Let me state for the record that I am a fan of the film adaptation of The Lord Of the Rings. Jack Nicholson can complain all he likes about “too many endings,” but that celluloid trilogy managed the impossible: it successfully imbued a made-up world not only with turmoil and action but with genuine emotional gravitas. The Lord Of the Rings (2001 – 2003), against all odds, mattered.
Having just seen the third of The Hobbit installments (2012 – 2014), I fear I cannot say the same for these sequel-prequels. I want to. At certain moments, I’m convinced. At others?
Yes, the task of adapting a book to the screen is arduous, full of perils, and the fact that Jackson’s scriptwriting team of Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and (for these films) Guillermo del Toro have had any success at all is remarkable. Tolkien, let’s face it, was not an efficient story-teller. Given characters like Tom Bombadil, it would not be unfair to crown him as King Of All Digressions.
So let’s take it as a given that adaptation involves violence toward the source material. Additions will be made, and subtractions, too. So be it. The goal, typically, is to preserve the spirit of the original.
Jackson, Walsh, Boyens, and del Toro, then, are not typical. The Hobbit, an overgrown children’s tale in which Tolkien honed his craft and realized he had much weightier legends to tell, has in the films been subsumed by thrill-seeking, monologuing, and jeopardy for jeopardy’s sake. If I may quote another great British author, “I am affronted.” Thank you, Beatrix Potter.
The good stuff is, of course, magnificent. Jackson is a wizard with the camera, to be trumped only by Ian McKellan as the most wonderful wizard since Dorothy set out for Oz. Martin Freeman is terrific as Bilbo, with every twitch a match for his surroundings. The locations are breathtaking and gorgeously rendered. Bolg, especially, makes for a worthy opponent. Stephen Fry, as the Master of Lake Town, sports the worst comb-over since the invention of hair.
And then there are the unexpected delights: Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, no longer Lost) is the kick-ass Elven lass that Arwen ought to have been, and was not. Her doomed love affair with Kili is adroit, efficient, and unexpectedly heart-wrenching. That she doesn’t belong anywhere in this story is quickly forgotten; she steals the screen every time it’s offered, and leaves us wondering how, in the future, digitally enhanced re-issues of The Lord Of the Rings will fail to include her.
Let’s begin with a fault I carry over from The Return Of the King, in which I noticed, on a second viewing, that our good friends from Gondor must all be starving to death. This citadel of a city has no agriculture to support it. In fact, nobody in any of Jackson’s movies, excepting the hobbits, tills anything more ambitious than a front door vegetable patch. This is madness. If the word “arable” isn’t in their vocabulary, then what by Durin’s beard are all those dwarves, elves, and humans eating? Dirt? Wind? Moria gossip?
Next up, as mentioned above, is the far more serious sin of jeopardy for jeopardy’s own sake. I’m talking about unbelievable derring-do like the chase through Moria in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, where the dwarves take one lethal fall after another all to make their escape from the Great Goblin more exciting. ‘Cos Tolkien’s own version wasn’t sufficiently pulse-pounding? Please.
The spiders of Mirkwood trip this same alarm. They’re as big as Shelob, and more numerous. Bilbo winds up fighting some sort of proto-spider whose only real role, other than to die, is to make it harder for Bilbo to get his Precious back, because (guess what!) he’s conveniently dropped it. Again: wasn’t the situation bad enough already?
That’s the thing about jeopardy: like the One Ring itself, it betrays. Deployed too often, leaned on too hard, and it loses its payoff.
William Goldman, in his seminal book Adventures In the Screen Trade, describes his technique for building tension on screen, which is to make every minor success lead to a worse dilemma. In Goldman’s world, if a prisoner manages to snag the jailer’s keys using a skinny pole fashioned from paperclips and Superglue, the keys will necessarily fall off just out of the prisoner’s reach, and the guard will then hear the noise and come to investigate, and the guard will then put his boot on the keys, and so on and so on. Tension builds. Or does it? Doesn’t this sort of thing begin to feel mechanical?
The solution is for characters, through their own faults and foibles, by virtue of their own goals and demons, to put themselves in danger –– and then to force them to think and battle their way out. But does any viewer really believe that Thorin’s klutzy dwarves, having entered the Lonely Mountain (which they wisely do not do in the book) can defeat or even distract Smaug for more than about a minute? No. Smaug is a destroyer of kingdoms, not a bungler that gets tied up in pulleys and ropes and hit on the head with falling ore buckets. If Smaug wants those dwarves dead, then dead they are. All he really has to do is stop jabbering. For a worm who’s been asleep for a hundred years or so, he sure has a lot to say.
Tolkien’s original tome is called The Hobbit for a reason: it’s Bilbo’s story. That’s why Bilbo saves the dwarves from the trolls, and that’s why it’s tiny, insignificant (!) Bilbo who gets to confront the dragon. In the book, he’s the only one (other than Bard, at a great remove) who ever does meet Smaug face to face. Adding the scurrying dwarves only confuses the storytelling; it adds ingredients that diffuse rather than amplify the tale at hand.
The three films’ other great abuse of false jeopardy is the one-day rush from Lake Town to the Lonely Mountain. The dwarves’ map claims they must wait by the secret entrance on Durin’s Day, in order to catch “the last light.” Good, very good. Time elements make for deadlines, and deadlines make for tension. But in this instance, geography (the difficult traverse from lake to mountain shoulder) is achieved in about a minute of screen time, and for what? Why not just push the invented calendar a day or two back so the journey becomes, as it should be, a journey?
