The Lord of the Rings is one of those rare artistic achievements that worked on an artistic and commercial level, earning 17 Academy Awards and close to $3 Billion at the box office. With this heritage, one might think that Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth would be a joyous one. But it hasn’t. Six months before An Unexpected Journey was released, Jackson announced the two-part film would be expanded into a trilogy, and since then things haven’t gone quite right. Late last week, Jackson announced the latest production change: There and Back Again has been renamed The Battle of Five Armies. While the new title is certainly more exciting, the change might reveal more problems than it covers up.
There and Back Again was a great subtitle for the novel: The Hobbit. It provided a literal and figurative underlining that illustrated the bildungsroman format that the book closely followed – Bilbo leaves a trepidatious, silly hobbit but returns wise and capable. It was also a horrible title for the third and final chapter of a trilogy. The title encompasses the entire adventure, not the final third of it. At this point in the franchise, they’ve already gone ‘There’, so all that’s left to do is go ‘Back Again’. Jackson admitted this in his announcement, stating the title There and Back Again “encompasses Bilbo’s entire adventure, so don’t be surprised if you see it used on a future box-set of all three movies.” He goes on to say that, when the story was extended from two to three films, the title “suddenly felt out of place.” Everything Jackson talks about is right on the mark, but also begs the question: why wasn’t it changed three years ago?
Changing the title to The Battle of Five Armies is also a good idea from a marketing perspective. The first two Hobbit movies have terrible titles. Not bad, terrible. An Unexpected Journey is about as vague and mundane a title as can be imagined. I assume the word ‘Unexpected’ is supposed to be some sort of hook. Something meant to make you say, “Ooo, what about this journey will be unexpected?” It’s reminiscent of a friend assuring you that the story they’re about to tell you is super interesting. Those stories are always long and boring, just like the first Hobbit movie. Then, we have the more exotic sounding, but equally awful sequel: The Desolation of Smaug. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug has 10 syllables in it. Referring to a movie shouldn’t take 45 seconds because the damn title is so long. Oh, and does anyone know how to say the name “Smaug”? Let me stop you right there; you don’t. No one does. The characters in the movie all pronounce the name differently, and it’s a nonsense, made-up name anyway. The title is long, and impossible to pronounce correctly. It sounds like the description of a foreign independent film, not a Hollywood blockbuster.
The Battle of Five Armies has an appropriately exciting name for the climax of a trilogy. It doesn’t have any of the poetry of the Lord of the Rings subtitles, but it at least promises action and excitement. There is going to be a battle! And with five armies! So, The Battle of Five Armies is a more appropriate title, and a catchier one to boot. Doesn’t this look like a win, win situation? In a way yes. The film will be easier to market and you won’t have smarmy people like me pointing out how unsynchronized the title is with the narrative. But it also highlights everything that’s wrong with the Hobbit franchise: the fact that The Hobbit is a franchise.
The Hobbit, or There and Back Again was a 310-page book. It is shorter than all of its sequels (The Lord of the Rings), which, when added up, total more than 1,000 pages depending on what versions you are reading. With two films already in the can, The Battle of Five Armies has roughly 70 pages left to work with. If it tallies up at 160 minute running time (roughly the average length of the first two) then Five Armies would average 2.29 minutes per page. That means that if you are even moderately literate, you could read the book faster.
Knowing the amount of book left to cover, The Battle of Five Armies becomes an even more apt title and an even more troubling one. With 70 pages left to cover, the only major event left to fill the runtime is The Battle of Five Armies itself. So what this final film really is, is a 2.5 hour fight sequence. And while I’m sure it will make an awesome spectacle, it will also make a crap movie. Climaxes only work when you build up to them. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (also known as the film that managed to make the battle for Hogwarts boring) suffered from a similar problem. There’s just not enough content to string together into a narrative arc. I know Jackson’s talked about filling in the gap between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but all that means is we’ll get 20-30 minutes of boring setup to a trilogy that’s already been made.
Even if there’s more substance to the third Hobbit film besides the battle, New Line Cinema is painting it as one big battle. The Battle of Five Armies will be the Battle of Five Armies. Is it a better title than There and Back Again? Yes, without a doubt. But it’s still a depressingly transparent moniker for the concluding chapter of a franchise that’s run out of magic. Film titles can say a lot about a movies. In the case of the Hobbit films, it’s pretty clear what they’re saying: the whole damn thing should have been one movie.