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The Battle of the Five Armies, Tolkien and deconstructing Fantasy

Chen G.

Sep 19 2018, 11:19pm

Views: 5152
The Battle of the Five Armies, Tolkien and deconstructing Fantasy

Ever since I first saw the cliffhanger ending of The Desolation of Smaug, I knew what Jackson was aiming for to kick off his third installment with, but I could never quite articulate it fully until now. Now that I can, I would use this as my key argument as to why this trilogy is better left alone as just that...a trilogy. There's even a lesson in there for future adaptations, including the upcoming television series, so indulge me and stick through 1,801 words of academic film analysis, won't you? Wink

Destroying the fantasy-adventure genre
Now, the opening to the Battle of The Five Armies does achieve an important technical objective: its the same kind of "James Bond" action opening that was used so effectivelly to hook audiences into the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring, and the Two Towers. I would that its the best of the lot, because its not a flashback (like the action openings of Fellowship and An Unexpected Journey) or a little vignette (like The Two Towers) but a full sequence which is part of the linear development of the plot.

Now, however, I understand that, more importantly, this sequence and especially the way it ends serves as a statement of theme for the film we are about to watch. By ending this sequence with the death of Smaug and the fall of Thorin into maddnes. What this tells us is that this film is set to deconstruct the fantasy and adventure genre.

Breaking down a genre in Hollywood
Now, deconstructive films are not unheard of in Hollywood. Clint Eastwood earned a lot of respect as a filmmaker for Unforgiven (1992), a film that througholy unpacks the western genre: instead of romanticising it, he lays it bare, portraying the violence and harsh nature of the wild west in all its ugliness; his hero (Eastwood himself) a former murderer and a presently-broken man and rusty gunslinger; his villain - the shieriff, which would have been the hero in any traditional western.

Likewise, Mel Gibon's Braveheart (1995) subverted a lot of the tropes of old epics by injecting the hitherto stiff period dialogue with plenty of contemporary vernacular and irreverent humor, and injecting the large-scale but previously bland action sequences with graphic violence. When the hero's wife is tied to a stake, instead of a last minute rescue (which several shots tease) she is unceremoniously killed.

Casino Royale (2006) and Skyfall (2012) turned a lot of the James Bond tropes on their heads, questioning the relevancy of Bond to modern times. More recently, The Last Jedi (2017) defied the Star Wars formula at every turn, teasing some presistent (but baseless) fan theories throughout its runtime only to subvert them in the third act.

One of the advantages of this strategy as a storytelling choice is that by shedding genre iconography and tropes, the film can become more relatable, would that genre often serves as a buffer between the audience and the story. After all, real life doesn't have a genre.

That being said, that a film is deconstructive doesn't necessarily grant it greatness. I like Unforgiven but its hardly one of my very favorite films, and more recently I found The Last Jedi lackluster. To me, one of the tenets of a good deconstructive film is that the theme complements the development of the plot. Generally speaking, outside of stires, I find that it complements a tragic narrative the most, and works best when intricantly woven into such a narrative. It holds that in a tragic narrative, which tears the characters apart, that the genre convention would be torn apart, as well, and vice versa.

For instance, Skyfall has very tragic elements with the death of M, and therefore its deconstructive nature feels warranted. The Last Jedi, by comparison, is balanced by comedy to the point that it doesn't really register as awfully tragic (and you know that its not going to "stick" come the next installment) and therefore its deconstructive elements feel kind of forced upon the viewer.

The live-action adaptations of Tolkien's work are also deconstructive. Its woven from the biggest of plot developments (e.g. the way the quest is forced upon Frodo, rather than undertaken by choice) down to the smallest gestures: even the way the fight with the balrog unfolds is uncoventional: instead of a straightforward, dramatic breaking of the bridge, Gandalf's blow seemingly does nothing, and its only the addition of the Balrog setting its weight on the bridge that makes it give way.

That's perhaps the secret of these films triumph over any traditional fantasy film that preceded or followed them: those that preceded them were too tongue-in-cheek, which isn't conducive to a transporative tale; and those that followed tried to make serious plots that did not contain the deconstructive elements that allowed for the earnestness that the Middle Earth films traffic in.

