Ars Technica recently published a blistering review of the third Hobbit movie “The Battle of Five Armies,” and it got me thinking about Peter Jackson’s films about Tolkien’s books. As a longtime Tolkien fan, I had looked forward to seeing his stories up on the big screen during my lifetime. But now that Jackson is finally done, I’m only left with disappointment and sadness at what his movies ultimately turned into over the years.
Before I share my thoughts, here’s a snippet of the Ars review of the Battle of Five Armies movie:
Martin Freeman has established himself as a quietly great actor with serious dramatic and comedic chops, and his scenes in these movies have consistently been the best thing about the films. Bilbo Baggins is the only character capable of eliciting genuine reactions from the audience, which is what Peter Jackson’s bloated Hobbit trilogy needed more than anything—Bilbo’s scenes form the kernel of what could have been a smaller, quieter, but ultimately more narratively successful series of films, one where Bilbo’s personal journey isn’t swallowed whole by loud Lord of the Rings-style battle sequences.
Other than Freeman’s wonderful, quiet little scenes and a bare handful of others, Battle of the Five Armies is one big two-hour-and-24-minute-long argument against splitting the book up into three films.
There’s one big thing that doomed these movies from the outset—the fiscally smart but artistically bankrupt decision to make a single, shortish children’s novel into three feature-length prequel films.
What these movies desperately need are boundaries, reasons to condense scenes or cut them out entirely instead of reasons to pile on more. Chopping these down into a pair of two-and-a-half hour movies would drastically improve the pacing even if you didn’t address the characterization or the tone issues. You could leave around three hours of slow-motion action sequences, goblin chases, and Radagast the Brown on the cutting room floor! Sounds great, doesn’t it?
Ouch! Well, I have to give it to the Ars reviewer, he didn’t pull any punches. Do read the entire review as there’s a lot more in it that’s worth reading if you are thinking of seeing the film. I’ve decided to take a pass, but my decision is not based on the Ars review, it has more to do with my experiences with Jackson’s previous films.
Yes, I’ve sat through all of the Lord of the Rings movies as well as the first two Hobbit films. Each time I kept hoping that Jackson would somehow remain true to Tolkien’s vision rather than trying to push his version of the stories. But each time I was let down and ended up regretting spending the time to watch Jackson’s movies.
There’s no doubt that Jackson excels at creating visually stunning spectacles of battles and scenery. But his Achilles heel is straying way too far from the original stories that Tolkien created. I stress the word “story” here because ultimately that’s what made the Tolkien books great. The stories were compelling adventures mixed with pathos and a sense that things in Middle Earth were transitioning from one era to the other. Tolkien knew how to create epic storylines with relatively sparse prose, and that’s almost the direct opposite of what Jackson does in the movies.
But let me list some of the specifics about the movies that I didn’t like. I’ll start with the Lord of the Rings.
Arwen the Warrior Princess
One of the things I loathed in the Lord of the Rings was how Jackson tried to turn Arwen into Arwen: Warrior Princess. In the books, her character does not ride a horse or try to face down the Ringwraiths. But in the movies, she replaces both Glorfindel and Frodo and even manages to sneak up on Aragorn and hold a sword to his throat. Remember that Aragorn is supposed to be one of the best trackers and rangers in the history of Middle Earth so the idea of somebody – particularly Arwen – sneaking up on him is utterly ludicrous.
I think this is just a blatant example of Jackson trying to be politically correct by pushing the “girl power” thing and making the female characters Tolkien created into Xena-wannabes. He’s not the only director who has done this, but it’s gotten very tiresome indeed. And the masculinization of Arwen conversely results in Aragorn’s character becoming a whining wussy.
In the films, you have to marvel at how needy and insecure Aragorn is, it’s almost the complete opposite of the character in the books. In the movies, Aragorn needs Mommy Arwen to push and prod him to accept his destiny. Jackson pretty much emasculates Aragorn, and we are left with a wishy-washy hero that can’t tie his shoelaces without Arwen telling him how to do it.
It’s clear that Jackson sacrificed the integrity of the Lord of the Rings story on the altar of political correctness. I could have lived with that if such a sacrifice had been worthwhile, but it did nothing but water everything down and screwed up the identity of some of the main characters. It also presented a false portrayal of those characters to those who hadn’t read Tolkien’s books, and that in and of itself is a reason to avoid these movies.
The PC scourge is nothing new though; the same thing more or less happened with the Green Lantern movie that starred Ryan Reynolds. Remember that flick? It was the same sort of deal with the male hero needing a female to instruct him on how to be heroic. Directors that do this end up cheating both viewers because who wants to watch a male hero that has mommy issues? I felt embarrassed for the Hal Jordan character that he was reduced to being such a ball-less loser in a film that was supposed to be about him being a hero.
