For the Fans: I Like Jackson’s Trilogy, Part II

The final movie captures Bilbo's inner struggles.
Ultimately, the movies are an excellent showcase for Martin Freeman. Throughout the trilogy, Jackson delivers Bilbo's scenes with surprising accuracy (adaptations do involve change!). He is in the movies as much as he is in the book.

Bilbo’s presence in the book ebbs and flows. Tolkien's prose is smooth and unselfconscious: he doesn’t call attention to his own textual strategies. Because so much of the action is delivered through Bilbo’s eyes (Bilbo saw that the dwarfs had . . . ), the reader is left with the impression that Bilbo is doing more than he does in fact do. Many of the chapters use the third person plural almost exclusively: Bilbo and the dwarfs. They . . . Thorin and company . . .

Every place in the book where Bilbo rises to the fore in action, not just voice, appears in the movies. These instances may appear less because, well, more is more. But Jackson never forgets his protagonist. Not only are Bilbo’s scenes rendered, they are often “strictly rendered”: Bilbo and Gollum 's scene is transferred practically verbatim from book to film.*

It would be interesting to see a "book" version of the trilogy, one cut to just Bilbo's scenes (or those that affect him directly). Since all of them are there, the resulting movie might hold together surprisingly well. But then, of course, all the "more" would be gone! I am personally hoping that Jackson puts out a director's cut that expands the trilogy by several hours. My one complaint about Five Armies is that it ends too abruptly--I think Jackson was responding to criticisms that Return of the King had too many endings. Me? I want three or four endings!**

Returning to Bilbo, one major difference between the book and the trilogy is that we don’t hear Bilbo’s inner voice in those scenes where he rises to the fore—which one does with the book. I wonder if Jackson considered (and obviously discarded) a voice-over by Bilbo. If so, I imagine he found no need for it once he watched Martin Freeman on film.

Freeman’s physical acting makes a voice-over unnecessary. In the scene where Bilbo rescues the dwarfs from the Elf King's prison, Freeman conveys Bilbo’s exasperation and sudden confusion (“I forgot to get a barrel for me!”) through physical movement: the tilt of a chin, the hunch of a shoulder, the rise of a foot. But then film is—and should be—about what one sees, not what one hears.

So if you are tired of reading all the negative commentary online (and believe me, there’s plenty of it out there!), rest assured: at least one person loves the book and the trilogy!

--Slight Spoiler--

*In Five Armies, Bilbo’s decision to keep the Arkenstone, then pass it on to Thorin’s enemies plays as large a part as I had hoped it would. Despite the rapid sequence of events—Jackson is tackling multiple storylines at once—the movie conveys the difficulty and pain of Bilbo's decision (in fact, more time is spent on Bilbo making the decision than on carrying it out). The confrontation between Thorin and Bilbo at the gate after Thorin discovers Bilbo's "betrayal" is powerful although I favor the final scene between Bilbo and Thorin as heartbreakingly "true": both Richard Armitage and Martin Freeman deliver their characters' lines from the end of the book with gentle pathos and, in Martin Freeman's case, a boldly different interpretation: masterful performances by both actors.

**Interestingly enough, Five Armies is far more self-consciously thematic than the Return of the King. LOTR is message or platitude-oriented: it is always darkest before the dawn; never give up; despair is the worst sin; the smallest person can change the course of history. Five Armies, however, ends with an uneasy peace (as does the book)--a difficult plot to platitudize.

The Mithril coat plus a discussion of values.
In many ways, Five Armies plays the same role in its trilogy as Two Towers except that Five Armies comes at the end of the quest cycle rather than the middle (hence the need for more endings). In a way, Jackson's decision to keep to the book here may have worked against the overall trilogy. I expected a more deliberate bridge of The Hobbit to LOTR; I surmise that Jackson pulled back to satisfy those who accuse him of "marketing" the movies and trying to capitalize off his success with LOTR. (This is a truly weird criticism: of course, Jackson is trying to make money off both trilogies! That's his job. Somebody has to pay WETA--the folks there can't work for free. Most readers don't have several million dollars floating around  with which to mount their own interpretations of Tolkien. Thank goodness somebody does!).

To solve the problem of Five Armies, Jackson threads it with a classic motif: by their fruits you shall know them - or - people show what they care about by what they argue, fight, and die for. Consequently, Thorin's speech to Bilbo at the end is not only a part of the book that had to be included (how I felt going in) but the capstone of a not-too-overly-didactic theme.

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