Middle Earth as deconstructive fantasy
But, it should be said, the germ of this idea when it relates to Tolkien's work is...Tolkien himself. His stories are filled with what John Howe astutely called "the antithesis of commercial fiction". In some part, his very motivation to write these stories was to unpack other works of fantasy that he felt santizied the genre, and trivialized some of its denzins (namely, Elves, Dwarves and Dragons).

This also extends to the way he crafts his stories: virtually all of his heroes don't end their journey with a "happily ever after" but with certain consequences, many of them indeed paying the ultimate price. Perhaps one of the most succint expressions of this theme is in The Lord of the Rings when Frodo laments that his quest is one of going to "lose a treasure".

Even in his more traditional fantasy-adventure story, The Hobbit, Tolkien just couldn't help himself and rewrote the original ending into one that upacked the simple adventure story: instead of remaining carefree and episodic, the individual adventures of the company all return to bite them; instead of a "happily ever after" following the slaying of the dragon, there's what could be described as a political thriller, complete with a refugee crisis, dispute over liability and compensation, and within the framework of that narrative, the characters shed their black-and-white nature for a much more morally-ambigious conduct.

In the Battle of the Five Armies
In the film, outside of the opening sequence, the theme is hinted at several times: "the quest is fulfiled", "there is no company. Not anymore" - all these elements that the two films solidified and that we've become accostumed to are undone. The Dwarves have fought so hard to recover their homeland but, having done so, find that it isn't as they remembered or imagined. In fact, when Bofur, Oin, Fili and Kili arrive Bilbo instantly tells them that they need to leave, and indeed there comes a point where the Dwarves want nothing but to leave the gates of Erebor.

Key to this is that the entire first half doesn't only serve as the buildup to the battle, but functions entirely as a political thriller, and very conciously sheds off the essential trappings of the adventure genre: namely, no travels are undertaken (with the expection of Tauriel and Legolas' venture to Gundabad) and no action occurs. Instead, the characters find themselves trapped in the very place they worked so hard to reclaim. The sense of stagnation here is intentional and - along with the stylized (if uninviting) color palette adds so much to the grim nature of the film, which eventually sees its way to conclusion with the deaths of three of the main characters.

This crucial thematic element would have been all but muddled, if not lost entirely, had the contents of this film - particularly its slow first half - been combined with the second film or a portion of it. There was a need to slow down after Smaug's demise and wallow in the consequences of it (which would have been structurally impossible if that demise hadn't occur at the top of the film) for this theme to hit home.

Likewise, had we not enough time to settle into certain characters and certain narrative elements over the course of two films rather than one - we would have put less weight into them being turned on their head. Had we had one preceding film, occupied mostly by the moody Thorin of The Desolation of Smaug, we probably wouldn't register so much to his downfall. That in An Unexpected Journey he cracks a couple of smiles and even tells a few jokes ("he looks more like a grocer than a burglar") goes a long way to make the conclusion in The Battle of the Five Armies as haunting as at least I think it is.

Even the cartoonish execution of some of the action beats early-on contrasts with the majority of the battle footage and character deaths in the last installment: instead of one army cutting through the other, as they would in any another action film (and indeed do in a flashback to the Battle of Moria in the first and second films), in the third film there is a recurring visual of two armies colliding into a single mass of chaos, with none of the two gaining upon the other: first with Bard charging the Orcs, and later with the Lakewomen and elederly doing the same. Even when Thorin manages to cut through the Orc lines, its only - as Jackson himself put it - the stepping-stone towards things getting "a whole lot worse."

That isn't to say that the execution of this theme is perfect. The use of CG, which is at its most egregious in this film, robs some of the action sequences of their full effect, and some of the more balletic action beats (mostly those associated with Legolas in the third act) don't quite come to terms with the film's theme. Nevertheless, on the whole I'd say its more effective than not, and makes for an appropriately grim and haunting tragedy.

