How Peter Jackson went places he proved he would never go
I have been a Peter Jackson apologist for a number of years: attempting to understand and explain to others certain decisions done by the filmmaker when adapting the Middle-earth stories tothe silver screen.
Never being a narrow-minded “Jacksonphile”, I tried – as much as possible – to understand his reasonings; but not always found myself in full agreement with the outcome of specific choices. However, I always accepted Jackson’s own thoughts behind the alterations he employed.
However, after viewing The Battle of the Five Armies, I have come to the conclusion that Peter Jackson has probably done some shocking errors of judgement in its third act; something I will undoubtedly find extremely difficult to accept why he made the choices that eventually ended up on the screen.
I can most certainly understand why, but I don’t think I’ll be able to agree or sympathise with those decisions.
The opening is astonishing, and the lead up to – and development of – the Battle are compelling; and while I may have my reservations on certain scenes, directorial choices and narrative decisions, the first and second act of the film are compelling and a worthy piece of storytelling.
In addition, Bilbo’s farewell sequence is also wonderfully done: a testament to Jackson’s capabilities (which ironically are in serious disharmony with his other, less wise, judgments).
The problem lies with the beginning of the third act, when Thorin, Dwalin, Fili and Kili make their way to “cut off the snake’s head” and dispatch of Azog. By removing four main characters from the primary conflict was, in my personal opinion, a serious mistake from Jackson’s part.
This specific sequence in the film raises a number of questions which are mostly concerned with the decisions undertaken by the filmmakers.
I’m sure many can be answered with a reasonable explanation as to why they ended up being so.
Other issues seem to go far beyond what Jackson and his team had given us in The Lord of the Rings; decisions that seem to go against everything that was established 13 years prior, in relation to the director’s method of tackling the Middle-earth stories.
Sure, people’s tastes and sense of style change over time; they are refined and they evolve. But in this instance, it would seem they have gone the other way.
Instead of improving on the filmmaking skills developed, it appears they’ve gone to the other end of the spectrum.
In the Helm’s Deep and Pelennor Fields sequences, Jackson brilliantly managed to balance the focus between the individual characters’ stories and the wider view of the unfolding events.
As an audience, we are presented with the lead up towards the battle, its development and resolution, all the while keeping us informed what each character is going through and how his or her actions are affecting those particular events they are in.
Such sequences were presented as a seamless tapestry of impressive visuals, emotional resonance and rhythm.
I’d like to structure this post in a series of questions: questions that are raised during this final showdown in The Battle of the Five Armies; questions that certainly need answering.
Why transfer Thorin, Kili and Fili’s death to Ravenhill?
Personally, this was Peter Jackson’s grave mistake. It’s not a question of remaining faithful to the book, but placing some of your characters within a different place (and hence a different context) to where the main story is unfolding, simply creates an unbalanced third act.
I can probably understand the decision to move Thorin, Kili and Fili to Ravenhill and allow the audience to focus on their character’s concluding journeys – in isolation from the chaotic moments of the main battle.
Strictly speaking it’s not an error of judgement. Scenes like this do work: especially since our primary focus is on Thorin and Bilbo.
However, you cannot alienate the other characters and your major event; elements you have been building up to over the span of 3 films.
If we were to look at examples from The Lord of the Rings, the confrontation between Éowyn and the Witch-king takes place in the thick of battle. Think of Aragorn fending off the Troll during the Battle of the Morannon.
You get that sense of imminent danger. Your characters are facing a worthy foe amid the chaos around them.
In these two instances, despite the grand scale of the conflicts, our attention is solely on the duel; but by integrating this set-piece with the rest of the action, creates a sense of cohesion and a balance to the sub-narrative of the battle.
Why would Thorin send his nephews to scout the area while he remained behind?
By shifting this scene to the barren slopes of Ravenhill, Jackson may have wanted to experiment with the thriller aspects of the story: namely, Azog’s apparent disappearance: thereby introducing a further layer of suspense to the story by questioning the whereabouts of the current antagonist.
However, the more changes Peter Jackson brings to this sequence, the more he seems to have been prone to creating further mistakes.
Those aware of the book would have realised the decision to send the 2 nephews to scout the area would eventually lead to their deaths.
In the book, Thorin is mortally wounded by Bolg. As a result, Fili and Kili rush to his aid which is ultimately the cause of their deaths. The crux of that uncle-nephew relationship lies within this moment. The young dwarves sacrificing themselves for their father figure.
In the film version, introducing the love interest between Fili and Tauriel, completely ignoring any character development on Fili’s part, and separating the three characters from each other and the main event, resulted in something of a fiasco.
Peter Jackson was certainly on the right track when he established and worked on the relationship between Thorin and Kili – right up to the touching moment between the two before they charge out of the gate of Erebor.
Yet, in having gotten rid of the atmosphere and environment of the main battle, and disposed of the two nephews in a careless manner, the fragmentary elements of the relationship established up to that point were completely lost.
This compels me to ask the next question …
Why the lack of substantial violence?
I know this was aimed at a PG-13 audience, but intense situations need to be dealt with the right amount of gravitas.
Disposing of your characters by failing to do so in a believable manner, takes away all the suspense and emotional connection of that moment.
It’s not about glorifying violence. It’s about recognising the severity of the situation, the stakes for your characters and, in this case, the power of evil.
Do we know what happens to Fili when he’s invisibly stabbed by Azog in the back? He simply reacts and jolts. No trace of blood, nothing. Unfortunately, this makes things superficial.
Kili and Thorin’s final moments suffer from a similar fate but were better represented visually – and not as subtle as Fili’s.
This also reminds me of the squeaky clean swords that emerge out creature’s chests and necks that have just been stabbed – a common occurence throughout the trilogy.
But onto the next question …
Why introduce the concept of Gundabad when that storyline does not progress forward?
Including Gundabad as another fortress from which the two orc hosts issue forth, was a nice idea. After all, in the book it is the main location from which the orcs muster and begin their march towards Erebor – led by their leader, Bolg.
We are also introduced to new creatures in Middle-earth – giant bats (more on these below).
The threat posed to the Elves, Dwarves and Men by another looming army is a fantastic way in raising the stakes for our characters even higher.
Yet, no sooner has the Gundabad army arrived on the field of battle than it is instantly overcome. What would have been the point of showing us the march of this army, its constant threat, and then take all that away in the blink of an eye?
Perhaps Jackson wanted to avoid a second, renewed attack by another army – thereby reducing the length of the battle; but this has resulted in an abrupt and unbalanced conclusion to the conflict. Bringing the two orc contingents together and attacking at once would have avoided such a jarring narrative resolution.
Not to mention the confusion that has been created as to which are the “5 armies”.
With all the buzz surrounding the Eagles as “problem-solving” and “near-invincible”, why reinforce that same idea in this film?
Admittedly, in The Return of the King and two instances in The Hobbit (book versions), the Eagles play an important part.
However, Peter Jackson never provided a reason to the Eagles rescuing the stranded Dwarves from the fire in An Unexpected Journey (something for which the book provides a simple but sufficient explanation).
This omission from the director’s part further reinforced the Eagles’ already invincible reputation for saving the day.
In my opinion, the worst aspect of this moment was in not giving the Eagles any sort of challenge as they swoop over the orcs; which raises a further question: why introduce the giant bats if they are not going to pose a serious threat to these majestic birds?
Tolkien may not have delved enough into characters or events, but he thought things through as to causes and effects. In the book, the reason for including bats is two-fold: 1) to provide cover to the sun-shy orcs 2) as a worthy opponent to the Eagles’ eventual appearance upon the battlefield.
Why Peter Jackson seems to have missed this point is beyond me.
Aerial combat sequences were discussed many times during interviews in the last year or so before the final film’s release. Perhaps the Extended Edition will give us our first glimpse to the Eagles finding themselves hard pressed by equally formidable flying creatures – rather than doing what they do best and just trample all over the bad guys.