Anyway, getting back to LOTR, the Arwen and Aragorn storyline deviated way too far from the books, but that wasn’t the only thing that was off about it. Remember when Gandalf got knocked off his horse and had his staff broken? Or when Frodo almost handed the ringwraith the ring when it was flying front of him? Neither scene happened in the books, and there was no real reason for Jackson to include them in the films. I can’t imagine what he thought when he did it.
Gandalf the weak and wimpy wizard
The Gandalf face-off with the Witch King is a highlight in the books, and there’s a lot of tension for first-time readers as they wonder who will win. We never find out because the Witch King takes off when the riders of Rohan show up, but just seeing the two characters confronting each other in that scene is spellbinding for readers. And yet Jackson manages to screw it up by turning Gandalf the White into a wimpy wizard that can’t even stay on a horse.
And that scene also reminds me of the odd inconsistency between Gandalf the Grey and Gandalf the White in the movies. Remember that Gandalf the Grey took out a freaking Balrog in the film, but then Gandalf the White gets knocked off his horse by the Witch King. Huh? Since when is the Witch King so much more potent than a Balrog? Remember that Balrogs come from a time when Sauron himself was just the servant of a more powerful being called Morgoth. I highly doubt that the Witch King – the servant of Sauron – was somehow more powerful than a Balrog of the old world.
And don’t forget that Gandalf the White is supposed to be far more powerful than Gandalf the Grey. So it’s quite absurd for Gandalf the White to get tossed around and have his staff broken by the Witch King of Angmar. It goes against Tolkien’s story in a way that is so blatant as to be almost unforgivable. Gandalf the White should have been more than able to hold his own against the Witch King in a fight.
Tom Bombadil where the heck are you?
The complete chopping out of Tom Bombadil and the removal of the Scouring of the Shire storyline also helped ruin the movies for me. Bombadil was one of the most intriguing characters in the books, and the reclaiming of the Shire by Frodo and his friends helped demonstrate just how much they’d grown throughout the story. All of that was missing in the movies, and it disappointed me when I realized it had been cut by Jackson in favor of his pointless additions to the films.
Anyway, it’s stuff like this that makes me wince when watching the Lord of the Rings movies.
The Hobbit movies: Smaug is the dragon that couldn’t shoot straight
Breaking the Hobbit into three films and adding tons of stuff that didn’t happen is a problem for me. The book had a beautiful story that didn’t require a lot of padding to provide a terrific adventure for readers. But Jackson had to do his own thing and grab for some extra cash by making what should have been at most two films into three.
All of this has the unfortunate effect of making Bilbo – you know the hobbit that the book is about – less and less relevant in the movies. He’s still in them, but there’s so much other stuff going on that he ends up being eclipsed by all of it. And this has the effect of making the Hobbit movies into something that Tolkien would barely recognize if he were alive today to see them.
Tauriel, the female elf character that doesn’t exist in the books, is annoying. She’s yet another Xena-wannabe that takes up screen time and doesn’t offer much to the viewer. Who cares about her romance with a dwarf? It’s boring and drags out the movies. I never cared about their relationship, and I kept wishing that they’d both shut up.
Don’t misunderstand my mention of Xena in this context; I’m a huge fan of Xena: The Warrior Princess. It was a fantastic show, and the Xena character was written to be the hero right from the start of the series. She wasn’t a PC afterthought tossed into a movie based on a book where she never existed. And Xena was a very complicated character in her own right, with a vast and epic backstory that unfolded over the course of the show.
Tauriel, like Arwen in the Lord of the Rings movies, seems to be another attempt at creating a politically correct kind of “strong female character” but what Jackson doesn’t seem to realize is that strength comes in many forms. Power is most definitely not always about swinging a sword and being a warrior.
Galadriel, for example, is one of the most influential people in Middle Earth and yet she never runs around battling people with a sword. She has immense strength, grace, and dignity in a feminine form and that to me makes the movie version of Arwen and the Tauriel character look like childish cardboard character cutouts. I’m surprised that Jackson didn’t stoop to trying to make Galadriel into a warrior princess as well.
I wonder about the message being sent to young girls by characters like Tauriel and the movie version of Arwen. It’s as if directors like Jackson want to convince girls that they can only have value if they masculinize themselves into behaving like men. To me, that’s a very negative message and something that isn’t necessary with characters like Galadriel and the book version of Arwen (who was venerated by her people above almost all others).