In conclusion
So, while some people find that the split to a trilogy, and the particular choice of where each film ended, to not be motivated by plot, I'd argue that they were certainly motivated by theme, which ultimately is at the heart of any story, and the key element that an adaptation needs to uphold.

Likewise, while people may find the grim nature of The Battle of the Five Armies a deviation from the book, it is - to me - a fascinating exploration of one the key themes of the last episodes of the book, which again is more important than maintaining the tone of the book, per se. It gives a whole new meaning and heft to Thorin's dying words, or - simply put - that the film is a downer, doesn't make it a lesser.

(This post was edited by Chen G. on Sep 19 2018, 11:26pm)


Sep 20 2018, 4:38pm

Views: 5090
Excellent post

I think the impasse I arrive at is that I fundamentally disagree that, in the original structure as written, the crucial thematic material you speak of would have been muddled or lost entirely. In that structure, Smaug's death would have been the fulcrum or anchor of the entire film, and could only have strengthened the deconstruction of the genre that you describe. The weight of getting "there"– and the claustrophobia they feel afterwards– would be felt more by the struggles they face in Laketown and the effort to open the hidden door. Not only could they have still been able to slow down and wallow in the consequences of Smaug's demise (meaning nearly all of the film's first half would still be intact), but by necessity of runtime, the battle would have been forced to be more concise, structured, and thematically coherent– that means no Gundabad, less Legolas, although CG would have still undoubtedly dominated it.

Your points about the endless clash of armies is interesting– I've always bemoaned how endless they are in BOFTA and how little consequences they carry for the characters. But from a deconstructionist's perspective, they do tie in to the themes of war and nihilism in the source material, so that's an interesting angle.

I love your posts and the ideas in them, but I've yet to be convinced that the trilogy that was produced was a better, more thematically rich effort than the hypothetical two-film structure that wasn't. But then I have the advantage: hypotheticals, grounded in their idealism, never have to face the messy realities of an achievement, which is of course what Jackson's trilogy is.

Chen G.

Sep 20 2018, 9:49pm

Views: 5060
I just don't see that format coming together

certainly not within the framework of a theatrical release. Even if the second film started in sailing to Laketown, it'd all be too much for one film.

I mean, technically you might manage to stuff it all into the film within a running-time that wouldn't be entirely unreasonable; but when you're too busy with the mechanisms of the plot itself, there's little opportunity for theme to be expressed and developed, or for drama to be evoked.

So many films succeed because they have what's called a laconic plot. Simply put, that not much happens within their runtime. How much plot is covered over the course of Unforgiven? The Good, the Bad and the Ugly? Titanic?

I also don't take an issue with the second half of the film. As a result of being delayed until the second half, the battle is less than an hour long, which is maybe pushing it, but its nothing too bad; It has its ebb-and-flow, with distinct low-points and high-points; it doesn't go more than two cuts without returning to one of the main characters; it has variety in the sense that there's the battle in the open field which dominates the first part of the battle, a battle in the streets of Dale which dominates the middle and a battle in Ravenhill that constitutes the third act - each differing in scale, combatants, choreography and visuals.

I also don't think the battle serves the theme of the film any less than the stagnant first half that preceded it. Beyond that particular visual of the Men and Orcs crashing into one another, there's also the battle serving as an extension of the battle within Thorin's psyche: notice that until he regains his senses, Thorin (and the company) aren't featured AT ALL. That's because he's lost, so he's point-of-view, which has been so dominant until now, is closed off to us.

And lastly, it again feeds into the grim, tragic tone of the film, which is again conducive to a deconstructive film, particularly when the genre that's being deconstructed is the adventure genre - perhaps the genre most clearly associated with a light, "fun" tone. The battle is actually one of the more gruesome fight sequences in the series: I love the shot where we pan down from the retreating Lakemen to the dead (including women) scatttered all over the snowy streets of Dale. Ravenhill in particular just drips with a sense of foreboding. When Thorin overlooks it and we see a wide-shot of it, the wind blowing snow through the ruinous towers, you just know its not going to end well.