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 – 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.

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 Lord of the Rings Redux


The shouting has already begun, and it’s going to go on for a long, long time.

My cards are on the table: I have loved J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings since first starting in in 1973, and it has been one of the biggest influences on my reading habits. I have the pretty much complete Tolkien ouevre (this does not include Mr Bliss, The Father Christmas Letters or some of the most recent reconstructions but it does include the entire History of Middle-Earth series in hardback, all First Editions). I saw the Ralph Bakshi animated Lord of the Rings (first half) the day it came out, despite being on holiday in Wales at the time, I have seen all the Peter Jackson films and I unashamedly like The Hobbit trilogy. And, guess what, last time I looked, not a single page of the book had changed.

No, you can call me a Tolkien fan, and I’m not bothered about what the means to you.

Earlier this week, Amazon announced that it had secured the rights to do a The Lord of the Rings TV series. It is intended to be ‘multi-season’. And it is not another adaptation of the book: it will tell primarily untold stories from the period between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

The response has, frankly, not been good. This piece of shit… sorry, whimsy and wit from the egregious Stuart Heritage in the Guardian, not to mention the BTL comments, seems to be typical. Condemnation, right out of the gate, assumptions of malign intent, a conviction that before anyone has done more than sign the contracts it will all be shit: well, I could understand it if we were talking about Heritage’s next thousand articles, but the one thing everyone seems to have overlooked in the rush to heaps coals and execrations on the heads of everyone involved is, it hasn’t happened yet. No scripts have been written, no actors auditioned. The Tolkien estate approves of it.

Ok, I’m a fan. I’m naturally well-disposed to the idea. And as has already been pointed out BTL, the life of Aragorn has got a lot of meat in those barely hinted at appendices.

Some things are obvious: this is nakedly a bid for the Game of Thrones market, and whilst it’s clearly arguable that it may have been better to go for a less familiar ‘property’, The Lord of the Rings is very much the kind of story that could achieve GoT levels of success.

And whilst I’ve never watched GoT, I work alongside loads of people who do, and they seem to be impressed.

So, as I tend to think at moments like this, why don’t we just calm down, wait for the thing to be made, and then kick it’s arse if it’s fucking crap. Because, trust me, that’s what I’m going to do if it is fucking crap. Until then, I have no idea what it’s going to be like. And I’m not rushing to judgement.

I’m surprised that I have to point things like this out to people (no, I’m not. Sigh.)

The Hobbit at 80


I’m indebted to the Guardian for the news that today is the eightieth birthday of the publication of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, a hitherto obscure Oxford Don. Which makes tomorrow the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, but let that pass.

There’s a lot of hostile BTL comments, directed at The Lord of the Rings as a book, and The Hobbit as a three-film extravaganza, with absolutely none of which I can concur, but there is also frequent mention of the ill-chosen description of the book as a prequel to LOTR. The films are prequels, but the book of The Hobbit came first, by the best part of twenty years.

I have mixed feelings about The Hobbit. I recall my first hearing of it, in a First Year English Class at Grammar school, discussed one late and lazy Friday afternoon near the end of the year by our English teacher and Form Master, Mr Baskett. He talked about the famous first line, which sticks in my memory, though nothing else does.

It didn’t inspire me to search out the book, not in 1967. I was still in the Children’s Section of the Library, and if Tolkien was there, as he must have been, I don’t recall even seeing the book. And whilst I vaguely remember LOTR being discussed at school, no doubt in another English class, I have no memory of when, or which teacher first put that book into my consciousness. It did not suggest anything that would appeal to me then.

I finished school in 1973, proud possessor of enough A-Levels to get me into Manchester University to study Law. This was the long summer of cricket I’ve referred to before, but cricket didn’t blot out reading, and I was at Didsbury Library at least once a week. I had eight tickets, and it was a point of honour to get out eight books every time.

One afternoon, I was carrying seven books around, and scratching for an eighth. Nothing appealed. Eventually, I ended up in front of Tolkien. I remembered The Lord of the Rings. I was not enthused, but I had already been there ages and I couldn’t leave with only seven books, so I borrowed ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, just to see.

I left it till last, a sunny Tuesday afternoon. I read it before bedtime. At 9.00am, on Wednesday, I was at the Library, returning my eight completed books and heading straight for the Ts for ‘The Two Towers’ and ‘The Return of the King’. They had only the first of these, which was frustrating. I carried it home, flung myself down on my bed, and finished it by mid-afternoon.

