Let’s face it. As sublime as the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien can be, were it not for the bombastic imagination of Peter Jackson, fewer people would have encountered the Professor’s world of Middle-earth. The Lord of the Rings would probably not have been as attractive a license to FFG. The community surrounding our favorite living card game might not be as robust, diverse, and engaged as that we enjoy. Indeed, without Jackson, Tolkien’s great story and powerful themes would not have reached nearly as many people in our generation.
Therefore, as the final film of “the Middle-earth saga” projects its megapixels upon the world, I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to suggest that we’ve reached the apex of an era. Popular awareness of Tolkien’s world is at a peak. Certainly the legacy of Tolkien’s literature will endure beyond that of Jackson’s films, but the knighted Kiwi director has brought that greater work to life for the masses in a visual interpretation that may prove definitive for our time.
Like our card game, Jackson’s adaptation creates some moments that perfectly capture the flavor of Tolkien’s work, as well as some that frustrate and disappoint. Hit or miss, however, I continue to enjoy both for opening the door for a deeper exploration of the stories of hope and providence that inspired them. My review of Jackson’s final film is written in that spirit. Before I begin then, I want to say that beyond my simple liking or disliking of anything in this movie, I am unequivocally grateful to Peter Jackson and his team for making The Hobbit trilogy such an excellent gateway to that journey. Thank you, sir!
As I said in my review of The Desolation of Smaug, I am fascinated at how Jackson has combined elements of The Hobbit, The Return of the King appendices, and his own sensibilities to adapt Bilbo’s adventures with Thorin’s Company as a proper prequel to The Lord of the Rings. Those who have criticized him for outright ignoring the books have not been paying proper attention. Far from ignoring Tolkien’s work, he is continuing one of the Professor’s abandoned projects — revising The Hobbit to match the tone, style, and plot of The Lord of the Rings. It is a legitimate question to ask whether such an effort is wise (for Tolkien then or Jackson now) but as the Tolkien Professor Corey Olson argues in his review of the film, by going this direction Jackson has actually adhered to the books more closely in this trilogy than he did in the first! Let’s take a look at some of his choices a little more closely. As we do, please enjoy the winning entries of my custom card contest made by readers of my blog!
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Howard Shore’s ominous Smaug theme builds through the opening titles leading us directly into the vengeance of the “last great fire-drake of the North” on Esgaroth. This is arguably the best sequence in the entire film. Jackson’s team has developed the sparsely drawn yet coolly evocative “grim-voiced and grim-faced” Bard the bowman of the book into a principled single parent. The choice pays off in a big way.
While Smaug is “enjoying the sport of town-baiting” and taunting Bard in classic movie villain fashion, his son Bain climbs the tower with the last black arrow made “from the forges of the true king under the Mountain”. In a scene that plays part William Tell and part Binding of Isaac, Bard steadies the fateful arrow on his son Bain’s shoulder, mixing medieval motifs in a most Tolkienesque fashion. As Bard releases the bowstring and the score tugs at our heartstrings, the bolt flies “straight for the hollow by the left breast” where it strikes in “barb, shaft, and feather” to slay the dragon. Smaug’s death throes are as beautiful and horrible as Tolkien’s prose description:
With a shriek that deafened men, felled trees and split stone, Smaug shot spouting into the air, turned over and crashed down from on high in ruin. Full on the town he fell… There was a hiss, a gushing whirl, and then silence. And that was the end of Smaug and Esgaroth, but not of Bard.
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Indeed, Bard becomes (in the film as in the book), the chief leader and spokesperson for the refugees of Lake-town, taking up the “hard task to govern the people and direct the preparations for their protection and housing.” In Jackson’s adaptation, this task is made more difficult by Alfrid, who stands in for the Master’s role in the novel. As Tolkien writes of Bard and the Master’s respective contributions to the relief efforts:
Then [Bard] strode off to help in the ordering of the camps and in the care of the sick and wounded. But the Master scowled at his back as he went, and remained sitting on the ground. He thought much but said little, unless it was to call loudly for men to bring him fire and food.
Presumably one of the Master’s nameless “councillors” alluded to in Chapter 10 “A Warm Welcome”, Alfrid and his antics are one of the more challenging aspects of the third film for me to review. On the positive side, it should be noted that names were of primary importance to Tolkien and Alfrid is a good one. It is derived from Old English and means “elf counsel” which is a fitting irony for his role as an advisor in the film.
