After The Desolation of Smaug last year, I almost didn’t go back for thirds. I just didn’t think I could handle it yet again. The first film had its shining moments (and its horrible ones), but the second was the most atrocious insult to art and intelligence since the trailer, and the entire journey of abuse that began with the Lord of the Rings trilogy 13 years ago has been stupid exhausting, okay?
The only force that got me down to the theater on Christmas Eve 2014 was the same one that might have kept me away: loyalty to Tolkien. If someone’s going to doodle spectacles on a great lion’s face, I have to witness it—if only to report to the people who believe they behold a Rembrandt that this “art” is, in fact, just scribbling.
As it turns out, The Battle of the Five Armies is no Rembrandt, but it’s a fair bit above pure scribbling. What Peter Jackson does well, he does very well, and for that I cannot hate it completely. In fact, I remember the best scenes the same way Bilbo remembers his hobbit hole: with a happy thrill that though almost everything else about this adventure sucks, at least there’s that.
First, the charges.
1) Keeping with tradition, most of the fight scenes convince me that as a child, Peter Jackson didn’t have a mother kind enough to hang his kindergarten triumphs on her fridge, causing these magnificent ideas to remain bottled up inside until he had more money than he did friends to advise him not to, when he socked the world with absurd self-expression on the big screen. So much leaping and twirling and gymnastic idiocy. Though the action begins grimmer (and better) than in the first two films, it’s Bard wagonning down a goblin, Legolas flitting up falling rocks, and the ugly white dude springing out from under the ice that’s frankly scandalous. If Peter Jackson doesn’t want to insult the intelligence of his audience, he should behave like he has some himself, beginning by noting that Tolkien hated such rambunctious adaptations of his books in the 1950s: “The screenwriter has the tendency to reduce and lower the tone to that of a more childish fairy-tale” (272); “He has cut the parts of the story upon which its characteristic and peculiar tone principally depends, showing a preference for fights” (271); “I feel very unhappy about the extreme silliness and incompetence of [the writer] and his complete lack of respect for the original” (266).
2) The Galadriel-Gandalf-Elrond scene with the nine spastic zombie kings is a special kind of nightmare. I could hardly watch. I felt like a toddler whose questions have no real good answers. Mommy, why is Galadriel talking inside Gandalf’s head? Mommy, why are they holding hands? Mommy, why is Galadriel’s hair wet? Besides its atrocious artistic quality (Galadriel’s voice sounds like a mix of robot and train wreck), the scene misplays the special relationship between her and Gandalf. It was special. That’s it. (Galadriel was married, after all.) Peter Jackson can’t handle special. He goes straight to horribly awkward. It’s the sort of faux pas that embarrasses you for being discovered anywhere within 100 miles of the theater.
3) Tauriel and Kili’s love story is as tawdry as ever. It isn’t in keeping with the Middle-earth world at all and it detracts from the extraordinarily unique friendship between Legolas and Gimli in The Lord of the Rings; after all, no small feat for an elf and dwarf to buddy up since an elf contrives to fall in love with a fuzzy-banged man half her height! Had Peter Jackson suggested this gruesome idea at the Council of Nicea, St. Nicholas would have punched him, too.
4) Thorin’s duel with Mr. Ugly White Orc (which starts decently enough) descends into a rabid, ridiculous cirque du soleil in which the fact that Fili and Kili die defending him is interpreted only very loosely and in which Kili gets to prove that fairy-faced elven princess archers cry, too. Not good.
5) Thorin’s dying wisdom to Bilbo is the greater failure. In the book, he says: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” These words aren’t up for edits; they are the golden moral of the entire Hobbit adventure, something you frame on the wall and don’t touch, and so of course PJ had to fiddle: “If more of us valued home above gold, the world would be a merrier place.” What? Home is putting it far too simply. Home is precisely what Bilbo needed to leave. He needed to get out in the world, get uncomfortable for once, and grow into a stronger, larger person. What Tolkien emphasized is song, fellowship, and table gaiety—no matter where you are. It is one of the book’s driving values. Bilbo’s love for a good meal and a peaceful pipe spurs him even in the darkest moments and is certainly one of the things that motivates him to argue for peace in the end; when the sounds of elf music and merriment reach him in the mountain, “Bilbo longed to escape from the dark fortress and to go down and join in the mirth and feasting by the fire.” PJ largely misses this theme throughout the movies, but it’s at Thorin’s death that the crime is most acute. On top of that, ending on the word place ruins the oblique rhyme between gold and world. Tolkien loved the clanging and rolling of words and he was better at it than we are, so let’s leave the poetry to him, yes?
6) But the crowning moment of incompetence is when the eagles arrive. Peter Jackson had a duty to this moment—more so than to any other in the story, for it is the eucatastrophe that Tolkien treasured. “I knew I had written a story of worth,” he wrote to his son Christopher, “when reading it (after it was old enough to be detached from me) I had suddenly in a fairly strong measure the ‘eucatastrophic’ emotion at Bilbo’s exclamation: ‘The Eagles! The Eagles are coming!’”
On all this Bilbo looked with misery. He had taken his stand on Ravenhill among the elves—partly because there was more chance of escape from that point, and partly (with the more Tookish part of his mind) because if he was going to be in a last desperate stand, he preferred on the whole to defend the Elvenking….
