Film 2019: The Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King


Three Decembers, three parts of a story, three family trips. I’ll always remember The Lord of the Rings trilogy that way, for the moments at which the story ends for another year, and the moments of wondering how and where Peter Jackson will resume things.

As a film, The Return of the King is monumental, and that comes before the Extended Edition, which comes to almost four hours. It is not without moments at which the concentration wavers slightly, as it is bound to do on a Sunday morning, and on one on which days of perfect skies have cometo rain and thunder and greyness.

But the film gathers weight and dimension as it progresses, eliding into the High Fantasy mode, until it is not possible to resist its momentum, nor be moved by the stakes it presents. As such, I find myself less able to approach the film with any kind of critical eye. I am audience, drawn in, moved in so many directions, feeling the experience rather than responding intellectually. So many times and places in which tears gathered at the corner of my eyes.

Which does not mean that I can’t be critical, just that the film is awe-inspiring to a greater degree than its two predecessors, and that overall I do not feel it possible to do an adaptation of this part of the book that could be more faithful, and as effective, as Jackson and Co.

Changes there are, and plenty, but like The Fellowship of the Ring, these consist mainly of stream-lining, playing to the visual experience. Some things are missing, minor scenes and characters omitted. Some things are diminished: I would have liked to see more of Eowyn and Faramir’s falling in love, if only to see more of Miranda Otto, but this was downsized so as not to compete with Aragorn and Arwen, which is a bit more important.

The biggest omission is the Scouring of the Shire chapter, and like Tom Bombadil, I think on balance that Jackson was right. What works in the book won’t necessarily apply to film. By the time we get to the Hobbits’ return to the Shire, several chapters have passed, as has story time. Thus this can be thrown up as a sort of Last Battle without detracting from the true climax, the Ring going into the fire. That’s not possible in the film, even with the extended sequence of farewells Jackson employs. Instead, Frodo and Co return to an unchanged Shire, the undisturbable paradise, and this emphasises what Frodo cannot go back to.

The film started very cleverly with a flashback to Deogol and Smeagol – Andy Serkis looking and nearly sounding like Andy Serkis instead  of Gollum – which I liked very much. The Theatre version then picks up the story without reference to Saruman, Grima Wormtongue and Treebeard, all of whom disappear into complete silence, a serious omission in the case of the former.

We’d heard that Jackson had filmed an ending for Saruman that he’d left out of The Two Towers for length, and then left out of The Return of the King because it belonged to The Two Towers, causing a serious rift with Christopher Lee. It’s in the Extended Edition and Jackson’s right. It looks an feels wrong, it’s an unwanted appendage, a hindrance to the third film getting going. and it’s a pretty naff write-off of Saruman, switching his actual death in the Shire forward to a point where it has so much less context and inevitability.

The other major change, so far as I am concerned, is to the climax in Mount Doom. Jackson is utterly faithful, to a point, though I regret the loss of the line about ‘I do not choose to do what I came here to do’ in favour of the cheap and blunt ‘The Ring is mine.’ But once Gollum bites off Frodo’s finger and gets the ring, it all goes wrong. Gollum capers and dances. He does it silently, which is a mistake immediately. And he’s so oblivious to his whereabouts, to anything but his Precious, that he capers over the edge, taking the Ring to its destruction, doing the one thing Frodo, at the very last, did not have the strength to do.

It’s a magnificent ending, a game-changer, The Frodo Principle, the hero who does everything he can, but who succeeds by getting the burden to somewhere where another can step in. But it’s not Hollywood. It’s not all-action, not the leading man’s triumph, and as William Goldman pointed oout, you go to protect the star. There must be nothing to diminish him, to make him complex. So Frodo gets up, wrestles with Gollum and both of thenm go over the edge, robbing Gollum of his last shred of responibility, undermining Gandalf’s foresight and Bilbo’s pity, and requiring a literal and entirely cheap cliffhanger to rescue Frodo.

I understand why they did it but, like Faramir in The Two Towers, I profoundly disagree.

Yet I am overwhelmed, every time I see the film. And this Sunday has been no exception. There won’t be a Film 2020, except maybe for a few holdovers, DVDs I’ve acquired since, but I’m going to organise myself a couple of Binge days, each trilogy, start to finish. And I would still love to see Jackson do something with The Silmarillion…

Film 2019: The Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers


I remember sitting down in the cinema, the now-demolished Grand Central, the five of us, all eager for the second instalment of The Lord of the Rings. I remember the sense of anticipation, the marvellous opening shots skimming over the towering, snow-capped mountains as graddually the dialogue from Gandalf’s confrontation with the Balrog rises into audibility, the plunge inside the mountain to repeat the footage of that scene, and the shock as the camera plummets with him, and Gandalf hewing and hacking the Balrog throughout that interminable fall, ultimately into the deepest cavern.

