Film 2019: The Hobbit – The Battle of the Five Armies


And so it goes.

There’s a greater sense of closure about the end of the third Hobbit film than there is about its equivalent in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, even though technically it’s only the halfway mark. There’s a much stronger feeling of we-shall-not-come-here-again that leaks in from outside where, save the unlikely event of Jackson and Co. signing on to do any kind of adaptation of ‘The Silmarrillion’, we will not be in Middle Earth after this.

Funnily enough, I have little to say about the third film. When I saw it in the cinema, I found it overwhelming, and that was just the theatrical release. I said at the time that whilst it wasn’t the best film I’d ever seen, it was the first one that I would have paid to see a second time on condition they started it immediately.

Though I’m not blind to the film’s major flaw, it is a stunningly visceral experience, throwing itself at you and refusing to let your attention slip for the least moment. It feels at least an hour shorter than it is in reality because, despite the breadth of its scenes, it’s a single-minded film. The sub-title says it all: build-up, battle, aftermath, that is the whole of the film and it benefits from an absence of diversion.

Well, not entirely. The film opens in media res, a direct continuation from the second part’s cliffhanger, and that’s the film’s single biggest awkwardness. In The Lord of the Rings, Jackson greatly offended Christopher Lee by cutting the scene of Saruman’s death from The Return of the King, yet when you see it restored in the Extended Edition, you see that it’s right: the scene belongs in The Two Towers and is an awkward, out-of-place tailpiece shoved in upfront.

The same goes for Smaug’s attack on Lake-town, and his death. The whole sequence takes twelve minutes of this film, and it’s spectacularly done in all respects, but it’s still a holdover. It’s part of The Desolation of Smaug and it should have played out in that film, not this. It’s significant that the title card The Battle of the Five Armies doesn’t come up until that part’s finished.

From then on though, I’m on the ride and there’s no getting off and I’m incapable of analysing things any further. Except to say that, even in comparison to Billy Connolly’s wonderful cameo as Dain Ironfoot, my favourite scene is still the battle of the White Council in Dol Guldur, saving Gandalf, confronting the Nazgul, and banishing Sauron to the East, and to Mordor. And the one reference in all the films to the renegade Valar, Morgoth.

Of course, the old argument still prevails, in respect of which I continue to disrespectfully disagree with those who sneer, and would pose them a question. Three of the Dwarves who set off on this foolish expedition die during the Battle, Fili and Kili, the two youngest Dwarves and Thorin Oakenshield’s nephews, and Thorin himself, King under the Mountain. His line is ended. In the book, all we are told is that Fili and Kili died: how, where, doing what, not a thing. Thorin’s death is given hardly more detail. Given the significance of those deaths, their importance to the story, how would you have wanted a single film faithful to the nature of the book  to have represented them? By thrusting them out of sight as Tolkien did for his audience of children?

To date, I have not seen one person who has slagged The Hobbit off for its ‘elephantiasis’ make any practical suggestion as to how the story might be adapted in the way they think appropriate. And this is without answering the question of how such an adaptation might be made to be consistent with its filmic ‘sequel’?

No, I’ll take my Hobbit the way Peter Jackson served it up and be content, though I remain intrigued by the thought of how Guillermo del Toro would have proceeded had he remained in charge of the film and its original two-part concept. Especially the second film, which would have occupied the sixty year gap between the two books. On day, if I ever get the chance to visit Earth-2, I shall report back to you.

Film 2019: The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey


Since the box-set of The Hobbit, like The Lord of the Rings, tells a single story over multiple films, there’ll be no jumping around with these films: today is the first of three successive Sundays devoted to this epic.

I’ll begin by disposng of the allegation that the adaptation of what was a short, and childish, children’s book into a three-film extravaganza was no more than elephantiasis, a cynical and commercial money-grubbing exercise in milking Middle-Earth for all it was worth. The argument is to be expected: the trilogy bears very little resemblance to the book, except that the latter’s spine provides the sequence of (greatly-expanded) events. Originally, when The Hobbit was supposed to be the work of Guillermo del Toro, it was to be a two-film project, one for The Hobbit tory, and one to bridge the sixty year gap between that and The Lord of the Rings. Short of the by now traditional trip into Earth-2, we’ll never know how that would have worked out.

