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Confessions of a Middle-Earth apologist.
I’ve spent the last five years’ worth of my breath defending the decision to divide JRR Tolkien’s classic children’s book into multiple cinematic epics. People complain that they’re bloated, overpopulated and stretched out; I disputed that. For the most part, my argument has taken the form of “If you read the novel and appendices, you’ll see there is enough material to justify multiple movies. Wait until the final film is out, then give me your unreserved opinion. But I have faith in Jackson.” I’ve been guilty of judging films before they were released, and have been proven wrong. I am equally wary of fully embracing a film before it is released – I’ve been burned by hype many times, as have we all.
However, this was a special case. For even after the much-maligned An Unexpected Journey came out and disappointed many, I supported the three-film hypothesis. I genuinely enjoyed Jackson’s first entry in this trilogy and saw it twice in the cinema – and even in high frame rate 3D. This time, I was sure that the critics were onto a loser: Jackson would prove himself, and my faith in him, to be correct.
See, the main complaints that people had about An Unexpected Journey were, to me and many other fans, actually treats. Yes, the narrative didn’t move far enough given its 169-minute length; but the spectacle, sense of place, gorgeous score and characters made it worthwhile. It could have been shorter, but what would you have taken out? The whole Riddles In The Dark sequence? The entire set-up of the plot in the Shire? I’d rather leave all that in for my £15 ticket, please. It was simply as if, back in 2001, New Line Cinema had released the Extended Edition of The Fellowship Of The Ring instead of ever making a Theatrical Edition – the extended film is infinitely richer, though the theatrical cut is much more focused and structurally tighter. Therefore I rejoiced in the slightly sloppy Hobbit film. Even when its inevitable extended edition came out, I uttered the same defence to its critics. The fact that Jackson added merely 15 minutes to it seemed, in my mind, to support my argument: we were being spoiled in the cinema with this new trilogy, by being given the opportunity to enjoy the (almost) complete experience on the biggest screens available, rather than having to settle for our TVs and laptops to view the definitive versions, as we had with The Lord Of The Rings a decade ago.
My opinion began to change with the release of The Desolation Of Smaug. You see, my defence of Jackson’s meticulously faithful adaptation and expansion of Tolkien’s slim book only works if the material he adapts and adds is of good quality. Jackson seems to have missed this point: cue an awkward love triangle, interminable and cartoonish action scenes, some truly awful dialogue and iffy plotting. Adaptations can be drastically different and imaginatively altered from the source material if the changes improve the story. When a short story, novel or comic book is adapted to the screen and changed to facilitate subplots the author never intended, then those subplots should not invite plot holes or continuity errors. Above all else, they cannot be trite.
Sadly this was the case with The Desolation Of Smaug. In particular, Jackson’s addition of animated action figures called Legolas and Tauriel to the narrative is deeply flawed. Yes, it makes sense to add Legolas since he would have been present during the events, and Tolkien retrospectively admitted this. It also makes sense to add Tauriel because Tolkien’s novel seriously lacks any feminine presence. So why did the Middle-Earth creative team immediately degrade their freshest – and arguably most feminist – character by sticking her straight into a love triangle? Maybe I could forgive it if the romance were well written and bore some significance in the final chapter. But it isn’t, and it doesn’t. Meanwhile, Orlando Bloom and his digital double rock up for some stupidly choreographed fights that extend the running time and do little else. There’s a bit more reason for them to be in the final film, but they could easily have been removed from the entire trilogy.
This then led me to reflect on An Unexpected Journey. How exactly does it benefit from the decision to make three films? The answer is, it doesn’t really. The major advantages to any filmmaker adapting The Hobbit book is that its characters, aside from Bilbo and Gandalf, have little to no personality; and its climactic battle is largely skipped through a cheeky plot device by Tolkien. Since Jackson gave himself an entire film to deal with the battle, you might expect the first and second films to properly develop the other characters from Tolkien’s book. Instead, Jackson relies upon our familiarity with his earlier trilogy to define the returning characters of Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel and Saruman. Meanwhile, the dwarves are left languishing in obscurity: barely half of them are given any clear personality or arc, and only one of those – Richard Armitage’s Thorin – is a character in his own right, the others all being defined by their relationship to him or by their physical appearance. It is any viewer’s greatest achievement if, by the end of the trilogy, they can even name each dwarf, let alone recount any favourite character beats or particular personalities for each one. It is a hugely wasted opportunity.
The films’ one major victory is their treatment of the titular hero: our hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. Excepting the fact he behaves a lot like Watson from Sherlock, Bilbo is given real vigour by Martin Freeman. The audience can read the bewilderment becoming wit on Freeman’s face as he grows in experience on this three-part adventure, and his journey from fearful halfling to reluctant hero is completely convincing. What’s more, Freeman manages to make Bilbo his own and comfortably occupy Ian Holm’s hairy feet. It is therefore a shame that, especially by the end of The Battle Of The Five Armies, Bilbo feels very much like a supporting character in his own adventure. Yet to his credit, Jackson was wise enough to begin and end his trilogy with Bilbo sitting in his home under the hill.
So, now that the grand finale to “The Middle-Earth Saga” is out and and we can reflect on it, we can ask: Was the three-film structure worth it? Frankly, no. For once all the pre-condemning naysayers were right. That’s not to say it’s a terrible trilogy. It isn’t: in fact there is a lot to love, and I will enjoy watching all three films again. But unlike three years ago, when I urged fans and critics alike to bide their time and give the filmmakers a chance, I now want to urge Peter Jackson to review his treatment of Tolkien’s modest tale. Rather than three two-and-a-half-hour films, Tolkien would have been better served by two three-hour films trimmed of most of the fat. No love triangle, no overlong CGI setpieces, and no surplus comedy relief: just concentrate on the plentiful roster of characters the book and appendices already gave us. Somehow Jackson achieved it over a decade ago with a much more epic tale. It’s a pity he couldn’t do it again now.