A magnificent introduction: I was pumped and primed by it.

And I remember my growing shock and revulsion at the structural changes Peter Jackson and Co made to the story, until I grew angry and smouldered with resentment even through the gloriously choreographed twin-spectacle endings of the Battle of Helm’s Deep, bringing the book to flaring life, and the Ent’s destruction of Isengard, lifted out of the back story to become a worthy addition to the film. Show, don’t tell: it should be stencilled on every story-maker’s forehead.

Seventeen years later, on a grey, damp, Sunday morning, I still disagree profoundly with the four major story-line changes Jackson headed, but knowing them to be a part of this version of the script, I can accept their existence and evaluate the rest of the film around them.

And, leaving these aside for the moment, The Two Towers is a much better film, a finer, more well-made offering than it is usually taken to be, and than its position as the middle-film, the runt of the litter.

In rising above that role, The Two Towers has the advantage of Helm’s Deep. It comes in the middle of the novel, but the novel at this point is telling two stories, parallel in time, and splits itself in two, to deal firstly with the adventures of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, Merry in Pippin, and only afterwards Frodo, Sam and Gollum.

The film can’t do that. It has to adhere to one progressing time period and so it has to juggle, to intercut, backwards and forwards, between the three parallel strands. That isn’t easy to do, the risk being that you give too little time at a time to each thread, diminishing the impact of each, or that you allow stories to play out for so long that the audience has lost its place by the time you return.

Jackson judges the length of time each theme needs, and is advantaged in the first half of the film by having all three groups on the move constantly, so that he can, for the most part, drop into each new change of scene with an actual change of scene. And since all these scenes are mind-blowingly awesome New Zealand mountains and valleys, it makes it easy.

Watching the Extended Edition today means that the film stays very close to the book, adds off-page scenes, especially at and around Rohan before Aragorn’s party, and the resurrected Gandalf the White, get there. Very faithful, very impressive: but we’re not far from the end when the first egregious change is made.

We’re in Edoras, Gandalf has freed King Theoden (a superb performance from the great Bernard Hill, rock solid in every line and heart-breakingly vulnerable as the parent who has to bury their child), restored his vigour and his determination. In the book, he gathers Rohan’s army, including his banished nephew and now-heir, Eomer, and goes out to attack the forces that have attacked the Westmark and killed his son, from where he is forced to Helm’s Deep.

But Jackson has him turn all defensive, and even cowardly, ordering his people to flee to Helm’s Deep, to avoid a fight but bottling himself up in an inescapable, but theoretically unbreakable fortress.

Ok, this is like The Fellowship of the Ring, streamlining, compressing, accelerating. But it’s something else that I’ll come back to.

The next one is the Warg attack on the Rohan exodus and the quite riduculous and comletely unecessary cheap melodrama of Aragon falling off a cliff and being believed dead. It’s stupid. You don’t need to know the book to know that Aragorn isn’t dead, and that he’s not going to die only just into the second half of the second film. At a stroke, the film descends to Saturday Morning Serial level, and they were never filmed to the highest of standards. Even the kids were disgusted at that, and one of them was only eight.

Watching it again, it’s still dumb, a piece of gratuitous action in a quiet spot in the film but nevertheless wholly unnecessary. Watching it play out, I think the effect Jackson was aiming for, especially with Aragorn’s dreams of Arwen, and being nuzzled back to life by the horse, was to try to suggest a death-and-resurrection parallel to Gandalf. If so, it fails on the stupidity of the scene, on being too nebulous, and on the difference between the two characters. Aragorn may be long-lived (he confesses to Eowyn, the lovely Mirando Otto who I’d never seen before, that he’s actually 87) but he’s still a mortal, whereas Gandalf is a Wizard, a Maia. We accept his resurrection with a sense of anticipation.

I’m going to jump slightly to the Ents, now. I’ve got to say that I’ve never found Treebeard convincing. He moves too slowly, too mechanically, and he’s too obviously a CGI figure to fully stand on the screen like the rest of the characters, but that’s me. Johnson again diverts the novel’s narrative by having the Ents decide to stay out of the War: not their business. This is done to manipulate the story so that Pippin can divert Treebeard to Isengard, to witness the assault on the Forest and rouse the Ents’ wrath.

