15 December 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of How Many Armies?

I went to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies yesterday, thereby wrapping up a cinematic adventure that began for me back in December 2001. The film, I think, is definitely a mixture of good and bad drawn from Peter Jackson’s urns of blessings and ills, but my main thought coming from it, as since I saw Return of the King back in 2003, is that Jackson doesn’t really understand Tolkien.

I have friends who get furious about this, and rant about all manner of little changes the films make from the books, but I see those kind of changes as – in the main – simply the price of adaptation. Books aren’t films. When we change media, we change stuff. That’s what happens. Characters change and get compressed, dialogue gets trimmed, episodes are cut or even invented, depending on what the story needs. Bill Goldman's very good on this, in both Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell? What shouldn’t change, though, is the theme and tone. If you’re going to change those, why are you bothering at all?

As I said nearly eleven years ago, Jackson eviscerates the story by leaving out the Scouring of the Shire, that conclusion to the Lord of the Rings which sees the hobbits returning home and having to clean up their homeland, where petty greed and viciousness and power hunger have taken over, as hobbits willingly serve Saruman’s new dictatorship and rejoice in holding forth over their weaker neighbours. There’s a sense in which the episode is an anti-climax, and it’s probably for that reason that Jackson omits it from the films, but given he has about seventeen other endings to The Return of the King, I think he could have ran with it.

The omission of the episode shows up a profound difference between Tolkien and Jackson. Tolkien, it has to be remembered, was an articulate, informed, and orthodox Catholic, something that runs right through his books, such that you tend to miss half of what’s going on, not least the point of Tolkien's stories, if you can’t see with his eyes. Tolkien, indeed, called The Lord of the Rings "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision," explaining that what he called "the religious element" in his writing was not on the surface, but was "absorbed into the story and the symbolism."

Catholic that he was, Tolkien believed very strongly in Original Sin, in the notion that there’s a darkness in the heart of man, and that cracks run right through all of us; for Tolkien the Ring is something that deepens our darkness, that widens our cracks into chasms, that magnifies the faults that are already within us, and that amplifies our tendency towards sin. Crucially, though, while the Ring is a corrupting force, it is not an originating one: it doesn’t make people evil, rather it fosters and worsens the evil already within. As such, even when the Ring is destroyed, evil remains in the world. It’s a petty, cheap, brutish thing, and it doesn’t go away. The Hobbits save the world, and still have to save their homes.

Not so for Jackson. For Jackson, evil is an external phenomenon. The Ring is, of course, an externalisation of Sauron’s power, but that’s not to say that Tolkien thinks evil is external. On the contrary, he sees it as within, with the eternal frontline in the war between good and evil being in the depths of the human heart.  But for Jackson, once the Ring is destroyed, the shadow falls and evil is banished from Middle Earth. Prices still have to be paid – Frodo will carry his wounds as long as he remains in the world – but there is no wickedness in the world after the Ring is destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom.

Jackson sees evil as something outside us, and something that’s embodied in a Ring or “other people,” especially ugly monstrous ones – orcs, goblins, trolls, dragons, giant spiders – or swarthy foreigners from the east and the south.  Yes, Tolkien makes these identifications first, but he does so in a context where we all have the capacity for evil. Not so for Jackson, as is shown by his removal of the “Scouring” without a substitionary episode or speech to make the same thematic point: no, get rid of the Ring, his story says, and everyone will live happily ever after.

And so to The Hobbit.

Leaving aside his failure to understand Tolkien, I think Jackson had two main problems with the first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey. One was that Tolkien could distinguish between his dwarves by just giving them different names, whereas Jackson had to make them all into recognisable individuals with distinct appearances, voices, mannerism, and personalities, all of which added time to the film, making it far longer than the tale it was telling merited. The more serious problem, though, is that Tolkien's Lord of the Rings sprang from The Hobbit, and grew far beyond it in a deeper, darker, richer way. Jackson can't do that: his Hobbit has to function as a prequel to his Lord Of The Rings, and has to maintain the already established tone and look of the original trilogy.

