WARNING: This review contains extensive spoilers. Even if you’ve read The Hobbit, the movie contains variances that may still be surprising.
As the credits rolled and Billy Boyd sang sweetly into my ears, I struggled to collect my thoughts through the tears. I had just finished watching the last ever film of Middle Earth on the big screen. (I’m not really that foolish–I know there will probably be remakes, and if God loves me, a Peter Jackson Silmarillion masterpiece.)
I owe a lot to Tolkien, Middle Earth, and even to Peter Jackson; I can hardly remember a time before they were part of my life and worldview. Others may be newer to this world and yet feel the effects on their lives equally. For that reason, I think that I am willing to give this third installment of The Hobbit films more credit than it may actually deserve. I likely overlooked many problematic themes, and for that I apologize. Nevertheless, I feel burdened to write my thoughts. I can feel the weight of conflicting ideas pushing through my mind, and I need to chip away at that weight by writing about it.
This post is primarily a reaction to the frustrating aspects of the movie. Overall I actually liked it very much, despite the parts I criticize here. I maintain, and will forever maintain, my adoration of all things Tolkien. I believe, however, that the film will receive far more praise than criticism, and so I choose to focus on the negative rather than the positive.
First, the good stuff.
Beautiful cinematography: Despite the lack of sweeping landscapes of the LOTR trilogy, there are many incredible visuals. I was awed by Azog floating under the ice, and I continue to be amazed by the set details in Jackson’s films.
Martin Freeman: Being adorable, being subtle, delivering powerful lines effectively. Martin Freeman kind of saved this movie for me.
Now, the not-good stuff.
This movie, like so many others, is all about power. There are many ways to visualize a power struggle, but the most common (and arguably the most visually effective) is control of the upper ground. In other words, who has control of the situation at the moment, as evidenced by occupying a higher position (such as in a fortress, on a tower) or by holding the means to destroy your opponent (such as a weapon, or even better control of a weapon)?
The best example of power struggle is the scene with Thorin fighting Azog in a climactic ending to their 3-film rivalry. As they battle on the ice, a chunk separates and they are forced to keep their balance while the ice is constantly shifting in the water. During the battle, their positions change every second, and with it, the power shifts. He who has the higher ground has the power, but the higher ground is in constant shift. Earlier in the film we see a broader example of power struggle: when Thorin faces an army of elves and men with only a handful of friends to back him, Thranduil clearly holds the power. When Dain shows up with an army of his own, the audience experiences the shift of power. Sometimes power struggle is about physical or military strength, and sometimes it is about emotional or mental strength; either way, it boils down to the same ideas.
This power struggle, present in every great adventure, is what makes conflict so exciting. If the power always remained on one side we wouldn’t care. I recognize and appreciate this plot device, and I would never criticize its use if done well.
My concern is this: The Hobbit masquerades as a female-empowered story, highlighting such characters as Galadriel and Tauriel, but delivers a poor portrayal of women. This is important because the book The Hobbit contains ZERO female characters. Of the two women added to the film version, Galadriel is a Tolkien original brought into the story naturally, and Tauriel is a character imagined by the film creators.
When women are added to an already established and widely loved story, there are certain questions that must be answered.
What is the purpose of bringing in female characters? What function do they serve?
An acceptable answer would be that bringing in female characters solves the problem of representation in the original story. As much as I love Tolkien, his female characters are either nonexistent or complete one-dimensional. I applaud the idea of taking Tolkien’s universe and adding complex and diverse women in the style of his work.
Peter Jackson’s answer to this question seems to be this: the function of the female characters in The Hobbit is to support and affirm the male characters, without threatening their position of power. You can recognize this by observing the power struggles in which female characters are involved:
Galadriel vs. The Nine
I had high hopes at the beginning of this scene, when Gandalf is imprisoned, weak, and helpless, and Galadriel comes to his aid. She is seen carrying his unconscious body several steps before she is surrounded by The Nine, supernatural beings with incredible power. Despite her obvious skill with magic (seen later in this scene and in LOTR), Galadriel is somehow overcome with fear and/or weakness. One of The Nine taunts her, saying that she is incapable of beating them by herself. She responds, “I am not alone.” Coming to her rescue (but why exactly did she need it?) are Elrond and Saruman, who handily fight the supernatural and super-powerful beings while Galadriel literally lies on the ground trembling.
