I have to admit I never thought I would ever have mixed feelings about a Peter Jackson film, especially one set in Middle Earth. It’s taken me quite a while to figure out what I actually think about ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’. I was indifferent to it at first, which to me is worse than outright not liking it, because at least then I’ve had some sort of emotional reaction. It wasn’t until I was actually sat reading the ‘Unfinished Tales’ by J.R.R.Tolkien over the weekend that I’ve been able to come to a definite conclusion about the film: I absolutely love it.
When discussing the film, I’ve come to the conclusion that I know a lot more Tolkien purists than I have ever suspected before. Most of them love the Lord of the Rings films despite how much that had to be cut out. Apparently adding stuff in and having over an hour of the film as just a battle is more of a problem to them. However, I’m going to put on two hats to explain my love: I’m going to put on my historian hat and my Hollywood hat.
My historian hat comes very much from having been sat reading the ‘Unfinished Tales’ over the weekend. The book is a collection of stories ranging from the First Age and the time of the Silmarillion, Numenor in the Second Age and the Lord of the Rings in the Third Age. When reading one of these stories in particular, ‘The History of Galadriel and Celeborn’, I actually realised that the vast majority of what exists concerning Middle Earth is actually more like a historical archive than a fictional narrative.
The mainstream books like the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, read like most works of fiction. The stories in ‘The Unfinished Tales’, while they are fictional, are more like historical writing. They are Christopher Tolkien’s interpretations of his father’s work. The reason it is interpretation is because J.R.R. Tolkien, like most writer’s had a habit of changing his mind and developing his character’s stories with quite significant changes.
When I starting thinking then about the character developments that Peter Jackson has made in the last Hobbit film, and about the sheer depth of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, expanding upon the world and developing character’s is actually in line with what Tolkien himself did on a regular basis. So yes Legolas isn’t named in the Hobbit, but there is no logic reason to suppose that he wasn’t there just because he’s not mentioned by name. Fine, Tauriel has been created by the films, but because of the sheer vastness of Middle Earth it can’t just be populated only by those who have a name.
And then my Hollywood hat swoops into place to defend the decisions. Orlando Bloom as Legolas is very marketable, and having his elfish grace defying gravity makes for some great moments in the film, and adds to the joke that the films can be renamed based on what stunts Legolas happens to perform in the film. The Hobbit: Legolas rides a Bat and Defies Gravity, can live alongside The Lord of the Rings: Legolas rides a shield down some stairs while shooting arrows and The Hobbit: Legolas rides some Dwarf-Laden Barrels down a river.
I will admit that having a very long battle scene does rub me up a bit as a writer, as there is a distinct lack of plot and a great deal of action. A lot of people I know comment on how little of the book actually concerns the battle in comparison to the film. However, the book is written from the perspective of Bilbo, who gets knocked out near the beginning of the battle and wakes up to find it is over. Films don’t work like that though, they are from the perspective of what the camera captures and in all fairness all the loose ends are tied up during the battle. Kili and Fili are afforded much better deaths than the book gives them and Thorin’s feud with Azog comes to a conclusion. It might take a bit longer than might be necessary, but making the additions certainly makes it a better conclusion than Tolkien manages in the book, at least in my opinion.
Other additions include having female characters like Tauriel, Galadriel and the strong women of Lake Town who fight alongside their men in battle, giving the women of Middle Earth a voice in the Hobbit, that they do not have in the book, which a modern audience expects. One of the reasons I always disliked the book as a child is because it just seemed like a boy’s adventure, which I couldn’t accept. Why couldn’t girls be involved in adventures like this in the same role as a boy? In the midst of the battle, when the women of Lake Town refuse to just stay in a hall and decide to fight alongside their men, the feminist within me screamed out with joy.
I love the film because I love that Peter Jackson was willing to be scorned by the purists and make a trilogy of amazing films. One of the most amazing things he’s managed to from my perspective, is make me like the character of Thorin Oakenshield. Another reason I’m not keen on the book is because I cannot stand Thorin. The films though have managed to make him a redeemable character, rather than just proud and greedy. He learns from the error of his ways, because the film is essentially about friendship and the central relationship here is Thorin’s with Bilbo.
When Thorin is stood on the golden floor, and reflecting on the comments of his companions, while Dwalin’s rebuke was probably what made him start thinking, it is Bilbo’s words and actions that help him to truly focus and overcome his pride. His genuine smile on seeing Bilbo’s acorn is one of the most heart breaking moments in the film as it is one of those beautiful moments between people that few movies manage to capture. When Thorin later nearly throws Bilbo from the top of the gate it would be quite reasonable for most people to not continue to be loyal to their friends anymore. But Bilbo rushes to Ravenhill to protect his friends from the trap Azog has set. Thorin’s final words echo a truth I have long lived by, that wealth is not essential to happiness. Very profound for a dwarf.
There are other friendships in the movie as well, in particular that between Thranduil and Bard, who has been significantly developed for the film, and why shouldn’t they have been? Bard is able to reason with Thranduil which I doubt many have done with the woodland king and in turn Thranduil does treat Bard with a sort of reverence he does not give to Gandalf. Pouring some wine for Bard in front of Gandalf was a way of showing his power and swaying Bard. Being a dragon-slayer would be part of this, but in truth I very much think that it is Bard’s concern for his people, which as a king himself, Thranduil can relate to very well indeed.
I did for a while dislike the way in which Thranduil tries to retreat from the battle, but on reading the ‘Unfinished Tales’, and on learning of the massive losses the elves of Mirkwood it is more understandable. His own father fell and he brought home barely a third of his army from the battles against Sauron at the end of the second age, something from which I doubt his people have ever managed to recover from. Add in the plot of losing his wife in battle, when he is looking at the blood of his people washing the streets of the city of Dale, looking as horrified as he does, perhaps he is thinking that they have died purely because he wanted some jewels and had acted like a dwarf in his greed. Thranduil is a deeply pained character, and he does redeem himself both with Legolas and Tauriel.
So yes, the Tolkien Purists might not like ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’ that much, but I absolutely love it. The rich depth of Tolkien’s Middle Earth is enhanced by the film, and in truth from a perspective of Hollywood it ticks quite a few boxes. It is a kick-ass battle, and while there might not be much in the way of plot throughout the battle, there doesn’t need to be. Watching the characters react to the battle, and the loss that ensues is a reaction for the audience. Seeing that women can be strong and even characters like Thorin can be redeemed is fantastic.
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