As the calendar closed out on November, I knew it would be possible to finish my novel by the end of the year now that my personal Novel-less Non-Writing Month (NoNoWriMo – I think it has a certain ring to it) had passed. I knew the finish line was in sight, and had been making slow but steady progress toward it since my breakthrough in September.
What I needed, I determined, was to force myself to write in sprints, and that was exactly what I did. Madly. Barring necessary days off for the various Christmas concerts I had to perform, I wrote pretty much continuously from the 3rd to the 15th with very little time allotted for non-essential things like food and sleep (and definitely none for housework.) It got even harder to take breaks for human necessities after I’d written the climactic scene and its immediate aftermath and knew that all I had left was to manage a bit of denouement. When I woke up from a jittery three hours night’s sleep on December 16th, it was with the knowledge that I had only one scene more to write, and I would have a completed manuscript.
I’ve talked before about the fact that it was The Hobbit in particular of all books that first got me interested in the idea of being a writer and inspired my love of the fantasy genre. So it was beyond appropriate that I got to celebrate finishing my novel by attending the opening night screening of the final instalment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit films.
My state going into the film was, I would have to say, euphoric. Maybe a little swimmy, a little disconnected. I hadn’t really eaten or slept the way a person sort of needs to for at least the previous week, and I was stumbling suddenly under the weightlessness of a six-year burden removed. I lead with all of this because perhaps it contextualizes my response to the film in some meaningful way. My state coming out of the film was something else entirely.
I’m going to try to get at why that was. My thoughts are helped along by the fact that I have now been able to see the movie a second time, on the proper amount of sleep and sustenance and having had some time to come down from the I-just-finished-my-freaking-novel-after-six-years high.
My very spoilery thoughts about The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, such as they are, beneath the cut.
Despite the fact that I came out of the theatre that night feeling generally satisfied with the film, every time I’ve tried to talk about it since then, I find myself only able to talk about all of the ways in which it was a disappointment. It became quickly obvious that this is because I’ve been talking to people who are notoriously quick to doubt the credibility of my opinion whenever an actor I like is involved, and without being able to discuss Richard Armitage’s journey as Thorin, that leaves very little positive material on the table.
And this may look odd on the surface since, objectively speaking, this movie was probably the most true to the novel of the three installments. Technically. The real problem, I think, is a matter of tone.
Many people disliked the ridiculousness of An Unexpected Journey and its broad liberties with the details of the journey. Those were the things I happened to like best about it, because for me, those most faithfully adhered to the spirit of the book. The story is ridiculous. It’s a fantastical tale told by a rascally old Bilbo to the younger hobbits, wherein he has probably fudged and outright invented several details in order to make for a more exciting – and less horrifying – version of the events he lived through. There were dark bits and scary bits and serious bits in AUJ, but that spirit of ridiculousness, of vivacity and quick wit, was always present. It was still, at its heart, a story meant for children.
There are things other people hated about The Desolation of Smaug that I liked or had no problem with. I liked the dwarves getting a chance to take on Smaug at the end of the film. It made sense, dramatically speaking, for them to attempt to resolve their own quest instead of cowering inside the door while waiting to find out whether or not the dragon was coming back, as in the novel. Things that work in print don’t always play on screen; especially given that we were about to watch Thorin spiral into a highly alienating and ignoble madness, we needed to see that one last glimpse of the brave and noble warrior willing to give his own life to see the job done. And I didn’t mind that the movie ended before we got to see Smaug’s defeat. That made sense to me too, from a dramatic standpoint. It left the film on a breathless cliffhanger and positioned BoFA on a hell of a starting block.
The Tauriel character, too, I did not hate conceptually. The Hobbit is a total dudefest, and this is the freaking 21st Century. That shit doesn’t fly. Sure, there are plenty of implied or unnamed characters in the book. Sure, some of them could/should be women. Sure, there would be female elf warriors. Why not? No big deal. But the romance plotline made me pretty squirmy – what, we’re being “progressive,” but we still can’t find room for a hero woman in the story unless she’s there for one of the dudes to make eyes at? You kidding me? Still, I was willing to withhold final judgment until I had seen the full trajectory of her character arc.