I’ll tell you why. Because in the movie version, Kili has taken an arrow in the leg, and not just any arrow but a “Morgul arrow,” which is poisoning him. He must remain behind in Lake Town, not because Tolkien says so, or because, as Thorin claims, he’ll slow up the group (warning: false stakes), but because if he goes with Thorin, he cannot again encounter Tauriel, and if he cannot be near Tauriel, or in this case be cured by her, then their love affair will not flower.
Again, I adored the scenes between Tauriel and Kili. (Heck, if there’s hope for easing racial tensions between elves and dwarves, there’s hope for the real world, too.) But I don’t believe an iota of the cynical, cinematic legerdemain required to make it all happen. It’s emotionally hollow, contrived; it banks on the audience not being awake enough to say, “Wait, what, why?”
Tolkien insists that the final confrontation at the Lonely Mountain be called the Battle Of Five Armies. Jackson and Co. apparently didn’t think that wargs counted as an army, so they chucked them out and added a second legion of orcs. Okay, fair enough, but how do the orcs sneak up on our plucky heroes? By renting sandworms from Frank Herbert’s Dune, that’s how.
Now, if Erebor and the Lonely Mountain are harboring a pack of shai-hulud (that’s Fremen-speak for sandworm), then I’d like to know how those mighty dwarven halls got built in the first place. Or, if they were built, why they don’t have endless gargantuan holes bored through their outer walls. To me, this is an example of a writer wanting something to be so (an orcish sneak attack) and then forcing the universe at hand to bend, unhappily, with much creaking and clanking, to their will.
It doesn’t work.
The only reason those worms didn’t make me laugh out loud is I didn’t want to spoil the experience for my son and his pal, who were next to me in the theater.
Don’t even get me started on Beorn, and what on earth is going on with Mirkwood? Where’s the murk? There are moments where I’m convinced that Jackson himself is afraid of the dark. What lights the dwarven halls when Bilbo first explores? Wherefore all that radiance? From the gold itself? Earlier on, Gollum’s Moria lake-cave exhibits an almost phosphorescent glow. Strange. The last time I was in a cave and my light went out, it was really bloody dark.
Starlight, claim Jackson’s elves, is the most beautiful light there is. Yet Tolkien also let them sing and make merry. No such luck in Jackson’s world. The elves are a dour lot, hardly ever breaking a smile, and as for singing, all they manage are dirges. As for teasing, or climbing trees? Never. Instead, they’re forever accompanied (when at home) by the soundtrack to Edward Scissorhands, or a close approximation thereof.
This is no minor change (and Lord Of the Rings may be blamed for starting this trend). Tolkien’s dwarves don’t get along with elves because they consider the elves to be frivolous. And so they are! Only the highest born––Elrond, Celeborn, Galadrial, etc.––have a serious thought in their heads. No wonder the two races don’t get along. But in Jackson’s milieu, dwarves don’t like elves because the elves are stuck up prigs. By and large, I don’t like them, either.
Not that exceptional elves don’t exist. Jackson’s Legolas learns to be broad-minded, and he reigns supreme as the greatest warrior (bar none) in recorded history. That said, I fail to understand where he gets all his arrows. When the dwarves escape the elven halls by riding their barrels down a whitewater torrent, the resulting battle is not only outstanding, kinetic and heart-stopping, it’s also sheer lunacy. From what I could see at the outset, Legolas has about five arrows in his quiver. He looses at least fifteen before he’s done. Does he get out of breath along the way? No. Constitution: 25. Minimum.
On one quite serious level, The Battle Of Five Armies succeeds. As a meditation on the destructive powers of greed and pride, the film compares well to the book. Richard Armitage (as Thorin) glowers with the best; as an actor, he has mastered the art of closing himself up, giving nothing back besides paranoia and entitlement. Unfortunately for Armitage, Jackson, Walsh, & Co. don’t trust mere acting to get the job done: they stick the audience with an expressionistic dream sequence in which poor Thorin is literally sucked down into a whirlpool of molten gold. Score one for symbolism, yes, but this is storytelling at its clumsiest.
When Bard let self-centered Alfred escape, instead of killing him, as most movies (simple-minded and retributive) would have done, I was wholly won over. When Thorin sank Azog the Defiler on a breaking ice flow, I cheered (quietly, ‘cos people in movie theaters these days aren’t allowed to so much as burp). When a huge lumpy troll battered through a rampart with its head and knocked itself silly in the process, I laughed aloud. Every time Gandalf spoke or Bilbo hesitated, I was one with Jackson’s vision.
So much to love… and so much yet to crave.
For an example of another film for which I have Strongly Ambivalent Feelings, please see my long-ago review of Mirror, Mirror.
Or, for an example of a film I deeply love (and fear), there’s this review, of Pan’s Labyrinth.
Mark Rigney has published three stories in the Black Gate Online Fiction library: ”The Trade,” “The Find,” and “The Keystone.” Tangent called the tales “Reminiscent of the old sword & sorcery classics… once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I highly recommend the complete trilogy.” In other work, Rigney is the author of “The Skates,” and its haunted sequels, “Sleeping Bear,” and Check-Out Time. His website is markrigney.net.