Friday, December 26, 2014

There and Back Again

Martin Freeman in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

There's a scene near the very end of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014, directed by Peter Jackson) that highlights the sheer folly of splitting J.R.R. Tolkien's novel into three gargantuan movies. The major events are over and Bilbo Baggins has returned to The Shire only to find that his greedy relations have taken possession of his house at Bag End. He catches them in the midst of auctioning off his household belongings. After chasing them off, he surveys the damage and finds his handkerchief. This is a call-back to the first movie, when, at the outset of his journey with the dwarfs, Bilbo tries to halt things so he can go back for his missing handkerchief. The only reason I caught this is because a friend of mine invited me to one of the marathon showings of all three movies. Otherwise, I would have missed the symmetry of this scene because An Unexpected Journey would have been two years in the past. As it was, the object of the callback was still nine hours in the past, nearly forgotten. Tolkien's quaint adventure story has become such a massive white elephant (white Mumak? Maybe) in these movies that niceties like handkerchiefs often get overwhelmed.

The Battle of the Five Armies picks up where The Desolation of Smaug leaves off, with the dragon in the air and heading toward Laketown. It jumps headlong into the action as Smaug razes the wooden town and Bard the Bowman fells him with the Black Arrow that's the heirloom of his house. Meanwhile, back under the Lonely Mountain, Thorin searches in vain for the Arkenstone, increasingly unhinged by the "dragon sickness" that accompanies the vast wealth of Erebor. He's nursing his grudges like an oyster polishing a pearl. Bilbo, for his part has found the Arkenstone and is keeping it secret from his friends. He doesn't like what the idea of the jewel is doing to Thorin. At Dol Guldur, Gandalf is still the captive of The Necromancer, now revealed to be Sauron returned. The armies of The Necromancer march on The Lonely Mountain led by the white orc, Azog. At Laketown, the straggling survivors of Smaug's onslaught regroup and head toward the ruined city of Dale and the gates of Erebor to petition aid from Thorin and to seek shelter. They are met by an army of elves, led by Thranduil of Mirkwood, intent on reclaiming their own heirlooms from the dragon's treasure. They are met by the obstinance of Thorin, who resents everyone at his gates for failing--in his mind--to come to his aid. He holds a particular grudge against Thranduil, and vows that he will never part with a single coin. This all appalls Bilbo Baggins, who hardly recognizes the dwarf he followed into the wild. He takes matters into his own hands. The White Council--Sauruman, Galadriel, and Elrond force the Necromancer's hand and drive him from Dol Guldur, freeing Gandalf, who speeds to the mountain with dire warnings of what's to come. An army of dwarfs arrives at the foot of the mountain, led by Thorin's cousin, Dain, and the recriminations threaten to erupt into open war. This spells disaster, for the orcs are upon them all...

Richard Armitage in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

The adjective that best describes The Battle of the Five Armies is "exhausting." It's a film that recalls Sam Goldwyn, who once said, "We want a story that starts out with an earthquake and works its way up to a climax." That's Peter Jackson's M.O.: An ever escalating expansion of stakes and scale. A dragon razing a city isn't enough for you? Well, soon the screen will be covered with massive battle scenes involving thousands up on thousands of (virtual) soldiers. And if that's not enough for you, well, we'll throw a whole bunch of monsters in for good measure. Jackson is nothing if not generous with his imagination. The scale is so enormous by the end that it tends to obscure the fact that the moral dilemma at the center of the story is actually fairly small in scale and comes down to two characters. Bilbo, of course. The movie is titled "The Hobbit," after all. By the end of the second film, Bilbo had found his courage and in the third finds his wisdom. The events of the film ideally hinge on his decision to use the Arkenstone as leverage against Thorin's growing madness. Great fantasy, someone once wrote, is about the powerless finding power within themselves. That's Bilbo's burden throughout these films and in a better version would be their primary thesis. Thorin's madness is the film's other central concern, and when it chooses to focus on him, it's occasionally inspired. The scene where he imagines himself drowning in gold is the sort of terrifying vision that first hinted that Jackson's films weren't going to be twee fantasy kitsch when The Fellowship of the Ring first appeared. This film's shares more DNA in common with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre than it does with King Kong. The psychodrama is more compelling than the spectacle.

