Some time ago, I came across the argument that maybe we as moviegoers should knock it off with the opinion that “Movie X was not what I wanted it to be.” The argument seemed to boil down to the idea that complaints and negative reactions to a piece of art are inherently not as interesting as the art itself, and I have to give that argument its due. Because what really gets accomplished by complaining about a bad movie? The movie does not change. The filmmaker usually doesn’t issue an apology, or promise to consult the complainer next time (admittedly this has happened before, though it’s noteworthy for its rarity). The complaints often spark arguments that—because this usually takes place on the internet—are not always the most amicable or conciliatory in tone.
Things get negative. Suddenly the movies aren’t fun anymore. But there are times when saying that a movie is not what you wanted it to be is a valid point of view because it says more about you and what’s in your heart and mind than the film itself. With that in mind, friends, let’s talk about The Hobbit Trilogy, known collectively as The Hobbit: There and Back Again and separately as 2012’s An Unexpected Journey, 2013’s The Desolation of Smaug and 2014’s The Battle of the Five Armies. These movies are not what I, nor many others, wanted them to be, but ultimately that’s sort of ok.
Films like The Hobbit exist in a world of sincerity, a world of absolutes. People are good because they’re good and evil because they’re evil. People find their courage and are corrupted by their greed. You tend to know who the heroes and villains are, when to cheer, when to boo. That’s not to say you can switch off when you’re watching these movies, but more that you can be open to the big emotions that come with telling a big story. It’s too bad that these kinds of clear, uncomplicated moments are few and far between in the trilogy, but if you do the research, hoboy, does this situation ever become understandable. And if you don’t want to do the research, don’t worry! I’ve done a LOT of the legwork for you.
To avoid a Silmarillion-esque exploration of the making of The Hobbit: There and Back Again, suffice it to say that it was a troubled production since its inception. Complicated issues with rights ownership of J.R.R.Tolkien’s 1937 classic children’s book, labour disputes, lawsuits over lost wages, scheduling conflicts which led to director Guillermo del Toro’s departure from the project and the subsequent last minute hiring of Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson made for a perhaps less-than-jovial atmosphere for the making of the film. It’s important to note that these frustrations lasted for nearly twenty years, from when Jackson and his creative team (including writers/producers Philipa Boyens and Fran Walsh) first approached Harvey Weinstein about making the film in 1995. With the rights set to expire in late 2010, Jackson—who had publicly stated that he did not want the exhausting, emotionally draining and “unsatisfying” job of essentially competing with his previous Middle Earth films—stepped into the director’s chair with only three months until filming began (compare that with the three and a half years of pre-production work on Lord of the Rings).
Does that perhaps less-than-willing participation and rushed schedule excuse some of the trilogy’s more egregious notes (such as the inclusion of an entirely non-essential scene which features the painful torment and death of small woodland creatures, or that godawful dishwashing scene, or the fact that the title of the first installment—An Unexpected Journey—is apt because the protagonist’s choice to go on the journey is completely out of character and totally unmotivated), or explain the tense atmosphere shown on set in the behind-the-scenes features (Jackson is shown repeatedly chuckling while making the cast do things they very much do not want to do—such as pouring buckets of dead salmon over the head of actor Adam Brown, who has a serious phobia of fish)? Does the pressure of competing creatively with a more-prepared version of yourself absolve the final product’s uneven tone, the lack of focus, the overstuffed backstory, the grasping attempts to connect the films to Lord of the Rings? Honestly, it might. With such a short time to prepare, Jackson and his collaborators were laying track in front of a speeding, 745 million-dollar train, and released what is functionally a three-quarter billion dollar first draft.
But I’m not asking you to let these films completely off the hook because they had a bad childhood. I kept a series of notes while watching these films that fell into qualitative categories; Egregious, Bad, Neutral, Good, Transcendent and Other (the last of which was for instances when I knew I was falling far short of objectivism), and exactly 50% of my seven pages of notes fall into the “Bad” category, with “Egregious” outweighing “Transcendent” at a score of ten to seven. The scene which introduces the central characters feels resigned to the confusion of ever telling them apart from one another; Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) gives us very few reasons to care about his story; the stakes in just about every one of the action sequences are incredibly low and thus very easy to tune out of. They’re long (of course they are), they rely very heavily on not-always-convincing CGI and green screen (of course they do) and they really should’ve been titled “THE DWARVES.” These are not great films. These films are unfocused, uneven and truly unloved, perhaps especially so by their creators (sample any five minutes of commentary from any of the three films and you’ll hear Jackson be rather liberal with language like “stupid,” “dodgy,” major character developments are described as “taking the easy way,” and my personal favourite, “this would’ve been a good trick for a first-time screenwriter.”) So why, whyyyyyyyy can’t I stop talking about them and what I wanted them to be?
It’s because when we love a film—or more truly, part of a film—we are seeing something in ourselves. Something we are or something we want to be. And with that in mind, I present what I wanted The Hobbit to be, and what that says about me.
THINGS TO LOSE:
Tauriel and the Love Triangle. While I admire the decision to include a new female character to break up the 99.9% of the male cast, I’m disappointed that she fell into the trap of fulfilling an unnecessary romantic subplot. Evangeline Lilly does an admirable job with what she was given (and really gives her all in the action sequences), but as soon as she locks eyes with the (arguably) most attractive dwarf (I’m a Dwalin man, myself), you can tell exactly where her story is going to go for the rest of the trilogy. I’m bored to tears by more of the same white, male protagonists and while I’m not convinced that having no women is better than one woman with a boring story, this feels obvious, dumb and very limiting. More interesting roles for more interesting women, please.
