The Road goes ever on and on

So, I have now seen The Battle of the Five Armies, or at least the theatrical version, the “definitive” version will be the extended version when it comes out. I enjoyed them, immensely, they were fun. They were not the books, and there are scenes I miss, and I would, as always with Peter Jackson’s films of late, cut down the chase sequences, but I really enjoyed them. They hit the right notes. There were a couple of changes I think worked better for a film that has to fit in with Lord of the Rings, the changing of the quest not to an assassination, but to get the Arkenstone to unite the dwarves, and keeping Thorin dignified, rather that keeping some of the slapstick things that happen to him in the book.

I want to talk about criticism of the expansion of “The Hobbit” that many have complained about. As I have said before, trying to keep the Hobbit as a children’s book with no reference to the later tone of Lord of the Rings is a non-starter. This is confirmed by Tolkien changing a whole chapter of “The Hobbit”. In the original Gollum was not a vile monster. Gollum wagers a “present” if Bilbo wins the Riddle game. He can’t give the Ring to Bilbo, as he has lost it and Bilbo has found it, so he shows Bilbo the way out.

In fact Tolkien intended to rewrite the whole of “The Hobbit”, not just that chapter, but his publishers persuaded him to stop. The version we know is still, however, the one with the rewritten chapter.

That was not the only thing Tolkien did to address the differences in tone and history. The Council of Elrond has a lot that ties together the two books. The Appendices for Durin’s folk gives some context to why Gandalf would want to see Smaug gone and the Orcs shattered. That brief part is a summary of “the Quest for Erebor”, a version of which is included in the “Unfinished Tales”. The Appendix also gives some of the other history that forms the basis of the “flashbacks” in “The Hobbit” movies.

Some excerpts from the Quest of Erebor

  • I knew that Sauron had arisen again and would soon declare himself, and I knew that he was preparing for a great war. How would he begin? Would he try first to re-occupy Mordor, or would he first attack the chief strongholds of his enemies? I thought then, and I am sure now, that to attack Lorien and Rivendell
  • To resist any force that Sauron might send to regain the northern passes in the mountains and the old lands of Angmar there were only the Dwarves of the Iron Hills, and behind them lay a desolation and a Dragon. The Dragon Sauron might use with terrible effect
  • these three things came together: the great Dragon with his lust, and his keen hearing and scent; the sturdy heavy-booted Dwarves with their old burning grudge; and the quick, soft-footed Hobbit, sick at heart (I guessed) for a sight of the wide world.
  • “But you know how things went, at any rate as Bilbo saw them. The story would sound rather different, if I had written it.
  • I had other business in Dol Guldur more important and perilous than all the treasure of Erebor.

This covers “The Hobbit” differing from “facts”, or at least Gandalf’s point of view, because Bilbo is now covering up how he got the Ring, the need to do away with the Dragon and the desire to recapture Angmar and the coming together of fortuitous elements that Gandalf used to his own ends.

These are the main part of the changes to the story that Peter Jackson put in, so to criticise him for the things Tolkien intended is unfair. Film and books are different, Tolkien understood this, during an earlier project to film Lord of the Rings, Tolkien suggested that the Battle of Helm’s Deep could be dispensed with, and he was happy just to leave Saruman locked up in Orthanc if necessary for time.

The other changes some have complained about are to do with characters. Existing and new. I’ll pick on one of each, Bard and Alfrid. Bard doesn’t appear until Lake-town is attacked by Smaug, and then his heritage, and gloomy is explained as part of the description.

This doesn’t really work for a film, so instead he is introduced earlier. How to illustrate his character and heritage? Interaction with other characters, so we have him meet the dwarfs, become part of the debate on helping them or not and have a lackey to the Master, Alfrid, to interact with. Alfrid can encapsulate the deviousness of the Master, without people wondering why the Master is bothering with this random person.

Film is a different medium, you can’t have footnotes or text description as you have in a book, so you have to show, and have some way to work it into the text. You could do exposition, but that is clumsy, so you have to use a more natural way to work it in, which is what Peter Jackson did.

One last thing to deal with, the look of things. As a Tolkien purist, I know it is a world of mailed soldiery, the plate of the Dwarves and Gondor has no place there. However, lots of mail clad soldiers tend to look alike. now, you could give everyone a key to the heraldry so you can tell them apart, or you can give cultures distinct looks, to make it easy to distinguish, which is what he did.

The end results, is a set of films that explains the background to the conflicts of The Hobbit, takes you through them, gets you to understand the conflicts of the characters (including the dragon sickness of Thorin that the 1960 rewrite would have made more of) and gets a lump in your throat at the end, and a delight when it ties in to the start of Fellowship of the Ring.

I look forward to my first run through all six films!

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