By James Hancock December 16th, 2014
To say I’m a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien is an understatement. I cherish his work and have read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion many times over. I grew up watching the 1977 animated “The Hobbit” on repeat and tried to infuse my countless hours playing Dungeons & Dragons with as much of Tolkien’s style, lore and atmosphere as humanly possible. When Peter Jackson unleashed “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring” onto the world in 2001, I was there for the first screening and many screenings after. With “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” (2002) I sat through the film two times in one night and was back the following day. “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” I saw six times in the theater and cried like a baby each time I saw Theoden and his Riders of Rohan arrive to save the day and lift the siege of Minas Tirith. I get goose bumps if I even think about Samwise Gangee declaring, “Then let us be rid of it, once and for all. Come on Mister Frodo. I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you! Come on!” as he heaves Frodo across his shoulders and carries him up the slopes of Mount Doom. Then there are the endless hours I spent watching the marvelous behind the scenes documentaries featured on the DVDs of these three amazing movies. So when I say I’m a Tolkien fan, it is not an empty boast.
With this rabid, almost irrational love of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth in mind, I hope you’ll understand my feelings when I state that I wish Peter Jackson had never made his trilogy of “The Hobbit” and it is highly unlikely I’ll ever go see a new movie of his again. The nicest thing I can write about “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is that I hated it. In my lifetime I have never seen such a brilliant filmmaker achieve such incredible heights in his career only to fall to pieces in the span of ten years. For years, I counted Peter Jackson among my favorite filmmakers. “Bad Taste” (1987) is funny as hell and shows remarkable ingenuity and resourcefulness from a kid director working with a nonexistent budget. The delightfully perverse “Meet the Feebles” (1989) is one of my favorite movies about show business I’ve ever seen. “Dead Alive” (1992) casts a long shadow to this day as one of the goriest, most entertaining splatter fests ever committed to film. “Heavenly Creatures” (1994) was his first masterpiece and one of the best films of the entire decade. “Forgotten Silver” (1995) is the kind of wonderful pseudo-documentary that only that most hardcore cinephile and silent film devotee could dream of making. “The Frighteners” (1996) was a bit of a slip but the movie still has its moments and one could see that Peter Jackson was struggling to assert himself under the yoke of a major studio. Then came “The Lord of the Rings”, a trilogy that I loved so much that I was actually worried I would never have a movie to look forward to again when the trilogy finally drew to a close. I fucking love Peter Jackson which makes my disappointment in his trilogy of “The Hobbit” that much more intense.
When a movie director like Brett Ratner or Michael Bay comes along and makes a complete piece of shit, I couldn’t care less. I’ve seen a lot of their movies and I expect nothing from them. If they stopped working tomorrow, the world as I know it would keep spinning on its axis and I would in no way shape or form be affected. On the other hand there are a handful of directors that I intensely admire. There is no form of artist or entrepreneur on this planet that I value more than a great filmmaker and at any given time in history there are not that many to go around. So when a man capable of making movie magic suddenly becomes a mediocrity I get very emotional. Bear in mind, I audibly heard audience members in the theater tonight sobbing and weeping at the climax of the movie and there were some moviegoers who applauded at the film’s finale. I am certainly in the minority on this one, but all I wanted was one scene or sequence to remind me of what Jackson is capable of. That scene never came. Perhaps I take this medieval fantasy a touch too seriously but I can’t help it. Since I was a child reading comics and Greek mythology, I’ve been in love with escapist fantasies, in particular fully realized worlds with great depth and detail and in my estimation J.R.R. Tolkien reigns supreme, uncontested, atop that mountain. When someone comes along and hurts his reputation and credibility, a little part of my childhood dies.
So what does “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” get wrong? Everything. Even when a sci-fi, fantasy or comic book movie gets a character or franchise completely wrong usually there is at least one moment or scene that shines where I recognize a hint of greatness, something that I love that reminds me of what drew me to the material in the first place. Tonight I spent the majority of this movie grinding my teeth in frustration wishing that Peter Jackson would announce his early retirement. ***going into spoiler territory*** To give a few examples early in the film, we see the White Council (Elrond, Saruman and Galadriel) come to Gandalf’s aid and save him from the clutches of Sauron in Dol Guldur, Sauron’s temporary stronghold in Mirkwood. In the book, this assault is described in a few agonizingly short sentences by Gandalf, leaving nerds like myself for decades wondering what might have happened. I never would have dreamed that the scene could be so disappointing. I love every opportunity to see Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett in action but their absurd fight scene with the nine Ringwraiths and Sauron did nothing for me. But this weak scene is only a symptom of a larger problem. Peter Jackson appears to have simply phoned in his direction on this one, as if he were watching from a monitor on a different continent. In both the dramatic scenes and the action, wit is replaced by infantile broad comedy, gripping action is replaced with empty spectacle, fidelity to the books is replaced by greed and filmmaking hubris. The final result is a movie and a trilogy without a soul.
What I get genuinely angry about are the countless characters, subplots and new scenes that have been shoe-horned into the film that were not from the book. Of all the material contained in these three movies, more of the story comes from the filmmakers than from the original source material, a fact that I find ridiculous. Some efforts were made to use characters and plot lines from the appendices found at the end of the book of “The Return of the King”, but there are entirely too many original creations with cringe-inducing dialogue who make me see red each time they appear on screen. Peter Jackson has the box office clout to make any movie he wants and if he was so desperate to tell an original story, I wish he and his team would have just left Tolkien’s world out of it and made something new. Many hardcore fans will try and talk themselves into pretending they like this movie the same way they once tried to with “Star Wars: Episode III – The Revenge of the Sith” back in 2005. I refuse. I’ll go ahead and say that Peter Jackson’s interpretation of “The Hobbit” is the greatest squandered opportunity in pop culture since George Lucas decided to vomit all over himself with his “Star Wars” prequels. Had Peter Jackson been content to make one dynamite movie out of what is essentially a short children’s book, the final result might have been different. Instead he tried to stretch and expand the material into three mammoth-sized productions in effect diluting what was great from the book and leaving the door open for characters and subplots that he along with screenwriters Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh try to force feed down our throats. The book of “The Hobbit” does not have the depth, tone, complexity nor the ambition of the book “The Lord of the Rings” and trying to transform Tolkien’s simple story about Bilbo Baggins into a giant epic is a complete misfire in every way. At this point, I think I’ve said enough. Maybe I’ll calm down in the morning but I doubt it. I think I’ll close not with a condemnation of this movie but instead with some art and highlights that remind me why I love J.R.R. Tolkien in the first place.
Opening to the 1977 animated “The Hobbit” featuring the voice of John Huston.
Original teaser for “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. I knew we were in for something special.
Thankfully the Tolkien estate controls the rights to “The Silmarillion”. Peter Jackson and his screenwriters will have to move mountains to get it. I think “The Silmarillion” is the greatest achievement in fantasy literature in history.
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