There and Back Again: The Bumpy Ride of “The Hobbit”

By: Susan Howse

When Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was released a solid 13 years ago (dear god, I’m old now), I saw it on New Year’s Eve and was hooked. I adored Peter Jackson‘s portrayal and quickly ate up the other books. I loved how epic Middle Earth spanned, how grand the fight scenes were. Every time Gandalf (Ian McKellen) spoke it was with such impressive purpose and distinct awesomeness that I couldn’t help but automatically think he was a pretty badass old man. I developed a teen girl crush on Orlando Bloom as Legolas, wanted to visit New Zealand and my sister even gave me my own “One Ring” for Christmas. So naturally, when I heard they were making The Hobbit into a live-action film, helmed by Jackson, I was ecstatic.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins.

Then I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and instead of feeling that overwhelming joy I had when I traveled with Frodo and Sam, I felt angry, jilted and cheated out of what I had hoped to be my favourite film of the year. The Hobbit was written as a short, light adventure by JRR Tolkien, and is often found in the Children’s section of any library or book store. It’s whimsical and less serious than any of the LOTR novels. The pacing of the film did not echo that sentiment. Additional chase scenes, frustrating casting choices, and slow musical numbers bothered me throughout. I was annoyed that they amped up the violence and added “scary Orcs” that the prior films had used. Bilbo (portrayed by Martin Freeman in the film) and his gang weren’t chased through middle earth by Azog in the novelization (although Azog’s son Bolg is in the Battle of the Five Armies at the end). In fact, Orcs aren’t really even in the Hobbit. Goblins yes, Orcs no. Why did these chase scenes seem incredibly similar to the ones of the Uruk-hai chasing the Fellowship in LOTR? Were they trying to satisfy the fans of the other films who were expecting epic battles?

And why, dear Peter Jackson why, was Thorin taller and more man-ish than the other dwarves? I get he’s the “King under the Mountain” and all, but stop trying to get a new Aragorn-style dreamboat into this film. Why is Kili (Aidan Turner) so adorable? It’s a kid’s adventure book for Christ sake. Dwarfs are short, have big beards, and typically are not very attractive. Big disappointment there!

Now to mention the singing. I know that there are a lot of songs written in the novels, but the first three films did pretty well without including many of the songs. They incorporated them seamlessly into the plot without making you feel like you were in a musical. The Dwarf sing-along in Bilbo’s house in An Unexpected Journey was completely unnecessary. It could have been a quick verse and a few lines of dialogue to establish that scene. It was just added to extend the run time of the first of a trilogy adapted from a single book that had less pages than the first novel of the LOTR trilogy. I felt like they were capitalizing on fans of LOTR and stringing them along for another few years and another couple of million dollars in revenue. A smart financial move, studios, but that doesn’t mean that I like it.

I'll tell you what, it may be time to move.

I’ll tell you what, it may be time to move.

When it was time to see 2013’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, I was prepared. My expectations were severely lowered and surprisingly I was not as angry this time as I was with the first film. Perhaps, I had given up on my own images of Thorin, perhaps I was just excited to see Smaug and the epic Elvin castle of Mirkwood, or perhaps I had come to grips with the fact that these Hobbit films were not “Hobbit” films, but rather an exploration of middle earth before Frodo, the Fellowship, and the evil eye.

I really enjoyed Bilbo’s interaction with Smaug, the titular Dragon of the film. He was slinky and sly, toying with his little hobbit amidst towers of golden coins. The introduction of humans in the Lake town of Esgaroth and the Mirkwood elves allows for some interesting interactions between different middle earth races and the prejudices/angry history that exist between them. The side stories of Gandalf learning more about Sauron adds fuel to the mythos of Middle Earth while the ending of the film, with Smaug heading towards Lake Town to exact revenge, really amps you up for the final film.

Don’t get me wrong, The Desolation of Smaug has its shortcomings. Having the delightful Stephen Fry in a role was a tasty, but unfulfilling treat. The best part of the film (and the most hyped) was Smaug. Why was he left so little screen time while the never-ending barrel riding sequence took up footage? Another lazy chase scene, seemingly added just to burn film. Yawn, get to the dragon already! The fight scene with the Orcs in Esgaroth was equally annoying (re: my anger with them even being in this film from the first installment) as well as ridiculous. Wouldn’t more people in the town wake up and fight if they heard all that ruckus going on?

The addition of the elves Legolas and Turiel was another departure from the books. Being a big fan of Legolas and his wicked bow skills, I was willing to let this slide. In fact, I was initially excited to see him. However, on the flip side, I felt a bit wary that the only reason they brought him back was because of his popularity in the first three films. As well, the addition of Turiel, (played by Evangeline Lilly of Lost fame), seemed like it was only there to add some femininity to an otherwise male dominated cast (similar to the expanded role of Liv Tyler’s Arwen in the LOTR saga). A part of me liked seeing more ass-kicking female characters, but I think many females enjoyed reading The Hobbit without the need for additional characters created with the sole premise of equal screen time for each gender.

That brings us to now. With my feathers ruffled by the first film but my intrigue sparked by the second, I was wary but hopeful about the third movie. I went to The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies with my popcorn and severely lowered expectations, and you know what.

It wasn’t as bad as I feared.

We have to go over... where?!

We have to go over… where?!

The pacing in Five Armies is well balanced and enjoyable. This is partly due to the plot, as gone are the shots of walking, walking, walking and replaced by SWORDS! AND DRAGONS! AND ARROWS! AND FIGHTING! The film picks up exactly where it left off: a pissed off Smaug heading straight for the poor schmucks in Esgaroth. That battle was probably my favourite of the film and kicks everything off with a bang. It does lag near the conclusion (was there a conclusion?), but that’s so classic Peter Jackson by this point (Hello, Return of the King) that you would be shocked if it didn’t.

Without spoilers, the right characters died (as per the novelization), the elves were badass in battle as always, and the inter-species love angle wasn’t as over-the-top as it could have been and didn’t take away from the main point of the film. The main point being not just a battle between good guys (Elves, Dwarves, Humans) and bad guys (Orcs/Sauron’s forces), but rather the conflict between the power, money and honour. Richard Armitage’s portrayal of Thorin struggling with the madness of wealth and his prior promises is his strongest in all of the Hobbit films and I finally understood why he was chosen for this role. In addition, Freeman as Bilbo is again a solid grounding presence, lending small-scale humanity to a film that is heavy on the epic.

It wasn’t perfect. There were a few points where I thought the narrative would expand and it didn’t (especially the parts in regards to the rise of Sauron) and a couple of confusing locations were name dropped (Gunda-where?). Perhaps they were slotted in to please the nit-picky fans like myself, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t explain the connection to the overall story! The Eagles and Beorn did not get the standing ovation that they deserved. However, the absolute worst part of this film was Alfrid. Please watch it and tell me why he was given so much screen time without any resolution, basically becoming the Jar-Jar Binks of Middle-Earth.

The Battle of the Five Armies wasn’t amazing, but it was the best of the bunch. It is nowhere near as good as any of the original LOTR films, but I guess it’s the closest we’re going to get. I wonder if Peter Jackson will ever really hang up his Tolkien hat and if we are destined for some post-Ring tales in the next ten years. In the meantime, you can go see The Hobbit franchise or better yet, read the book and imagine it all in your head (trust me, you’ll probably do a better job).

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