The third and final installment of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy opened this week. The first movie, An Unexpected Journey, contained bundles of nerdy references and was largely faithful to J.R.R. Tolkien’s original book. The second, The Desolation of Smaug, strayed a bit further from its source material, but was still largely Tolkien.
The Battle of the Five Armies, however, turns a significant corner, relying on a heavy dose of artistic licensing and big screen razzle-dazzle. Much of the final film operates in a grey area somewhere between the Tolkien-Jackson dichotomies. In some cases, the Jackson additions seem to work; in others, not so much. But overall, the essence of Middle-earth and its characters are intact enough to make the journey to the cinema worthwhile for all but the pickiest of purists.
As per tradition, we asked Michael Drout, an English professor at Wheaton College, and John Rateliff, an independent Tolkien scholar and author of the forthcoming book, A Brief History of the Hobbit, to help us navigate the hodge-podge of Tolkien material and Hollywood invention.
For starters, there's the scale of things. It's as though Tolkien’s original 1937 children’s book had been put on steroids. While the book's Smaug does indeed descend on Lake-town to punish the community for interrupting his slumber, the dragon—originally described as about 100-feet long—is now "the size of a 747" and Lake-town—largely evacuated in the book prior to the great worm's arrival—bears witness to something more akin to "the fire bombing of Dresden," says Drout. "Jackson’s Smaug was way more horrifying than Tolkien's." The tendency toward exaggeration only continues from there: the Battle of the Five Armies involved some 6,000 or so players in the book, whereas the movie depicts an estimated 100,000 CGI-generated goblins, orcs, dwarves, men, elves, eagles, hell bats and other random monsters. Moreover, that relatively small skirmish spans just five pages in the book, but in the movie, it clocks in at over an hour.
Strangely, despite the favoritism toward aggrandizement, Middle-earth itself seems to have shrunk. Tauriel and Legolas ride from Erebor to Angmar where the orcs' army is rallying in what seems like a few hours, though that journey would have been about 300 miles each way—plus required crossing a mountain range—in Tolkien’s world. Likewise, Dáin Ironfoot, Thorin's super-Scottish cousin, gets summoned by a raven and manages to rouse an army and make the 150-mile journey from the Iron Hills in what seems like a day-and-a-half. "It doesn’t come as a surprise that one of the things Warner Bros would really like to develop is a Middle-earth amusement park," Drout says, citing what is so far just rumor. "So many of these things already fit size-wise."
One of the most significant new departures from the book's actual plot concerned Thorin, Kili and Fili's deaths. In Tolkien's version, Thorin and his dwarves make a heroic charge into the thick of the battle, even though they know their efforts are doomed to fail. Both Fili and Kili die defending their king, and Thorin also breathes his last as a hero, surrounded by his kin. In the movie, on the other hand, Thorin leads three of his dwarves on a clandestine ambush mission which, compared to the book, is "about as different in tone as you can be," Rateliff says. "Jackson's version was entertaining, but I'm a purist and I and like the way Tolkien did it." Thorin’s burial scene—a touching moment in the book—is also completely skipped over, although Rateliff has hopes that it will appear in the extended home-viewing edition, similar to additions Jackson made to the first two films.
Interestingly, some of Jackson's previous changes that fans actually hailed as improvements on the book are largely lacking in this new film. Tolkien's 12 dwarves were mostly featureless, indistinguishable characters, but in the prior two movies Jackson gave each a clear personality and individual moments for them to shine on screen. Much of that was lost in this film. "In some ways, Jackson reverted to being more like Tolkien," Rateliff says. "But it's a pity because the dwarves were something he’d done a really good job on."
On the other hand, other characters like Bard and Thranduil, the haughty Elvenking, become even more fleshed out in this film. In the books, Thranduil was largely lacking personality, but Jackson’s Thranduil possesses an attitude strikingly akin to that of the Sons of Fëanor, an ancient line of elves depicted in The Silmarillion. Unlike Elrond and Galadriel, those elves were highly contemptuous of mortals and possessed a hefty sense of entitlement. "Thranduil’s a complete jerk, which I thought was cool and risky," Drout says. Whether that personality choice was a deliberate, clandestine nod to The Silmarillion—the bible-like Middle-earth text that Jackson does not have the rights to—however, is unknown.
Unlike the last two films that were packed with delectable Easter eggs for those nerdy enough to catch them, this last cinematic chapter wasn't nearly as ripe with such references. Drout noticed just one satisfyingly subtle touch: the rings Elrond, Galadriel and Gandalf were wearing in the show-off with the Sauron, aka the Necromancer. These rings—"Three Rings from the Elven-kings under the sky"—were forged at the same time as the Ring of Power. Galadriel wears Nenya, the white ring; Gandalf wears Narya, the red ring; and Elrond wears Vilya, the blue ring. While the details of the three Elven rings' creation are only discussed in The Silmarillion—and thus are off limits to Jackson—their existence is fair game since they are described in the Lord of the Rings books.