The problem is that it instantly diminishes the Ents in general and Treebeard in particular, by removing agency from them. In the book, Treebeard knows about Isengard already, and he persuades the Ents: Pippin and Merry are the pebbles starting the avalanche by waking Treebeard up to immediately take in what’s going on, but that’s not enough for Jackson: they have to lecture the Ents from a position of superiority.

I’ve saved the worst for last, to let me draw together the common thread between these changes, and one other addition, into what is wrong with the film. I speak, of course, of Faramir.

In the book, once Faramir learns of the Ring, and that Frodo has it, he faces a Galadriel-like test. Does he take it for himself? But Faramir has already said he would not reach out for the Ring if it lay beside the road, and he has the almost-pure strain of Numenor in him. Though he is unregarded in his father’s eyes (John Noble is an absolute monster of favouritism and personal gluttony), the point is that Faramir, brother of Boromir, is superior to his elder in every way.

So Jackson has him seize the ring, at which point I nearly howled. The film-maker’s explanation, in the extras on the DVD, was that we were continually being told that the Ring was all-powerful, that no-one could resist it, Gandalf and Galadriel both turn down the gift of it out of the fear and knowledge of what it could do to them. And yet everyone resists it. Jackson thought we had to have a scene of someone being tempted by it, or we wouldn’t believe in the Ring’s potency.

It’s the single biggest thing on which I violently disagree with him, and it’s made worse by his choosing Faramir. It besmirches him at a stroke, it poisons his purity, it reduces the potency of one of the major characters in the final film (though David Wenham as Faramir is one of the very few castings I debate as he’s too flat throughout). The change was also made to create an obstacle for Frodo and Sam when it was decided to postpone Shelob into the final film: sorry, no. Just No.

The writers do try to soften the impact by showing Faramir as motivated by his father, Denethor’s desire for the Ring, and wanting to improve dear old Daddy’s impression of him. All it takes to shake him is Sam blurting out that this is what happened to Boromir, which he waits to do until Osgiliath instead of any sooner, and Faramir changes his mind.

I’m also going to mention the insertion of a number of scenes, dream sequences or flashbacks, between Aragorn and Arwen, remnants of an earlier subplot when there were only going to be two parts. Some of these are used to counterpoint the scenes showing Eowyn’s developing love for Aragorn, his regard for her and his regret at the inevitable sorrow she will experience. Jackson has Elrond dead-set against letting his daughter marry Aragorn and stay in Middle-Earth to die, whilst Arwen loses faith and hope and decides to pony off to the Undying Lands to weep forever at not getting herself throughly rogered by her lover Man.

The common factor to all these changes (except the dumb cliffhanger one), which makes them so wrong in a film like The Lord of the Rings, is that they are all about compromise, and they are about compromise with evil, or rather Evil. Theoden loses faith immediately and seeks to run away. Arwen doubts, and seeks to run away. The Ents decide not to get involved and run away. And Faramir does the business of the Enemy. Every change strikes at the heart of the story.

They may be ‘justifiable’ as making the story more realistic, but that’s not what the film is. The Lord of the Rings is a Fantasy, a High Fantasy. It’s not about realistic things and realistic doubt or compromise. It is about Good or Evil, and being one or the other. You cannot make Good figures equivocal, and Jackson doesn’t understand that, and that is why The Two Towers is flawed.

That said, I had a good, long and thoroughly enjoyable time with it. And there is so much that is good about it, without the defects. I’ve already mentioned Bernard Hill, and Viggo Mortensen is, if anything, even better as Aragorn than in the first film. His scenes with Mirando Otto, where everything between them is done in their faces, are marvellous, and demonstarted that she was a superb pick as Eowyn (my elder stepson and I both found her fascinating). And Brad Dourif is the incarnation of creepiness as Grima Worntongue: I would never let him near my sister.

Of course, you cannot talk about The Lord of the Rings without talking about Andy Serkis as Gollum. I used to think that David Woodthorpe was an unbeatable Gollum in the BBC Radio adaptation, but Serkis is electric, in voice as well as in caper. His leaping, his bounding, his constant movement make the CGI Gollum look like something from another movie entirely but his gift is that this hysterical figure is fully part of this one. And he’s playing two parts, in reality, Gollum and Smeagol, and is miraculous in both.

So, that’s the middle one in Middle-Earth. I so look forward to next Sunday and the last one.