Furthermore, Alfrid’s character is a great foil for Bard, showing the heir of Girion to be an admirably magnanimous leader. Bard’s repeated pardons of Alfrid echo the themes of pity and mercy that are central to Tolkien’s work. As Gandalf would later say regarding Bilbo’s pity of a similarly despicable creature: “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.” The relationship between Bard and Alfrid brings this deep message to the surface.
Unfortunately, it does not do so elegantly. Alfrid pushes the line between character and caricature, and while some “comic relief” is perhaps necessary in a dreary, gray war picture, the shtick runs thin quickly. Moreover, like so much that does not work in this film, subtlety and understatement become a lost art. By the time we see a bawdy Alfrid dressed in drag, heaving bosoms stuffed with gold coins, the tone of his performance has become wholly misaligned with Jackson’s finer moments in The Hobbit and more fitting to his previous work on Bad Taste.
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Sadly though, this is not the element of the film that I found least satisfying. The White Council’s purge of Dol Guldur takes the prize there. This is a scene I’ve been anticipating for years ever since I first heard of Jackson’s intention to adapt The Hobbit as a Lord of the Rings prequel. The episode is described thusly in Appendix A:
In late summer of that same year (2941) Gandalf had at last prevailed upon Saruman and the White Council to attack Dol Guldur, and Sauron retreated and went to Mordor, there to be secure, as he thought, from all his enemies.
We learn in Unfinished Tales excerpts from the “History of Galadriel and Celeborn” that in one version of her history, Galadriel initially journeys to Lórien because she “became filled with foreboding” and is “especially concerned to learn all news and rumours of the growing shadow in Mirkwood and the dark stronghold in Dol Guldur”. When the Golden Wood becomes her kingdom, the highest flet on the great mound of Cerin Amroth is “designed principally to watch Dol Guldur across the Anduin”. Film Galadriel’s premonitions of Sauron’s return are in keeping with this tale. It is entirely appropriate then that the White Lady should lead the Council in expelling the Necromancer by being the first to enter his haunt on Amon Lanc in Gandalf’s rescue scene. As ever, she looks absolutely gorgeous in her entrance.
What is not appropriate though is Galadriel’s dark transfiguration in her confrontation with Sauron. My issue here is not actually with any betrayal of the lore, as the scant descriptions from Tolkien leave the door open for any manner of depiction for the battle (this includes, I suppose, the Shadow of Mordor type hacking and slashing that precedes Galadriel’s intervention). The problem is that Jackson uses the same effects to portray Galadriel’s good manifestation of her power in this film as he did to show an evil manifestation of her power in Fellowship, thereby confusing the meaning of both scenes.
Imagine instead if rather than turning into the same creepy Witch-queen we saw in Fellowship, Galadriel here rose up in perfect luminosity, more bright and beautiful than we’d ever seen her before. Not only would audiences get something new from the character in the archetypal mode of light versus dark, the later Fellowship scene would be all the stronger when we see a vision of her awesome beauty corrupted. As it stands, we have the same scene twice, but with opposing contexts that weaken both. Add into the equation a doubling down on the epilepsy-inducing Eye of Sauron flicker-fest from The Desolation of Smaug and it’s a combination of two unoriginal effects that resolves into nothing but noise and nonsense.
All that criticism is not to say I can’t find anything to enjoy here. The art design continues to be first rate and seeing the Nine arrayed in their kingly attire was certainly a treat. One even seems to be wearing armor modeled on a medieval Japanese samurai. Could this be the Nazgûl named in Unfinished Tales as Khamûl, the Shadow of the East, “second to the Chief” who “abode in Dol Guldur as Sauron’s lieutenant”? I’ll leave that to my co-author Derek (who wrote a feature article on the character) to determine!
One last positive word on the assault on Dol Guldur is that I found Saruman’s participation to be neatly constructed. In the “The Hunt for the Ring” of Unfinished Tales, we get a footnote stating that it is when Gandalf first urges the attack on Dol Guldur in 2851 that Saruman begins “to desire to possess the One Ring for himself, and hoped that it might reveal itself, seeking its master, if Sauron were let be for a time.” While I could have done without his geriatric acrobatics, seeing the White Wizard telling the Council, “Leave Sauron to me!” expertly discloses his dark desire while keeping the secret of his betrayal from Gandalf (and future fans) until the events of The Fellowship of the Ring. Kudos to 92 year old film legend Christopher Lee for nailing his final line of dialogue in the saga.
Before moving on, my final gripes with the Dol Guldur scene have nothing to do with what was portrayed on screen, but with what was left out. These storylines are not from Tolkien’s lore, but Jackson’s team spent time creating them in the previous Hobbit installments only to let them unceremoniously drop. First of all, what happened to that “Morgul blade” that Radagast delivered to Gandalf as proof of the Necromancer’s true identity in An Unexpected Journey? Gandalf dramatically presented it as evidence to the White Council in Rivendell and Galadriel recognized it as the weapon of the Witch-king of Angmar. In the commentary, Jackson said it is the same blade that will later stab Frodo on Weathertop. How did it get back into the hands of the Witch-king?
Secondly, what about Gandalf’s staff? Astute fans noticed that Radagast’s staff in An Unexpected Journey was actually the one carried by Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings films. Much was made of the scene in Desolation when Gandalf’s staff was disintegrated by the feverish flashing flames of Sauron’s Eye. After his rescue, how does Gandalf come to take Radagast’s staff as his own? Does Radagast just give it up? Is that why we no longer see him as a wizard in the Lord of the Rings films? Do they even exchange words over it? I suppose it is true to the books that Radagast is simply absent from the plot without a second thought or mention and an Extended Edition is on the way to fill in some gaps. But if Jackson has taken theatrical time to build up a character arc or story line, I think it warrants theatrical time to be resolved. As the Tolkien Professor said in his review of The Battle of the Five Armies, in many places the problem isn’t that Jackson has paid too little attention to Tolkien’s story. It’s that he has paid too little attention to his own!
This same problem is at play under the mountain. In Desolation, Jackson wisely revised the significance and function of the Arkenstone. In the novel it is simply the “fairest of all” the treasure, a “great white gem which the dwarves had found beneath the roots of the mountain”. In the films, burgling the Arkenstone is elevated to being the primary objective of the entire quest. Thorin knows he cannot defeat the dragon and so he needs the “king’s jewel” to summon Dáin Ironfoot and his other kin to marshal an army able to “take back Erebor”. Without bearing the Arkenstone, Thorin cannot count on help from Dáin.
After getting this build-up, however, the Arkenstone in Jackson’s Battle reverts to its simple function in Tolkien’s book. It is no more than Thorin’s main prize in the hoard. As Tolkien writes, Thorin “hunt[s] chiefly” for it, names it unto himself, and swears that he “will be avenged on anyone who finds it and withholds it”. Yet when Dáin shows up in the film, it is for the same reason as in the book. He has heard news through the ravens. Thorin has not presented any Arkenstone as persuasion. Why did film Dáin change his mind and come? While I was thrilled to see old Roäc, Tolkien’s “aged raven of great size”, flying to and from the gate of the Lonely Mountain bearing tidings, I would have liked to see Jackson follow up on the Arkenstone of “divine right” that he embellished rather than reducing it back to just “the heart of Thorin” and Bilbo’s “fourteenth share”.
That said, the character relationship between Thorin and Bilbo is done nearly to perfection. Thorin’s “dragon-sickness” begins to ruin him as described by Tolkien:
But [Bilbo] did not reckon with the power that gold has upon which a dragon has long brooded, nor with dwarvish hearts. Long hours in the past days Thorin had spent in the treasury, and the lust of it was heavy upon him.
The best scene in this arc is when Thorin catches Bilbo looking at the acorn that he took from Beorn’s house to plant back at Bag End. While this is not in the book, it is the kind of adaptation choice that I applaud for evoking the themes and motifs of Tolkien in a new and moving fashion. Bilbo’s words about home, growth, and memory momentarily spell Thorin’s mania and his smile recalls the friendship they developed in the first film. Moreover, the acorn functions in the same way as Galadriel’s gift to Sam of “earth from [her] orchard” which he carried throughout The Lord of the Rings and grew into a mallorn tree once he returned home. I can’t recall Bilbo’s exact lines from the film, but they certainly echo the themes of home, growth, and memory that Galadriel invokes when making her farewell gift to Sam in The Fellowship of the Ring:
It will not keep you on your road, nor defend you against any peril; but if you keep it and see your home again at last, then perhaps it may reward you.… There will be few gardens in Middle-earth that bloom like your garden, if you sprinkle this earth there. Then you may remember Galadriel, and catch a glimpse far off of Lórien, that you have seen only in our winter.
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As Thorin descends into madness, everything about the film’s parley scenes at the gate plays quite well to theme and character. Many of the best lines are borrowed directly from Tolkien’s text. My favorite is the combination of Thorin’s curses from the novel (“miserable hobbit” and “descendent of rats”) hurled against Bilbo as the corrupted king calls him a “miserable rat” and threatens to throw him from the ramparts. Also included is Gandalf’s rebuke, “You are not making a very splendid figure as King under the Mountain.” There’s the art of understatement that I’ve been looking for!
One change (which works) is that Jackson makes Bard the more level-headed negotiator, while Thranduil the Elvenking lusts after the “White Gems of Lasgalen”. This treasure, another Jackson revision that I appreciate, not only has some basis in the text of The Hobbit but also resonates thematically with an artifact of the First Age. In the book, the treasure hoard of Smaug is said to contain “the necklace of Girion, Lord of Dale, made of five hundred emeralds green as grass, which he gave for the arming of his son in a coat of dwarf-linked rings”. After the battle, Dáin (who proves “more reasonable” than Thorin, as Gandalf says in the film) settles with the Elvenking by “restor[ing]” to him this necklace. In this passage the emeralds of Girion are called “such jewels as he most loved”. Why the Elvenking most treasures the Lord of Dale’s necklace and how he had some claim on it that is “restored” by Dáin is never explained by Tolkien. Frankly, Jackson’s version makes more sense.
His change also brings this storyline into resonance with a pivotal episode from The Silmarillion that was written long before The Hobbit and doubtless inspired the Elvenking’s love of a jeweled necklace. Unnamed in Tolkien’s novel, the Elvenking and his caverned halls are clear parallels to King Thingol in Menegroth from the First Age legendarium. Thranduil’s focus on the White Gems of Lasgalen reflects Thingol’s obsession with the famously beautiful Nauglamír. And just as Thingol’s possessive desire for that necklace led to destructive conflict with Dwarves in his tale, so here Thranduil’s yearning for the jeweled treasure precipitates his participation in the battle for the Mountain.
This desire for singular possession of created works is what lies at the heart of enmity and evil in Tolkien’s works, from the rivalry between Elves and Dwarves all the way up to the original rebellion of Morgoth against Ilúvatar. It is the desire that nearly stopped The Hobbit films from being made and all but guarantees that a Silmarillion adaptation will never happen. When ownership trumps craftsmanship (in Tolkien’s world and our own) there is tragedy and loss. To be honest, I would have enjoyed seeing that theme explored even more, and further development of the “White Gems of Lasgalen” would have been a great way to do it!
The other interesting plot point tied to the White Gems, is the implication that these are an heirloom of Thranduil’s house that belonged to his lost wife. There is no mention of Thranduil’s wife or Legolas’s mother anywhere in Tolkien, yet this is another Jackson invention that does conjure up some really obscure lore. The Professor actually wrote very little about Thranduil, but the idea that his isolationist tendencies are a reactionary policy to the painful loss of family in a previous battle with the Enemy can be supported. In Unfinished Tales, we learn that Thranduil’s father Oropher is “slain in the first assault upon Mordor” in the Last Alliance of Elves and Men at the Battle of the Dagorlad. Far from being unwilling to battle the encroaching shadow, Oropher dies “rushing forward at the head of his most doughty warriors before Gil-galad had given the signal for the advance.” After the battle, his son Thranduil returns home with “barely a third of the army that had marched to war”, presumably devastated by the loss.
In an essay called “The Sindarin Princes of the Silvan Elves”, Tolkien wrote these words about Thranduil after he establishes his kingdom in Greenwood. They could apply to the character arc of Jackson’s Elvenking turning outward rather than inward to overcome his pain.
But there was in Thranduil’s heart a still deeper shadow. He had seen the horror of Mordor and could not forget it. If ever he looked south its memory dimmed the light of the Sun, and though he knew that it was now broken and deserted and under the vigilance of Kings of Men, fear spoke in his heart that it was not conquered for ever: it would rise again.