But for the most part, a sort of Tolkien-Jackson hybrid material has replaced the previous movies' clear nods to the broader Tolkien lore. The White Council's role in saving Gandalf at Dol Guldur is a Jackson invention, but he still faithfully represents the fact that Galadriel is indeed the strongest of the group when she alone manages to banish Sauron. Similarly, the giant Dune-like worms that make a brief cameo during the Battle of the Five Armies spawned from an offhand comment Bilbo makes in the book: "Tell me what you want done, and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East and fight the wild Were-worms in the Last Desert." Jackson apparently ran with this, creating an actual representation of those monsters.
Thorin's dragon sickness is another shaky thread that Jackson builds up. Tolkien never explicitly calls the Lonely Mountain's dwarvish treasure cursed, and he doesn't tightly link Thorin's madness to the Arkenstone or the gold. Indeed, some Hobbit scholars do not think the treasure drove Thorin mad at all, but rather that his obstinacy and greed were simply part of his character. Jackson, however, chooses to believe that Thorin succumbed to dragon sickness—a concept originally hinted at in Beowulf, and one that Tolkien seems to indirectly reference in certain Middle-earth characters, who often succumb to "rapacious greed" in the presence of treasure, as well as in his lighthearted book, Farmer Giles of Ham. That Jackson’s Thorin suffers from dragon sickness "is an unusual reading of the it, but one that I advocated for in The History of the Hobbit," Rateliff says. "I was very interested to see that they'd arrived at the same conclusion."
Some references were obviously meant to make the Hobbit trilogy more coherent with the Lord of the Rings films. The kingdom of Angmar appears in this film, which—as astute fans of the first trilogy will recall—is where the Lord of the Nazgûl hails from. The acorn that Bilbo shows Thorin presumably becomes the Party Tree, under which Bilbo throws his 111th birthday in The Fellowship of the Ring. (In the Lord of the Rings books, however, it is Samwise Gamgee who is given a special nut by Galadriel, and he only plants it after returning to the Shire following the quest to destroy the One Ring.) "[The filmmakers] assume that, years from now, people will start with The Hobbit and then proceed to Lord of the Rings, rather than watch them in the order in which they were filmed," Rateliff says. "It's clear that they tried to smooth the transition."
But in trying to make that connection, Jackson also punched some holes. The most obvious reference—Thranduil telling Legolas to go find Strider at the end of the movie—doesn't make much sense given that Aragorn was just ten years old when the Battle of the Five Armies takes place. Additionally, if orcs can show up with an legion of catapult-firing trolls and earth-burrowing were-worms, then why doesn't Sauron tap into those havoc-making assets 50 years later, in the Lord of the Rings battles? And finally, what happens to Tauriel? Given that she's a recent Jackson invention, there's obviously no mention of her in the Lord of the Rings movies. "I have to say I was astonished that Tauriel survived," Rateliff says. "It makes me wonder if they have ambitions to do something more with her, although I don't see how they could contractually."
A fond farewell
Unlike the Lord of the Rings movies, which ended on a high note at the Oscars, opinions about The Hobbit are much more of a mixed bag. Some viewers are happy that the whole thing has finally come to an end, declaring the project a failure. As Atlantic critic Christopher Orr wrote about the trilogy, "I can finally say something more upbeat: It's over."
It very well could be, however, that Jackson didn't really have viewers like Orr, Rateliff and Drout in mind when he made this series of movies. Instead, he might have been appealing directly to Tolkien's originally intended audience: children. "I was bored out of my mind with some of the repetitive fighting, but my son was totally into it," Drout says. "If that was [Jackson's] target demographic, then he completely nailed it."
But regardless of whether the movies were primarily intended for kids or adults, Drout and Rateliff—die-hard fans that they are—still appreciate them despite their arguable flaws. Jackson excels at creating stunning, exceptionally detailed visuals that depict places previously only seen in the Tolkien reader's imagination, and he also captures the spirit of Bilbo's transformation from a sheltered member of the bourgeoisie to a capable hobbit who can navigate the heroic world. "Even though a lot was edited, I thought they got the essence down," Rateliff says. "They included the parts that I really needed to see."
And while Jackson's time in Tolkien's universe has likely come to the end, the experts predict that this will not be the last we see of Middle-earth. Drout imagines a "Game of Thrones"-style HBO take of the Silmarillion, while Rateliff thinks Tolkien's work will become a fantasy version of Pride and Prejudice—a story remade every decade or so with a new director, a new cast and a new take on the classic text. "I think Jackson can be proud of what he has accomplished," Rateliff says. "But hopefully future films will be more faithful to the books. We purists love those things."