 

Film 2019: The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring


Draw up your seats in your hobbit-holes everywhere, the next three Sundays will be spent in Middle-Earth grappling with the age old question of whether I have anything new or original to say about Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Mine is the perspective of a long-term fan of the book. I first read it in the last quarter of 1973, and must have read it 15 – 20 times before this film appeared. In 1979, I interrupted a short holiday in North Wales to see the Ralph Bakshi animated film version of the first half which, at the time, I thought was the best adaptation there could feasibly be (you may call me naive at this  point: I do). I listened avidly to the classic 1981 BBC Radio adaptation, full of resonant voices (one of them Ian Holm as Frodo Baggins, who now played Bilbo Baggins), when it was broadcast as 26 thirty minute episodes. I even attended an oversize puppet theatre production by a Canadian troupe. I was a fan.

On each of these occasions, my attention to the adaptation was alloyed by my usual rick of simultaneously assssing the how of the adaptation, especially with a book the size of The Lord of the Rings. What have they left out, what have they elided, ah yes, so they did this. The great joy of Jackson’s film was that, whilst I wasn’t unaware of such factors, they were relegated to a sub-cellar of my response. With family around me for a Xmas treat, I just sat back and luxuriated in the experience, absorbed into the visual appearance, the physical incarnation and, as a lover of mountains, that gorgeous New Zealand scenery.

Had my parents lived to see this, I doubt they would have enjoyed the story that much, but I would have taken them so that they could see the mountains and they would have loved every bit of that.

Whilst it doesn’t extend to the massive proportions that surround The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings was almost as controversial as it was popular. Many people, the Tolkien Estate included, complained that Jackson had failed to understand the book, and that he had concentrated upon spectacle and sensationalism, to the detriment, indeed the absence, of Tolkien’s true purposes in writing the Trilogy.

There’s a degree of truth to that, but there’s a much stronger degree of truth to the fact that books and film are two different media, each with their own dominant characteristics. Not for nothing had The Lord of the Rings been regarded for decades as an unfilmable book, because of its length and breadth. It was going to be changed for filming, it had to be changed for filming: nobody could be completely faithful to the book.

The obvious example is Tom Bombadil. Not one adaptation I know of includes Tom Bombadil, and everybody is right to leave it out. Why? Because it’s an extrusion into the story. Tom is of minimal relevance to the spine of the story, and Tolkien wrote him as such, a Force of Nature independent of considerations of Good and Evil. And he comes so early in the story. At a later point, you may be able to afford a complete digression, if the story is sufficiently picaresque, but Frodo’s barely left the Shire when Tom crops up. There are more important, serious, and above all relevant dangers to be had from Bree onwards, with Strider, without clogging things up thoroughly first.

And that’s the theme to all the alterations and omissions in the first film: streamlining. In the book, nearly twenty years pass between Bilbo’s party and Gandalf bringing the news that the magic ring is the One Ring. In the film, it’s near continuous. In the book, we get an extended lesson in history. In the film, Cate Blanchett narrates those parts we need to know (Gil-Galad is omitted) as we watch a prelude that risks being stodgy, but which lets us see the relevant facts instead of have someone tell us about them.

All the way, detail is removed to let the spine of the story, the journey to Rivendell, the Fellowship’s course, be the focus. And at the same time, detail is added, such as Gandalf’s adventure and imprisonment in, and his escape from Orthanc. In the book, this can be narrated as a flashback, in the film it is far more effective to see it for ourselves.

The same goes for Saruman’s destruction of the Treegarth of Orthanc, with the additional bonus that this sets up events in the second film.

On the other hand, Jackson is sometimes guilty of unnecessary over-invention. The Wizard’s battle in Orthanc is a bit OTT, especially when we know that neither Ian McKellan nor Christopher Lee are spring chickens but gets away with it by being brief. But the business in Moria with the stone stairs and that swaying section is silly and would have been better left as somebody’s bright idea.

What also impresses me is the strength of the acting. There are some serious heavy-hitters in here, such as Lee, McKellan and Blanchett, lending weight to a project that, at the end of the Nineties, before the all-out assault of superhero/fantasy/SF/CGI blockbusters showed itself to be commercially advantageous. McKellan in particular is brilliant as Gandalf, sinking into his role with complete commitment and conviction.

The remainder of the cast were mainly semi-unknowns, without substantial records, and this ensures that they cann play their parts without the audience slipping out of the experience and into a film starring… someone reognisable.