All I needed was the third volume. I was desperate to know the end of the story. But it had vanished from Didsbury Library. For the next two to three months, I kept going in every two to three days, hoping that a copy had been returned, but eternally frustrated.

In the end, Xmas passed, and January 1974 arrived and one Saturday my family found themselves in Stockport. We were on the bus, something needing repair on the car, and we had to get to Droylsden by 1.00pm, for the usual Dinner and talk and tea. I had long since been getting money for birthdays and Xmas, to enable me to select presents for myself (I was an awkward bugger when it came to taste even that far back), and inevitably some money was left over after the day, to be used up.

In W.H.Smiths, I discovered the one-volume paperback of the collected LOTR, sans Appendices, with the wonderfully evocative Pauline Baynes cover. It cost £2 for a book of over 1,000 pages, and I had £2 of Xmas money left over. Unless forced to enter into conversation, such as at the Dinner table, I was lost to my family for the rest of the day, even on the bus where I wasn’t supposed to read because of what it could do to my eyes (big deal: I had been wearing glasses for over a decade by then anyway). I was straight into Book 3 and immersed until I finally got to the end.

And on my next visit to Didsbury Library, ‘The Return of the King’ had been returned to the shelf. Of course.

Just as Justice League of America 37 had done, almost ten years before, LOTR changed my life. Having read and loved this epic, immense fantasy, I wanted more, more of the same. I began to haunt the SF/Fantasy section of the Library: not just Didsbury, but the even more massive selection at Central Ref. For the next twenty years or so, this was my primary genre of reading, and I owe it to that afternoon’s frustration in Didsbury Library my absorption in Gene Wolfe, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, and the irreplaceable R A Lafferty, not to mention those other authors in whose work I have been, sometimes fanatically, invested down the years.

Naturally, once I had completed LOTR, I was enthusiastic to read The Hobbit, and I was barely back at University for the Spring Term before I was picking up the paperback in Boots. And boy, was I in for a shock.

Based on reading LOTR, and based on its references to event in The Hobbit that formed part of the overall story, I expected a similar book, despite the massive difference in style. I got a children’s story, some elements of which I would have found embarrassing had I been half my then age.

I still have The Hobbit, though I’ve long since up-graded to an anniversary hardback, and I also have John Rateliff’s two-volume history, analysing how the published version was built up from the original drafts, the equivalent of Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth series. But I rarely read the book itself.

I’ve always wondered how my opinion would have been affected if I had read The Hobbit first, and at an age nearer to that of its intended audience. There is a lot of adult support for the book as being infinitely better than LOTR, and a lot of that comment does commend the book to an adult audience. I agree that the story gets progressively darker and more serious as it goes on, but this is as soon as Tolkien begins to attach this kiddie story about a jolly Hobbit on an adventure to the larger, and higher matters of the Silmarillion mythology he had already been developing for twenty years.

But I came with expectations of something high and adult and serious, and the actuality was a shock. I was eighteen, and just in the process of my first literary adult literary enthusiasm, and my response to Tolkien’s first book is permanently coloured. I cannot see past the childish tones and the silly song.

I’ve already given my opinion in respect of The Hobbit Trilogy. This is a prequel, unlike the book, coming after the LOTR Trilogy. It’s easy to understand the objections of those who love the book: turning a novel of that size into three epic films, totalling some seven and a half hours before you look at Director’s Cuts, and completely rejecting the style and tone of the source novel can be hard to understand for someone who loves the book.

But I don’t love the book. I love LOTR and the films came after that and were part of the same world, and the film Trilogy had to reflect the tone and style of LOTR. And, despite the flaws, especially in the various story changes made in Part 2, I did and still do love the LOTR films.

There’s no escaping the fact that, without The Hobbit, none of this would ever have happened, and thousands of book, many of them crap but a great number of them beautiful, elegant, thoughtful, mind-expanding and immensely involving would never have been written. Having read The History of Middle Earth, I see almost no possibility of Tolkien’s earlier and higher mythology ever being published, or finding anything greater than an esoteric audience.

And without The Hobbi there could have been no Lord of the Rings, and without that book, what would or could have opened my eyes the way that did?

So Happy Eightieth Birthday to The Hobbit. I am in the middle of so many other things at present, so I can’t mark the day by digging you out again, but I promise to re-read you as soon as is possible. I may not enjoy you much, but I owe you, big time.

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: 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…