by Gary Westfahl
A functional review of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies could be brief and blunt: if you would enjoy spending two-and-a-half hours of your life mostly watching various imaginary beings (and occasional humans) being slaughtered, with increasing frequency and viciousness, then you should definitely go see this film. If you find this prospect appalling, you might avert your eyes during the film’s endless battles and appreciate its occasional moments of evocative dialogue, breathtaking scenery, and subdued beauty, all executed with meticulous professionalism. In sum, just as the original Total Recall (1990) can be described as an interesting 20-minute adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1966) padded out with 90 minutes of Arnold Schwarzenegger killing people, one might characterize this film as a charming 30-minute rendering of the last six chapters of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937) padded out with two hours of repetitive slashing, stabbing, bludgeoning, and beheading. Tolkien, one imagines, would not be pleased.
Granted, director Peter Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro faced a daunting challenge: to expand a story that could be effectively presented as a single two-hour film into an eight-and-a-half-hour, three-film epic to match its distinguished predecessor, the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003). Indeed, it is ironic that The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies enthusiastically foregrounds Tolkien’s message about the evils of greed, described in the first film as a “sickness of the mind,” even as its creators are working overtime to pointlessly lengthen a simple children’s tale to make three films – solely as a way to make more money.
To achieve their larcenous ambitions, the filmmakers have employed three basic strategies. First, they omitted almost nothing: it is hard to recall any significant character or event in Tolkien’s novel that has not found its way into this film or its precursors, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) (Howard Waldrop and Lawrence Person’s review here) and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013). (For purposes of this review, I recently watched all three films in succession at my local theatre’s “Hobbit marathon.”) The few aspects of the novel that were left out, as will be discussed, seem absent for compelling reasons related to strengthening the film’s general appeal.
As their second strategy, the filmmakers added their own embellishments and inventions: thus, the orc Azog (Manu Bennett), who briefly figures as the Great Goblin in Tolkien’s novel, is elevated here to the status of a major character and the personal adversary of the dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage); the sinister Sauron (voice Benedict Cumberbatch), only mentioned as the Necromancer in The Hobbit, is introduced by name as the hidden instigator of the orc uprising to provide the wizards Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Saruman (Christopher Lee), and Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) with something to occupy their time; another character from The Lord of the Rings, the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), is shoehorned into the story as he comes to the aid of the dwarves; the Master of the lake-side city of Esgaroth (Stephen Fry), a minor character in the book, is more fully developed as a greedy scoundrel, and his invented assistant Alfrid (Ryan Gage) kills some time with his comical duplicity and cowardice in the second and third films; and another brand new character, the female elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), is devised in order to add some variety to the violence (and now for something completely different: a woman butchering some orcs!) and to add twenty minutes to the films by means of an inchoate romantic triangle involving Tauriel, Legolas, and the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner).
Third, director Jackson extended every scene for as long as possible: in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the egregious example was the encounter between Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the dragon Smaug (voice Benedict Cumberbatch), wherein Smaug, instead of immediately eliminating his unwelcome guest with a blast of his fiery breath, implausibly engages him in an extended conversation as he laboriously swirls around in his lair again and again, and again and again. (Granted, the same conversation is in the novel, but this is precisely the sort of material that a film adaptation should radically condense.) In this film, the major ordeal is a concluding battle between Thorin and Azog that seems to take forever, as if Jackson kept returning drafts of its script to the other writers and insisting, “Add five more minutes.” More broadly, the entire third film can be epitomized as the massive expansion of a battle that is only briefly described in the original novel (in the paperback edition, it occupies four pages). And it’s easy to keep extending a battle scene: bring on another battalion of orcs! Give yet another character a sword and thrust him into the fray!