Not everybody is perfect in the role. This far on, I find Elijah Wood to be a bit too wide-eyed ingenuous, but the role itself is something of an idealisation, bucolic nobility. And Sean Astin’s chubbiness may look right for the peasant-like Sam, but his accent and intonation is a bit too forced.

But in Viggo Mortensen, playing Strider/Aragorn, the film bought itself its greatest stroke of luck. Mortensen was a late replacement for original choice, Stuart Townsend, brought in a week into filming and requiring intense training for his part as things went on. He turned out to be ideal: honest, athletic, vigorous, completely committed. Let’s face it, in the book Aragorn is a big stiff for most of the story, but Mortensen brings him to life. There never is a moment when you are not aware you are watching Aragorn. Given that my then wife fancied him something rotten (as much as I fancied Miranda Otto in the other two films), it’s a testament to his  performance that I can say all this. He’s tons better than Robert Stephens in the radio adaptation.

I do have to record, in respect of Aragorn, the one change in this story by Jackson with which I take issue, which is to make Aragorn a conscientious objector to his inheritance as King. His refusal of his destiny creates an unnecessary and somewhat trite conflict that is never properly explored and which is only set up to be knocked down.

But as far as it is possible to be, The Fellowship of the Ring sets out to be and is faithful to the book. It overlaps the strict confines by including Boromir’s commital to the Falls and the decision to chase the Orcs that have capured Merry and Pippin, which come from Chapter 1 of The Two Towers but that’s the only crossover. The film is an immersive experience and we all loved it.

My stepdaughter was so impressed, she asked to read the book, though she wanted to start with The Two Towers: it took tremendous pressure from my then wife and I to get her to read The Fellowship of the Ring first: she’d just seen the film she wanted to know the rest of the story. Eventually she accepted our assurance about all the stuff that wasn’t in the film…

Film 2019: The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug


Middle films are always a bugger. They start in the middle and finish in the middle: pitched directly into the action without any suitable scene-setter and lacking any wholly-satisfying conclusion. Not every extended trilogy has a Battle of Helm’s Deep to provide the perfect pseudo-climax. The Hobbit does its best in ‘The Desolation of Smaug’, with the terrifically constructed battle between the Dwarves an the Dragon inside Erebor, but it still has to depend upon a cliffhanger on which to halt. I found it a disappointment first time round and it’s still the same now, when the final film’s another Sunday away, not another December.

That said, Part 2 is a decided uplift on Part 1. It has an awkward double-start, first a very clever flashback, like the Smeagol-Deagol scene that opens ‘The Return of the King’, to Bree in the rain, Thorin Oakenshield in the Prancing Pony and a ‘chance’ meeting with Gandalf the Grey. This is taken from one of those scenes that Tolkien couldn’t fit into the book and which turns up in the Appendices, and at greater length in Unfinished Tales.

Straightway from that, we go to the Dwarf party on the run again from Azog and his pursuing Orcs and rapidly holing up with Beorn. It feels awkward because it has no independence and it’s dealt with too quickly and back-ended with a bit of comedy, reflecting the original children’s book that’s really out of place this far along.

Still, that’s the last of that. There are still comic scenes to come, mostly surrounding the Master of Lake-Town and his obnoxious, servile assistant Alfred (Alfred? Alfred? Beorn, Bard, Smaug, Bilbo, Alfred… Alfred? een if it is spelt Alfrid). This requires a double-act between Stephen Fry and Ryan Gage, one of whom I thoroughly do not like and the other who’s just too good in his role to be comfortable watching. Their humour is based on throwing in cheap rude words, like bollocks and cock, but it isa dimension away from the chilish slapstick Jackson has tried to take from the book.

After the scene at Beorn’s, Jackson stops trying to marry up any of ‘The Hobbit’s tone to the fillm and things are better for it. The Desolation of Smaug can then concentrate on its own tone, fast, dynamic and serious, letting the comedy arise from what’s on the screen, such as the brilliant barrel-escape down the elvish river, fighting off Orcs and Elves with unstinting glee and vigour.

Much of what Jackson et al. invents in this film is simply an expansion on what Tolkien has written that was treated perfunctorily. Bilbo frees the Dwarves, they escape in barrels, full stop. Another, incredibly effective scene is created out of even thinner justification: Cate Blanchett makes a tiny cameo as Galadriel to send Gandalf north as a revised justification for his leaving the Dwarves at Mirkwood, not for an off-screen White Counsel (unmentioned in advance) raid on Dol Guldur, but rather to urgently check the barely accessible and utterly creepy tombs of nine evil Kings. These are all empty: Nazgul…

And Gandalf’s investigation of Dol Guldur, his discovery of the half-mad Thrain, his encounter with the Necromancer and realisation it is Sauron, his capture, all these are drawn into this film where, in strict Tolkien mythology, they date from further back, but they are still all crucial elements of the overarching story that includes The Lord of the Rings, just placed onscreen rather than confined to deep background.

Where Jackson is on truly unjustified ground is in the creation of Tauriel, the elf-warrior-maiden and her ‘relationship’with the youngest and most normal-looking Dwarf, Kili (Aiden Turner). I’m dubious about the ‘love affair’ but as Tauriel is played by Evangeline Lilley, I can’t argue with the decision. Lilley is in her element, especially in the fighting scenes, where she’s as fluid and fearsome as Legolas (Orlando Bloom, another returnee). Jackson’s on firmer ground with having Legolas along: neither he nor Thranduil, his father, are named in ‘The Hobbit’ but it’s obvious in retrospect that they must have been there.

The middle film scores by speeding things up considerably, to remove the stodginess, kicking out the songs and (most of) the slapstick and showing a great deal more confidence in its decision to go for the tone of The Lord of the Rings overall. It’s still a middle film in Middle-Earth, with no real event to conclude it, but I still enjoy it thoroughly.

Binge-athon – and a word of thanks


I’ve known all along that I was going to feel a little put out this Xmas without a new Hobbit film to watch, although the feeling was alleviated to some extent by having the ‘Extended Trilogy’ box-set to unwrap on Xmas Day (unwrap being in the sense of tearing off the brown paper used to package it by the guy on eBay from whom I bought it).

It’s a quiet Xmas, this year, and today I set the day outside to binge on the entire Trilogy. I’m not really a binge person, in that sense: I have been known, when off ill in the past, to watch as many as four episodes of The West Wing from the comfort of my bed, but this is my first attempt at a binge and I’m pretty sure you’re not meant to take an hour’s break between films 1 and 2.

But I needed to get the paper. And I surprised myself with 1,003 words of fiction, out of the blue.

Anyway, I might have a go at a repeat on Thursday, or Friday, with The Lord of the Rings.

I’ve also a word of thanks to make to you out there. This blog started rather quietly in April 2011, though it didn’t really get properly underway for almost a year, and didn’t become a regular thing until later that year. It’s sort of had three starts to get itself going, and it’s become something that’s given me a lot of fun along the way.

I’m under no illusions as to the possibility of this one day being discovered by the world at large and becoming a mecca for readers hanging on my every opinion, and it’s certainly never going to build any kind of audience large enough for me to tart making an income from my efforts.

As evidenced by the fact that, sometime during the course of today, whilst I was in Middle Earth, one of you became my 50,000th visitor.

It’s been a long time coming, though I hope it won’t take nearly five years for me to get into six figures. But to everyone who has at any time read a piece on this blog, and especially to those who have come back for a second visit, notwithstanding, you have my thanks.

In return, I promise to keep trying to entertain, enliven and sometimes, I hope, inform.

It’s been a great privilege to have all of you reading me.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – Uncollected Thoughts


Now (read) on…

By an interesting but not unlikely coincidence, I saw last year’s second instalment in The Hobbit trilogy the day before my team’s Office Xmas Party, at which, in order not to spoil anything for those who planned to see it, I made only one comment. Which was: “Oh, wow!”

Twelve months on and I’ve returned from the final instalment, and yes, I’m off to the Party tomorrow night where, in order not to spoil anything for those who plan to see it, I will make only one comment. This time it’s going to be: “Oh, fucking wow!”

After watching the middle instalment, I mused about what Peter Jackson might find to fill out The Battle of the Five Armies, given that The Desolation of Smaug had finished – on a cliffhanger – a bit close to the end of the original novel. There were only three things left: the destruction of Lake-town and the death of Smaug at the arrow of Bard the Bowman: the build up to and the fighting of the Battle of Five Armies (no definitive article): and Bilbo’s return to Bag End in the middle of the Sackville-Baggins’ auctioning off its contents.

Jackson had created a hostage to fortune from himself in leaving Gandalf captured in Dol Guldur, which meant having to resolve his escape, and the attack by the White Council that drove the nascent Sauron from his older, less terrible fortress, which was not merely confined to offstage in the novel, but also very much to offhand. Still, that only made four elements.

And Jackson made his film out of those four elements only, and nothing else but sub-plots interweaved into one section or another.

The film starts where last year’s left off, right into the action, as if twelve months hadn’t gone by. Smaug circles the town then comes in for fire-breathing attacks, burning the wooden city in great sweeping lines, treading it under claw. Tauriel tries to get the dwarves and Bard’s kids away, the Master tries to get the gold away, and Bard saves the day by shooting the last Black Arrow unerringly into that single patch where the dragon is unscaled, killing him (Smaug promptly drops out of the sky and does even more damage to Lake-town, though he does rather propitiously land directly on the Master: I have made no secret of my lack of regard for Stephen Fry, and this is possibly a churlish thing to say, but if anyone should set-up a Kickstarter to fund a real-life enactment, they will not find me wanting.)

The problem with this section is exemplified by the fact that it is only now, getting on for however long into the film it is, that the title card for The Battle of the Five Armies comes up on-screen. A decade ago, Peter Jackson caused a rift with Christopher Lee by dropping the death of Saruman from the theatrical release of The Return of the King, on the basis that it was a leftover from The Two Towers (and when you see the extended DVD version, it is obvious that Jackson is right).

The same applies here: Smaug’s death is a holdover from the previous film. No matter how much of a catalyst it is for what follows, it belongs at the end of The Desolation of Smaug: it’s sweeping up a loose end that would have been better concluded where it naturally belonged.

There’s no such reservation about the next section, which is made out of best Jacksonian whole cloth. I’m pretty sure that Jackson’s portrayal of the Council’s attack on Dol Guldur bears no resemblance to whatever Tolkien saw happening so far away from his jolly little adventure, but it’s the most eyepoppingest and jaw-droppingest part of the whole film, as Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee get to do some strutting of their stuff against the newly-resurrected Nazgul, before Galadriel blows Sauron far far away.

And I know how antithetical this is to Tolkien’s concepts, to the Three Rings that were never touched by Sauron but which were not instruments of war, but rather of defence and preservation, but damn! this is the three ringbearers in one place and it’s unbelievably powerful, and I’m prepared to overlook what is one of the largest overturnings of Tolkienian lore for how this is handled. Not to mention that, in having it be Galadriel – who alone of all those Elves is of the Noldor and has lived in the light of the Blessed Land – who finally drives Sauron out, tumbling through the sky, Jackson lays the most subtle link to his earlier trilogy, to her Tempting at her Well, so long ago in The Fellowship of the Ring.

As for Bilbo’s return to Hobbiton, it’s handled with simplicity and, above all, brevity, which other commenters have already welcomed as a contrast to The Return of the King‘s multiple farewells.

The rest of it, about two-thirds of the film as far as I could judge, was the Battle of the Five Armies, the actually fighting of which, in all its stages, took between and hour and ninety minutes of the movie. Proof, therefore, for those who have never accepted the application of the tone of Lord of the Rings to a cheap and cheerful children’s book, of the elephantiasis of Jackson’s handling of his subject.

Well, we disagree on that, and we’re going to have to continue to disagree, because I found it spectacular in every sense of that word, utterly riveting in every moment, and stunning in its execution. If you think that the Battle for Minas Tirith was colossal, when set against this it was no more than a local skirmish. If you’d asked me what subjective time the battle lasted, I’d have struggled to put it at above a half hour.

There was the most brilliant of cameos by Billy Connolly as Dain Ironfoot, Thorin’s cousin, and leader of the Dwarf army from the Iron Hills, approaching the forthcoming battle as if it were no more than a Saturday night punch-up outside a Glasgow pub. And there was death.

In The Hobbit, three of the dwarf-band die: Fili and Kili, the two youngest, Thorin’s nephews, and Thorin himself. It’s yet another thing that Tolkien placed offstage. Not so Jackson, as we knew would come. Fili, killed as provocation for Thorin to place himself in a trap, Kili in trying to save his elf-maiden love, Tauriel, and Thorin, redeemed of his dragon-sickness, in final single-combat with the Orc, Azog the Defiler, who killed his grandfather Thrain. There was only one way to do it: to get close enough to Azog to run his sword through the Orc’s black heart, Thorin had to allow Azog to deliver a fatal blow.

I very rarely cry at films, and if I do it’s nearly almost always in the privacy of my own home, but between this, and Tauriel’s grieving over Kili, and her desperate pleading not to love because she didn’t understand it could be like that, I was wiping away tears and glad I was sat alone in the dark and invisible.

So, from me, a yes. To be perfectly honest, whilst I’m not going to get carried away and say that this is the Greatest Film I’ve Ever Seen, because it’s not, I think it’s the first time that I would have been ready to go out, buy another ticket and walk back to watch the film all over again, as long as it began immediately.

There’s nothing to look forward to now for December 2015, except perhaps that by then the 12-disc DVD box-set of all the Extended Versions may be available and I can set aside a day to watch the whole thing, every extra minute, one after another.

Maybe in the future, Jackson and those of his closest collaborators who I’ve lumped into his name, will do it again. There is The Silmarillion, after all, and if there’s a problem about turning that into a Trilogy, it’s going to be in the sheer volume you’d have to leave out just to do as few as three films. Go on, Peter, just don’t leave it too long. I might not have another decade left in me, and I would dearly love to have another December Friday afternoon at the Cinema, cursing that there were another two Xmas’s before me to see the end of the film.

And I’m just trying to imagine the Dungeons of Angband, and the ever-smoking, triple tops of Thangorodrim, and the face of he who will become Sauron but who is merely a Lieutenant of Melkor, whose name is not spoken and who is named Morgoth…

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”


Hobbit

I liked it.

And it didn’t feel like a film that was two and three quarter hours long, not even to someone who’s been in agony from a ricked back all week.

There are many people who, without waiting to see it for themselves, who have condemned this film as over-extended, overblown and far too long, all so that the makers of the trilogy can rake in more money. Whilst you have a viable case for the first three points, which I’ll address in a moment, you’re wrong that it’s been done just for money. It’s been done because this is how the film-makers, Jackson and his scripters, see this film, because this is what they love about Middle Earth and the story.

It all depends on what film of The Hobbit you wish to see. If you want to see an independent story that is faithful to the story’s cheerfulness and childishness, this is decidedly not for you, and your criticisms are on the mark. If however, like me, you originally read the books in the order they were filmed, if you did not realise that The Hobbit was for children, and all but completely lacked the seriousness and high drama that had had you devouring The Lord of the Rings as quickly as possible, if you want films that are gnuine companions to the LOTR film trilogy, then this is what you have been waiting for.

In terms of the plot of the novel, An Unexpected Journey runs from Gandalf’s first appearance at Bilbo’s front garden to the rescue by the Eagles from the trees in which the party are surrounded by Wargs. The structure of the plot is followed faithfully (it may appear to be familiar, given that The Fellowship of the Rings goes to similar places in the same order, the relic of Tolkein’s original Hobbit-walking-party sequel). And a lot of the humour is preserved (Martin Freeman is every bit as perfect as Bilbo as I’ve been going around saying he would be, ever since I first heard he’d been cast, and he is hilarious in the role).

What has been done is that, instead of the historical background to Smaug’s destruction of the Kingdom under the Mountain, and the deaths of Thror and Thrain in the vain attempt to retake Moria being brushed over in the few, let’s-not-bore-the-kiddies words they get in the book, Jackson opens these out, shows what happens. Instead of Gandalf mentioning the White Council as a far-off thing, already done, it meets at Rivendell: Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel and Saruman. In a move reminiscent of the Black Riders in Fellowship, Jackson also draws out the ancient Orc-enemy of the Dwarves, Azog, and injects him into the story-line in pursuit of Thorin’s party, to drive the storyline along.

And, wonderfully, since there was no room for the third Wizard, Radagast the Brown, in LOTR (less of an excludable detail than a dangling notion with no resolution), Jackson brings him in here, to bring news of the darkening of Greenwood the Great into Mirkwood, and the reoccupation of Dol Guldur by the Necromancer. It’s also another element of The Hobbit‘s comic underpinning, courtesy of a gleefully OTT performance by Sylvester McCoy (not to mention the Rabbirs of Rhosgobel).

And there is Gollum. Andy Serkis hasn’t forgotten a thing of his now-surely-definitive portrayal of Gollum (Peter Woodthorpe was spectacularly good in his vocal portrayal of the creature in the classic BBC radio adatation in 1981, but his slimey, oleaginous interpretation is surely outmoded now). And the handling of the scene is no less than brilliant, in the way that the exceedingly childish Riddle-Game is introduced and enacted between Bilbo and Gollum in a manner that removes any possibility of disbelief that such a thing should be played by grown-up (so to speak) people.

Like I said, I liked it. It was a re-entry to Middle Earth, and a reminder, a good reminder (though not without some personal sadnesses) of watching The Fellowship of the Ring in December 2001, and immediately wanting more, wanting to leap without a moment of delay to the following December, for the next instalment. Roll on 365 days hence, The Desolation of Smaug and, I hope, a back that isn’t killing me next time!