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The Hobbit: Heroism for Our Age

by Marc C. Conner
Associate Provost and Ballengee Professor of English

Peter Jackson’s concluding film in his Hobbit trilogy is a fitting conclusion to the way he has conceived and rendered J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novel. Long on action and scenes of battle, but short on character development, the film is on the whole a rich and faithful presentation of Tolkien’s world. And Jackson has worked hard to depict not only the story of The Hobbit, but also to show the undercurrents and hidden stories that connect The Hobbit to Tolkien’s longer, later trilogy, The Lord of the Rings (which Jackson brought to the screen in an earlier film trilogy ten years ago). While Tolkien enthusiasts will find much to love and much to quibble with in The Hobbit, for the general viewer who may not know the books well, the film is a sumptuous, riveting mythic-action classic with special effects that frankly astonish, even in this age when everything seems possible in film.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies culminates the trilogy that began with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) and then The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013). Whereas The Lord of the Rings is a 1000+ page epic that obviously demanded a three-film treatment, The Hobbit is an eminently readable 250-page story that certainly any Hollywood producer would think could be done in a 2:20 treatment. But Jackson, to his credit, held out for the full, lavish three films. This allowed him to layer into the immediate story—the quest of Bilbo Baggins and his 13 dwarf companions—other stories that are only hinted at in The Hobbit, such as the confrontation between the White Council and the Necromancer (who turns out to be Sauron, the Dark Lord who will be the great antagonist in The Lord of the Rings), or the encroaching betrayal by Saruman, the white wizard who turns evil in the later epic. Jackson draws upon not only The Hobbit itself for this material, but also Tolkien’s other more obscure writings, such as the appendices to The Lord of Rings published in later editions, and The Silmarillion, his posthumously published mythic history of the earliest age of Elves, Dwarves, and Men.

What does this mean for this movie, The Battle of the Five Armies? Devotees of the books will relish the small details that only such careful (even obsessed) readers could notice; and those coming to the films without the knowledge of the books will enjoy the magnificent action scenes and the stirring contests between mighty opposites. Jackson is unrivalled in his ability to create astonishing scenes of magic that look, well, real. For example, the great scene in which the dragon is destroying the city and Bard the Bowman faces him armed with a single arrow is remarkably stirring, and looks just the way I’d imagine such a confrontation would look. And the individual performances in the film are quite strong: Richard Armitage as Thorin, the driven Dwarf king, is exceptional throughout all three films; Lee Pace gives a fascinating performance of the enigmatic elf-king Thranduil; and Evangeline Lilly is quite moving as the elf-warrior Tauriel. (The fact that Tauriel exists nowhere in the books, and that she was created wholly in order to introduce a female character, and a romantic plot—a romance between an elf and a dwarf, in fact, which is unthinkable in Tolkien’s world—can be excused, and probably does make for a more enjoyable movie for the non-Tolkien-enthusiast.)

The finest performance of all in the film, and indeed in all three films, is by Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, the reluctant burglar. Yet the performance is lost to a great extent because all of Jackson’s pyrotechnics and brilliant computerized animated effects and stirring confrontations between goblin monsters and elvish kings end up taking over the film. What is lost in this imbalance is the fact that the real hero of this book is a humble Hobbit, an almost ridiculous creature who is no warrior and professes not even to be brave. Like Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, Bilbo is an anti-hero, apparently a mockery of true heroism. Tolkien’s point is that we ourselves are most like the Hobbits—bumbling, frightened, far preferring a warm fire and snug home to the wilderness and the horrors of trolls, dragons, orcs, and wolves. Yet Bilbo is ultimately the bravest character in the entire book. He is the one who dares to descend the mountain tunnel and face the dragon alone and unarmed—something his dwarf companions and wizard guide do not dare. Tolkien describes this moment as the heroic climax of the book: “Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.” This moment is essentially absent from Jackson’s film, and so we lose the book’s great claim, that heroism is to be found not in epic characters and mythic battles, but in the small, fleeting moments of courage, truth, and honor. This is indeed a loss; for in a world in which evil seems increasingly complex, the simplicity of true heroism is more in need than ever.