I’ve seen the film twice now, and admittedly while I slept through most of it the second time, I find myself unable to write an unbiased review on the film’s merits. Mostly, I am unable to remain uncompromised because The Hobbit is my favourite book and it is one I reread every Christmas season.
The film’s been advertised as the “defining chapter” of the Middle-earth legacy. “Defining what?” I wondered as I watched two hours of battles scenes comprised of CGI.
The magic of The Lord of the Rings films was not dependent on the Elves or the wizards or the Rings of Power, but rather in the story’s ability to make us believe that such a fantastical story could be relevant to our own reality. The first Middle-earth film to be released, The Fellowship of the Ring, came out just a few months after the tragedy of 9/11. Though the film had long been in production, the symbolical battle of good versus evil, light versus darkness, was perhaps a bit more heartfelt at the beginning of a war on terror. The world has changed much since then, and perhaps I’ve grown too old to believe in cinematic magic, but The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, or indeed the entire trilogy, lacked the defined purpose that the original trilogy possessed. Gandalf tells us that the Lonely Mountain is strategically placed, that the Forces of Darkness would be greatly strengthened by controlling it. It’s ominous and Sir Ian McKellan delivers the line effectively, but what would Evil gain by having the Mountain? Gold? Well, they don’t seem to have a problem raising armies without it. The White Council has alluded to the kingdom of Angmar throughout the trilogy, and indeed, the entire purpose of the third film seems to be to prevent the rise of the Witch King’s kingdom again.
As an avid reader of Tolkien, I know the answers to this. I know why the Lonely Mountain matters, why Galadriel’s badassery in Dol-Guldur is so important, and how the defeat of the Necromancer in Mirkwood kept Middle-earth safe for another several decades.I know this, not because I’ve read The Hobbit, but because I’ve read the other histories of Middle-earth, the ones that were never published during Professor Tolkien’s lifespan. The majority of Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth vision is not taking from Tolkien’s child-friendly adventure story, but from historical narratives that had the same grandiose sweep and epic nature as The Lord of the Rings.
And here is the crux of my long list of issues with Jackson’s version of The Hobbit: it lacks everything that would have kept it in the spirit of Tolkien’s writing. I understand the necessity of creative liberties when adapting for a film, and I wholeheartedly encourage interpretation. However, a filmed adaptation of a book is not a transformative work. It’s gained the permission of the copyright holder to use the work and create a filmed spectacle for the big screen. Where Tolkien’s The Hobbit is whimsical, Jackson’s is dark. Where Tolkien’s is narratively succinct, Jackson’s is long-winded. Where Tolkien’s focuses on the point of view of Bilbo Baggins, the titular hobbit is passed over for cheap cross-dressing comedic relief and the inclusion of star-crossed lovers. Where Tolkien’s narrative creates empathy for the distinct characters, Jackson’s is lost in a haze of CGI’d battle sequences.
There are some truly spectacular moments in TBOTFA. It is always a pleasure to see Cate Blanchett prove that she’s more epic than everyone else in the film combined, and Thranduil’s emotionally-charged confrontations with Legolas and Tauriel were the moments that truly sucker-punched me in the feels. Aside from the Elves, however, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies could have been a video game. Jackson’s grown extremely fond of CGI in the years since the LOTR, and The Hobbit films suffered for it, losing the gritty realism that special effects makeup offers to the cast to computer graphics that were poor imitations of WOW. I felt that I was playing The Lord of the Rings Online. Choose a race (Elves, Men, or Dwarves), choose a character, choose a weapon. By the time Thorin faced the Azog in the “boss battle,” I was wishing that I’d followed my flatmate’s lead and gone to watch The Imitation Game again.
In fact, if you read the book and then play World of Warcraft, it’ll be like you watched the trilogy. As a Tolkienite, I’m extremely comforted by knowing that Peter Jackson will likely never get his hands on The Silmarillion, which was the closest work to Tolkien’s heart.
Dear Peter Jackson, in the spirit of Christmas, I won’t say anything more than auta miqula orqu.