And what is Legolas doing in the Hobbit movies? He’s not in the Hobbit book, so he shouldn’t have been in the film either. His character doesn’t offer viewers a whole lot and, frankly, he comes across as a jerk more often than not. Each time I see him on screen, I wonder why he’s there since he has nothing really to do with the story and seems only to be there for various action sequences.
Smaug is a visually impressive character in the Hobbit films; there’s no doubt about it. But his confrontation with the dwarves in the second movie is beyond laughable. The very idea that the dwarves were going to fight Smaug and drive him off is silly. In the book, Smaug would have killed them all in the blink of an eye, but in the movie, he’s reduced to a Wile E. Coyote type character that just can’t seem to catch the Road Runner dwarves no matter what he does.
I will admit to enjoying Radagast the Brown in the Hobbit movies. His sled action sequence in the second film was a bit goofy, but also entertaining. He’s one of the few additions to the Hobbit films that I enjoyed. Maybe I liked him because he was comic relief and diverted my attention from the rest of the mess that Jackson created in the Hobbit movies.
Here’s a clip of Radagast on the run from the orcs via his rabbit sled:
Read J.R.R. Tolkien’s books for the real stories
There’s a lot more I could rail against in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, what I’ve included here just scratches the surface of what went wrong. But I think you get the gist of how I feel about them. Despite being a massive fan of Tolkien’s books, the movies just left me disappointed and pretty much wishing that they were never created in the first place.
I consider the films to be a missed opportunity by Jackson. He had the budget, the acting talent, and the special effects know-how to create movies that remained relatively faithful to Tolkien’s original vision. But instead of remaining true to that, he went off the deep end of political correctness and then compounded that mistake by doing a cash grab by dragging out the Hobbit for three films.
If you want the real story, then you should read Tolkien’s books. What you get with Jackson’s movies is his version of the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit. They are very loosely based on Tolkien’s books, but they are not the real stories. The movies were designed to generate lots of cash and to pander to today’s politically correct audiences.
I feel very sorry for the folks who have only seen the films and never read the books. They’ve missed out and gotten an abysmal adaptation of Tolkien’s brilliant masterpieces. And the sad thing is that they’ll never know it unless they finally decide to read Tolkien’s words.
The Audible versions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
My favorite way to experience The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings is via the Audible audiobooks that feature Rob Inglis as the narrator. Inglis does a fantastic job with all of the characters in the books; he’s a delightful narrator.
I highly recommend checking out the Audible versions of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. You can close your eyes, relax and let Rob Inglis take you into Middle Earth in a way that will delight you without you having to turn a single page. And you’ll experience The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings in all of their glory through Inglis’ excellent narration of J.R.R Tolkien’s beautiful words.
More information: Books by and about J.R.R. Tolkien
I’ve included some interesting books below for all Tolkien fans, for a complete list of books by Tolkien see the J.R.R. Tolkien author page at Amazon.
This collection will entertain all who appreciate the art of masterful letter writing. The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien sheds much light on Tolkien’s creative genius and grand design for the creation of a whole new world: Middle-earth.
Bilbo’s Last Song is considered by many to be Tolkien’s epilogue to his classic work The Lord of the Rings. As Bilbo Baggins takes his final voyage to the Undying Lands, he must say goodbye to Middle-earth. Poignant and lyrical, the song is both a longing to set forth on his ultimate journey and a tender farewell to friends left behind.
Pauline Baynes’s jewel-like illustrations lushly depict both this final voyage and scenes from The Hobbit, as Bilbo remembers his first journey while he prepares for his last.
This revised and expanded edition of Tolkien’s own Hobbit-inspired poetry includes previously unpublished poems and notes, and is beautifully illustrated by Narnia artist Pauline Baynes.
For all those who journey to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, here is the complete guide to its lands, legends, histories, languages, and people. The Complete Tolkien Companion explains, translates, and links every single reference – names, dates, places, facts, famous weapons, even food and drink – to be found in Tolkien’s world, which includes not only The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings but also The Simarillion and many other posthumously published works.
C. S. Lewis is the 20th century’s most widely read Christian writer and J.R.R. Tolkien its most beloved mythmaker. For three decades, they and their closest associates formed a literary club known as the Inklings, which met every week in Lewis’s Oxford rooms and in nearby pubs. They discussed literature, religion, and ideas; read aloud from works in progress; took philosophical rambles in woods and fields; gave one another companionship and criticism; and, in the process, rewrote the cultural history of modern times.
Romantics who scorned rebellion, fantasists who prized reality, wartime writers who believed in hope, Christians with cosmic reach, the Inklings sought to revitalize literature and faith in the twentieth century’s darkest years-and did so in dazzling style.