Of all the bad production decisions made in Peter Jackson’s loose adaptation of The Hobbit - gross overuse of CGI, check-list fan service, and a few instances of comically bad casting - the worst by far has been franchising. The Hobbit never needed to be more than one movie; it’s an example of either creative or commercial overreach, depending on whether Jackson should be taken at his word as regards the factors that influenced his choice to reshape a simple, straightforward tale of playful high fantasy into a bloated monstrosity.
With the release of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, we can now take stock of the saga as a whole. This is no The Lord of the Rings, not on any artistic or financial level; if you’re so inclined, you could probably argue that it’s a sign that Jackson has lost all of his marbles since earning so much goodwill with that august franchise back during the aughts. How could The Hobbit films, each lesser than the last, come from the same guy who pulled of the Herculean feat of turning The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King into box office smashes and critical darlings?
It’s tempting to vilify Jackson for spurning his accolades and raze his interpreted vision of Middle-earth. You may feel the strong tug of resentment and disappointment over his failure to live up to expectations with An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies. But maybe Jackson deserves compassion more than ire. Maybe for all his good intentions, his indulgences wound up getting the better of him. And if we can forgive Thorin Oakenshield for his mistakes, then maybe we can do the same for Jackson; in the end, they’re more or less the same person.
If at first blush the comparison doesn’t wash, consider this: like Thorin, Jackson is a great leader with a devoted, dedicated following, who has been separated from his rightful domain for a long, long time. He is focused on securing his legacy at any cost. He’s a ditherer who refuses to take action until the last possible moment. And he’s hopelessly fixated on shiny baubles over essence of character. (He also has a beard, though his bristles aren’t nearly as glorious as Thorin’s.)
Amid the digitization of Middle-earth, the ratcheting obsolescence of the story’s titular character and the tonal waffling, something interesting is happening at the core of The Hobbit: Jackson, whether by accident or not, makes Thorin into his on-screen avatar. In translating J.R.R. Tolkien’s words into cinema, Jackson also gave Thorin an increased position within the text, taking him from a static character to a character who cuts nearly as dynamic a figure as Bilbo Baggins, the story’s ostensible protagonist. Frankly, the films could each be retitled as The Dwarf for as much emphasis is put on the King Under the Mountain; this is no longer the story of a bumbling homebody being forced into the world outside his front door, but the story of an over-proud liege fighting to reclaim his birthright, and who nearly loses himself to his obsessions along the way.
Sound familiar? The film likens Thorin’s madness to that of Gollum, but, rather unexpectedly, Thorin has a better mirror in Jackson. Thorin is so focused on taking back the Lonely Mountain from Smaug and retrieving the coveted Arkenstone that he comes to behave very unlike the noble, brooding ruler in exile we meet in An Unexpected Journey; his desires gives way to mania, and for as long as that mania grips him, he’s kind of an asshole. Thorin spurns his countrymen - those who marched with him to Erebor, and those he calls in for back-up when elves and men gather in arms at the mountain fortress’ gates - and wallows in paranoia as his hunger for the Arkenstone consumes him. Ultimately, it takes a surreal vision sequence to snap Thorin out of his psychosis.
For Jackson, making The Hobbit turned out to be equally fraught with obstacles of the self. There’s a nine-year gap in between the debut of The Return of the King and 2012’s An Unexpected Journey (and, possibly, a longer gap in between the start of production on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, to say nothing of the fact that Jackson first toyed with making Tolkien movies in 1995). Nine years is a blip on Thorin’s radar, but it’s nearly one sixth of Jackson’s lifetime. Hell, nine years is an eternity to wait for anything for any human. Jackson just took on executive producer duties to begin with, and only stepped in to take the helm when Guillermo del Toro jumped ship in 2010, but it didn’t take much time after that for him to expand two films into three. Everyone saw this move as a cash grab - more movies means more revenue, after all, so - but it’s as much about maintaining Jackson’s provenance over the brand as it is about raking in dough.
More problematic is his fascination with the glossy patina of technology, which runs a nice parallel to Thorin’s infatuation with the Arkenstone. The scintillating heirloom of Thorin’s house, the Arkenstone is a sight to behold, but in the end it’s just a glorified MacGuffin; it proves of no importance to the plot, and Thorin fusses about it at the expense of his reason, the loyalty of his countrymen and all bonds of fellowship. Similarly, Jackson misplaces his faith in the sheen of CGI and the unnerving smoothness of shooting in 48 FPS. Both of them put such high demand on vain, pretty things that are immaterial, they lose sight of what matters - camaraderie and strength of character. Jackson both jettisons the textured, organic sensibility he fostered in the Rings films, and downplays dramatic beats between his cast members so much that they feel like afterthoughts. In Thorin’s and Jackson’s respective quests, substance has less value than glamour.
And then, when it comes time to act, well...they don’t. Thorin’s intractability in The Battle of the Five Armies is the best example of equivocation in all of The Hobbit; he spends the bulk of the film doing nothing, and all of the build-up of that nothing makes his climactic entrance into the fray too much, too late. Jackson, for his part, commits large swaths of runtime in the entirety of The Hobbit with over-the-top spectacle, so no one can really accuse him of holding back. But he does take his sweet damn time getting anywhere. This is a three hundred page book! In the time it takes for you to watch every single movie, you could read The Hobbit and finish your Christmas shopping in one fell swoop. (And if we’re talking about the extended cuts, here, you could probably read the novel twice.) That it should take Jackson three films in as many release years to tell the same story Tolkien told seventy-seven years ago is mind-boggling. Imagine what our response might have been to The Hobbit had it been distilled into one film. Imagine how much more fondly Middle-earth’s historians might remember Thorin if, instead of acting like a big, bearded, obstinate baby, he had come to terms with Thranduil and Bard before joining them in some goblin smashing.
Maybe Jackson sees parts of himself in Thorin, and maybe that kinship led, at least in part, to the enlargement of The Hobbit. On the other hand, maybe this is just an overly generous reading of a film that isn’t worth any more consideration than it pays its own audience. But just as Thorin winds up enveloped by his greed, so too do Jackson’s oblivious compulsions toward frittering away studio funds undermine his films. It might not make The Battle of the Five Armies any less insufferable, but it does invite our sympathies before our frustrations.