After finally watching Peter Jackson’s THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, I was pretty much unmoved, either to admiration or to anger. I was surprised by that, because there was plenty of both to report about all the earlier films. The truth is that there is really nothing left to learn from one more Jackson film about either Middle Earth or Jackson’s version of it. The parts that were good and the parts that were unnecessarily stupid and lame were pretty predictable from the first two Hobbit films. Jackson’s Middle Earth is what it is, and there really isn’t anything left to say about it that I have not said before.
Except one thing: I am never left unmoved by re-reading Tolkien.
OK, what are some of the things I had said before? Now that Jackson’s entire interpretation of the legendarium is complete it might be worthwhile to revisit some of them. If you want them in full versions, they can be found here: http://lanternhollowpress.com/2013/02/04/review-the-hobbit-part-1-directed-by-peter-jackson/; http://lanternhollowpress.com/2013/02/11/9196/; http://lanternhollowpress.com/2014/02/03/review-the-desolation-of-smaug/. For now, I will sum up:
Skipping the obvious (the visuals are mostly authentic and usually breathtaking), I understand that the change to a new medium requires changes to the story. So I’m not a purist. I didn’t mind, for example, Bombadil being dropped or having the characters of Arwen and Glorfindel conflated. So saying that “It’s different from how Tolkien did it” is not, by itself, a valid criticism. There are even a couple of changes to the legendarium that are actual improvements. [I pause for all the Tolkien fans who know me to gasp in horror.] First, it actually makes more sense for Narsil to be in a shrine in Rivendell than it does for Aragorn to be carrying a useless sword around with him in the wild. Anybody who has done any serious backpacking knows that dead weight is the last thing you want with you. Aragorn is the most experienced outdoorsman in Middle Earth. I rest my case. Second, it makes sense for Aragorn to have kept the Army of the Dead with him through the end of the Battle of Pellenor Field. His little band of thirty Dunedain plus an elf and a dwarf, however good they might be, would not have been enough to turn the tide.
I object to two things: Changes that are just dumb and changes that alter the basic meaning and philosophy behind the work. First, the dumb. OK, it’s a movie, and we have CGI now. There is still a difference between an epic and a video game. This became most pointedly evident in the first two Hobbit installments, where people fall down five-hundred-foot cliffs and get up and walk away as if nothing had happened, dwarves randomly fall out of a tree onto Eagles’ backs who just happen to be passing below at the right time instead of being plucked from them (Nobody is that lucky, even if you add the phrase “if luck you call it”), and two ninja elves double-handedly kill more orcs than Saruman and Sauron put together ever bred. Tolkien added the laws of magic to Middle Earth, but he did not allow himself to break the laws of physics. All the physical feats performed are physically possible. Not in Jackson’s Middle Earth. Even in a movie, it makes the art less serious.
Much more problematic are changes that alter the moral meaning of Tolkien’s tale. Here the prime example (there are many others) is Faramir. How do you get from “I wouldn’t pick this thing up if I found it lying in the road” to “Tell my father I send him a powerful weapon?” There is no logical path from the one place to the other. The reason so many of Tolkien’s characters have to be “complicated,” some, like Faramir, to the point that they are unrecognizable, is that Peter Jackson lacks the moral imagination to believe that virtue is believable to a modern audience. Tolkien has evil characters (Sauron, Saruman by the time of LOTR), he has morally compromised characters (Gollum, Theoden, Denethor, Thorin) in whom either good (Theoden, Thorin) or evil (Denethor, Gollum) finally triumphs, and he has good characters with integrity (Aragorn, Faramir, and many others). We meet more people in the middle category in real life, true. But Tolkien believed that we need positive portraits of integrity to feed our moral imaginations on. Jackson either does not understand or rejects as impossible that belief. It is that difference in philosophy that makes his movies, for all their brilliance, ultimately unsatisfactory to people who truly love and understand Tolkien’s work. For more on this point, see my article “The World of the Rings: Why Peter Jackson Was Unable to Film Tolkien’s Moral Tale,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 26:6 (Nov.-Dec. 2013): 14-16). To see it online, go here: http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=26-06-014-v.
The last installment of Jackson’s Hobbit adds nothing new to this account. Jackson’s Middle Earth is what it is, and there really isn’t anything left to say about it that I have not said before.
Except one thing: I am never left unmoved by re-reading Tolkien. I hope some of the things I have said above help to explain why.
To see more of Dr. Williams’ writing, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams, Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed., or Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy: Poems and prose in pursuit of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty!