Normally when adapting a classic novel into a movie, it’s the literary source material that looms largest over the resulting adaptation. Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, though, is haunted less by the specter of J.R.R. Tolkien than by that of George Lucas.
Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Lucas’s Star Wars are the two greatest fantasy trilogies in film history, and in each case the filmmaker was coaxed—reluctantly, each says—back into the director’s chair to revisit their respective universes for prequel trilogies. Now that Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy is complete, the similarities between these films and Lucas’s Star Wars prequels are striking. Each prequel trilogy showcases its director’s strengths but also allows him to indulge in excesses.
In each case, the new films now sit in their respective canons—Lucas’s prequels just slid under the wire when the franchise’s new owners washed their hands of the entire Star Wars Expanded Universe—but with a sizable proportion of the original trilogies’ most devoted fans wishing the new films had never been made. (I’m one of the rare defenders of the Star Wars prequels.)
As with Revenge of the Sith—the final of the Star Wars prequels—The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies rumbles with foreboding as it lurches towards its chronological link-up with the first installment of the original trilogy. Whereas Sith ended in searing emotional and physical pain, though, the softer Hobbit conclusion inclines towards a warm, reflective tone as it returns to the Shire: the Hobbit homeland, used throughout the six films as a quiet reminder of what’s at stake in these epic battles for misty mountains and enchanted accessories.
While it suffers from the unnecessary bloating that infected the first two Hobbit films as well—the entire trilogy consumes about as much running time as it would take to read Tolkien’s entire Hobbit novel from cover to cover—Five Armies finds weight and resonance in an episode that threatened to be anticlimactic given that the story’s second-best character (after the eponymous halfling) dies before the opening credits have finished running.
To an extent unprecedented in Jackson’s saga, Five Armies explores the ambiguity of war. In the other five films, there might be some griping between dwarves and elves, but fundamentally, everyone knows who the bad guys are: the orcs, or the goblins, or the dragon. For much of Five Armies, the truly existential threat is offstage, leaving space for potentially deadly feuding among the would-be victors. If Lord of the Rings shows the influence of the Second World War—the textbook example of a “just war” for the Allies, with fascist Nazis threatening to dominate the world—Five Armies harks back to the morally debatable First World War.
Tolkien revised The Hobbit after writing Lord of the Rings, to add reference to the characters and incidents of that three-part novel, and Jackson has taken those revisions a giant step further: what was once a self-contained, relatively simple story becomes a detailed prologue to the continent-spanning battle for Middle Earth. My edition of The Hobbit runs 317 pages, and the events of Five Armies only start on page 256—which explains why a lot of people who read the book as children forgot that anything even happened after the dragon was smoked out of the mountain.
In the original novel the enemy armies are goblins and wolves looking simply to revenge the Goblin-King killed by Gandalf earlier in the story (and grab the mountain full of gold while they’re at it); now the goblins are reduced to a cameo, overshadowed by orcs sent to take the Lonely Mountain as a strategic stronghold in Sauron’s larger quest to overrun all of Middle Earth.
Goblins, orcs…what’s the difference? Well, it depends on exactly how nerdy you want to get, but one difference is the White Orc, a character whose role has been vastly inflated for the movies. A bleached mash-up of Thing and the Rock, the White Orc has a personal vendetta against dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield, resolved in a climactic battle on ice that updates Alexander Nevsky for the CGI era. Another difference is the second-front—or third-front, or fourth-front, or fifth-front, or sixth-front, depending on how you count the fronts—battle against Sauron himself, fought by Gandalf and his friends while the orcs pound their heads (literally, to comic effect) against the ramparts.
That innovation will annoy some purists and thrill others (the ones who like to cross-reference their copy of The Silmarillion), but it at least works—unlike the star-crossed romance between Legolas’s elven crush and the second-hottest dwarf, which just gets more excruciating with each Hobbit installment and here reaches its nadir, complete with dialogue that makes Lifetime’s Aaliyah biopic sound like Shakespeare. The best that can be said for that sappy subplot is that it’s at least understandable that no one would want to date Legolas, who here is so aggressively airbrushed that they might as well have just rendered the entire role in CGI and let Orlando Bloom stay in Ibiza.
By the end of the film, everyone seems weary—yes, in the way you would be if you’d just fought a battle of five armies, but also in a larger sense. Martin Freeman’s Bilbo has been so overwhelmed by his adventure that the film barely even gestures towards the little-guy-big-world arc that anchored the first Hobbit episode. Now, Bilbo seems resigned to his fate as a shaggy-footed Switzerland, doing what he must to forestall disastrous conflict between the haughty elves and the defensive dwarves—never mind all those orcs, humans, shape-changers, etc.
In the final scenes of Five Armies, though, Jackson quiets down and brings the story back to Bilbo and Gandalf for some of the most effective scenes of the entire prequel trilogy. Though Tolkien’s novels aren’t explicitly Christian in the way his frenemy C.S. Lewis’s are, Tolkien was also profoundly religious, and Jackson has lived with this material long enough to understand—and to let us see—that the relationship between hobbit and wizard, with its parallels to relationship between man and Maker, is at its emotional core. Hobbits, like humans in the Christian worldview, are fundamentally good—but fallible, and in need of guidance as they bear their supreme responsibility.
George Lucas says he hasn’t seen the new Star Wars trailer. It must be hard to let go—as it must be for Jackson, and for all of us. It’s time to let go, though. It’s most definitely time.