Again, it’s not about the gorgeous action sequences and entertaining shots; it’s about a believable piece of narrative.
This issue is tied with the previous one, in that the Gundabad army was disposed of in a matter of seconds due to the “interference” of the Eagles’ arrival.
Storytelling is all about obstacles and challenges; raising the stakes and creating tension throughout. Resolution ultimately arrives, but is often delayed at first. There is a fine balance to the story arc that needs to be respected in order to sustain a film.
An audience needs to sympathise with the characters on screen; and whilst Eagles are not strictly speaking characters, the sight of one of these majestic birds falling to the ground would be a heart-wrenching moment for many – something we never see occurring during the Battle.
This almost deus ex machina moment feels overused and, in this case, unnecessary.
Just a few more minutes of screen time dedicated to ironing out this resolution would have positively impacted the overall conclusion of this Battle sequence.
Why would Azog opt for a cumbersome stone at the end of a chain rather than his trusted mace?
He’s been wielding it for three whole movies, right up to the Ravenhill sequence.
We’ve witnessed Azog’s acute sense of military strategy; he’s more than your average orc. He dispenses of his enemies with ruthless efficiency – preferring to go instantly for the kill rather than gloat over his helpless prey.
What we’ve been told about this character finally makes no sense when he chooses such a useless weapon.
It is made obvious that Jackson is leading up to a death-defying combat that will result in ice breaking and a potential fall into the freezing waters.
Again, the visual effects and choreography are excellent; but it seems that too much time is spent on Azog trying to pin-down (pun intended) his dwarven opponent.
That extra minute or two could easily have shifted back to showing us the development of the main battle.
Why so little screen time for Beorn?
I am certainly not the only one who expected to see more of Beorn’s involvement in the film.
Again, it’s not just about the sensational action shots, but the story.
The lack of Beorn meant more focus on the Eagles’ arrival, and made redundant his backstory of underlying conflict with the orcs in The Desolation of Smaug.
In the book, I’ve always seen the arrival of the Eagles as secondary to that of Beorn. The shapeshifter’s presence on the battlefield is what ultimately tips the balance of the battle in favour of the Free Peoples.
The lack of Legolas would have allowed for Beorn’s “invented” torture story by the orcs to pave way for his final confrontation with Bolg – the orc who seems to wear bear claws as part of his armour (something which I think was in the original script but got completely lost – or removed – with the 3-film split).
Even the concept of a giant bear bursting through ranks of orcs, and disposing of a hateful character or two, seems something Jackson would pounce on at the opportunity of visualising it for the screen. Ultimately, he didn’t. Which is what is most frustrating and perplexing…
There was massive potential with Beorn’s storyline, but was unfortunately sidetracked for other superficial things.
What happens to the rest of the Company, Bard, Dáin and Thranduil during the Azog vs Thorin confrontation? How does the battle proceed?
There was a great build-up towards the escalation of the battle, but once the scene shifts to Ravenhill any events occurring on the main battlefield are forgotten – except for a shot or two during the arrival of the Eagles.
The impact and fate of the battle – which, until a few moments ago, hung in the balance – is disposed of.
Yes, our focus is on Thorin and his character’s story arc in getting rid of Azog; but ultimately, what would be the point of killing your antagonist if the battle is lost?
There was no actual resolution to the battle itself, except that we are meant to come to the conclusion that the Eagles (not even Beorn) have saved the day.
With this final film being aptly name The Battle of the Five Armies it seems only natural to present audiences with the proper conclusion to our characters’ stories using the Battle itself as a narrative tool.
This, unfortunately, has not been the case.
Why introduce the Legolas vs Bolg feud, which distracted so much from the rest of the battle?
I’ve said this numerous times: I have nothing against the inclusion of Legolas in The Hobbit.
My ideal preference would have been to see him as a background character in the form of a brief cameo in The Desolation of Smaug; and perhaps some quick shots of him in this final film. I believe that the less screen time he would have had, his presence in this trilogy would have been much more significant.
Instead, except for introducing the Gundabad story thread, Legolas serves primarily as the driving force of entertainment – a tool used for action sequences. Admittedly, some of these moments are superb and exciting; others are distracting and jarring.
