On Peter Jackson “Winging it…”

Dwarves vs Elves

The Chaos of The Battle of the Five Armies 

Before ever we set foot inside cinema theatres to watch the final installment of The Hobbit trilogy, ardent fans, paying close attention to the online marketing campaign of the film, would have been aware that this last Middle-earth film was a rough road for the filmmakers.

Rumours had spread that something was amiss and that Peter Jackson’s 6-film closing statement was not as up-to-scratch as expected. The director himself, well known for his scruffy and dishevelled appearance, looked even more so and exhausted than ever before; and yet, with almost a year of post-production dedicated to this third Hobbit film, what went wrong?

Let us first look at a rough timeline of the four years of production on The Hobbit.

  • March 2011: Start of Principal Photography
  • June 2012: End of Principal Photography
  • July 2012: Announcement of third film
  • December 2012: Release of An Unexpected Journey
  • May-July 2013: Pick-ups for films 2 and 3
  • December 2013: Release of The Desolation of Smaug
  • January-November 2013: Post-production on The Battle of the Five Armies
  • December 2014: Release of The Battle of the Five Armies

Peter Jackson has stated that he had little to no time, following Guillermo Del Toro’s departure from the director’s seat (in May 2010), to prepare his own vision of these films. Designs for costumes, sets and the overall look of the trilogy – which would normally have taken place during pre-production – started to spill over during filming.

Peter Jackson

Having said that, Jackson did the incredible task of maintaining a coherent feel, structure and flow throughout the first two films: a remarkable achievement considering the pressure and strict deadlines he would have faced. It is a testament to his strong spirit and almost inhuman sense of endurance aided by his collaborators.

Yet, looking at the above timeline and the decisions undertaken, one cannot but ask a series of questions that have remained obscure, even in the 20+ hours of the trilogy’s special features.

By the end of Principal Photography in June 2012, nothing of the Battle of Five Armies had been filmed yet. So this begs the question:

  • Why complicate a major problem by introducing another film?

An answer has been provided in the behind the scenes for The Battle of the Five Armies: Jackson stating that the decision to go for Film 3 allowed them to push the battle scenes forward and gain an extra year to prepare.

Not a bad decision, but this created a substantial hole in The Desolation of Smaug: both its beginning and ending. Much of this is discussed in the special features from this second film: how the May-July 2013 pick-ups allowed for the filming of the Bree sequence that opens the film, and a massive spurt of creative production to craft the monumental ending.

During these 10 weeks of pick-ups, much of the battle sequences for the third film also took place.

Peter Jackson was honest in stating that he had no idea what he was filming for the Smaug vs Dwarves sequence for film 2, including absolute bewilderment when it came to the many scenes from the Battle yet to come.

Smaug vs Dwarves 1

He seems to have done the impossible, and the wide narrative crater that had been present in The Desolation of Smaug, ever since the three-film announcement, was sealed satisfactorily. Not everyone will agree, but I believe that the closing sequence of film 2 is perhaps one of the best moments from the entire 6-film saga.

Anyone unaware of the logistical and creative problems that went on behind its creation would still be amazed at the execution of this riveting sequence.


Following the release of The Desolation of Smaug in December 2013, Jackson and his team had almost a year to assemble the footage shot during the May-July 2013 pick-ups, together with the original sequences shot during Principal Photography that were meant to conclude The Hobbit in film 2.

Nevertheless, we soon learnt that Jackson was still “filming” in his mo-cap stage much of the Battle itself. The actors had been filmed and edited into the narrative, but much of the fighting had yet to be digitally realised; much to the fears of the visual effects supervisors and artists.

Peter Jackson stressed

As fans, people from outside the production, we can never understand what really happened during this period. Much of what we know comes from the behind the scenes features. It is evident that whilst Jackson’s exhaustion and stress continued to increase under the pressure of delivering this final installment, he was liberated by the sense of being able to focus on a single film, rather than several. With almost a year’s worth of post-production, things seemed to allow a deserved breathing space and one last creative push.

Peter Jackson stressed 2

What’s frustrating, however, is the end product. Much of what made the battle in The Battle of the Five Armies was not seen until a year after its original release. The general consensus seems to have been that the extended edition provided much more weight and narrative flow to the final installment than its theatrical version.

Scenes had been edited out and the uneven storytelling made itself felt to even the most Tolkien-averse audiences.

  • How could a year’s worth of post-production leave so many inconsistencies in the final cut?

I have already stated that the extended editions should not be a director’s final resort in fixing theatrical cuts. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, whereby the additional scenes helped to further enhance the story, all the extended installments in The Hobbit felt like a necessity: supporting weak scenes and awkward editing, whilst strengthening the overall flow of each film.

Peter Jackson stressed 3

A year’s post-production on The Battle of the Five Armies still left out major moments that were eventually re-introduced in the extended edition. One such sequence was the confrontation between the Dwarves and the Elves. Its omission from the theatrical release was due to the complexity of the visual effects involved and the lack of time.

