Last week it was announced that Peter Jackson will be changing the title of the final installment of The Hobbit from There and Back Again to The Battle of the Five Armies. This was done because, to paraphrase Jackson, the original title was more appropriate for the entire trilogy of movies, while the new title is more representative of the third movie’s content. Though, at this point, it may not matter what Jackson titles the movie.
Back in 2001, Jackson’s adaptation of the Lord of the Rings premiered. Not only was it a much lauded success, it set the standard for shooting a fantasy blockbuster. The massive battle sequences, the fully realized locales, the grand set pieces, and the adept handling of myriad characters became the template for the numerous fantasy adaptations that would ensue. Jackson demonstrated that the supernatural beasties of these fantasy worlds could be fully realized through a combination of make-up, costumes, and a mind numbing amount of CGI. Movies like The Chronicles of Narnia that were once produced using full size people in beaver costumes could now feature more accurately realized creatures. (Though I must admit I’m partial to the former.) Jackson effectively laid out the plans for shooting the adventure movies that would follow in the wake of The Lord of the Rings.
Also released in 2001 was the first Harry Potter movie, which would go on to spark a trend of adapting young adult literature, particularly fantasy, into movies. While LOTR set the standard for the style of these movies, Harry Potter set the standard for what would be adapted. Harry Potter opened the flood gates for YA book to movie adaptations including: The Hunger Games, The Mortal Instruments, Beautiful Creatures, Percy Jackson, The Golden Compass, Twilight and many others. Harry Potter and LOTR proved that these preexisting intellectual properties would be perfect franchises. They already had existing fan bases and, as such, were proven money makers (a far cry from the “unfilmable” claim long laid on Lord of the Rings and leveled at the lengthy Harry Potter books in the few years between their publication and movie-ification as well). They lent themselves easily to merchandising and branding, and once one franchise outlived its box office viability, another was there to take its place.
This is the world The Hobbit, a movie drawing from the wells of both LOTR and Harry Potter (cinematically speaking), entered when the first movie was released in 2012. The forthcoming release of a film adaptation of the beloved kid’s book was exciting. Jackson was a sure bet at the helm, as he had more than proven himself with LOTR. What we got from the first film, An Unexpected Journey, was exactly what we should have expected: a Peter Jackson fantasy epic. Hell, it’s its own genre at this point. However, this time around Jackson’s signature visuals and set pieces no longer dazzled the way they once did. (I would die a happy man if I didn’t have to see another sweeping crane shot of Tolkien heroes fleeing orcs in a cave.) He is applying decade old ideas that feel tired because they’re constantly appearing in movies that owe their existence to LOTR. The anthropomorphic flora and fauna and grand scale battles of The Chronicles of Narnia, Oz the Great and Powerful, and the upcoming Disney villain biopic Maleficent are the offspring of Jackson’s aesthetic. Even the Watchers from Noah have been popularly labeled “Rock-Ents,” for goodness sake. So when The Hobbit hits the scenes of supposed high drama and/or action, they don’t pack the punch of their Middle Earth predecessors. The Hobbit draws from the same visual well as everyone else. Whether Jackson realizes it or not, he’s become another faithful imitator, it just happens to be his own films he’s imitating.
In an attempt to bring some innovation to the project, he shot the movies in 3-D and in 48fps. To his credit, Jackson is thinking about the future by making this choice. Using 3-D could create a more immersing experience – as evidenced by Gravity – and switching to 48 frames per second would go a long way towards cleaning up the disorienting blur caused by camera panning in 3-D. But this is analogous to putting a dress on a pig. It’s a heavy handed and artificial way of garnering interest in the movie.
With LOTR, Jackson used visual effects to create a bridge from page to screen, and built the type of fantastic world that bears a semblance of truth. LOTR didn’t ask for a suspension of disbelief, nor did it encourage you to believe. Rather it invited you into its world, a world that sustained itself. Before that had been a predominance of latex masks, rubber suits, and doll house miniatures. These things are not without their charm, but they do require a suspension of disbelief to succeed. By the time The Hobbit was released, the shine of the fully realized world had become par for the course. Now it’s just one movie among a pack of hungry contenders, all sporting the visual panache Jackson once pioneered.
This is all exacerbated by the fact that the content of the films are mediocre at best. In keeping with the franchise-ization kicked off by LOTR and Harry Potter, The Hobbit has been adapted into three movies. The stable of writers for the Hobbit films have taken from Tolkien’s other works in an attempt to flesh out the story and pad the running time. This attempt at building another epic franchise has resulted in movies that are unnecessarily long and bloated, and fail to live up to their source material. It seems that Jackson has lost sight of what made his original Tolkien adaptations so enjoyable: authenticity.
The title change for the last Hobbit film is insignificant. The new title may offer a more accurate description, but I’m certain anyone could predict the kind of movie The Battle of the Five Armies will be regardless. We’ve been watching that movie for going on fifteen years now. Jackson provided the tools and vision for crafting fantasy epics on a grand scale, but it almost seems that adapting fantasy novels has become a paint-by-numbers affair wherein original stories are bogged down by a style that has grown tired. Although once a trailblazer, Jackson has settled passively into an environment he helped create.