He's done impressive work on that front. The opening shots of Erebor as a Dwarf metropolis to surpass the Elvish magnificence of Rivendell set up the world of The Hobbit as a real part of the Middle Earth he’d already envisaged.  In some ways it shows what Balin must have dreamt of in the darkness of Moria. His dwarves became a race of armoured Gimlis in leather and mail, almost wholly supplanting the books’ jolly chaps with colourful hoods – Dwalin in dark green, Balin in red, Fili and Kili both in blue, and others in purple, grey, brown, white, yellow, pale green, and in Thorin’s case sky blue with a silver tassle. The significance of the story had to be brought out: this is not just the story of Bilbo’s adventure, but is rather the story of the return of Sauron, of how new relations were seeded between Elves, Dwarves, and Men, of how one of Sauron's greatest potential allies was preemptively taken off the board before the War of the Ring, and above all how the Ring was restored to the world, and Hobbits entered into the world.
When you get down to it, Jackson's telling a huge six-part story of how the most insignificant and unlikely of people find the greatest weapon in the world and then destroy it and he manages to do it in a way that makes sense and looks consistent. Credit, so, where it's due.

For all the glory of Erebor, the first Hobbit film annoyed me. It retained enough of the chirpiness of the book to be childish without retaining enough to be childlike. My Maths teacher used to say “between two stools you fall to the ground,” and, well, I think that's what happened. There was far too much dwarf humour, a failing in Jackson’s original trilogy but one taken to excess here. How much falling over did there have to be? And did the whole Goblin chase sequence need to go on for quite so long?

The Gollum scene, though, was good, and I'm left wondering if Jackson will follow George Lucas’s precedent by tweaking The Fellowship of the Ring to show Martin Freeman, rather than an artificially young Ian Holm, as Bilbo finding the ring. I was okay with the Azog stuff too, to be honest. Sure, he’s not in the book, but he is referred to in the book as having killed Thorin’s father. I think giving a bit of individuality to the orcs wasn’t a bad thing. He also looks straight out of Guillermo del Toro’s sketchbook, which isn’t a bad thing.

The second film, The Desolation of Smaug, I found vastly better, though I wonder how much of this was due to me not watching it in 3D-HFR. The images were ones into which I could get absorbed, rather than ones that distracted me. I thought the sequence where they're all floating downriver and Tauriel's doing her arrow stuff absurd and straight out of a game, but, er, I'm not going to criticise Tauriel too much, for predictable reasons. I also liked the Smaug sequences, and the spiders, and quite liked Jackson’s casting of Steven Fry as the smug, self-important, oleaginous Master of Laketown.  Beorn was largely wasted, I felt, though I consoled myself with the thought that that otherwise irrelevant section might bear fruit in the third film, as indeed it does in the book, when Beorn shows up at the battle, retrieves Thorin’s mortally wounded body, and kills the Goblin leader Bolg, son of Azog. I thought too that the dialogue between Tauriel and Kili really could have been better, but overall I found it a smoother and much less laboured film than the first one, and came out of it thinking that while it was further away from Tolkien than ever, perhaps this was necessary to set up Jackson's – not Tolkien's – Lord of the Rings.

Bilbo’s discovery of the Arkenstone in the second film just hammers home, of course, how he clearly has the cheat codes for The Hobbit game, finding plot coupons everywhere he goes: elvish blades, the Ring, the Arkenstone. And game is right: if the Moria scene in The Fellowship of the Ring had felt like a game, the Hobbit sequence feels like a game time and time and time again.

And so to the third Hobbit film, The Battle of the Five Armies, whatever the five armies are meant to be: in the book it's clearly goblins, wargs, elves, dwarves, and men, but here it's definitely Azog's orc army, Thranduil's elves, Dain's dwarves, and Bard's men... but who else? Bolg's second orc army? Thorin's band of dwarves? The eagles?
Unfortunately, I watched it in 3D-HFR, having forgotten how much I’d disliked it in the first film, with everything seeming overlit, and the general feeling being as though we’re on set with people traipsing about in silly costumes and make up and fake ears. It couldn’t help but distances me from the action, as through it all I thought it all looked dreadfully fake, as did the longer shots of the CGI armies which looked like trailers for a game.

There is good stuff in the film, it has to be said. Thorin's madness is very well handled, echoing Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. While this seems yet another instance of someone being corrupted by an external force, in this case the treasure burnished for decades by Smaug’s greed, it nonetheless feels more normal, somehow, than the corrupting effect of the Ring, especially in combination with Steven Fry's common or garden greediness, and that of his henchman. The film, then, at least recognises that it doesn’t take a monstrous evil to turn people into monsters, but that most of the time evil is a petty, small thing, people bearing cracks of original sin that such as the Ring can turn into chasms. This goes some small way to remedying the deepest problem with the original films. Martin Freeman is great as Bilbo, and Bard is very well done. So yes, the film really does have good points.

Unfortunately, it’s not just got good points.

