If you see The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies—Peter Jackson’s farewell to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth—you really should go to see it in HFR 3D, the new 3D projection introduced in the three Hobbit films, which seems to be more widely available in this third and last installment. If you haven’t seen it before, the HFR (i.e., “High Frame Rate”) projects the film at twice the speed (the number of frames per second) at which movies have been projected for the past century. It makes for a sharper and more detailed image, so that there is no blur at all when the image moves. Coupled with the 3D image, this gives the viewer the impression that he or she is sitting at a live theater event, in the first row. With binoculars.
In particular, the extra speed is especially effective with computer-generated images, and since much of Jackson’s film is made up of spectacular CGI visual effects, from the monstrous dragon Smaug swooping down on Laketown breathing fire at the beginning, to great armies of orcs, elves and dwarves in a huge pitched battle at the end, the new 3D projection is very shiny to watch. That is, until you get an hour or so into the movie and realize that the visual effects seem specifically designed to distract you from the fact that in this film, nothing actually happens.
The inevitable result of taking Tolkien’s 280-page novel and milking it into three lengthy films for the sole purpose of raking in a fortune from audiences justifiably enthralled by the brilliance of the initial Lord of the Rings trilogy is that eventually—say, half an hour into the third film—you actually run out of plot. The real mystery is why this last film would take two and a half long hours to tell this nonexistent story.
This movie begins where the second installment leaves off, with the dragon Smaug closing in on Laketown, having been roused against the townspeople because they helped Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his band of dwarves make their way to the dragon’s mountain. Amid the panic-stricken lake men only Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) makes a stand against the dragon, shooting apparently ineffectual darts against Smaug’s armor-like hide. Only when his young son brings Bard an enormous black arrow, one that he cannot possibly shoot from his bow but which he is able to fire from a makeshift weapon he rigs up with a huge bowstring, is he able to bring down the beast with a shot to the heart and thus save a remnant of the city from fiery death. Viewers of the first two films were likely anticipating a protracted battle, since so much of those two movies had focused on the threat of the dragon, and certainly the attack on the city and its defense are spectacularly filmed, but the dragon is dead before the opening credits roll.
Which raises this fairly obvious question: instead of ending the previous film, The Desolation of Smaug, with an absurd thirty-minute battle between Smaug and the dwarves inside the hollowed-out mountain (a battle Tolkien never hints at and that does absolutely nothing to advance the plot), why not simply end that film with its natural conclusion—this sequence of the destruction of Smaug and the destitution of the lake people, who set out for the mountain to redeem the promises Thorin made to them in exchange for their help? Presumably Jackson thought that the dragon heading for Laketown was more effective as a cliffhanger. But that raises question number two: The Hobbit has sold well over 100 million copies since its original 1937 release, which puts it easily among the five best-known novels in the world, with only Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Tolkien’s own Lord of the Rings earning significantly more sales. Why, then, would an artificially chosen “cliffhanger” have any real effect on an audience that for the most part already knows the story?
And this raises question number three: why would you think it was a good idea to change a story that people know so well? The plot as it is has stood for more than 75 years and enchanted generations of readers extending to the hundreds of millions. How many plot points were changed in the Harry Potter movies, with their mere scores of millions of fans? Virtually none, of course, because the fans liked them the way they were.
So why, for example, would Jackson and the other writers of The Battle of the Five Armies ignore the significant and climactic plot point of the thrush who flies from the Lonely Mountain to land on Bard’s shoulder and astounds the bowman by whispering in his ear the secret of where the unprotected weak spot is on Smaug’s undercarriage? Why is Bard fighting the dragon alone when in the book he is leading a brave handful of the city guard? Why does the arrow have to be a huge spear rather than the black arrow in the book that Bard shoots—with his normal bow—into the weak spot he has learned of from the thrush? Presumably so that Bard’s son, whom the screenwriters have made up to give Bard some backstory, can have something to do once he’s been inserted into the plot, though I’m pretty sure not one in a hundred audience members remembers his name. I certainly don’t.