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Of course, besides the fact that Jackson’s Thranduil has lost his wife rather than his father, the “horror” that haunts Thranduil in the film was encountered at Angmar rather than Mordor. In the film, Legolas rides over 300 miles on horseback from Erebor to Gundabad in order to deliver some exposition to Tauriel while an army of bats flies overhead. While this segment is a bit of a head-scratcher in terms of timeline and geography, the basics of Legolas’s history lesson are derived from the “Tale of Years” in the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings. Derek has covered this in more detail in his feature article on Beravor, but in short, Angmar was an evil realm established by the Witch-king in 1300 T.A. (over 1500 years before the events of The Hobbit) with its capital at Fornost. Over the next 475 years, Angmar expanded to destroy the northern kingdoms of Men, leaving behind nothing but the haunted graves of their princes (the Barrow-downs) and a forgotten remnant of their line (the Rangers of the North).
Although arriving too late to save the lost realm of the North, a great “Host of the West” rallied “to challenge the Witch-king of Angmar” in 1975 T.A. Led by Círdan the Shipwright, Glorfindel the Elf-lord and Eärnur, Captain of Gondor, the Free Peoples “so utterly” defeat Angmar that “not a man nor an orc of that realm remained west of the Mountains”. It is in this battle that Glorfindel rides up to the Witch-king on his white horse causing the chief Nazgûl to “turn in flight and pass into the shadows” as the Elf-lord utters his famous prophecy: “Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of man will he fall.”
The history portrayed in the films suggests that it was not only the Witch-king, but all of the Nazgûl who were defeated in this battle and that rather than retreating into the shadows, the Nine are actually “dead” and “sealed in tombs” in some place called the High Fells (where Gandalf and Radagast investigate in Desolation). Presumably, the Necromancer has then used the sorcery implied by his name to bring the Nine back to life (hence Elrond’s “You should have stayed dead!” in attacking Dol Guldur). Aside from this divergence from Tolkien’s lore, however, Sauron’s plan to reconstitute Angmar as his power base for retaking Middle-earth is directly from the Appendices. Here is Gandalf, who figured out that the Necromancer was Sauron hundreds of years earlier in the books, brooding on the Dark Lord’s plans in the Prancing Pony prior to the events of The Hobbit from Appendix A:
Among many cares [Gandalf] was troubled in mind by the perilous state of the North; because he knew that Sauron was plotting war, and intended, as soon as he felt strong enough, to attack Rivendell. But to resist any attempt from the East to regain the lands of Angmar and the northern passes of the mountains there were now only the Dwarves of the Iron Hills. And beyond them lay the desolation of the Dragon. The Dragon Sauron might use with terrible effect. How then could the end of Smaug be achieved?
It is just as Gandalf asks himself this question that Thorin walks in the door, as if “bidden to seek [him]”. In Tolkien’s revisioning of The Hobbit, it is this “chance-meeting” that sets the quest of Erebor in motion.
The idea that the Lonely Mountain is located at a “strategic position” in the geopolitics of Middle-earth is therefore very much founded in Tolkien’s lore. Despite the changes to the timeline and the nature of the Nazgûl, in both the books and the movies, Sauron’s original goal is to build his fortress at Dol Guldur and his kingdom in Angmar, attacking from the North to “cover all the lands in darkness”. With the slaying of Smaug, purge of Dol Guldur, and victory in The Battle of Five Armies, Sauron is forced to change his plans and retreat to Mordor. As Appendix A says: “So it was that when the War came at last the main assault was turned southwards.”
Indeed, we learn that even as the climactic Battle of Pelennor Fields later rages in the South, King Dáin and King Brand (son of Bain) fall valiantly before the Gate of Erebor successfully defending against a flanking contingent of Sauron’s forces in the North. Recounting their deaths after the War, Gandalf summarizes the crucial significance of the events of The Hobbit with these words:
Yet things might have gone far otherwise and far worse. When you think of the great Battle of the Pelennor, do not forget the battles in Dale and the valour of Durin’s Folk. Think of what might have been. Dragon-fire and savage swords in Eriador, night in Rivendell. There might be no Queen in Gondor. We might hope to return from victory here only to ruin and ash. But that has been averted — because I met Thorin Oakenshield one evening on the edge of spring in Bree. A chance-meeting, as we say in Middle-earth.