The appearance of Dain is written in a way to suit the actor far more than the character, I'm afraid. It is immensely enjoyable, but still, it's jarring, and shatters any sense of immersion you might have been lucky enough to get even with the blasted 3D-HFR. You’re not watching Dain Ironfoot, the eventual King Under The Mountain who will fall with Bard’s grandson decades later at the Battle of Dale while hundreds of miles to the southwest Aragorn and Legolas and the lads – and Eomer – are doing their thing at the Pelennor Films. You're watching Billy Connolly being, well, Billy Connolly.

The armies look dreadfully false in the battle scenes, row upon row of faceless automatons in identical armour moving as one as though telepathically commanded. If you know anything about ancient or medieval warfare this simply doesn’t hold up: warriors tended to own and supply their own equipment, and would have had distinct shields and helmets and variations in their armour. Having them all look uniform just feels dreadfully wrong.

The fighting too owes more to 300, or the games that inspired that, than to reality: elves and dwarves don’t get on, we’re told, and bear old grudges, and yet when the moment comes, with no planning – let alone training – they all know exactly what to do. The dwarves form an impressive shieldwall, with hints of the Roman testudo, and look set to withstand the orcish attack, establishing an unpassable barrier behind which the elves could use their long bows and winnow the orc forces. Instead, though, the elves cast aside their massive tactical superiority in terms of their lengthy killing zone, and vault over the dwarf wall, rendering it pointless, and start swirling among the orc forces, laying into them to cinematically impressive and militarily ludicrous effect.

This is a thing. Too many people rave about the battle scenes in Jackson’s films, oblivious or indifferent to just how ludicrous they are. The Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen.  If you want to see plausible cinematic renditions of pre-modern battles, you can’t do much better than The Seven Samurai, Kagemusha, and Ran. More recently, the one at the start of Gladiator is okay too, and obviously people love the ones in Spartacus and Braveheart, but really, it’s the Kurosawa ones that bear most rewatching.

There’s an astounding lack of tactical sense in the Battle of the Five Armies, with nobody attempting to take out the Orc signalling system until Thorin shows up and decides to target Azog who is directing commands from the signal tower.  Not that sense is really part of the sequence: if I’d thought the bit in The Two Towers when the horses run down a cliff one of the most absurd things I’d ever seen, it’s solidly trumped by Legolas leaping from falling block to falling block in a manner reminiscent of Mario, somehow resisting the urge to headbutt gold coins out of the air.

Beorn does appear in the battle, but rather than mysteriously appearing and saving the day, as in the book, he instead joins battle as an airborne bear, flown from the far side of Mirkwood, presumably, by the Eagles ex Machina, and isn’t shown doing anything especially impressive other than running into the fray. He doesn’t kill Azog’s son and lieutenant Bolg, that honour being left to the wonderful Tauriel, or any other prominent orcs, and the overall effect is to leave me wondering what the point of Beorn being in the story was. We don’t see him accompanying Bilbo home either. It’s all very odd.

“Farewell, good thief,” the dying Thorin says to Bilbo in the book, continuing, “I go now to the halls of waiting to sit beside my fathers, until the world is renewed.” It’s an impressive line, pointing to the importance of an afterlife to the dwarves, but the line doesn’t make it to the film; indeed, to see Thranduil’s sorrow at elvish blood being shed, you’d never imagine that fallen elves have their souls cleansed and their bodies reborn in their own land, never to return to Middle Earth. For a film that’s about battle from beginning to end, it has precious little to say about death – and never touches on how Tolkien saw death in the context of Middle Earth. In these films, when you're dead, you're dead. That's it. Maybe modern audiences prefer things that way, but it's not how Tolkien thought, and it's not how things are meant to be on Middle Earth.

There seems something pointless about showing indistinguishable CGI automata trading blows for as film does without showing us what death really involves. All else aside, I’d like to have seen Thorin’s funeral. That would have been a suitable ending, or part of it,
“They buried Thorin deep beneath the Mountain, and Bard laid the Arkenstone upon his breast.
‘There let it lie till the Mountain falls!’ he said. ‘May it bring good fortune to all his folk that dwell here after.’
Upon his tomb the Elvenking then laid Orcrist, the elvish sword that had been taken from Thorin in captivity. It is said in songs that it gleamed ever in the dark if foes approached, and the fortress of the dwarves could not be taken by surprise. There now Dain son of Nain took up his abode, and he became King under the Mountain, and in time many other dwarves gathered to his throne in the ancient halls.”
The Iliad ended with the funeral of Hector, tamer of horses. It’d not have been a bad example for Jackson to have followed.

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