I’ve been less than impressed with Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Hobbit. That’s why I have written so little about them. I didn’t even see the first movie on the big screen because I had a bad feeling about it.
Turns out, I was right. Jackson lost me early in An Unexpected Journey with his buffonish characterization of Radagast the Brown. He unsuspended my disblief with that unfortunate bit of scripting and never truly regained it. I mean, come on. I’m generous with creative license where film adaptations of books are concerned, but there is no possible world in which one of these guys can be a buffoon.
That said, an invitation to write a LitFlix on the third film for CompGeeks was just too good to pass up. I got myself to the theater on Tuesday and gave it a watch. Then I re-read the last four chapters of The Hobbit on Wednesday night while I awaited the arrival of a certain jolly old elf.
The Battle of the Five Armies is an awesome fantasy action movie. It was more than worth the ticket price – and the two and half hours I spent watching – on the strength of the fight choreography alone. The production is beautiful. It will suck you right into Jackson’s version of Middle Earth. I applaud the artistry, but the adaptation could be better. Do allow me to explain. (That’s the fun part, right?)
The Yummy Bits (Minor Spoilers, Maybe)
Bard’s escape from jail while Smaug is incenerating Lake Town is an inspired bit of cinematic cheese worthy of D’Artagnan or Captain Jack Sparrow.
The Black Arrow (the ancestral weapon which Bard uses to kill Smaug) is the size of a harpoon, and the showdown between Bard and Smaug is well-played, even though it is woefully untrue to the book.
The rescue of Gandalf from Dol Guldur is a high point. I love the supernatural combat, and the special effects are REALLY special. I just can’t argue with Galadriel, Saruman, and Elrond all on the same stage in close combat with wraiths. I do not have the command of Tolkien’s letters and drafts that Eric of Sweating to Mordor has, so I can’t comment on the accuracy. But I appreciate having that scene acted out for me.
The influence of the Dragon-curse on Thorin, and the scene where he shakes off the curse, are fabulous.
The Dwarves of the Iron Hills are as true-to-Tolkien as the Rohirrim are in the first trilogy (though the Scots accents are a bit much).
Many strange animals are ridden. This is pure Hollywood. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Thranduil the Elf-king is mounted on an ill-tempered caribou for most of the movie. Dain and his bodyguard arrive on what appear to be war-boars. There’s a scene where dwarves ride large, shaggy mountain-goats up some treacherous cliffs to get at the Orc leaders. Part of me says I should hate this stuff. The rule of cool says otherwise.
Legolas is a badass throughout. I’m not a great fan of Orlando Bloom, and I think these movies would have been better without Legolas (more on that below), but since they decided to put him in, I am glad they made him a hero worthy of old-school Kung Fu movies.
Bilbo is spot-on, both in the scripting and in the acting. His Tookish side really comes through.
The final shots connect this trilogy nicely with The Fellowship of the Ring.
How I Judge Adaptations
I ask three questions when I am judging book-to-movie adaptations.
1. Is the world of the movie true to the world of the book? Jackson gets an A+ in this department, and he has since the beginning.
2. How much are the personalities and motivations of the characters changed in the adaptation? This is an important question because personalities and motivations define stories. Change them too much, and what you get is an entirely different story with the same proper names.
For example. The only problem with Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings trilogy I find worth talking about on a blog after all these years is his adaptation of Faramir. Jackson’s Faramir hauls Frodo and Sam all the way to Osgiliath, and only lets them go when it becomes clear he can’t ensure the safety of the Ring.
Tolkien’s Faramir sets them free in the wild, the day after he meets them, because he knows in his heart that only evil can come of bringing the Ring to Gondor. That’s a big change. It alters the entire narrative landscape and does violence to the original story. It doesn’t kill the movies, but it is a major irritant.
3. How does the adaptation treat relationships between characters? What does it add or subtract? Does it create love triangles where none existed in the book? This is important because what makes a good story for me, aside from sheer cleverness, is seeing how friends deal with finding themselves at odds, and I don’t like to see adaptations making big changes to relationships.
Adaptation Problems (Spoilers for Sure)
The Death of Smaug. Bard having a verbal exchange with Smaug from the top of a teetering bell tower, then killing Smaug with the help of his son and an arrow the size of a harpoon is cool. Bard in the book, with his feet on solid ground, the last of the lake-people still standing, bringing down Smaug in flight with a normal-sized arrow, and without a word between them, is even more cool.
Legolas’ personal drama adds nothing to the film and distracts from his uncanny martial abilities. Legolas does not appear in the book. It would have been better if he’d not appeared in these films. An elf made up from whole cloth and scripted to do what Legolas does in these movies would have been better. And the elf could still have been played by Orlando Bloom.
Tauriel/Kili. Does. Not. Work. I understand the need for some fanservice. But it should add drama, or at least a little interest. Tauriel and Kili do what not-very-well-thought-out warrior couples in fantasy do. They fall in love. They fight hard. They die. Yawn. It’s waste of screen time in a movie that could stand to be 30 minutes shorter.
The Details of the Battle. The personal combat is way cool, but it’s hard to tell at times whether we’re watching a battle or a really big brawl. The best I can say about this one is that if we are in fact watching a battle, we aren’t watching the one depicted in The Hobbit. This wouldn’t be a big deal if not for the fact that the whole movie is about this battle.
The relationship between Bard and the Master of Lake Town is much changed. In the film, the Master dies early on and the lieutenant who helps him loot the treasury is a weaselish comic villian. In the book, Bard scornfully respects the authority of the Master to the end, and even shares his portion of the treasure with the people of Lake Town as well as rebuilding Dale.
The Battle of the Five Armies gets an A in the fantasy/action department, and a B on the adaptation. See it on the screen if you enjoy really long movies with lots of fantasy combat. If you are just curious about how the movies come out, wait for it on video. And don’t expect this movie to hit you in the feels the way the ending of The Hobbit does.
Aside from a few scenes between Bilbo and the other characters, the dramatic parts of this film are of the “contrived to sell a movie” variety. All in all, though, I think this is the best we can expect from a big-budget adaptation of Tolkien. Despite its problems, I’m calling it a good movie.
I have an in-depth series about Tolkien’s books going at Part Time Monster. I took a break from in it the fall, but I’ll be starting it back up in a few weeks. You can find the first 13 installments archived in chronological order here. I tweet with bloggers @Sourcererblog.
Credits: Istari image via LOTR Wiki; Thranduil image and Tauriel/Kili posters from Moviepilot.com; Ranger image by Deviant Artist Rosie Coleman; Sorcerer image from a free wallpaper discovered at HQWide.com.