I liked to imagine that she had this complex inner world wherein she was just burning with so much curiosity and so much love of life that she couldn’t help but be intrigued by and protective of the unfamiliar. That it had never even occurred to her that this dwarf might see her romantically, because she’s far too busy Captaining her Guard and rushing into every conflict where she sees that she might make a difference. I wanted to see her as an example of the warning against the woodland elves – “less wise and more dangerous” – in a way that showed they are not a monolith. They are not all Thranduil, or even Legolas. I hoped PJ was taking this moment to create a character who was not only original but new. I liked that it was still ambiguous, after TDoS, whether or not she returned even a jot of Kili’s feelings. There was still a chance she might turn out to be really a interesting invention.
Where TDoS started to take the trilogy down the wrong path was in straying from the tone of AUJ. And actually, degradation of tone is possibly my most oft-repeated complaint against subsequent stories in any series. I feel strongly about the responsibility a storyteller has to honor the implicit compact made with his audience. Yes, things are getting darker and scarier and more serious by that point in the book. Yes, the sense of peril in the movie needed to mount accordingly. But the book never stops being a story told by one Bilbo Baggins Esq., who in spite of everything manages to retain his wry humor, his humility, a tender heart, an unfussy pragmatism, a sense of wonder at the world, and an almost childlike naïveté and hope. Movie Bilbo loses those things almost as soon as TDoS starts rolling, and it affects the tone. Without the wide-eyed wonder, without the wry humor, we lose the sense that we are watching a film made from a children’s book. The decision to spend so much of TDoS focusing on Bilbo’s immediate, powerful, and sinister addiction to the Ring compounds this. That is not my Bilbo, and he is not narrating my beloved story.
BoFA starts from there, from that point of having forgotten what story they’re telling. This is not The Lord of the Rings and should not feel like The Lord of the Rings, and yet it becomes clearer from every moment after the close of AUJ that it was PJ’s priority all along to make a seamless sextet rather than two compatible but separate trilogies. This is where PJ and I have to part ways on our vision of what these films should have been. And as I watch the film that first time, I begin to realize that we have to part ways on a number of other things as well. This makes me sad, makes me feel abandoned and alone after following him on this journey for a decade and a half.
And my goodness, I realize I’ve been talking and talking and have said very little yet about BoFA in this BoFA review. But it really, truly is about the context. As a general filmgoer, I think I would have loved this movie. There is a lot of gorgeous spectacle and I do have a particular fondness for elves, ill-tempered Scotsmen, epic battlescenes, and Richard Taylor’s Middle Earth aesthetic. As a Richard Armitage fan, I definitely loved this movie. As a lifelong Hobbit-lover who has been patiently waiting for PJ to make good on his promise to deliver this story in a way that feels satisfying to fans, I’d have to say I’m struggling with feelings of intense disappointment. And as a feminist storyteller, I’m actually horrified.
Excuse me, but Galadriel is the most powerful being in Middle Earth, bar Sauron, and she wields the most powerful of the three elven rings. I’m not being facetious when I say I would very much like to hear the filmmakers’ thought process behind having her spend 99% of the storming of Dol Guldur in a swoon on the ground. I want to know why she was too weak to stand after getting Gandalf on that bunny sled. I want to know why she was quaking with visible fear when the Wraiths appeared – she knew her backup was on its way; she knew before she went in, through Radagast and Gandalf’s warnings, that exactly this might be what she’d be facing; she knew that the Necromancer was in all likelihood Sauron. This was the battle she had signed on for. This is a woman who looked the gods in the eye on their own turf and told them, “To hell with you, I want to rule my own kingdom. If that means pissing you off, that’s your problem.” A woman who is described as possessing the valor of a man (because Tolkien did not shrink from the sexist gender essentialism of the age.) We’re supposed to believe that this woman was quaking because some notorious ghosts of men showed up before her sidekicks got there? Nah. I don’t buy it.