To add further insult to injury, the special features reveal a wealth of deleted scenes that, had they been included, would have given a much needed boost to many characters: understanding their motivations that drive them to act the way they do. Alas, these were destined to remain on the cutting floor and make way for less essential sequences.

This all harks back to July 2012 and the decision to introduce the third film. Peter Jackson may not have known the problems he would encounter and the lack of time to solve them, but he seems to have shot himself in the foot in doing so.

What’s frustrating is that, in the time he had during pick-ups for shooting the bulk of film 3, he decided to spend much of it in introducing external characters unnecessary to the plot (Legolas and his ‘Bats and Bolg’ moments spring to mind), when he could have dedicated that time to the more important elements and characters of the story.

Wrapping up …

And yet, it is surprising how, out of all the problems and winging its, the final film turns out into to a decent narrative and a powerful ending that wraps up the trilogy and connects it to The Lord of the Rings. (The strong ending clearly showing it was filmed during the less chaotic months at the beginning of principal photography).

I do not condemn Jackson’s decision for a three-film split for, out of the many additional sequences, there emerged some of the finest moments in The Hobbit trilogy, which would have otherwise remained only as furtive glimpses in Peter Jackson’s vivid imagination.

15 thoughts on “On Peter Jackson “Winging it…”

  1. As rushed and disjointed as the theatrical release of “Battle of the Five Armies” felt, I was extremely impressed with second effort.

    I agree though. When compared to (for instance) the extended version of “An Unexpected Journey” — which brought some richly-layered story additions into the film, it felt like Jackson was releasing the “Battle of the Five Armies” in manner as if to say “Hey, this is what I wish I had released the first time around.” But again, I thoroughly enjoyed the extended version — it was a triumph.

    I appreciate all of your research and writing and you inadvertently gave me an idea for a future article…
    The physical toll the flurry of work each trilogy took on Peter Jackson: SHOULD he ever again make a Tolkien-related film?

    • I had a similar thought RK, you’d have to worry about his health. If he felt up for it, and had time to prepare physically for it, it could be fine. Also, if he was able to be sure of his role in it from the beginning til end, it could be taken at a better, sustainable pace. I believe he said “never again” after LOTR and of course, he did. So I’ve a feeling he’ll be tempted to go again at some point. 🙂

  2. This was really helpful to read — having it all put on a timeline.

    I’m with you — I loved the end of DOS. However, it’s my impression that this is precisely the part of the films that the most intense Tolkien fans hated.

    re: BOTFA — my intuition about this was that Jackson didn’t want to be taken to task for making another extremely long film, so he cut the running time for that reason.

    • Many thanks 🙂 I agree that many Tolkien fans didn’t like the DoS ending. And whilst I’m sure you’re right about making BOTFA short, he seems to have jumped the gun and edited it a bit too much!

  3. Nicely created post, James.

    I’m afraid that my patience with the trilogy had died by the end of the 2nd film and so I was not in the proper frame of mind by the time the 3rd movie rolled around. Not enough focus on Tolkien’s actual characters, too much focus on bizarre events outside of The Hobbit verse that Tolkien created, and the final installment resulted in a real downer for me.

    I actually do feel guilty that I don’t love The Hobbit trilogy, but I don’t. Although now that I’ve heard the extended edition of the final film might actually be worth watching, I may track it down at some point. I’ve only seen the theatrical version once, in theaters, and had determined to never watch it again.

    Poor Peter. He did try, but something just went wrong along the way.

  4. Very interesting! Thanks!

    And given that it was said early on that Thorin’s death scene was–at least initially–filmed during principal photography, on the first go around of filming, I wonder if they reshot all or part of Thorin’s death scene when they filmed The Battle of the Five Armies battle scenes?

    And if Jackson was so concerned about length for TH3, he could have cut the Bag End ending and put back in some of the deleted scenes to–as you indicated–enhance the narrative of The Battle of the Five Armies. I so wanted that valorizing funeral for Thorin, Fili, & Kili. And in the EE, we have it! Though I have yet to watch the last half of the third film in EE, I’ve seen the clips and it looks appropriately respectful and poignant.

    • I’m not sure whether Thorin’s death scene was shot during Principal Photography. In an article on Empire Magazine (August 2012), Richard Armitage had stated he had not yet filmed his “poignant moment”.

      As for film 3’s length, I wouldn’t have cut out the Bag End sequence – I thought it was great! But I certainly would have chopped off the Legolas-clinging-bats stunts and his facedown with Bolg (leaving Beorn to deal with that pesky orc) 😀

  5. I think that being in an extremely stressful situation can potentially explain many bad decisions. Also if you work yourself into burn out, you don’t recover right away.

    I still must wonder, how some of the things in The Battle of Five Armies were not stopped by somebody in the production, like the characters of the lake town master and Alfrid, in addition to problems that you name.

    • Agreed – it’s a pity that the final product had to suffer. I still believe that splitting 2 films into 3 was THE major contributing factor to BotFA’s weak narrative.

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