“It will not be long now,” thought Bilbo, “before the goblins win the Gate, and we are all slaughtered or driven down and captured. Really it is enough to make one weep, after all one has gone through. I would rather old Smaug had been left with all the wretched treasure, than that these vile creatures should get it, and poor old Bombur, and Balin and Fili and Kili an all the rest come to a bad end; and Bard too, and the Lake-men and the merry elves. Misery me! I have heard songs of many battles, and I have always understood that defeat may be glorious. It seems very uncomfortable, not to say distressing. I wish I was well out of it.”
The clouds were torn by the wind, and a red sunset slashed the West. Seeing the sudden gleam in the gloom Bilbo looked round. He gave a great cry: he had seen a sight that made his heart leap, dark shapes small yet majestic against the distant glow.
“The Eagles! The Eagles!” he shouted. “The Eagles are coming!”
It’s a born cinematic moment. But in the movie, the battle is going no worse than before, we have no sense of doom, the clouds aren’t dark, the sunset isn’t red, and the eagles swoop lamely in over Bilbo very suddenly instead of being spotted from a distance and hailed with a shout. Bilbo just sort of mutters to himself that it’s “the eagles.” For Pete’s sake, he showed more excitement over his fish dinner in the first movie. For some reason, I was convinced PJ would totally nail this scene, and if he did, I was resolved to forgive any number of atrocities, for even Tolkien said that “a tale that in any measure succeeds in this point has not wholly failed, whatever flaws it may possess, and whatever mixture or confusion of purpose.” But behold, PJ’s reverse Midas touch has done wonders. All that was gold no longer glitters.
But now for those characters and moments that are worth remembering. In general, if it wasn’t bad, it was marvelous: the look and feel of the bulk of the movie, especially the various cultures, spectacular mise en scéne, and all the lovely contributions by conceptual designers Alan Lee and John Howe; the plot’s strong pacing (except where the fights dribbled on and on); and certain scenes that were played to perfection, such as Bilbo’s farewell to the dwarves and his return home to discover Bag End being auctioned off. The concluding shot of the map of the Misty Mountain as the older Bilbo greets Gandalf again was an especially fine choice.
A major spectacular scene was Smaug’s assault on Laketown—the fire, the water, and the magnificent, boiling voice of Benedict Cumberbatch—which nearly convinced me to forgive the cheesy brawls later on. Despite some glamorization, the attack pretty much perfectly embodies that in the book:
Fire leaped from the dragon’s jaws. He circled for a while high in the air above them, lighting all the lake; the trees by the shores shone like copper and like blood with leaping shadows of dense black at their feet. Then down he swooped straight through the arrow-storm, reckless with rage, taking no heed to turn his scale sides towards his foes, seeking only to set their town ablaze…. A sweep of his tail and the roof of the Great House crumbled and smashed down. Flames unquenchable sprang high into the night. Another swoop and another, and another house and then another sprang afire and fell; and still no arrow hindered Smaug.
Bard the Bowman was consistently splendid, a sterling leader straight from the book: bold, noble, honest, merciful, and just. Luke Evans, one of the wisest casting choices in the trilogy, fully cuts the romantic figure Tolkien imagined: “A tall figure stepped from the shadows. He was drenched with water, his black hair hung wet over his face and shoulders, and a fierce light was in his eyes.” Well done, everyone…though I do have one quibble. In the book, Bard doesn’t kill Smaug with a giant iron spike, but with a faithful black arrow passed onto him from his father. This wouldn’t be such a big deal except that deleting the heirloom means deleting Bard’s lineage, and the movie loses some coolness for not including the fact that Bard is the descendant of Girion, the last lord of Dale (who was killed by Smaug), and so no mere ordinary citizen of Laketown. (If they mentioned this in the second film, I forgot, and they should have brought it up again anyway.)
Sniveling Alfred is pure invention, but he’s an invention that actually works (the only one of PJ’s to do so). His character is believable, serving as a foil for Bard and highlighting Tolkien’s theme of love for gold vs. love for home, fellowship, and honest enjoyment of good spoil. The only thing I’d criticize is that in substituting Alfred for the Master of the town (who survives in the book), you lose an even better chance to behold Bard’s greatness as he continues to serve the man who, given Bard’s true heritage, does not hold any real authority over him. The original Bard, he who should be lord of Dale, is more striking for this loyalty.
Thorin is a kingly success in nearly every scene: holing himself up in the mountain, sitting on his treasure, suspecting his own friends, turning on his word, nearly killing Bilbo; even a few isolated moments in the final battle were pretty rousing. For the most part, his well-rounded character shows a solid reading between the lines of Tolkien’s fairly cryptic depictions in the book. Thorin really is the Boromir of the story, a role which Richard Armitage’s simmering regality particularly suits.
But better than Smaug, better than Thorin, better even than Bard, is little Bilbo. Peter Jackson moved heaven and earth to accommodate Martin Freeman’s complicated schedule; perhaps he guessed that the subtle, expressive Englishman would almost singlehandedly deliver the adulterated trilogy from utter ignominy. Every Bilbo moment is rich with likeability, especially at Thorin’s death where Freeman, ever the master of the minute and the bitterly personal, basically breaks your heart. Dramatic deaths have been done and overdone, and we’re all rather sick of heart-rent Noooooooooooo!s and histrionic rage. This sad, sad moment surpasses them all with its ordinary, understated grief. It very well may be my favorite scene in the entire trilogy.
So the movie is a mixed bag, but I’d put it with the stronger half of the Tolkien movies alongside The Fellowship of the Ring and the first Hobbit. And for my part, I’m willing to pluck the flies from this ointment and luxuriously enjoy the rest of this last adventure in PJ’s Middle-Earth.