This point in the film made me angry and confused. There is NO discernable reason for Galadriel to be on the ground. She has not been injured, has not been weakened by fighting, has not been affected by magic in any way. She spends the entire battle caressing the face of Gandalf, and brings him back to consciousness with a kiss; in short, she abandons a battle for life-or-death in favor of crying over the body of her beloved man.
At the end of the scene, she forces the powers back with her magic, so where was this skill minutes before when she is pictured shaking with fear for her life? After her one show of strength, which lasts all of 25 seconds, she is weakened once again to the point of collapse. She is forced to lean on her male counterpart for strength, and Saruman instructs Elrond to “take care of her.”
There are two problems here: Galadriel has the potential to save the day with some fierce swordplay and/or incredible magical prowess. Instead, she is shown to be utterly incapable of defending herself or others. Her only contribution to the fight leaves her struggling for breath and incapable of standing, while the two male characters who participated in the fight are not sweating or even out of breath. Galadriel only briefly holds the power in the scene, and it is very quickly taken from her.
Tauriel vs. Anyone
When Tauriel faces a tough decision to go with Kili to the mountain or remain with her people, she is cut off from an important moment of character development by Legolas, who authoritatively states, “Leave him.” She listens instantly. Tauriel has no means of making an important decision for herself, but Legolas comes to her rescue by making the decision for her.
When Tauriel faces off with Thranduil, pointing an arrow at his face and challenging him to consider the bigger picture, he easily slices her bow in half (uh…okay?) and regains control. Tauriel has no means of regaining power over Thranduil, but Legolas comes to her rescue.
When Tauriel faces off with an orc to defend Kili, her beloved dwarf, she is backed into a corner and faces certain death. Tauriel has no means of regaining power over the orc, but Kili comes to her rescue.
When Tauriel faces the pain of watching Kili die, she is crippled with grief. She seems incapable of fully acknowledging or understanding her feelings for Kili until Thranduil affirms them by saying, “It was real”. She asks him to save her from a tortured love. Tauriel has no means of regaining power over her own emotions, but Thranduil comes to her rescue.
Have you noticed a pattern? Tauriel is a capable fighter, but when it really matters, she is incapable of defending herself. Quite simply, this is lazy writing. Why build up a character with so many admirable traits and skills and then refuse to allow that character to use them? Why make an audience believe in the compassionate yet ruthless nature of a major character and then cut her down at every opportunity? It is both sexist and bad storytelling.
The Women of Laketown vs. Attacking Orcs
Both leading up to and during the battle, Bard comments at least twice, “The wounded, the children, and the women must be saved!” There is at least one problem with this. First, the idea that female life is more valuable than male life is a form of benevolent sexism, and it’s not chivalrous or noble. It stems from the belief that women are weak and unable to defend themselves (like wounded men or children), leaving men with the responsibility to protect women.
After the women are shut up for their own protection, one woman rallies them together with the cry, “Come on, women! I say we stand with our men in death as well as in life!” There are two problems with this. First, why should this have anything to do with “their men”? These women are forced to fight for their very lives, but its phrased in a way that makes it about supporting their husbands and fathers. Second, the scene ends there. We hear the battle cry, but we never get to see the women joining the fight!
Sigrid and Tilda vs. Anyone
Bard’s daughters seemed like excellent additions to the story. They are young and inexperienced, but both seem strong in part two of this trilogy. They are a huge disappointment in the third movie, however.
At every opportunity to showcase their intelligence or wit, they are pictured crying while their brother Bain saves the day. Bard’s son shows tenacity and bravery as he saves the day more than once. His character is multidimensional; he is a scared child but overcomes his fear to aid in the defeat of Smaug. Sigrid and Tilda, however, serve no function in the film except to cry over their father. In situations where the girls face danger, they freeze or run, and are saved by their brother or father or both. This is a bit unbelievable for two reasons. First, Bard seems likely to have raised daughters with stronger wills. Second, Sigrid is older than her brother, and is shown to take charge in the second film. Why the sudden shift? He is not physically stronger than her, so there is no logical reason for it.
I refuse to ignore problems in the stories that I love. I appreciate the opportunity to open a discussion about women in media, and I believe that I can foster my love for Tolkien’s beautifully created universe while maintaining my integrity. I will watch this movie many more times and I will continue to actively participate in the community of Tolkien fans, but I will always do so with a critical mind.