It wasn’t until after the closing credits had rolled on The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies that I understood how much I had invested in these movies. Oh, I knew I was way into them and that I have defended them over the last couple of years, but I don’t think I realized just how deeply I had drunk of Peter Jackson’s Kool-Aid. Seriously, I haven’t been this caught up in a big-budget mainstream series since the Star Wars prequels…and those actually worked out better for me. So I thought it would be fun (read: cathartic) to take one last look at not only the franchise that WingNut Films produced, but also the old Rankin/Bass animated
J. R. R. Tolkien’s original 1937 novel The Hobbit contains the following couple of lines: “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it’s not always quite the something you were after.” Well, as it turns out, between the old cartoon and the new trilogy, we have lots and lots to look for. Let’s see what we find.
A decade before Peter Jackson made a quirky little splatter flick called Bad Taste, we had the Rankin/Bass adaptation of The Hobbit, which was produced as a television movie for American audiences in 1977. Using production designs created by Arthur Rankin Jr., the actual animation was done by a Japanese studio called Topcraft. Interestingly, Topcraft went bankrupt in the mid-‘80s and was purchased by Hayao Miyazaki and two other men, who renamed it Studio Ghibli, and went on to create some of the most praised anime ever. The Japanese hand shows in the animation, which has depth and fluidity that most American animation didn’t during that time. Created for an estimated $3 million, the Rankin/Bass film was ambitious and unique. The film is 78 minutes long.
Then we have Peter Jackson’s prequel trilogy starring Martin Freeman as Bilbo. The New Line Cinema/MGM production returns viewers to the realm of Middle Earth that Jackson first unveiled in 2001 and reportedly cost
Those of you who have been following what I’ve written about these movies will be aware of the struggle I’ve had with them. Two years ago I wrote a lengthy defense of An Unexpected Journey, fired by what I perceived to be a bunch of negative hyperbole that I was seeing in the media. Actress Elizabeth Banks went as far as to say that Peter Jackson had tricked his audience into seeing the movie and that people were unprepared for how long it was. I can only assume Elizabeth Banks wasn’t aware of the original Lord of the Rings trilogy or the fact that all three of those films were well over two hours each. Nevertheless, I was starting to feel pretty tricked myself by the time the second movie, The Desolation of Smaug came out; scenes that were a couple of paragraphs in the book were stretched out to thirty minutes of film, often filled with battles that never existed in print in an effort to boost a bleak, hollow story and give the audience something—anything—to latch onto. The extended edition Blu-ray wowed me with new material integrated into the film that provided a lot of what I missed from the theatrical version, and the behind-the-scenes footage brought me into the production and made me care about the filmmakers just as much (or probably more) than the movie characters.
Now part three, The Battle of the Five Armies, has come and gone and I’m left feeling completely befuddled. Perhaps when the extended edition of the film comes to DVD toward the end of 2015, I’ll have a bit more closure. For all intents and purposes, those extended versions sure do seem to function as the “complete” cuts of the movies and have all the stuff that movie fans love like character development and, you know, talking and stuff. I hope that the longer (dear lord) version of The Battle of the Five Armies will do the same.
After I watched TBOTFA, I was eager to revisit the animated film. I’d been holding off on a re-watch until Peter Jackson’s story was complete, and I had fond memories of the cartoon and the simplicity with which it approached Middle Earth. Surely the Rankin/Bass version would be the “definitive” screen version of the story, short and to the point! After all, at under and hour and twenty minutes, it was as breezy and fun as the book that it’s based on.
Also, the Bilbo of the animated movie feels a lot like the Bilbo in the book. This is going to be controversial, but I think Martin Freeman was miscast. I think he’s very good at doing a certain thing, but that thing is not expressing humility and weakness, it’s being a prickly everyman with an undercurrent of quiet anger. His method of “look away-look back-look away-look back, then lower head” wore thin somewhere during the first movie for me. Not that I don’t think he has moments where he shines, because he does; there are scenes in all three movies where he blows me away. Please understand, I’m not anti-Martin Freeman. I’ve enjoyed his work for a long time, I just don’t see him as Bilbo, nor do I buy him as the younger incarnation of the character Ian Holm did a really good job bringing to life.
There are things that I absolutely love about the films Peter Jackson has made. I’ve never been much of a Gollum fan, but the scene in An Unexpected Journey where Bilbo encounters the poor creature is absolutely incredible. Andy Serkis, underneath all that motion capture equipment, is an amazing performer and actor, and I hope he doesn’t spend the rest of his career having his work only realized as digital creations. I also like what Jackson’s movies have to say about the lust for power and gold, because that’s something that never changes and never will. Those themes are in the original book, but are easily missed. I think Jackson did a really good thing by focusing on Thorin’s madness and his quest for power/honor. And no one—I mean NO ONE—can film Middle Earth like Jackson did using New Zealand as his canvas.
