So by now, many of you will have heard of this. After operating under a working title of There and Back Again, the third installment in the needlessly-trilogy’d Hobbit movies has been renamed to The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, in an Oscar bid attempt to take home the award for “Most Uses of the Word ‘The’ in a Title”.
Already there’s a bit of nerd rage circulating, and while I don’t want to fall too far into the “rage” category, I’m also not super jazzed about the change. Obviously it’s just a title, and what’s important is the content of the film, not how good the film’s name looks on a movie poster. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is kind of a silly name for a film, whereas Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home actually sounds pretty great, but everybody knows that the reality of each of these films is the stark opposite; Khan is the best entry in the Star Trek movie franchise and Save the Whales is possibly the weakest. Titles are not at all an indicator of film quality, though a good title does make things a lot neater. The concern I have about this recent title change isn’t that it sounds dumb or is too long or anything like that. Rather, it seems that this is another bit of evidence indicating that Peter Jackson and company might be losing sight of what the Hobbit is really about.
The Lord of the Rings was an unprecedented hit. It was incredibly well-shot, well-directed, well-produced, and well-adapted. They were the poster child for epic fantasy, and rightly so. All of the plot arcs involving ancient, immensely powerful evils and brave, underdog heroes were out in full force and the scale of the conflict was huge. We had massive set piece locations, larger-than-life characters, and colossal battles between swarming armies. It was big, it was impressive, and audiences ate it up.
And that’s all fine and good. The only trouble is, The Hobbit isn’t really about that. It’s a much, much smaller story that in essence, focuses on one small Hobbit in a world that suddenly became a lot larger than he ever realized. Bilbo’s journey is the guiding force in the narrative, and through him the reader is introduced to Tolkein’s rich mythology. As each new facet of Middle Earth and its troubles are revealed, Bilbo’s character grows and by the conclusion of the story he is no longer the home-loving little Hobbit we were introduced to. By the time we see him again in Lord of the Rings he is a man who can’t wait to leave his hobbit-hole and explore again, whereas he almost needed to be ripped from his armchair when the adventure with the dwarves began… or “given a little push out the door” as Gandalf would insist.
The Hobbit is not about climactic battles upon which the fate of the world rests. It’s not about acts of heroic sacrifice or temptations of power or any such grand tales. The King in this story is but a side character with a bow, while the real focus lies on a short-statured man with an affinity for riddles. At Tolkein’s own insistence, it is a fairy tale, and he was staunchly unapologetic on that point. Tolkein loved fairy tales for their ability to convey great stories with a sense of levity, and that idea is plain to see in the pages of the Hobbit. And while we can see quite a bit of that levity in Bilbo’s sometimes oblivious actions, the dwarve’s joking, and the odd song here or there, it is impossible to walk away from one of the two completed films without feeling like they’re trying much too hard to recapture the same tone and scale that they believe made Lord of the Rings so successful.
Suddenly, we’re treated to a fight scene every 20-30 minutes. People are decapitated with frightening regularity, and dwarves dual-wield axes and chop through hordes of orcs with relative ease. The barrel scene in The Desolation of Smaug in particular is almost insulting in its violence, as it turns what was originally a clever escape attempt into a ten-minute moving brawl that looks like it came out of an Assassin’s Creed cinematic. The filmmakers seem entirely unable (or unwilling) to let the audience go for too long without an over-choreographed combat sequence thrown into the cut to reach out and slap us in the eyes a few times.
Look, fight scenes can be cool, I’m not gonna deny that. A skirmish every now and again on Bilbo’s journey is practically necessary to convey the sense of danger that goes along with such an undertaking. The encounter with the trolls in An Unexpected Journey (wich was an awesome title, by the way) was a wonderful example in which a bit of fighting was attempted, quickly thwarted, and the day saved by quick and clever wits. That was executed pretty close to perfectly and is the kind of thing that should be placed at the forefront in a story like Bilbo’s.
But I’m taking too long, so let me get to my point: while the Battle of the Five Armies is indeed a very big deal in the story and should be given a fair bit of attention, the renaming of the film to hinge upon this event is indicative of the filmmakers putting the focus on the battle instead of the journey, which is what we should be focusing on.
Do you know why There and Back Again worked so well? Because as the last entry in the Lord of the Rings film franchise, it perfectly encapsulated the struggle of not just Bilbo, but all of the protagonists in these stories of Middle Earth. Bilbo, in hesitantly leaving the Shire and journeying out into the world is given a whole new perspective on life, one that ultimately leads him to doubt his old quiet existence in Bag End and seek out adventure elsewhere. Frodo has a similar journey, in which his trial is thrust upon him and after all he’s endured, he can no longer simply return to a peaceful life where no one would understand what he’d seen and done. And Sam is the one that does manage to return to it all, and who can move on with his life in the world that he helped save whereas Bilbo and Frodo eventually make the decision to leave Middle Earth entirely and sail into the West.
This constant ebb and flow of characters in Middle Earth as they depart, return, and depart again to and from peace and danger is representative of one of the most consistent themes of Tolkein’s story: the allure of adventure, and how it changes people. At the end, when evil is vanquished, great tasks overcome, and old friends moved on, what is the very last line spoken in the Middle Earth mythos?
Once again, it’s Sam, driving home the point beautifully.
See, There and Back Again, isn’t just the title of Bilbo’s book. It’s a representation of the journey he took, and that others would go on to take after him. It’s the perfect encapsulation of that overarching theme of all of Tolkein’s stories in that world, and that’s why myself and a number of others are sad to see it go.
Yes, there’s speculation that the title might be used for a compilation set in a retail release. Yes, I’m perhaps being too nit-picky about a title being based on a fight scene. And yes, obviously it’s too early to make any definitive judgements as the movie won’t even be out for months yet. It’s very possible that The Battle of the Five Armies will turn out quite good, and they’ll still convey all the themes I glorified here just fine. But the change in direction in regard to the outward-facing branding of the film is a small cause for concern for those of us that love these stories for more than just their epic battles. Jackson has in many respects done a wonderful job with Tolkein’s works, but he’s also dropped the ball a few times and certainly put far too much focus on flashy combat scenes that distract from the flow of the greater story. How this turns out all remains to be seen, but for now there are a few rumblings of trepidation, and they’re not entirely unjustified.