The Battle of the Five Armies: that’s all for now folks

When director Peter Jackson reached the final of his Hobbit trilogy, he was running desperately short of material. All that remained of the original book was the destruction of Lake Town, the death of Smaug and the titular Battle of the Five Armies. Not really enough for a film that would run for just under two and a half hours.

One of his underlying difficulties is that the original book is not all that good. It’s highly episodic and its narrative structure is only held together by the quest.  And if he was going to be faithful to the original, there was only ever one film in it.

By contrast, his first film of The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring, which runs for just under  a marathon four hours has a more complex and coherent narrative structure and covers Bilbo’s 111th birthday, the flight to Bree and the attack on the Prancing Pony, the Nazgul attack on Weathertop, the flight to Rivendell, the forming of the Fellowship, the journey through the mines of Moria and Gandalf’s fight with the Balrog, the journey to Lothlorien and the temptation of Galadrial and the attack of the Uruk Hai and the breaking of the Fellowship as a plot structure.  It also has the developing menace of the evil of the Ring.

Jackson had left himself a bit of wriggle room by padding out his earlier Hobbit films: the romance between the dwarf Kili and the elf maiden Tauriel (a creation Jackson and  co-writer Fran Walsh), the rise of Sauron the Necromancer, drawn from Tolkein’s The Silmarillion, Jackson’s resurrection of the white goblin Azog originally killed at the Battle of Azanulbizar by Dain and who is teamed as a father-son combo with Bolg.)

Azog and Bolg: a couple of real charmers
Azog and Bolg: a couple of real  laugh–moment charmers

There is also the love interest between Gandalf and Galadriel, an extended role for the wizard Radagast the Brown and an early role for Christopher Lee as Saruman and hints of his later treachery.

Christopher Lee, now 93 plays Saruman with chilling menace
Christopher Lee, now 93 plays Saruman with chilling menace

So what we have now is a trilogy that can now only be regarded as “based on” The Hobbit. One imagines Tolkien turning in his grave. Certainly, his son Christopher is frothing at the mouth over what he sees as the crass commercialisation of his father’s work.

Christopher Tolkien: Son of JRR  and head of the trust that holds the film rights to the Silmarillion
Christopher Tolkien: Son of JRR and head of the trust that holds the film rights to The Silmarillion

Mind you, he did get £24 million in royalties for LoTR and the 500,000 sales of his father’s 12-volume History of Middle Earth, which he edited, were probably aided by the original films. In defence of what Jackson has done, the introduction of Sauron, Saruman and Galadriel has established plot connections to the later LoTR trilogy, making the six films more coherent. As the original books stood, the only link between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings was the ring itself, its original bearer, Gollum and Bilbo but his part in LoTR  is unimportant.

Cate Blanchet reprises Galadriel
Cate Blanchet reprises Galadriel

As time goes by, there will probably be more people who have seen the films than have read the books and Jackson is effectively redefining Tolkien’s work for a new generation of fans/filmgoers. This must be frustrating for Christopher Tolkein and infuriating for the purists who read the originals in the 1960s. Personally, I find the films of LoTR far more   satisfying than the books now. And will probably recommend films to my grandchildren. However,  I think I will read them The Hobbitt.

In drawing on work from the much larger and broader The Silmarillion, Jackson is also endeavouring to establish links between his films and the larger body of Tolkein’s work. Is he preparing the ground for a franchise? If he is, his future films will need to be a step up from the work he has done with The Hobbit trilogy. And he’s probably going to have to wait for Tolkein’s son Christopher to die because Christopher is not going to sell the film rights. However, his kids may have a different view, given the $24 million royalties from LoTR.

So given Jackson’s decision to make three films out of a book that probably only justified one, What was the final verdict? The films are becoming a bit clunky mainly as result of the need to include extra material into narrative structure that was pretty clunky to begin with. The inclusion of white goblins Azog and Bolg is a good example of this.

With the need to introduce new material, the Azog/Thorin sub-plot was a reasonable inclusion. And Azog  is  a terrific character, a truly terrifying embodiment of evil. He also introduces a measure of dramatic tension particularly as Thorin thinks that he has killed Azog. We all know that he hasn’t and that a final showdown is coming. But why do we need both Azog and Bolg?

Given that Jackson needed to resurrect Azog, who was killed in Tolkein’s original work, why not just go with the son, Bolg who can be harbouring deep-seated resentment at Dain killing his father?  The two goblin characters could easily have been rolled into one with Thorin and Bolg being the children who are carrying the legacy of the parents’ deaths.  No psychological touch there. The only reason for having the two goblin characters is that it allows Jacksonto extend the  final showdown between Thorin and Azog with a parallel one between Legolas and Bolg.  But those scenes are verging on the tedious.

But the Legolas and Bolg fight seems to be entirely superfluous to requirements and only involves a lot of sword fighting and crumbling masonry: pure padding. Including Legolas in the film didn’t really work. Orlando Bloom looks as if he would much rather be somewhere else.

Jackson endeavours to introduce some tension into the Legolas –Tauriel – Kili love triangle but it never really develops. And then there’s another small quibble. Just before the battle of the five armies, Azog summonses up his Sandworms which erupt from the Earth. It’s straight out of Frank Herbert’s Dune series.

 A Sandworm from Frank Herbert's Dune Which gets a  bit part  in  The Battle of the Five Armies
A Sandworm from Frank Herbert’s Dune Which gets a bit part in The Battle of the Five Armies

What is the point of this?  In The Battle of the Five Armies, these creatures make a momentary, and completely gratuitous, appearance and then disappear. Why weren’t they edited out?  It’s just another of a series of pointless irritations for the film-goer. However, Jackson’s revisionism has paid off particularly well in the development of Thorin Oakenshield, played by Richard Armitage.

Thorin

Armitage plays Thorin as an aloof and driven man with a single purpose: to recover his kingdom and the riches that he has lost to the Dragon Smaug. He is also a tragically flawed figure who succumbs to Dragon sickness, a corrosive love of gold, in his search for the legendary Arkenstone.  He sacrifices friendship, honour and dignity in his search for the stone. His redemption comes with his death when he acknowledges to Bilbo that Bilbo’s hiding the Arkenstone from him was the act of a true friend. Expect Richard Armitage’s career to take off in the way that Virgo Mortensen’s did after his portrayal of Aragorn. Also expect Elf King Thranduil Lee Pace to emulate Orlando Bloom.

thranduil-the-hobbit

But the real star of the show is Martin Freeman’s hobbit.  This Bilbo is by far the best hobbit of the lot. Despite his struggles and tribulations, Frodo remains one-dimensional character as do the other hobbits from LoTR. Well, perhaps that’s not quite fair. They do remain three dimensional in that they never lose weight despite the terrible privations of the quest. At the end, they’re still four chubby little hobbits.

At the start of the trilogy, Freeman play is Bilbo as fussy, self preoccupied and self-satisfied. As the film progresses, he becomes increasingly world-weary and disillusioned with the follies of the dwarves and particularly, Thorin.  But by the end of the film, he has developed into a brave but extremely saddened man.

Bilbo remains saddened and baffled by Thorin
Bilbo remains saddened and baffled by Thorin

Will more of Tolkein’s work to come to the screen?  Not during Christopher Tolkein’s lifetime and possibly not directed by Peter Jackson. But come it will. The pressures of commercialisation and possibly the need to adapt Tolkien’s work to a different medium to keep it relevant will see The Silmarillion on the screen.

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