is made of them, but they turn out to be just something else for Legolas to ride and hang from. The giant worms: what is this, Dune? The Spice must Flow? Or maybe Tremors? Kevin Bacon as Legolas??
- Action forever
The aimlessness of a lot of these intrusions into Tolkien’s plot (and they’ve been powering the West of England on Professor T turning in his grave, ever since the first LOTR movie came out) really comes home to roost in the battle scenes. The first Hobbit movie had one master set piece with the running skirmish under the Misty Mountains, though that was basically Hollywood Action 101. The second film mangles the encounters with Smaug—especially the distended and opaque struggle between the dragon and the dwarves, which is the complete opposite of what happened in the book.
Dwarves get in mine carts. They get dumped out of mine carts. They sneak along a walkway and evade the dragon. Who spots them anyway. They get trapped in a room full of dead dwarves. Then they get out. Then they get Smaug to light the furnaces for them, so they can get the river of gold going. So what was the idea with the river of gold? The whole filling up a cast to make a gold dwarf king, which then burst on the dragon, causing—what? The dragon to fly off to Laketown, happy with his new gold leaf? In the book, all this is neatly explained just with Bilbo’s Smaug chat.
Then the actual Battle of Five Armies, which goes like this: Elves, Men and Dwarves almost come to blows. (Book.) Orcs on wolves intervene. (Book.) So far: four armies. Then the orcs invade Dale, murdering hundreds; okay, because Bard, Legolas, Dain, Gandalf, Tauriel, and, when he’s finally pissed off enough, Thorin slay orcs left and right. (Literally: that’s the basic procedure. And how many behind the back sword blocks are there?) Everyone in Dale runs to the Great Hall, and then they all come back out fighting. (Remind me why they went in there.) And then Thorin, Fili, Kili, Legolas, Tauriel (these two are back from Angmar, which is actually like three weeks’ ride away, with info that is out of date by the time they return) get up onto those mountains, and Ravenhill, and fight Azog and Bolg and about forty other identical bald tattooed orc giants. Bilbo pulls out his sword and heads up there too, but slays no one. Eventually Legolas runs out of arrows, Bilbo and Tauriel get
bonked on the head (no lethal fast-pass samurai slashes for them), and Kili, Fili and Thorin get killed. (All that except the last item: not book.)
I will grant that the ice fight between Thorin and whomever was cleverly done. Legolas has some nice moves in the air which directly contravene the law of gravity (you can’t get much push up off a falling stone). Tauriel gets some cool moves. But after about 43 hours of battle, the viewer is very happy to hear Bilbo wake up and mutter, “The Eagles are coming!” (Book!) The fifth army has showed up, after two unnumbered armies. And at that point, the battle ends basically because the Eagles show up: no further explanation is needed. If only Sauron had some evil flying creatures—like, oh, war bats.
It reminded me of Avatar, which was wonderful except for the half hour of meaningless carnage at the end. But at least Avatar was treading new ground in a dozen other ways (first major film to utilize the talents of polychaete worms, first film to illustrate the sexual attractions of blue people), whereas The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies was stomping all over old, hallowed, sacred ground with big heavy orc boots.
The point is not that you can’t change the story when a book is made into a film. Inevitably you do change the story. The point is that when you do so, you try to keep to the author’s vision, and if you can’t even do that, you try to do no harm. These changes (and plenty of others in the three movies—three movies? Really?) only serve to distract. Even the action winds up being boring after the fifth hour straight.
There were changes I appreciated. I did like having a maiden among the elves. I thought Bard’s son added something. I adored Radagast, who is nowhere in the book and is only a very minor off-screen character in LOTR. I adored the dwarves’ song just before they set out in the first movie: honestly, at that point, I thought I was watching a masterpiece. How sadly disappointed I was.
Thoughts? Soon I will be back to actual writing again and my mood may improve.
All images are from The Hobbit films, and fair use applies. (Except the one with the worms, which might be from Dune, or Tremors, or who the hell knows. Fair use STILL applies.)