In the case of The Battle of the Five Armies his showdown with Bolg diminished the impact of Thorin’s concluding story arc, by constantly intercutting between the two characters’ separate confrontations.
Precious minutes showing a lithe elf clinging to a giant bat, springing up collapsing rocks and jumping on blind trolls’ heads, could have been dedicated to the necessary “battle moments” to keep us informed on the situation of the other characters.
At the same time, the introduction of Legolas could have added so much more to the character of Thranduil and his odd desire to reclaim the white gems; but again, this falls short of its mark. Elements of their relationship and Legolas’ mother were introduced but then abandoned; only to remerge as resolved in a post-battle scene.
There was intriguing potential here but this was again sidetracked by the bombastic and the unnecessary inclusion of other elements.
Why was no attention given to Fili after the battle?
Since An Unexpected Journey I always complained at the lack of dwarf characterisation – most of all that of Fili. I knew from the book where the story would lead him, and it was imperative for audiences to sympathise and understand his character’s motivations and personality; so that when he meets his untimely death, the emotional impact is powerful.
After viewing the first two films and discovering that Fili had remained largerly in the background, together with the other eight undeveloped Dwarves, I was convinced Peter Jackson would remedy this situation by spending some essential screen time at the start of The Battle of the Five Armies to his character.
Suffice to say, this didn’t happen; and to add further insult to injury, after the battle concludes, he remains completely in the dark. Thorin’s emotional farewell to Bilbo is the highlight; Kili is mourned by a grief-stricken Tauriel; and Fili has been left slumped on the cold ground unnoticed.
What happened to the other plot elements: the Arkenstone, Thranduil’s white gems and the distribution of gold to the people of Lake-town?
Audiences aware of the book’s outcome will surely get their answers; but others who have been following the story mainly from the films still require a certain amount of closure.
For the film itself to work, it was necessary to provide a resolution to these issues, since they have been the primary motivations of our characters and the drive of the story.
Failing to do so, the film leaves one big question mark.
And if scenes like these have been left for the Extended cut, then Peter Jackson should simply stick to making longer films as the editing of this trilogy has been a major flaw.
In Summary …
In practice, no film manages to answer (or conclude) every single story thread introduced in the narrative. It’s rare finding a film in which all loose ends have been successfully tied.
However, much of what is presented to the audience usually remains consistent and the climax is sustained, rather than collapsing on itself.
With The Hobbit trilogy, whether it was a case of having filmed most of the battle scenes during pick-ups in 2013, the rush to deliver 3 movies instead of 2, or any other reason, I still believe none of these are actual excuses for the final work produced.
The idea of splitting up the (back then) 2-film adaptation into 3 shooting blocks was to give enough time to revise scripts, refine the editing, and allow enough time for the VFX and SFX teams to complete the work.
The Battle of the Five Armies had almost an entire year’s work of post-production, and undoubtedly more filming took place in 2014.
If Time was an issue with this final film, forcing certain “shortcuts” to the overall story, I’m almost certain it was brought about by the filmmakers themselves: perhaps, opting for other narrative options which further complicated and restricted their time schedules.
My perception towards the climax to The Battle of the Five Armies may completely change for the better once we get to see the Extended Edition. Things can only improve – unless we get more Legolas action sequences or unnecessary interruptions to the central storyline.
It is almost impossible we’ll get a revised version of the Thorin/Fili/Kili last stand onto the main battlefield; but it will be interesting to see what the behind the scenes can uncover, and why such monumental decisions were taken.
If, after each film, fans are left wondering “oh maybe we’ll see more in the extended cut” or “I’m sure it’ll improve in the extended edition”, then this is obviously not the right way to make things.
Using the Extended Edition card is no excuse. Theatrical cuts are meant to be the primary viewing experiences of a film, not experiments for a fallback plan.
Thoughts. Comments. Suggestions. Fire away! Do you agree with some of the above? Infuriated by this blasphemous post? Let us know below!
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