The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies

The conclusion to Peter Jackson’s Tolkein project is “no more sophisticated than Die Hard, or an episode of Spartacus: Blood & Sand,” says Ian Maleney The Hobbit is a children’s story. Let’s never forget that. I read it first when I was about nine, and remained a Tolkein nut until I was about 16 or 17. There are people however, like Peter Jackson, who would like to present this quaint little adventure story with elves and hairy-footed half-men and big-bearded dwarves as something altogether more adult, altogether more serious. The final instalment in Jackson’s trilogy of Hobbit movies is perfectly suitable for kids in that there’s nothing lewd, shocking or even particularly complex happening in it, but it isn’t quite a “kids movie” so to speak. There’s a sense that this, like all of Jackson’s films, is meant to be taken seriously by grown-ups. It’s meant to be understood as a groundbreaking technical achievement and as story-telling on an epic scale. It’s meant to be real. For the most part this is bunkum. 

After Lord Of The Rings was first published, Tolkein began work on a third edition of the Hobbit. The aim was to further align his first book with the story of the latter trilogy, having addressed some of the main issues – notably Gollum’s character and Bilbo’s acquisition of the ring – in a revision published along with LotR. Tolkein abandoned this first attempt at a third edition because it had apparently lost its light-hearted tone and quick pace, two attributes not easily attributable to LotR. With this latest trilogy, Jackson has gone where Tolkein would not and fully sacrificed the charming sensibility and humour – not to mention the pacing – of the original Hobbit tale in favour of full integration with the overwrought, melodramatic sentimentality of its bigger brother. 

As the title, Battle Of The Five Armies, suggests, this film is essentially one long battle scene. It’s no more sophisticated than Die Hard, or an episode of Spartacus: Blood & Sand. There are momentary breathers where one character looks meaningfully at another, but it’s mostly unrelenting fighting. It gets tiring, all the jumping around – the dramatic sword swinging, the rallying of the troops, the heart-swelling strings. There’s practically no plot beyond who is fighting who at any given minute. Every main character gets a show-stopping one-on-one fight scene, apparently just for the sake of it. In the book, Bilbo gets knocked out and misses a significant part of the action. He’s knocked out here too, at a slightly different time, but the audience is not quite so lucky. 

Underneath the endless slaughter of computer generated creatures lies a sketched-in “money bad/friends good” sub-narrative, though it barely has time to assert itself before being swept away again with dramatic camera angles, splashes of 3D razzamatazz and unlikely feats of daring bravery by elf, man or dwarf. It’s like even Jackson realised there wasn’t enough there to hold up more than a few minutes of screen time – best stick with the swords and bloodshed and let the shadow of the bigger LotR story do the heavy lifting.

The only comedy here, none of it particularly funny, is provided by Ryan Gage’s snivelling Alfrid, and Billy Connolly’s ridiculous cameo as Dain the Dwarf. Martin Freeman’s Bilbo isn’t quite the infuriating misery guts that Elijiah Wood’s Frodo was, but the reeking mawkishness that scars Jackson’s first trilogy is palpable. Love hurts because it’s real. Real friends tell the truth no matter how it hurts. Home means more than gold. All scored by Howard Shore’s syrupy orchestrations, with Jackson’s numbingly florid landscapes as the glinting backdrop. Who could be genuinely moved by any of this, when the film is so damn pushy about it? It’s hard to feel anything except annoyance when you’re being constantly prodded towards a base kind of manufactured empathy. There’s no genuine emotion here, only premeditated simulations of feeling. It’s provocative rather than evocative. 

As a children’s story, The Hobbit is allowed to be heavy-handed. It’s easy to forgive the unlikely plot twists and dei ex machina (or “eucatastophies” as Tolkein would have called them) because it’s a fairy tale meant to spark a child’s imagination – it has no business being realistic. As a serious film, with a serious budget and a serious audience, you have to look at it a different way, and this does neither the plot, nor Jackson’s embellishing of it, any favours. This is a common problem with today’s blockbuster cinema; dressing up children’s stories – superheroes, vigilantes, fairy tales – as mass-market entertainment is a strategy which must inevitably prove hollow and cheap. These kinds of films are indulgences, almost robotic in their parroting of cliche, ironically leaving nothing to the imagination. 

They also tell us a lot about the loss of childhood in contemporary culture, where the innocence and unfettered imagination of youth is mined to make adults feel better about themselves and less conflicted about their lives. In the process, the idea of youth as an time free of complicity in the machinations of capital is eroded. This is Disneyfication in action, where every experience is a branded experience. There is no version of the Hobbit but Jackson’s one – it consumes even the original. Who can imagine a different-looking Bilbo now, a different Frodo? What child can imagine a Harry Potter that isn’t Daniel Radcliffe? These “official” movies (and the accompanying paraphernalia) fix the images and stories, make them safe, replicable and saleable. If the basic theme of all Tolkein’s work is a wilfully naive rejection of the consumerist values of the industrial revolution in favour of an Apollonian countryside existence, a snubbing of the machined in favour of the hand-made, then the corruption of children’s stories, of his beloved folk tales and myths, at the hands of the global entertainment industry can be understood as a betrayal of the author’s core beliefs. The end result is a product that appeals not to any sense of common, immaculate, hope-filled humanity, as Tolkein would have wished, but to the desirous and cynical child in all of us. This is a film for the insatiable little beast that craves and craves but knows it cannot be satisfied; the tottering, spoon-fed babe who sees a king in the mirror.

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