There came a turning point in my life, as someone who appreciates and engages in artistic endeavors, at which I decided to consciously change my attitude toward filmed adaptations of fiction writing.
It had become an easy trap for me to assume that the book that had been published first was nigh-automatically a better work of art than the film that followed. I had already figured out that it was the process of adaptation that bothered me artistically, not an inherent preference for written narrative, because when I read written adaptations that followed original films, my preference was nigh-automatically for the film as well. There was an elitist part of me that assumed that art suffers in adaptation, that it becomes less creative. Derivative. Nigh-automatically worse.
I consciously turned away from this attitude, but I was only able to do so by telling myself that written narrative and filmed narrative, because they are produced in different media, need to be judged on their own artistic merits, and even when the narrative that is being expressed is meant to be the same, they will always be different experiences and should not be compared. If I want the experience of reading the book, I have said many times since making the choice to change my attitude, I can always read the book. In other words, the only way I could prevent myself from judging an adapted work pejoratively was to quit comparing it with the original.
This worked quite well for me when I watched Peter Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings trilogy. I was able to view those artistic creations with wonder and awe, even though I knew the storyline quite well. The reassignment of Glorfindel’s role to Arwen Evenstar, who is given barely a mention in Tolkien’s books, gave me a slight twinge, but as a feminist I didn’t mind that particular piece of revision.
It did not work so well for me when I watched Peter Jackson’s take on The Hobbit. I watched all three of those films in the theater because I knew they would suffer on the small screen, and in all three cases, I felt I had wasted my money.
You must understand, while I read the Lord of the Rings books as a young girl, The Hobbit, more than any other book and certainly more than anything I learned in a classroom, taught me the magic of the written word. I read The Hobbit when I was young enough that eating paper still seemed like a good idea, and if you track down my father’s acid-yellowed copy of it you will see evidence of that in the missing corners of several pages. I was five years old. It took me nine months to finish it, but I loved that book like nothing before or since. It wasn’t long after I finished The Hobbit that I gave up my career aspirations of being an “Indian princess” or paleontologist and settled into the decision to write until they pried the pencil from my cold, dead fingers. I’ve never regretted that decision, even though it has come at the price of far more lucrative and reliable possibilities, and I am sure that The Hobbit and its sheer magic played no small part in it.
So despite my conscious aspirations to avoid judging Jackson’s efforts pejoratively out of hand, in my case the deck was stacked from the start, and throughout all three films, choice after artistic choice on Jackson’s part disappointed me consistently. It turns out that when it came to the story of lovable Bilbo, cryptic Gandalf, goblins, elves, Mirkwood spiders and the dragon with a weak spot more memorable than Achilles’ heel, I did want the experience of the book. I didn’t want Jackson to interject his vision, creating links to the Lord of the Rings trilogy that SIMPLY WERE NOT THERE IN TOLKIEN’S BOOK!!!, giving the orcs a leader with a name that might as well have been Captain Hook, and the dwarves and elves a pair of star-crossed lovers that might as well have been Romeo and Juliet. For me, these elements took The Hobbit films out of the realm of adaptation, and into the realm of puerile fan fiction. And even though I desperately wanted to give Jackson more credit because he had demonstrated what he was capable of, lamentable fan fiction is where they stayed.
I thought that The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies might have some additional emotional juice in it, for me at least, because (as I have already noted in a previous entry) I like a good war movie, and (as Seven Samurai demonstrates), modern technology is not required to make a good war movie. But it turned out The Battle of the Five Armies didn’t have the requisite moral complexity to be a good war movie. It had only the moral complexity of an old school Dungeons & Dragons game. You know, the sort of world in which nobody thinks twice about skinning another sentient being and wearing the skin as armor as long as the sentient being is from a different species (and players don’t even bother to call them species, they call them “races”… which I guess makes sense because a human can breed with an elf to make a half-elf… do I really want to go down this ethical rabbit-hole any further?). Many, many fantasy books and films and games have swallowed this proposition hook, line and sinker, and I guess to some extent we have Tolkien to thank for that, as he propagated so many of the genre’s conventions. Personally, I’m repelled by it.
At this point in this review-turned-essay I would really like to say something good about The Battle of the Five Armies to provide some sort of counterpoint. Um, the visuals were rich and lovely? Lots of pretty colors and epic panoramas? Nice cinematography? Just like in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson did a good job of making the film look like how Tolkien’s writing feels? That’s about all I’ve got in the plus column. My bitter disappointment with the trite illogic of what was done to the narrative unfortunately swamps this testimony. Exhibit A: WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO THE EARTH-EATERS? They made the strongest visual entrance of any element of the story and then fifteen seconds later they disappeared from the battlefield. They couldn’t have gone back in their holes because the orcs all came pouring out from those holes, if the Earth-Eaters had retreated they would have crushed the orcs. They certainly didn’t make any additional holes by plunging back in the earth as no such holes are visible in later shots. WHERE DID THE EARTH-EATERS GO? The answer, of course, is back into Peter Jackson’s magical bag of tricks, next to the stereotypical rabbit nestled in the stereotypical black hat. Jackson couldn’t keep them on the battlefield because THEY WERE NEVER IN TOLKIEN and while his awry artistic sensibilities as an auteur demanded that he create them, his slavering fanboy sensibilities prevented him from authentically dealing with the impact they would have had on Tolkien’s narrative had they actually been present. It made me want to puke.
So go see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies if you’ve never read a word of Tolkien. If you’re a fan with even an ounce of taste, stay home and watch the 1977 Rankin Bass cartoon instead.
Consider getting wasted as you mourn Peter Jackson putting a dagger in the heart of your childhood. Turns out there’s no such thing as magic anymore.
Overall Rating: 1.5 out 5.0.