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With that, we come to the film’s titular Battle of Five Armies. This is the “action film for 15- to 25-year olds” that Christopher Tolkien blames for “reduc[ing] to nothing the aesthetic and philosophical significance of [his father’s] work”. It is true that Jackson’s style in many of these scenes does little to deny credence to his words. J.R.R. Tolkien was the only one of his childhood friends to survive World War I and while he saw heroism and courage in warfare, he never glamorized violence as we’ve seen in Jackson’s films. His descriptions of battles are usually sparse and tend to focus more on the emotional tides of the conflict rather than specific “fight scenes”. Here is one of Tolkien’s key passages about the Battle of Five Armies from The Hobbit:
It was a terrible battle. The most dreadful of all Bilbo’s experiences, and the one which at the time he hated most — which is to say it was the one he was most proud of, and most fond of recalling long afterwards, although he was quite unimportant in it.
First of all, this passage should quiet the critics who complain that there is too little of the hobbit in The Hobbit. Martin Freeman was amazing I would have liked to see more of him too, but Bilbo is “quite unimportant” at this stage and is simply not a major character through these final chapters (though his perspective remains essential). Secondly, it perfectly phrases my reflection on the action in this movie. It was terrible and I hated it. Yet, I have probably spent more time fondly talking about “wild were-worms”, peg-legged trolls, war bat taxis, helmetless head-butts, elk antlered decapitations, ice-capades with chains, scimitar arm attachments, mountable mountain goats, and pot-bellied war pigs than anything else about this film.
I suppose this was inevitable even before the title was changed from Tolkien’s There and Back Again to Jackson’s The Battle of the Five Armies (here including two separate armies of Orcs rather than the “Goblins” and “Wild Wolves” of Tolkien). Your enjoyment of these scenes will be conditioned by how much you like action films, but even as someone who is partial to a such flicks, I have to register a couple complaints.
The first is a problem that plagues all franchise films and even our beloved card game — power creep. The need to constantly outdo the power level of previous installments can eventually go too far and this entire trilogy has fallen as a horrible victim to that malady. The most obvious example is Legolas who was appropriately cool in Fellowship by jumping onto the shoulders of the cave troll and shooting two arrows into his head to end a well-matched battle. Now Legolas not only jumps onto a troll’s shoulders, but then embeds his sword in the troll’s brain and uses it as a joystick to control the direction of his fall, guiding him to knock down a stone tower of just the right height at just the right angle to make a bridge for himself across a chasm, which he will later be able to climb in slow motion while pushing up against falling bricks.
If these films are meant to be watched in order as a six part saga, how is one to understand this? The climax of Fellowship features Boromir redeeming himself by valiantly defending the hobbits against about a dozen Uruk-hai. Now that we’ve heard two Dwarves on Ravenhill say they can easily handle “about a hundred” orcs in The Hobbit, do we have more or less respect for the Captain of Gondor’s sacrifice? Power creep has made many of the action scenes plain ridiculous and their subsequent emotional beats feel out of sync with the overall tone of the picture. Furthermore, the over-the-top style threatens the weight of key moments in the previous trilogy. Fortunately, I still think the greater realism of the Lord of the Rings work will prevail in posterity as the Hobbit films recede. While the effects extravaganza does not trump story and performance to anywhere near the degree of ignominy of the Star Wars prequels, it does ensure that the Hobbit trilogy will always occupy a secondary status in comparison to Lord of the Rings.
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The second problem is that despite Jackson’s comments about striving to keep the audience from “battle fatigue”, the proceedings are simply too epic for too long. If Return of the King was weakened by too many endings, then Battle of the Five Armies suffers from too many climaxes. Every character gets a boss battle and every boss battle has at least one too many rounds. What’s more, the boss battle from the book that I was most looking forward to is reduced to a five second cameo. I understand that Jackson needed to give his overpowered Legolas someone to kill, but how could he not make a big scene out of this episode from the novel?
But even with the Eagles they were still outnumbered. In the last hour Beorn himself had appeared — no one knew how or from where. He came alone, and in bear’s shape; and he seemed to have grown almost to giant-size in his wrath.
The roar of his voice was like drums and guns; and he tossed wolves and goblins from his path like straws and feathers. He fell upon their rear, and broke like a clap of thunder through the ring. The dwarves were making a stand still about their lords upon a low rounded hill. Then Beorn stooped and lifted Thorin, who had fallen pierced with spears, and bore him out of the fray.