So I’m already annoyed with the scene when PJ delivers the killing stroke. I simply cannot get on board with his vision of elf magic. The thing about Tolkien’s elves (that makes so many people actually just hate elves as a concept, I have found as someone who writes them) is that they have this incorruptible essential purity. They are beings of radiant light. This is why, simply by existing, they are an affront to Sauron that he feels compelled to destroy. This is why they make no attempt to bargain with him, why he is simply The Enemy. Their purity and light are by their nature in direct opposition to everything that he is. Yet somehow when Galadriel, Lady of Light and highest of the High Elves, wields the Great Ring of Water and the light of Eärendil, she turns into a dark and sinister ghoul-creature…? Um.
Because this scene takes place fairly close to the start of the film, it colored literally everything that came afterward for me. I see that now, after my second viewing. This second time, since I knew it was coming, it didn’t bother me as much when it happened and I didn’t seethe about it afterward. So the movie proceeds at a pretty good clip from there through events that are pretty much pulled from the book. But that first time, I was angry, and it made me grimace at a lot of little things that I probably would have handwaved otherwise. I thought there were a lot of quite cheesy lines and moments, but whatever. I can forgive cheese, in moderation. The problem is that they start to add up to this sporadic and ham-fisted kind of fake jocularity in place of the lighthearted absurdity and emotional sincerity that made the tone of the first movie so good. What started to bug me even more was how much time we were giving Legolas. And I mean, I say this as an avowed Legolass from the days of the LotR films. I like the character, and the actor, and I approved of the decision to have him make an appearance in The Hobbit. In moderation. I felt like PJ forgot what story he was telling.
But then, the Thorin material was so good that I came out of every one of his scenes feeling juiced. Feeling good about how his story was going to play out. It was in such capable hands. There were only two times he made me grimace, and only on that first viewing where I was already in a highly volatile emotional state and still angry about the White Council scene. I no longer find those moments de trop, or at least, not so much that I can’t accept them as part of the overall performance. The fight with Azog: so good. Thorin’s final moments: so good.
But it’s a bit of a rollercoaster really, because although I love those penultimate scenes, there’s so much before them that jerks me down. (Why do you hate Fili, PJ?) I began to feel, and I still do at this point, that it actually was a mistake after all to make three movies and give so much time to the actual Battle of Five Armies. I feel, horrifically, as if the dinky old Rankin/Bass cartoon had the better idea in cutting away after the battle begins and then coming back to deal with the aftermath. Anything else is simply too heavy and tactical for what, let us please get back to remembering, should be a kid’s story. FFS, there are shots in this film panning over the bloody and glassy-eyed corpses of children in the streets. I know skipping the battle would have meant losing Thorin’s epic reclamation of his honor, and that would have made me sad as a Richard Armitage fan and a fan of what he did to create a Thorin that is so much more than the book gave us; but I also have to default back to my primary status as a lifelong Hobbit-lover. The book is not called The King Under the Mountain. It is called The Hobbit.
Bilbo didn’t give two figs about the larger geopolitical ramifications of this war he got caught in the middle of while trying to help his friends out of their jam. We would not be seeing that in a version of the story that honored his PoV. The decision-making hierarchy should have placed Bilbo’s story above all others in this project, and it very much did not. What we got was the opening shots of the War of the Ring, with a heavy focus on the placement and disposition of elves in that conflict. We got Bilbo discovering his battlefield courage instead of showing that there are other kinds of courage – such as the strength to remain compassionate while everything around you wants you to become hard. These are things that PJ and I just, apparently, sharply diverge on.
As is, increasingly, his fascination with making Legolas carry out ever more ridiculous battlefield stunts. I think I was over that after the dwarf-in-barrel stepping stones. Too far, PJ. Too far. By the time Legolas fleetfooted his way over a cascade of airborne masonry, I was actively rolling my eyes and no longer even marginally enjoying the gag.
AND SPEAKING OF ELVES.
It’s taken me all this way to be able to revisit the subject of Tauriel and the resolution of her plot. Because it just makes me so, so angry. Not that they insisted on sticking to the completely unnecessary romance plotline, because there was always the possibility they’d go that way. But that, when all was said and done, it turns out that Tauriel – this “kickass” female character they supposedly introduced in the name of parity – isn’t even the main character in her own damn story. She isn’t even a character. She is an object lesson. She is present only to contextualize Thranduil’s apparent heartlessness and by extension explain why Legolas seems to be friends with Aragorn already by the time the Council meets in Rivendell.