Unfortunately, there's a LOT of spectacle.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

The eponymous battle occupies but a single chapter in the novel, but here occupies an hour and a half of screen time, coming on the heels of the sequences where Smaug is laid low by Bard and when Sauron is driven from Dol Guldur by the White Council (and where Galadriel goes all Dark Phoenix on his ass). There's barely any time for the themes that are central to the book. The film also shoehorns in the unconvincing romance between elf maiden Tauriel and Dwarf Kili, a sequence that could have provided Evangeline Lily with a complex role in the film, but which instead ends tragically and unconvincingly, with the actress left to play a hackneyed death scene and aftermath. This is the worst addition to the story, but a close second are the Arrakis Sandworms that make an appearance late in the battle. I swear, when those things appeared, I wanted to shout "Usul, we have wormsign the likes of which even God has never seen!", but then I remembered that that was another movie. The existence of these creatures calls into question a number of plot points from The Lord of the Rings, which is not something you want the audience thinking about while you connect the dots between this trilogy of films and that one. More troubling is the fact that there's never a clear idea of who the central villain is in this film. Is it Sauron? Is it Azog? Azog appears to be the prime mover at the end of the film, and he's provided with the multiple endings. He's this film's version of The Terminator, who lives through multiple deaths to kill Thorin.

Martin Freeman and Ken Stott in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

And yet, I don't hate this film either in the parts or in the whole. I think there's a lot of work in watching them to separate the signal from the noise, but the signal is strong enough even when the noise is threatening to drown it out. I realize that this isn't The Hobbit you'll find in the book of that name. It's a revision designed to incorporate all of Professor Tolkien's later elaborations (though I still don't know where the sandworms came from). The study of this stuff is the nerd/fan version of Talmudic scholarship. I can live with it, particularly in light of the fact that Tolkien himself tried to revise The Hobbit into something grander and less quaint once he connected it to The Lord of the Rings. So it's in the spirit of the original material even if it's more unsatisfying.

Ian McKellen in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

And, realistically, what's good about this movie (and these movies generally) is really good. The level of craft involved is staggering, and there are moments when the deepest mythological moments ring true. Bilbo and Thorin's reconciliation is played marvelously. So is the death of Smaug. On the whole, it hits the story marks eventually, even as it wanders far afield after its own imp of the perverse. When the film focuses on Bilbo and his moral dilemma, the film is at its best. This is the heart of the story and even waves and waves of orcs can't completely obscure this. It makes for a nice thematic rhyme with Frodo's struggle with The One Ring in the next story and it's suggestive of the strength of hobbits and the things they value: home, food, friends, growing things. The film manages to smuggle this into its massive machine from time to time: the acorn that Bilbo hoards when Thorin is looking for the Arkenstone is one of the film's subtlest symbols. The scant scenes between Gandalf and Bilbo are good, too, in which Gandalf is astonished and delighted in the person that Bilbo has become. Bilbo is the power broker in this film even if politics are overwhelmed by the battle at the end. It's bittersweet that Thorin eventually overcomes his own demons and bad behavior only to have time run out for him, but that's one of the best parts of the story. Greed devours everyone, and you don't necessarily need The Ring of Power for it to happen. The Ring is merely a metaphor, after all. This is all the signal behind the noise. Sometimes it's faint, but it's never absent.

One sour note: There's a sequence near the end of the film in which the weaselly deputy of the Master of Laketown is shown hiding with the women and children. He's found a stash of loot and in order to make off with it, he does himself up in drag with boobs made of gold coins. As longtime readers may already know, I hate "man in a dress" jokes, and this one is no less odious. Even taking into account that The Hobbit is a broader and earthier book than The Lord of the Rings, the last thing in the world I expect from a Tolkien adaptation is pointless transphobia, but here it is. Fuck this shit.

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