But del Toro departed and Peter Jackson, who hadn’t previously intended to direct The Hobbit for precisely this reason, ended up taking over. The film grew in the telling, too much for some people. I like it as it is: I read The Lord of the Rings first and came eagerly to The Hobbit without seriously understanding the vast difference between the books, a gulf I’m still massively aware of whenever I return to them.

But the books were written in that order and the films weren’t. They exist in the same continuum, they are two parts of a single story separated by sixty years. By that token alone, The Hobbit had to be consistent with its ‘predecessor’. It would have been a colossal mistake to make a Hobbit film faithful to the tone of book, a silly, kid’s semi-comedy, told in archaically condescending tones that very few modern kids would stand for. It would have been ‘pure’, and almost certainly a pure disaster.

An Unexpected Journey was the first part of the story, and the most criticised, as slow and stodgy. I’d agree with that to a large extent, and of the six films I think this is substantially the worst, and a large part of that is down to Jackson compromising himself to be accomodating to the tone of the book. With one glorious exception, everything that tries to faithfully depict the more childish parts of the story drags the story down.

Jackson chooses to start An Unexpected Journey in the hinterland of his first trilogy, with the elderly Bilbo deciding to write the true account of his adventure sixty years before on the day of the Birthday Partythat will see him leave The Shire forever. Elijah Wood sticks his head in to establish the context for us, just before he runs off to meet Gandalf, and there’s one of those by-now standard time-shifts on the front porch, from pipe-smoking Bilbo to pipe-smoking Bilbo, from Ian Holm to Martin Freeman.

Now I like Martin Freeman, in The Office, in Sherlock, and the moment I heard he’d been cast as Bilbo, I said he would be perfect for the role, and I was right, so let’s just record that and save ourselves repeating it over and again. He holds the film together, even where it is dealing with scenes in which he is not represented: The Hobbit is about Bilbo in a way that The Lord of the Rings was not about Frodo but about a group of people with a shared goal.

Jackson begins with Bilbo’s uncomfortable encounter with Gandalf when the latter, unbeknownst to Bilbo, selects him as Burglar-by-Appointment to Thorin Oakenshield, and continues with the unexpected party that lends its concept to the film’s sub-title. This is the first of the points where Jaackson’s attempt to be faithful to Tolkien trips up over its stodginess. There’s a nod to the dwarves arriving two by two that rapidly gets tedious, so Jackson collapses (literally) the arrival of the last two-thirds of them into one go to spare patience.

This however has the effect of rendering the dwarves pretty indistinguishable. I mean, they are to a large extent in the book, but whilst the designers do a good job of making the dwarves visually distinct, and some of the actors – mainly Ken Stott as Balin and James Nesbitt as Bofur – get enough lines to establish their personalities, the majority struggle to be more than local colour, and it’s bloody difficult to remember which is which. I mean, James Nesbitt plays cheerfully Irish enough to stand out but the film’s half over before it registers that he’s Bofur and without the final credits I couldn’t tell you what the one with the ear-trumpet is called.

It’s deliberately silly, and the tonal shift to the serious elements is hard to pull off,, as is the awkward mixture of the songs. Jackson tries to incorporate some of the songs that interrupt The Hobbit book, an attempt thankfully abandoned by the second film, with the jokey blokey clearing-up scene as a jolly singalong then followed by the wholly different, completely serious and, in its way intensely moving incantatory song about Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, the haunt of Smaug, the home that draws each of these seemingly idiotic characters so powerfully onwards.

The party scene sets a scene, and Jackson stays faithful to the story: Bilbo’s mad dash, his discovery he’s forgotten to bring any handkerchiefs, the bit with the Trolls, the battle of the Mountain Giants, the Goblin King’s song in Goblin-Town (which works precisely to the extent that that is Barry Humphries under all that CGI, Humphriesing away with great glee, and no further), all of these come from the book, and all of them are awkward. The film’s heart is not really in them, because they don’t sit with the serious elements.

The one silly scene from The Hobbit that really works, and this is a combination of clever adaptation and fantastic acting, is the Riddle-Game, and that’s Martin Freeman alone and scared, standing up to Gollum, Andy Serkis reprising his role in glorious fashion. That this pair would fall into a contest of riddles is wholly believable, and almost inevitable.

But the film’s real heart lies in what it makes up out of whole cloth. This can be entirely serious, such as the meeting at Rivendell of the White Council, bringing together Gandalf, Elrond, Saruman and Galadriel, Iam McKellan, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett, or daftly comic, such as anything Sylveste McCoy does as Radaghast the Brown (I still love the Rabbits of Rhosgobel).

Of course, it’s not totally whole cloth, it is actually extracting things from the deep background that Toolkien passes over in the book, the boring stuff that constructs the story but which would bore his eager children stiff. Here, though, the writers and the director get the chance to shape these elements exactly to their purpose, without having to try to make something meant for little children nearly one hundred years ago work in their context.

The film goes furthest in building on gossamer material in its introduction of Azog (nicely played by Manu Bennett). The Defiler, the Pale Orc, has his proper place in Dwarvish history, but Jackson & Co build him out of almost nothing to become a personal rival to Thorin Oakenshield, a hated enemy, slayer of Thror, Thorin’s  grandfather. Azog’s place in the story does not become fixed until th final film, but of course The Hobbit was planned as a single story, necessitating Azog’s appearance long before he becomes crucial to the conclusion.

I’ve been critical of the film’s failings today, because they’ve seemed more obvious on a Sunday morning. In the cinema, in a crowd of excited, enthused people, the film was far more resistant to criticial response, and I do enjoy it. It has much that is great fun, much that is exciting, much that is extraordinarily beautiful: no time spent gazing at Rivendell, or at the New Zealand countryside at its most magnificent, could ever be regarded as wasted. But it is still the weakest film of both trilogies.

Which means that the next two Sundays will be even more fun.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Uncollected Thoughts


Continued from last year…

Firstly, let me say to those who are depressed or disgusted at Peter Jackson turning the slight, childish The Hobbit into three very long films whose style and tone do not reflect exactly this children’s book, and which contain material not appearing in the book but instead expand upon matters only referred to obliquely by Tolkien (or in the case of Evangeline Lilly’s female elf-warrior, Tauriel, woven out of whole cloth: don’t bother going any further. You won’t agree with a word I say.

I loved the Lord of the Rings films. I did not find them faultless, especially not the middle film, The Two Towers, where I still take great issue with the changes made to the story, but overall, having due regard to the source and considering the requirements of translating books into film, I regard them as superb. Having been reading the book for nearly thirty years beforehand, I could not imagine it being possible to film it successfully.

So I’m already ok with a Hobbit trilogy that takes its cue from the LOTR films, and which – since its story is a precursor to the events of Lord of the Rings – decides not to undercut its illustrious predecessor by turning its world into a hobbit-romp with silly songs. Since the two stories are inextricably linked by Tolkien’s own decision to inextricably link, how the hell else are you going to tell the stories?

I read Lord of the Rings first. I wanted to read The Hobbit for more of the same, without knowing anything in advance of its true nature, and I was awfully disappointed. Peter Jackson’s films are far more what I expected in January 1974.

So: what of Part 2?

I have been firmly instructed not to give anything away to anyone about The Desolation of Smaug at our Christmas meal tomorrow night, so I will restrict comments then to two words: ‘Oh’ and ‘Wow’.

I thoroughly enjoyed An Unexpected Journey last December, and disagreed with those who found it bloated, but I can understand the criticism now. TDOS moves at a rapid pace, from scene to scene, without ever lingering too long in any one moment. In that sense, it’s like The Fellowship of the Ring, in keeping to the spine of Tolkien’s story, but compressing everything into a more continual period of time.

The film starts, slightly disconcertingly, in flashback, in, of all places, Bree (in the pouring rain). Thorin Oakenshield, pursuing vain rumours that his father has been seen in the wilds, seeks shelter for the night, only to meet Gandalf the Grey. Nor is the meeting by chance: Gandalf is concerned about the North, about the need to shore up Middle Earth’s defences in that quarter. Which means that the Dwarves must re-take the Lonely Mountain and dispose of the Dragon…

From here, we go into the pell mell of the film. There’s no disguising that structurally it is not a distinct story, with a shape and purpose of its own, not even to the extent of The Two Towers. It begins with Bilbo and the Dwarves still in flight from Azog’s Orcs (and even though Azog himself is summonsed off the trail by his master, the Necromancer, the chase goes on, a constant driver of the action, with his lieutenant, Bolg, now in command), and it ends on a cliffhanger, Jackson having opted for that type of ending in the absence of something climactic in the book that does not leave him entirely to close to the end.

