At the start of The Fellowship of the Ring, an elderly Bilbo tells Gandalf that he feels ‘thin… stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread’, and this is also happens to be the most apt description for the third and final instalment of The Hobbit trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies (a title which sounds, quite appropriately, like a straight-to-DVD spin-off). The problem with The Battle could not be more predictable: having already stretched beyond belief the short, quaint novel The Hobbit to two enormously lucrative films, the producers decided to create a third film linking the events of the book to its vast and vastly different successor, The Lord of the Rings. To do this, they would need to mine from the books’ appendices any background details relegated by Tolkien as superfluous to his story, and forge them into a coherent, original narrative. The result? A tonally confused, unengaging and vapid morality tale about greed, made solely to satisfy the avarice of the Hollywood film industry. How deliciously ironic! Like the dwarves themselves, the filmmakers set out on the journey with mountains of riches on their minds, and like protagonist Thorin (Richard Armitage), once they attained it, they were confounded by ‘dragon sickness’, a mad, unquenchable thirst for more. Consequently and true to its nature, the film feels like fluff, filler – those deleted scenes which, as a fan, you force yourself to watch whilst silently blessing the film editor.
The fundamental problem with going off-piste from Tolkien’s original narrative is compromising the tight balance the author established between the epic fantasy elements and the more grounded, relatable themes of Bilbo’s story. Throughout his novels, Tolkien uses his hobbits as a ‘way in’ to the world of Middle Earth: the halflings are rooted to our own reality and our sensibility, and it is only through their perspective that we have a sense of normality, and it is really only because of them that we care. Withouthobbits Middle Earth is a chaos of fantasy, like Narnia without the Pevensie children, or Star Wars without Luke Skywalker et al – it is meaningless and impotent. Needless to say, dominated by dwarves, orcs, elves and a few men, The Battle is exceedingly unhobbity, and as a result, is deeply uninteresting.
While some effort is made to characterise Bard (Luke Evans), the new leader of the Lake-town people, he scarcely amounts to more than a good-looking do-gooder trying to protect his haplessly forgettable family. Of this, he does a terrible job, mainly due to his ludicrous capacity for trust in Alfrid Lickspittle ((Ryan Gage), effectively Jackson’s malevolent-cockney-equivalent of Jar Jar Binks), a man he knows to be a treacherous coward. In an unintentionally comical turn, Bard misplaces his trust in Alfrid three times before inexplicably electing him as the best candidate to take care of his beloved family. Of course, instead of doing so, this bumbling cockney cad, straight out of a Christmas pantomime, gets up to all sorts of ‘hilarious’ cross-dressing shenanigans to save his own skin, until he is eventually caught stuffing looted gold into his brassiere whilst nearby women and children are murdered by orcs (cue panto laughter). This insufferable character quite possibly gets more screen-time than Bilbo. Ouch.
Perhaps the most important scene (minor spoiler) linking the series to The Lord of the Rings is one in which Gandalf is accosted by nine ghosts, (which would later become the Ringwraiths we know and love) at the top of an ancient, decrepit fort. However, yet another scene descends into ridicule as the outnumbered wizard is first joined by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), then, in a comically timely fashion, by Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) before The Middle Earth Justice League is finally completed by Radagast (Sylvester Mccoy), to whisk his wizard friend away. How do you fight ghosts with swords? Is Cate Blanchett’s superpower just her charming, tonally rich voice? Was there a prearranged meeting time? These are not questions which arise when a scene stems from a well-conceived, uncontrived narrative.
Whether or not Tolkien envisioned such scenes as those in The Battle, he chose not to depict them for a reason. The success of the original The Lord of the Rings novel and its loyal (and more concise) film adaptation is not just what is told, but what is not told. The backstory looming behind the scenes of The Lord of the Rings is what lends it a richness and sense of wonder and mystery, and provides gaps which we can fill with our imagination. The Battle of the Five Armies fails because it loses sight of these essential elements which made the original films great, substituting plot, script and imagination for interminable fight scenes and redundant fantasy lore.