But this is only the first scene of the movie. The rest of the film overflows with new ideas not suggested by and sometimes not even compatible with the book. Some of these, like the character of the orc-leader Azog, and Gandalf’s imprisonment by the Dark Lord and his lieutenants the Nazgul, are gleaned from things like the appendices to The Return of the King, and so ultimately have Tolkien as a source, though their connection with The Hobbit is tangential. This is especially true of the imprisonment of Gandalf (Ian McKellen). In a scene that brings Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, and the nonagenarian Christopher Lee as Saruman together to fight a shadowy embodied Sauron to attain Gandalf’s release is almost ridiculous in its obvious attempt to give fans of the Lord of the Rings movies a last glimpse at some of their favorites from that trilogy, even though the scene they are in does absolutely nothing to advance the plot of this particular film. It is done simply to provide a connection for The Hobbit with that larger story.
One addition to the story that is not terrible is the occasionally moving love affair that the screenwriters introduce between the dwarf Kili, Thorin’s nephew (Aidan Turner), and the completely fabricated elf-warrior princess Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). The romance gives the film a point around which to build the theme of animosity between the two races (elves and dwarves) that exacerbates the ill-will that the elf king Thranduil (Lee Pace) has toward dwarves in general, and causes a rift with his son Legolas (Orlando Bloom, tossed into these movies to lure in fans of the original series). It also prefigures (in a sense, though because of the order of the films maybe it postfigures?) the mixed-race romance between Aragorn and Arwen in Lord of the Rings. Although Tolkien actually never describes a romance between elf and dwarf, Gimli’s adoration of Galadriel makes such a connection at least theoretically possible. We would probably care more about the Kili-Tauriel affair if the two were allowed to talk to each other a little more, or if any time were spent developing their characters, but there is no time in this movie for such frivolities when we have an epic battle to film!
Even Bilbo (Martin Freeman), the titular protagonist, is shortchanged in this film. He is allowed his moment of greatness, his dispensation of the Arkenstone, which in the novel is his finest hour and the culmination of his growth as a character, but here that act is superseded by what is clearly more important to the filmmakers in terms of time, energy, and emphasis: the interminable battle. Bilbo becomes little more than an observer in his own story in this movie.
For this is Thorin’s film. From the beginning of the trilogy, Jackson had decided to take a book that had been conceived as what Tolkien called a “faerie-story” and turn it into an epic, and that meant that the hobbit himself, the everyday hero who grows into his role in the great world, must be displaced as the protagonist by someone who could be made into a tragic hero of epic proportions. In Tolkien’s novel, Thorin Oakenshiled is initially a petty would-be monarch trying to get back the treasure he feels is rightly his. It is no great leap for him to become obsessed with the gold he has always sought and develop what the others call “dragon fever.” In Jackson’s retelling, Thorin is a great warrior from the beginning, determined to win back the glory of his grandfather’s kingdom. His fall is tragic and his courageous end a momentary return to his true self—not, as in the book, a final rising above himself. Those who know the book know how Bilbo’s last meeting with Thorin underscores Bilbo’s value. In this film version, it is just another way for Thorin to be more noble.
The defining characteristic of a faerie-story as Tolkien conceived it was what he called the “eucatastrophe”—the sudden unlooked-for salvation that comes unexpectedly and that for Tolkien symbolized the gift of grace. When that happens in The Battle of the Five Armies, it is barely noticed. Indeed, my wife actually asked me afterward, “So how did the battle end?” Tolkien would have been appalled. The grace is supposed to be unexpected—not, as in the film, unnoticed.
Because, indeed, all that anybody has eyes for in this film is the battle. The film essentially covers the last five chapters, or about 45 pages, of the novel. It covers four of those chapters in perhaps 15 minutes apiece, and spends about six or seven weeks on the battle itself. That, at least, is how it seems. Every single blow struck by every major character, and several minor ones, must be rendered with great precision and with appropriately noble looks. Long, serious ones. It’s very much like watching somebody else play a video game. Hour after hour. After hour. Which explains my wife’s other strong reaction to the movie: “OMG, I have never been so bored in my life.”
Trust me, I love J.R.R. Tolkien. And I believe that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the great achievements in film. And I truly wanted to like this movie, despite my disappointment in the previous Hobbit films. I didn’t. If by some bizarre quirk of fate Peter Jackson ever reads this review, I would give him this suggestion: take the eight hours compiled by these three Hobbit films and edit out everything that isn’t in the actual book. Then edit the battle scenes down to only what is absolutely necessary. Put it all together and you might end up with a passable facsimile of a decent film of The Hobbit. Then provide a DVD of it free of charge to every moviegoer who wasted the price of admission on the mish-mash that was these three films. Two Jacquelyn Susanns for this one, and only because of the visual effects.