Monday, December 22, 2014

You And Five Armies

It is finished! By now it’s become traditional for me to watch Middle-earth movies at the earliest possible moment, and I have now completed the cycle with a showing at the Metreon IMAX in San Francisco. On a related note, pre-ordered tickets with assigned seating are the best thing to happen to movies since the invention of digital streaming.

I really liked the movie a lot. This shouldn’t be shocking; I’ve enjoyed all of these films, including the ones that “book fans” have lambasted due to their infidelity to the source material, and those which movie buffs have slammed due to their long running time. I love Middle-earth, and treasure every extra minute I get to spend in that world.

In some ways, The Battle of the Five Armies is an outlier among the six extant works. In particular, it has by far the fewest introductions of new locations. Every other movie has sweeping, panoramic, swelling, majestic unveilings of stunning landscapes: the Shire, Bree, Rivendell, Caradhas, Moria, Lorien, Rohan, the dead fens, the Black Gate, Mordor, Gondor, Minas Tirith, Pelennor Fields, Mount Doom, the trollshaws, the Misty Mountains, Goblintown, Mirkwood, Laketown, the Lonely Mountain. In contrast, TBotFA has a very narrow focus, almost entirely taking place in a limited area around Erebor, and virtually every location we see was previously introduced near the end of The Desolation of Smaug. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but did stand out to me.

On the other hand, the available space is used incredibly effectively, almost entirely with the eponymous battle. I haven’t confirmed how much time it takes up in the movie, but it certainly feels like more than half. I’ve heard some complaints over the length of the battle, but personally, I loved it. Frankly, I think that battle scenes are Peter Jackson’s greatest strengths. Often, when he films short skirmishes, I get disoriented and have trouble following the action. As the scale of an encounter increases, though, he seems to grow more confident and assured. Looking back over his films, I’m really impressed at how artfully and efficiently he’s able to communicate the physical space where a battle is taking place, how the forces are arrayed against one another, and follow the ebb and flow of attacks, retreats, rallies, and routs. More than a decade later, the Battle of Helm’s Deep remains an awesome sequence, and The Battle of Pelannor Fields and Battle of the Five Armies are of the same caliber.


In general, the movie is very faithful to the events of the book and the appendices. Everyone who’s supposed to die does so. The White Council’s assault on Dol Goldur was explained but not described by Tolkien, and I was happy with how they portrayed it here: the arrival of the Council, their varied application of martial and magical powers, and their ultimate victory in battle that nonetheless presaged a far more hopeless war. My single favorite part was probably Cate Blachett’s stunning performance as Galadriel, recalling a fantastic scene from Fellowship of the Ring and nicely expressing some great ringlore. I was also happy with how they handled Saruman’s role at the end; I’d been a bit worried that it would be too on-the-nose, either showing his corruption or hammily predicting it. Instead, it was a wonderfully subtle thing, in which we see Saruman’s immense pride, and recognize that it will lead to his downfall even while the remaining council members fail to see it.

In contrast, I was slightly annoyed with Legolas’s ending. The whole “Oh, you should totally go check out this ranger fellow! I have the feeling you two will become GOOD FRIENDS” was too meta and jokey for my tastes. But, again, I’ve just gotten in the habit at rolling my eyes at everything Legolas does and not letting it bother me too much. He has more of those trademark ridiculous action shots here, which by this point are completely expected.

The fate I was most anxious to learn was Tauriel's. Ever since her introduction in the second part, I knew that this was going to be a tragic story: in the book, Kili falls in the battle, and I was almost certain they would keep that in the movie. Since Tauriel is an invented character, though, I was less certain about her: would she and Kili perish in one another's arms for maximum anguish? Or would Kili heroically sacrifice himself to save her? I was happy with how they wrapped up this subplot, glad to see that Tauriel survived and would make her own way in the world, independent of Thranduil and Legolas. (And, incidentally, I will not be the slightest bit surprised if she pops up in a video game in the future, a development I would certainly welcome.)

Probably the most pleasant surprise for me, though, was how faithfully the filmmakers maintained the dark overtones of the book's climax. It's true that, in general, the movie has been much darker than the original children's story. However, the book sets up a really distressing scenario near the end: the dwarves are too stubborn to pay restitution to the men who suffered for their activities; the men and elves seem greedy for the dwarves' treasure; and all of these people who we've grown to like are swept into a pointless war against one another. It's very sad, and also very evocative of what seems like a timeless truth in our world: people and nations who gain power seem to quickly lose their kindness, turning harsh and craving ever more control. And, while it's emphatically not an allegory, I can't help but wonder if Tolkien was influenced, even subconsciously, by the exceedingly pointless First World War in which he himself suffered.

The movie does a great job at capturing this dynamic, focusing much of its attention on Thorin's slide from noble striver to despot. What's so great, and so tragic, about the conflict is that you can see how each faction can believe itself to be in the right. The dwarves were driven from their homes, and simply wish to reclaim what is theirs. The men have lost everything, and simply wish fair repayment for their losses in supporting the dwarves. And Thranduil just wants the gems that he paid for hundreds of years ago.