It goes without saying that, at some point in the proceedings, the spirit of Tolkien’s story becomes utterly lost. In reviewing I, Robot (2004) (review here), I commented that the film “moved precisely 180 degrees away from [Isaac] Asimov’s vision” when Dr. Susan Calvin picked up a machine gun and starting blasting away at the robots. This film’s similar moment of repudiating its source material comes when Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) plunges into the Battle of the Five Armies, wielding a sword to slaughter his quota of orcs. (In the novel, more characteristically, Bilbo meekly puts on his ring to watch the battle, protected by his invisibility, until a falling stone knocks him unconscious.) Now, Tolkien was not blind to the reality of evil, or the occasional necessity of battling villainous foes like Smaug or the orcs. But The Hobbit in particular was also a novel about the other, more pleasurable aspects of everyday life: walking through the countryside, swimming in a river, conversing with friends, eating good food, drinking mead, and telling stories – the sorts of activities that the characters in these films have very little time for, due to the proclivities of contemporary filmmaking that I have elsewhere decried: in every struggle, the fate of the entire world must be at stake; opponents cannot merely be bad, but must be exaggerated embodiments of pure, absolute evil; and with such implacable foes, heroes can allow themselves no opportunities for rest or relaxation, as yet another lethal assault is always about to occur.
It is telling, then, that there is precisely one major element in The Hobbit that these films have almost entirely eliminated: its songs. In Tolkien’s novel, Bilbo, the dwarves, elves, and goblins are constantly bursting into song, but in the films, there are only two snippets of singing during the dwarves’ first visit to Bilbo’s house in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Given his desperate need to lengthen his films in every manner possible, one might imagine that Jackson would hire someone to write music for Tolkien’s many songs, feature every one of them, and perhaps have additional songs of a similar nature written and included as well. But as one of the axioms of modern filmmaking, characters must be constantly imperiled, pausing solely to plot their next moves or to provide female viewers with touches of romance, and if they started singing, it would weaken the unrelenting atmosphere of portentous doom purportedly required to keep audiences on the edges of their seats.
The shift in mood from the general lightheartedness of The Hobbit to the sobriety of these films has another unfortunate effect: the diminution of the title character. Tolkien’s novel is all about Bilbo Baggins and how he changes as a result of his experiences; his key role in advancing the dwarves’ quest is regularly emphasized; and the Battle of the Five Armies is cursorily summarized precisely because Bilbo was not involved. But these films are about an entire civilization of dwarves, elves, and men that are facing an ominous threat, and its attention regularly turns away from Bilbo to focus on other characters who are participating in this global confrontation. Thus, the first film begins with a flashback featuring a youthful Thorin, who at times appears to be functioning as the trilogy’s true protagonist (I suspect that his total time onscreen exceeds Bilbo’s); in scenes that do not involve Bilbo, the elf Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) repeatedly intervenes to save the day; in the second and third films, the human Bard (Luke Evans) is given an expanded role as a major hero in assisting the beleaguered residents of Esgaroth and fighting off the orcs; and the effective archery and swordplay of Legolas and Tauriel are frequently featured as well. Indeed, if Bilbo had not been inaptly recast as a warrior, he would have had very little screen time in the third film, almost entirely devoted to violent combat.
Rereading The Hobbit, and contemplating this film adaptation, one fears that it is now becoming impossible for Hollywood to produce the sorts of gentle, leisurely fantasy films that were cherished in the past. Imagine what would happen if the thought process that led to the Hobbit films was applied to a remake of The Wizard of Oz (1939), so that Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion would engage in one bloody battle after another against the Wicked Witch’s minions as they fight their way across the Land of Oz. Or ponder a new version of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982): the army besieges Elliott’s home town and sends battalions of soldiers into the streets, firing machine guns to kill any alien invaders; E.T. employs the trinkets and gadgets in Elliott’s home to build homemade rifles and rocket launchers so he and his human allies can fend off each assault; and as they stand on a battlefield strewn with corpses, Elliott and his friends wave goodbye to E.T. as he flies off into space. But hey, that’s what you’d have to do to earn that all-important PG-13 rating and attract more viewers.