The White Council. A huge part of the trilogy involves Gandalf (Ian McKellan) going off on his own to investigate the rise of Sauron with the help(?) of the White Council, made up of the powerful Elves, Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and the powerful wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee). The Council was formed to prevent the rise of evil in Middle Earth, but instead of answering Gandalf’s calls to action when we have no reason to doubt him, the scenes are mired in bureaucracy and pat denials of evidence. The Council is so tedious that Gandalf eventually just strikes out on his own, ending in his capture and imprisonment. Quite apart from the fact that not knowing where Gandalf is puts enormous pressure on the company of Dwarves and increases the dramatic tension of the film substantially (remember when he disappeared for 2/3 of The Two Towers?), it’s not exactly enjoyable to have to endure endless debate on something that we, the audience, know for a fact is happening. This is how I feel about almost every single committee or council I’ve been a part of: it’s just not worth it. It’s typical these days to lament how difficult it is to be an adult, but being an adult is only difficult because of other adults. Escapist fantasy films shouldn’t contain scenes with as much or more frustration as the real world, period. Can’t we all just work together?
“More” is not “Better.” Several times in the behind-the-scenes documentaries and commentary tracks, Jackson uses the justification “well, it was in the book” to explain the presence of an awkward bit of dialogue or a ridiculous CGI creature. The trilogy, which was to be two films originally, crams in dozens of links to The Lord of the Rings, some subtle, some flagrant, only one or two necessary. Should Bilbo have found the One Ring? Absolutely. That episode not only sets the scene for the events of LOTR, but leads to the definition of Bilbo as a tragic hero, changing the fate of Middle Earth. Should Jackson have included a scene in which the Dwarves sing in unison while washing the dishes after supper? Let’s see; does it add anything to the story? Nope. Does it come back during a battle sequence, as though it was planted early on to show us the simpatico fighting style of the Dwarves? Nope. Was it in the book? Sure was! An adaptation of Tolkien’s book demanded one film, two at most. This story, the story they decided to tell—which chronicles Sauron’s rise to power and links the events of The Hobbit with The Fellowship of the Ring—could have been four films. But the idea that more of what worked before will surely work again is the same argument that’s stretched out multiple franchises like butter scraped over too much bread. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it usually seems to be at the insistence of the businessmen. Record box office numbers are not why people go to the movies. They go for the artistry, the technical expertise, the escapism, the stories. Don’t ever forget what happened to Joss Whedon and don’t let it happen again.
THINGS TO KEEP:
The “chamber confrontations.” Any scene in which Bilbo has to reckon with something more powerful or more dangerous has an exceptional energy to it—his confrontations with Gollum (Andy Serkis) in An Unexpected Journey and Smaug the dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch) in The Desolation of Smaug especially so. These scenes have been criticized for being overlong, but really, point to any single thing in these films that couldn’t shoulder that same criticism. The action slows and in its place is an extended battle of the wits, developing character and showing the surprising resourcefulness of our protagonist. A character like Bilbo—that is to say, not a warrior or a wizard like his compatriots—who cannot fight his way out of these daunting scenarios is forced to delve deep and find his true strength; his cunning, his charm, his intelligence. Please don’t make me explain why an unathletic indoor kid with a penchant for books would respond to this kind of scene.
Scenes you can feel. The sequence from The Desolation of Smaug that’s set in the claustrophobic Mirkwood forest is a wonder of queasy filmmaking. Old tricks like double-exposure and filming short scenes backwards are combined with a cave-like sound design and twitchy performances to create a wonderfully disorienting effect. When Bilbo finally climbs above the treeline to get his bearings, you can feel the coolness of the fresh air fill your lungs along with him. That short sequence alone is a masterclass in creating atmosphere, in evocative screencraft that makes an audience respond with their whole body. That’s the kind of visceral artwork that reaches out and grabs you, and the kind that I will always line up for.
The themes of home and belonging. In An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo (Martin Freeman), following a series of unbelievable (some would say in-credible) brushes with death, attempts to leave the company. He is seen by the dwarf Bofur (James Nesbitt) who tells him “you’re homesick. I understand,” and he does. The Dwarves have lived their lives on the road, never able to settle in any one place, always with the knowledge that their home was cruelly and violently stolen and that even with their best efforts, they may never return. Bilbo gauchely points this out and is keenly ashamed of himself. After a few more brushes with death, and now armed with a magical, invisibility-inducing ring that would allow him to escape, Bilbo chooses to remain with the Dwarves. “You don’t have a home,” he says. “It was taken from you. But I will help you take it back if I can.” The entire quest, everything that was, everything that is, everything that will happen is legitimized; the Dwarves seek a place in which to feel safe and Bilbo gives up his own safety and comfort to help those in need. That’s an emotional journey I can get behind for two more movies. That’s the world I want to live in; where people do kind things, even when they’re afraid to and have no reason to be kind.
There’s more (believe me, there’s a lot more) in my perfect version of The Hobbit: There and Back Again, but acceptance of things as they are is a cornerstone of moving through the world. You can want more and expect more and when you don’t get it, how you respond is what defines you as a person. Does that mean you should let the world go to seed? Of course not. What it means is that if you’re not seeing the stories you want told in the world, then you need to pitch in and join the narrative. So go ahead and complain! But if all you’re doing is complaining when you’ve got a brain in your head and shoes on your feet, you’re missing out on a great adventure.