And yet, the dwarves harbor an eternal grudge against the elves for failing to defend them from Smaug. The elves and men blame the dwarves for inadvertently luring the dragon there in the first place. One can easily imagine a reasonable resolution to the disagreement, with modest payments made and the dwarves still maintaining a ridiculously large sum of wealth; yet extremism has set in, and once Thorin begins denouncing others, it becomes increasingly difficult to back down from his position. And so a war that absolutely should not happen lurches towards its inception.

I had a theory which I developed in junior high, about how the only thing that can convince groups of people to stop fighting and work together is to unite against a common foe. In my favored example, Wales was filled with various tribes, who found against one another until they were threatened by England, at which point they united together. England and Wales shared animosity, until Great Britain started to fight against France and other powers, at which point the two countries became more or less integrated. England and France were famously antagonistic, until World War 2 forces them into an alliance, which definitively ended a near-millennium of periodic wars between them. They formed the basis for an alliance against the Soviet Bloc, including nations such as East Germany. After the Soviet Union fell, the threat of a dominant United States encouraged England, France and Germany to join together to form an economic community. And so on.

All that to say, it's very believable that, while these three factions of the Free Peoples were ready and willing to shed one another's blood, the thing that finally pulled them back together was a foe common to all of them: an army of goblins, which in the movie is explicitly linked to a major push by Sauron to seize territory in the North and open up a route between his southern orcs and those of Gundabad. Once the goblins arrive on the scene, the belligerents instantly realize that their priorities have been wrong, and begin working together against their common enemy.

In an odd way, I think my very favorite scene from this third movie might be Thorin's final duel with Azog: not because it's exciting or climactic (it is), but because of how thoroughly and subtly it unifies characterization, plot arc, and theme. The scene which probably got the biggest reaction from the audience in my theater was when Thorin grabbed the flail's end, then tossed it back to Azog; Azog catches it, there's a beat, and then the ice floe he's standing on slowly tips over and he falls into the water. It got a big laugh because it's so well shot, perfectly timed, and was so unexpected while in retrospect making perfect sense. But I especially love it because of how, with no dialogue, it shows Thorin evolving past his earlier inexorable greed. Thorin was holding on to something that was damaging him. By giving it up, he can save himself.

I would have been happy if Azog had died there. Unfortunately, without significantly altering the ending of the book they had no choice but to kill off Thorin, and so Azog makes a nasty, brutal return to the fight. Here, too, there's no speech, but Thorin's final actions convey so much meaning. He struggles for so long, even though the struggle is hopeless and only brings him pain. In the end, though, he surrenders, ceasing his struggle; and, in doing so, he's finally able to eliminate the source of his trouble. Thorin dies, but at least he dies a good dwarf, completely redeemed from his earlier mistakes.

Final comment: As I seem to constantly insist on noting, Tolkien's stories are not allegories. If they were, they would be so much less. However, since they are written so well and seem to get at eternal truths, they appear endlessly applicable to contemporary situations. Because of the time in which I live and the time in which these movies have come out, I've always been drawn towards seeing in them a reflection of America's military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of 2001. That analogy hit me particularly hard in this movie, as I suddenly had a near-epiphany: "Oh my gosh, the United States is exactly like the elves of Mirkwood!" As shown in the movie, the elves are a large, strong, powerful force; however, Thranduil is obsessed with protecting his own borders, and reluctant to extend himself abroad. He goes forth in a military adventure initially motivated by economic concerns; allies eventually persuade him to help defend others against a savage foe; but once his own soldiers begin to fall, he immediately loses his nerve, and prepares to fall back to his own land, leaving others to continue fighting in the battle.

Again, Thranduil is not a villain, and his motivations do make sense: he's one of the few to have experienced a true World War, and has no taste for such conflicts. Likewise, the United States has tried to follow a course it believes in, striking a balance between the good it thinks it can achieve and the cost it is willing to bear. And none of this was at all on Tolkien's mind when he wrote his books, and I'm not sure if it was even on Peter Jackson's mind when writing this script, but it affected me much more than any film specifically about the recent wars has.


Well, this is it! We've had six enjoyable adaptations of Tolkien's books, which is six more than I thought I'd see in my lifetime. The Hobbit has certainly had a rougher path than the Lord of the Rings - due to the differing tone of source material and film, heightened expectations, and significant pushback from fans and the movie industry - but I think it's a remarkable achievement. It has started to bring some of Tolkien's deeper lore out to an audience that has not encountered it before, and given us some wonderful visual realizations of the beautiful worlds Tolkien created with his words.

The most controversial aspect of The Hobbit remains its additions to the source material. Some of these have worked well, some have not, but I think it's something that we'll be seeing more and more of in the future. After all, sooner or later the books' copyrights will expire, and, assuming they're still popular in the future, we might see an explosion of adaptations, not unlike the myriad versions we have of various fairy tales and medieval legends. Time will tell how well these films stand up, but from my perspective, they are destined to become stone-cold classics.

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