If you’ve ever found yourself wondering what J.R.R. Tolkien himself would have thought of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, a six-film, decade-and-half-long pop culture event culminating this Christmas Season with the finale of The Hobbit trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies, then you should wonder no longer: he would have loathed them.
One can’t be absolutely sure, of course, but that’s the impression one gets after reading Tolkien’s Letters, in which the author comes off as rather prickly about proposed adaptations of his work (see, for example, Tolkien’s stiff opinions about possible collaboration with Walt Disney). Not that Tolkien was morally and philosophically opposed to adaptations of what he liked to call his “stuff.” Many fans of Tolkien may not be aware that in 1968 he sold to United Artists the film, stage, and (wait for it) merchandising rights to both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit for a figure of just over 100,000 pounds. That’s millions in today’s money, and it doesn’t include the 7.5% royalty interest Tolkien retained in any future adaptations.
I don’t mention this in a spirit of trying to expose a great author’s baser instincts. I think it’s perfectly natural and right in the age of cinema and television for an author, especially of Tolkien’s stature, to want to see his work translated into these media. Though it may be, as has been reported, that Tolkien’s contract with United Artists was motivated solely by tax pressures, I hope that he also saw the fittingness of adapting the world of Middle-Earth to other media, and especially the big screen. After all, if an author is going to invite us to visit another world entirely, then why not allow us to bring as many senses as we can?
That the film rights Tolkien sold to United Artists eventually came into the possession of New Line Cinema, was, contrary to what we might imagine Tolkien himself thinking, the most fortunate thing to happen to Tolkien’s literary legacy since his death in 1973. For it was, of course, New Line who hired Peter Jackson to adapt The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy of films, the enormous global success of which, ten years or so later, inspired the making of a prequel film trilogy of The Hobbit.
Peter Jackson rose to prominence as a young Kiwi filmmaker by making splatter horror films. (His very first film was the aptly named Bad Taste.) While Jackson’s first aesthetic love for the pleasures of excess has certainly been combined over the years with more mature tastes, that weakness nonetheless has remained. The decision–admittedly not Jackson’s alone–to make The Hobbit as a trilogy is a prime case in point. The Hobbit is a marvelous adventure story, primarily intended for children, with suitable material for one really good two-and-a-half hour film. Stretching the material into three movies handicapped the adaptation from the outset, inviting many ridiculous excesses on Jackson’s part. The one-hour of dwarf shenanigans preceding the first-act break in the opening installment of The Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, is one instance that springs readily to mind. But the absolute nadir of Jackson’s entire involvement with Tolkien’s material came in the second installment of The Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug. The absurdity of the fight sequence involving Legolas and the (invented) elf lady-warrior Tauriel in the barrel scene was outdone only by the dwarf-flight from Smaug (involving the molten gold ploy) at the climax. The Desolation of Smaug was Jacksonian excess at its most refined, an excess that was probably hard to avoid with the source material stretched, as Tolkien might say, like butter scraped over too much bread.
And yet, The Battle of the Five Armies somewhat recaptures the glories of Jackson’s approach to Tolkien, an approach that reached its zenith in the culminating film of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King. Yes, there are glories to Jackson’s approach to Tolkien. It might be thought providential that full-scale film adaptations of Tolkien’s works were not attempted until the era of CGI and the maestros at Weta Workshop were around to work their magic. With these tools at his disposal, Jackson, with a coterie of very fine actors and artists, has allowed us to experience Middle-Earth in an extraordinarily imaginative way, meanwhile inspiring myriad people to encounter Tolkien’s writing on their own. Despite its drawbacks, The Battle of the Five Armies reminds us again how exciting and edifying for us Jackson has made Tolkien’s world.
Likely because it is the third part of a trilogy, in which a storyteller is obliged to tidy up all the loose ends, The Battle of the Five Armies has less padding and fewer absurd action sequences than one would have expected after seeing its predecessors. Though the source material, in my edition of The Hobbit, is only a little less than 70 pages out of nearly 330, the film, because it has an ultimate climax to achieve, is more narratively focused. Even when it comes to the battle sequences, Jackson hits the golden mean between excess and deficiency just about right.
These battle sequences, though filled with cartoon epic violence, are more often thrilling than not, and the final confrontation between Thorin and Azog springs some welcome surprises. Moreover, though the scene in which Galadriel confronts Sauron missed its moment, and the scene of Thorin’s victory over his own gold sickness needed a dramatic correlative outside his mind, these defects are redeemed by Martin Freeman’s wonderful portrayal of Bilbo Baggins, Richard Armitage’s Thorin Oakenshield, Luke Evans’ Bard, Lee Pace’s Thranduil, and, the anchor of all six films, Sir Ian McKellan’s Gandalf. The closing scenes of The Battle of the Five Armies, in which we say goodbye to Bilbo and connect his story up to the Lord of the Rings, are a fitting end to all that Jackson has accomplished over six films.
Indeed, all things considered, Tolkien’s legacy has much to be grateful for in what Peter Jackson has done with it. Both artists, in a way, save one another’s work from its respective excesses. Jackson saves Tolkien’s novels from an excess of legendarium detail at the expense of story, while Tolkien saves Jackson by giving him material of real substance. Since 2001, thanks to both Tolkien and Peter Jackson working together, film audiences have been able to venture into a world governed by virtue, heroism, honor, the priority of home-life over power (as Thorin reminds us in his parting words), and the dignity and efficacy of the “little guy” in a culture of death. It makes one melancholy to have to leave such a golden world. But now that we’ve seen it we will surely, like Bilbo, never be able to forget it.