It’s all action, all motion all the way between, though the pace does slow somewhat during the time the Dwarves are endungeoned in the Wood-elves’ kingdom, where Tauriel, after being introduced as a doughty fighter, is superficially depicted as a romantic interest: remotely by Thranduil, who forbids her to give his son any hope of love with her, and directly by the young dwarf Kili. Despite reactions of disgust at the idea of a love story being welded into the plot, it’s actually handled quite well. There are no declarations, no snogging and only the very briefest brushing of fingers.

Mostly Tauriel fights, and she’s not only bloody good at it, she looks bloody good at it (always did like Evangeline Lilley on Lost).

The king’s son? Did I not mention his name? Of course it’s Legolas, and where Andy Serkis memorably recreated Gollum this time last year, Orlando Bloom is hurling himself about athletically for a good half the length on the film

The two long scenes are the Dwarves’ escape from the elves, which instead of being comic and bucolic is instead a fight, with the Orc band trying to kill the Dwarves, the Elves trying to recapture them and everybody killing Orcs, and the clash between the Dwarves and Smaug, the Dragon, inside the Lonely Mountain which is the effective climax to the film, and which is bloody brilliant and does not feel in the least overdone or extended. I mean, this is a Dragon, for Iluvatar’s sake, you don’t just hit it with half a brick and it falls over. You need at least half a mountain, and still he’s coming at you.

Whilst the events of this section of Tolkien’s original are followed in strict order, every scene is re-imagined with a dramatic viewpoint. The spine is there, and the essential marks are hit, again in the order of the original, but there is a greater firmness and intensity to each and every moment. This is a prequel to The Lord of the Rings and much is, quite correctly, made of the gathering storm that is to follow.

This is emphasised by the parallel story of Gandalf, leaving the Dwarves on the edge of Mirkwood, as he does in the book. This time, he doesn’t just vanish off-screen, to reappear much later: something in the atmosphere of Mirkwood, and in mental communication with the Lady Galadriel, sends him on a mission to the North, to the Tomb.

This was a moment of some confusion at first for me: Tomb? Whose Tomb? They can’t surely be about to blow it by suggesting Sauron has a Tomb, can they? No, Jackson hasn’t been utterly inconsistent. The Tomb is dark, forbidding, dangerous to access, but what it held is gone, breaking out of barred cells. There are Nine…

Sylveste McCoy reprises Radaghast in an entirely humour-free cameo, before he is sent to Lothlorien, to Galadriel. Gandalf goes alone into Dol Gulder, to confront the Necromancer – a stunningly effective concoction of rushing CGI shadows – and to identify him, as long ago he did offstage, between books in fact, as Sauron.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s brilliant use of material that Tolkien ‘lost’ in the Appendices and it provides an echo of The Twin Towers by giving us a parallel tale to the main story.

As with An Unexpected Journey, I watched the film in 3D, which was again highly effective after the initial unreality of the effect. The film makes very skilful use of it in terms of elf-arrows, which zing around from every point of the compass, but the two moments that stuck in my mind came fairly early on. There’s a bucolic scene in Beorn’s house where fat bumble bees buzz around, slow and contented: I don’t get on with bees and wasps and I damned well didn’t need an absolutely massive bumble bee flying out if the screen and into my face, thank you very much.

The same goes for the Spiders of Mirkwood. There’s a moment in The Return of the King that I can’t watch. It’s where Shelob comes hurtling into the centre of the screen, straight at you. No matter how hard I try, how rational I am about it being only a film, only CGI, I cannot watch it: my eyes slam shut every time. And that was in 2D: the Mirkwood spiders might not be in Shelob’s class but when they’re coming out of the screen into your face they don’t need to be.

So yes, I loved this. I thought it was bloody brilliant, from start to finish and I had no idea of the time passing whilst I had my eyes on the screen. Which, through both glasses AND 3D glasses, is no mean absorption. It’s main flaw? The twelve months to go between tonight and part 3: There and Back Again.

And if Peter Jackson does want to mine some more material from the hidden years in between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, if it’s this involving, he has my permission to get right on with it.

To be continued in December 2014…