But see, here I am going on about all the ways in which the movie made me angry, which as I said is what has ended up happening when I talk about it even though I came out of the theatre opening night feeling… at peace, I think. Subdued. Billy Boyd’s beautiful song may have helped with that. It was late at night and all the world was quiet as a very soft rain, almost like fluttering snow, had started to come down. I was having an emotional enough day that I forgave myself for the maudlin thought that it was almost like gentle tears, for Thorin and the House of Durin. I grew misty-eyed as I walked to my car at the back of the parking lot, thinking about the entire journey – mine, PJ’s, the whole crew’s – with that song still in my head.
As this has certainly been far more than anyone wanted to hear about my feelings regarding this trilogy, I’ll stop being negative and close out with some bullet points to prove I really did actually enjoy things about this movie.
*Bard. Bard was uniformly great. I felt the decision to have him reject the official title of King and simply take point because of his love for his people and, above all, his family, was very Tolkien-esque. His decency and care served as a wonderful counterpoint both to Thranduil’s coldness and Thorin’s loss of perspective.
*The way he defeated Smaug was pretty wonderful and very dramatic. A+
*Always fun to play “Spot the Cameo.” Unexpected and amusing to see Benedict Cumberbatch show his actual face for a split second. Terry Notary finally getting to be something other than an orc, very nice. And was that Billy Jackson in the red cap during the battle?
*If we discount the fact that the movie contained some scenes I would have preferred it did not and instead look at them as given, the overall pacing was very tight – something PJ struggles with in making these giant epics with equally giant runtimes.
*The women of Dale being tough and efficient and brave and still kind. Love!
*Actually loved Thranduil’s hamminess. It made me feel like Lee Pace, at least, was still committed to delivering the slightly absurd tone of the book.
*LOVED that they 100% backed off of showing Bilbo as sickeningly addicted to the Ring. Not only was having him go there the wrong move in the first place, but it wouldn’t have worked in this movie because we needed Bilbo to be sane while Thorin was losing it.
*Elrond kicking Wraith ass. Unquestionably fun to watch, despite my other feelings about that scene.
*Also a pleasure to look at in that hated scene: Galadriel’s dress. But I would basically kill for her entire wardrobe.
*Bilbo with his acorn. Thorin with Bilbo and his acorn.
*All of the unconventional beasts of war. Battle pigs, war rams, majestic moose steed. Loved them. Such a fun and colorful touch.
*BEORN SHOWING UP TO THE BATTLE AND GOING ALL BEAR HULK!!!
*Dain Ironfoot. Not enough Dain Ironfoot. What a treat he was.
*Controversial to say this, but I loved every second of Alfrid. I thought his presence was a delight in all of his scenes. He really showed, by contrast, the decency of the people of Dale who were going out of their way to help each other. And his endless attempts to get away with doing nothing while everyone else was pitching in – his over-the-top teenagerish aggravation every time someone made him do something anyway – were just the right pitch of humor for me and came at the cost of very little effort or screentime.
*Bilbo returning in the middle of his own estate auction. Loved that they kept that! It’s the perfect end to the book: the county gentleman returning to his old life after grand adventures and getting immediately pulled back into its affairs while also discovering that he has just slightly outgrown the confines of the old Bilbo Baggins.
*The art direction. Love Alan Lee, John Howe, and Richard Taylor’s work. The Middle Earth they’ve envisioned has consistently been the very one I do too.
*The music. Can’t say enough about how much I love Howard Shore’s work on all of these films, but wow wow wow did I get shivers when the giant horns of Dale blasted out the Erebor theme.
*And of course: Thorin. Ooooooooh Thorin. What a performance Richard Armitage gave us! What a satisfying character arc! The moment when he casts off his grandfather’s crown and stands bareheaded and finally crowned in his own honor! That performance in fact deserves its own post, though I doubt it is one I’ll ever write.
And closing on that note makes me remember that yes, I somehow did like this incredibly trying film. I don’t know if I can say love.
It may grow on me yet.