Even as the makers of the Hobbit films were clearly focused on providing the melodrama and violence perceived as essential in contemporary films, they can be criticized for their inattentiveness to another modern priority in filmmaking: the need for racial and ethnic diversity. This is a general problem in fantasy films, since most fantasies, like Tolkien’s novels, implicitly take place in magical versions of medieval Europe and hence seem designed for all-white casts. Some filmmakers have hearteningly defied expectations in this respect; thus, one of the few things to admire about the otherwise undistinguished Oz the Great and Powerful (review here) was its decision to reinvent Oz as a homeland for people of diverse races. In adapting Tolkien’s story, Jackson and his colleagues imposed an odd compromise: the hobbits, elves, and dwarves are uniformly Caucasian, but the humans of Esgaroth are modestly diverse, as one glimpses an occasional African or Asian face. But rather insensitively, I think, the two chief orcs, Azog and Bolg (Lawrence Makoare), are both played by darker-skinned actors of Maori descent (incidentally, the only major actors in the films born in New Zealand, where they were filmed). Even though these men and other orcs are made to appear pale white, then, the film is still contriving to suggest that all people who lack the light pink skin of true Caucasians are villains.
If the film is arguably a bit racist, one can say that it is “speciesist” as well, since the dwarves are menaced by giant spiders and the wolf-like Wargs, and the only talking animal in the films, Smaug, is a sinister murderer. But in the novel, the friendly eagles speak as well, and they twice intervene to assist Bilbo and his companions; the “skin-changer” Beorn, in the form of a bear, contributes to the final victory of the dwarves, elves, and men over the orcs and Wargs; and a thrush learns how to kill Smaug and flies off to inform Bard, who uses the information to shoot down the dragon. In the film, however, these animal allies are minimized: the eagle do appear briefly but they are not presented as intelligent colleagues; Beorn assists the dwarves in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey but is not observed during the final battle; and the intelligent thrush was omitted, as the film’s Bard already knows about Smaug’s weakness, inasmuch as it was a wound inflicted by a courageous ancestor. All of these changes presumably reflect a desire to place more emphasis on the valor and actions of the characters who look like human beings, even though, as other filmmakers have demonstrated, it is possible to craft likable animal characters in fantasy films, even if it requires a little more effort.
An additional area where modern filmmakers must be careful is in depictions of smoking and drinking alcoholic beverages, vices that are ubiquitous in Tolkien’s Middle-earth but are less acceptable in twenty-first-century Earth. Seeking to respect both Tolkien’s vision and contemporary sensibilities, the Hobbit films again chose to compromise: the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), visibly elderly and presumably set in his ways, is permitted to regularly smoke his pipe, and he is also observed imbibing a tiny glass of wine; the other characters, however, rarely if ever indulge in these vices. Furthermore, needless to say, the film’s adventurers, unlike those in the novel, do not remove their clothing for a bath in a river. Such are the peculiar standards now observed in films: a sympathetic character cannot smoke, drink, or skinny-dip, but an on-screen beheading is perfectly acceptable, even heroic.
Of course, a balanced review of these films should not focus solely on their flaws and foibles, since there is much about them to praise as well. The cast is uniformly excellent; along with the major characters, one might single out for special attention Ken Stott’s avuncular Balin, the only dwarf beside Thorin who emerges as a true personality; one suspects that his role was expanded due to the actor’s talents. The landscapes and forests of New Zealand are capably exploited as backgrounds, particularly in several scenes emulating John Ford’s proclivity for displaying tiny figures in vast panoramas. One hardly notices the superb special effects, since these are nowadays deployed in all films, but the films’ renderings of the dragon Smaug and his immense trove of golden treasures are particularly noteworthy. The major problem with the films, as almost every commentator has observed, is that there is simply too much film: the first two films are filled with comic relief that isn’t funny, subplots that contribute nothing to the main narrative, and sequences that last far longer than is necessary; and the third film in particular, as noted, is overburdened with excessive, gratuitous violence.
Therefore, one looks forward to the DVD release of the Hobbit trilogy for an unusual reason. Typically, admirers of a film eagerly anticipate seeing an expanded “director’s cut” that includes a number of scenes that were deleted from the original release. In the case of these films, however, there surely is little if any material that was left on the cutting room floor. The unique assignment that Peter Jackson should undertake for a DVD would be to edit his eight-and-a-half hours of released footage into a single, two-to-three hour film, eliminating all of the tedium to tell Tolkien’s story in a brisk and economical manner. I am quite sure it would prove a magnificent film, far more enjoyable than the three-part version that holiday viewers have been obliged to endure.