What is the key to a successful Middle-Earth movie? Using bombast and spectacle to drown shortcomings of plot, character and dialogue.
This is something that I’ve come to realize about the entire sextet of movies directed by Peter Jackson, including the original trilogy. It’s not even his fault, really. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books were epics in the truest sense – they were intended to be a mythopoeia for the British Isles, and as such were less concerned with the human condition than they were with constructing a grandiose and sweeping narrative that could become a sort of British national myth. To modern literary sensibilities, Tolkien’s dialogue was portentous and bombastic, his treatment of women and other races and cultures benignly clumsy at best, reflexive racism at worst.
How did Peter Jackson step in to adapt the Lord of the Rings to a more modern, general audience, weaned on a diet of modern narrative tropes? Simple. He grafted them onto the movies, even when they didn’t fit, and even when they left more holes than they started. Characters like Faramir and Treebeard were reduced and given character flaws to round them out. Relationship dynamics were given more attention, like that of Frodo, Sam and Gollum. Plot details that didn’t quite fit the epic mold were simplified and glossed over, like Tom Bombadil’s disappearance from the plot. The problem with these alterations is that they are often not sufficiently well-thought out, and leave narrative holes that strain the bounds of credulity. The spectacle of the movies, however, in all their earnest and bombastic splendor, makes up for it. The cinematography, pacing, tension, music of the huge battle scenes, or of dramatic moments – those fit the cinematic medium in a pleasing, satisfying manner. They raise goosebumps and delight the senses.
I think the Hobbit movies never quite reached the levels of the Lord of the Rings movies because Peter Jackson made the choice to make them as meaty and epic as the originals. He didn’t have that much source material to work with – one children’s book and a bunch of appendices. He had to improvise, fill in the gaps with invented villains, character arcs and dramatic moments to pad out the length of the movies to the point where they could serve as creditable prequels to the originals. This time, though, given the paucity of the source material, the failures of these improvisations are more starkly obvious. And given that this is an adaptation of a children’s book, some of the elements of the plot don’t translate well into a more sober, adult medium.
There’s the whole drumming up of the conflict between humans, dwarves and elves over the treasure, for example, which strikes me as somewhat childish in the greater scheme of things – something lifted more out of a fable or morality play than an adult epic fantasy. There’s the hackneyed romance between Tauriel and Kili, which sometimes reaches Anakin-Padme levels of incredulity. There’s the odd insertion of the fanservicey scene showing the battle between Galadriel, Elrond and Saruman against Sauron and the Nazgul, which makes no sense to the plot and feels out of place to the rest of the narrative. There’s Smaug taking minutes to deliver a smug (ha! geddit?) gloating victory speech over Bard while he’s preparing the fatal iron arrow. There’s Thorin’s scene in the throne room, perhaps the oddest scene in the movie, where he stares at his reflection in a pool of gold and experiences a hallucination of him spiraling into its molten depths while hearing the myriad voices of his conscience, upon which he abruptly comes back to his senses and prepares for his triumphant final rally.
Ironically, the most affecting performance of the movie is Martin Freeman’s, as Bilbo. The hobbits have always been a moderating influence to the bombast of the movies, and it’s the same here. Freeman gives perhaps the most moving and honest portrayal in the movie. His concern for Thorin, his grief over his death, and his very British displeasure at having his home burrow despoiled are elements of the mundane that really give the movie its essential humanity and authenticity.
The movie’s set-pieces are agreeably epic and goosebumps-inducing, though. It almost- but not quite- makes up for the glaring tonal and plot lapses of the movie. All of the trademark slow-motion shots, tracking shots showcasing some gorgeous New Zealand vistas, or soaring over a CGI battlefield, of dramatic sunsets and burning cities and clashing armies and those amazingly well-coordinated elvish soldiers and bridge-charges where preternaturally powerful war-pigs fling hapless orc soldiers into the water – they are here in force, although, again, some liberties are taken with realism. Like how trolls suddenly fall dead to a smattering of arrows after the battle is reclaimed by the good guys, or how a ragtag group of barely-trained fishermen could hold back an orcish assault on an undefended city so long. During such scenes, it’s best to rest that cerebral part of the brain and engage the visceral. Enjoy the spectacle and splendor, the bombast and the larger-than-life posturings of the heroes and villains.
Then, go home and binge obsessively on LOTR lore on the internet.
I give this movie: 3 out of 5 one rings