Swiftly he returned and his wrath was redoubled, so that nothing could withstand him, and no weapon seemed to bite upon him. He scattered the bodyguard, a pulled down Bolg himself and crushed him.
First of all, the storytelling of the films would have been helped immensely by taking the chance to show the vulnerabilities of the Eagles in battle. Seeing Eagles felled by arrows or war bats would have gone a long way to answer questions about flying the Ring to Mordor. Secondly, a giant bear tossing orcs “like straws and feathers”. How could he resist?
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After the battle is all said and done, however, I must applaud Jackson for sticking the landing. Bilbo and Thorin’s final moment is poignantly done as is his farewell to the survivors of the Company. Bilbo’s line about “tea at four” was a return to Tolkien’s style after an hour of Jacksonian excess and it was most welcome. If anything, Jackson overcorrected in response to criticisms of Return of the King‘s ending and things felt rushed to conclusion. Most importantly, I wanted to see Thorin’s funeral and interment in the Lonely Mountain. Bard lays the Arkenstone upon his breast and Thranduil places Orcrist upon him where songs say that it “gleamed ever in the dark if foes approached” so that “the fortress of the dwarves could not be taken by surprise”.
My disappointment was more than made up for, however, by the inclusion of the auction scene complete with “Messrs Grubb, Grubb, and Burrowes” and the infamous Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. The theme of being unable to truly return home after such an adventure is central to Tolkien’s tales and also near and dear to my heart as someone who lives overseas. The quiet shots of Bilbo walking the empty halls of Bag End and adjusting his mother’s portrait on the wall are the ones that brought tears to my eyes. (Apologies to Tauriel and Kili’s “real love” which began because he might have had “anything down his trousers”.)
The final transition back into the frame narrative and events of The Fellowship of the Ring is also brilliantly done. Portraying Bilbo’s magic ring from The Hobbit as the One Ring to Rule Them All was always going to be the trickiest part of the adaptation (it is scenes with the Ring that Tolkien revised most for his second edition of The Hobbit) and Jackson and his team pulled it off in perfect form. By tweaking one of Gandalf’s final lines, they put Bilbo’s finding of the Ring back at the center of the story and used it to elicit the primary theme of the entire tale.
In the final paragraph of the novel, Gandalf and Bilbo are sitting back at Bag End “some years afterwards” debriefing their adventure when Gandalf informs him that under the new political order in Erebor “the rivers run with gold” as was foretold. Here is the last passage of the book:
‘Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!” said Bilbo.
‘Of course!’ said Gandalf. ‘And why shouldn’t they prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only a little fellow in a wide world after all!’
‘Thank goodness!’ said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.
Jackson’s team creatively changes Gandalf’s line about “mere luck” to segue into Gandalf’s knowledge of Bilbo’s magic ring. Like the “chance-meeting” in Bree, the finding of the Ring is, in fact, not a coincidence after all. There is a kind of divine providence that pervades Middle-earth, perhaps woven into its creation by Ilúvatar in his music before Time began. It is not a deterministic destiny, but rather a recurring theme of Hope that manifests itself at the darkest hour in all ages, finding agents who feel its stirrings and act accordingly in faith.
This is the theme invoked when Gandalf tells Frodo that “Bilbo was meant to find the Ring” and that he is therefore “meant to have it”. The world we inhabit is not governed by “mere luck”, but by purpose. And it is by that purpose that “even the smallest person can change the course of the future”. I think the reason we love Tolkien is because in our heart of hearts, we all agree that this is “a very encouraging thought.”
It is Jackson’s preservation and presentation of this profound “aesthetic and philosophical” theme at the heart of his Middle-earth saga that ultimately makes me disagree with Christopher Tolkien’s condemnation of the films and accept these movies with such gratitude, no matter what I think of any particular adaptation choice. Yes, The Battle of the Five Armies is an “action movie for 15- to 25-year olds”. But far from making J.R.R. Tolkien “a monster” and devouring his work in “the absurdity of our time”, Peter Jackson has, against all odds, used the medium of the Hollywood blockbuster to introduce a new generation of fans to the rich “beauty and seriousness” of one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century. May our living card game, no matter its flaws, continue to do the same.
Thank you for reading and, as always, happy questing!