Yet, for all that it contains, I think that the story made by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro, misunderstands the book that they’ve made such a huge story from. STAY WITH ME and allow me to explain that I in no way feel like movies should be a slave to source material. Comic book movies have to play to the strength of film, and I don’t want to see movies replicating comic books panel by panel. You want to read the BEST adventures of Spider-Man, Batman, or the girls from Ghost World? Then you should go read the comic books that all those movies are based on. You’re not going to find a purer experience than the source material. When movies choose to adapt something from an outside source, they rarely surpass the experience that original source material offers. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try; it’s a well-loved story for a reason.
With a book like The Hobbit, which has enjoyed a massive cult following for generations, I think it’s especially important to retain the spirit and the heart of that material and use that to fuel your screenplay. An example: Tolkien abhorred violence, and when he used it in his stories it was usually with little description and certainly no glorification. The New Line/MGM movies seem to take great delight in bloodshed, ESPECIALLY in the extended editions which didn’t hit theaters. Heads fly straight at the camera, and each action scene seems to be doing its best to one-up the previous one in terms of creative violence and unforgettable kills. I’m not squeamish, and I LOVE horror movies. Hey, I love Peter Jackson’s horror movies! But maybe this isn’t the place. By the time the credits rolled on The Battle of Five Armies, I felt like I’d just sat through Saving Private Ryan. This is not in keeping with the spirit of what is, let’s not forget, a book for children.
It’s also worth pointing out, or repeating (I can’t remember if I’ve said this before) that after Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings, he didn’t feel like The Hobbit really worked anymore. He was a little bit embarrassed of the simple tone and the lack of geographical complexity within the world he had created some twenty years before he penned Frodo’s fate. He attempted to re-write The Hobbit as what we could now consider an adult novel, using the same tone as The Lord of the Rings and reframing his original, kid-friendly story as a much grittier narrative, but didn’t make it very far before he abandoned the project, realizing that The Hobbit was the sum total of its parts and could not be reformed or re-written. It was what it was, for better or worse. I think that fact has suddenly become incredibly relevant again.
There is probably a way to make The Hobbit into a single short, powerful movie, but I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen. If it ever does, it’s not going to be in a studio system that hikes budgets through the roof; seriously, after all the marketing and international promotion, the cost for these films is rumored to be hovering around the BILLION dollar budget range when all is said and done. They’ve currently made double that number back in profits, but I don’t see that as much justification. I wonder at what point budgets become too high? When is it irresponsible to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a couple of hours of entertainment? But then, that opens the door for a whole new conversation, and no one can or should stand in the doorway to police what art does and does not get made. A little responsibility and moderation would be nice, though.
Peter Jackson took the original Lord of the Rings books, which had been deemed un-filmable for decades, and made an outstanding series of movies that will outlast us all. He deviated from the written word, but the movies were so much better for it. I can only speculate as to why he couldn’t do it a second time (and speculation gets us nowhere here), but I don’t blame the source material. I could blame circumstances, and the fact that he didn’t get to make The Hobbit a couple of decades ago when he wanted to, before we’d seen all Middle Earth had to offer. I could blame it on the passing of time and the changing of what audiences want from their movies. I could blame it on Quentin Tarantino’s theory that directors lose their touch as they get older. This certainly seems like a textbook example of that to me.
Maybe one day a young, independent director will take a group of people out into the English countryside and make the ultimate version of the story, retaining all the quirky charm and sweetness that millions of readers have connected with. In the meantime, there’s a lot to like about both the Rankin/Bass cartoon and the Peter Jackson trilogy. They’re noble efforts that all have something to offer audiences, and they’ve made a lot of people really happy. I’m sure that after some distance I’ll end up revisiting them a lot, and I stand by my comments about how the extended editions have really impressed me with their additions and elaborations. But additions and elaborations do not excuse mediocre movies, and these could have -- should have -- been so much better.
And so I bid Middle Earth a fond farewell, at least for now. I’ve got to be moving on, but I’m sure I’ll be back eventually…probably in November, when the extended edition comes out. Until then, I’m not mad at ya, Hobbit trilogy; I just wish it could have worked out better, that’s all. I expected more, but don’t think twice, it’s alright. In the meantime, maybe I should dust off the novelization and give it a read. After all, I hear it’s pretty different from the movies.