What The Battle of 5 Armies taught me about writing

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“The Hobbit – The Battle of the Five Armies” by Source.

I’m always keen to see the extended edition of movies that take my fancy. The Hobbit trilogy is one such. And I have to say, the extra 20 minutes shown in the movie did not, in my opinion, add much. In fact, a few times I caught myself thinking, “I can see why he cut that”. So I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to come to your own conclusion in that respect.

I will, however, talk about the appendices.

I LOVE the ‘making of’ stuff. This collection of appendices is second to none. The script writers talk about what inspiration they obtained from Tolkien’s books and where (and why) they varied from the story. There are shorts about how particular characters like Thranduil and Dain were fleshed out, how the sets for Erebor, Dale, and Dol Guldur were created. And of course the way digital technology was used.

I loved the books, and I loved the movies. Part of that was that I understand and accept that the books and movies are inherently different media, and especially when you’re trying to translate a kid’s book to take its place as part of the Lord of the Rings saga. Because that’s what Peter Jackson and his people did. And that’s why it is three movies, not one. But I digress. I learnt a lot – as a writer – from watching those appendices.

1. Detail matters

In every single one of the movies’ locations the scenery, sets and props were absolutely convincing. Each race had its own culture, all exquisitely detailed. One of the best examples of that attention to detail came in the section about Dale, the city near the gates of Erebor which Smaug destroyed. Jackson’s props people built a real and beautiful town which was shown on film for at best a few minutes in the opening section of the first movie. Then they proceeded to destroy it for the scenes from the rest of the movies. Because the place was so real, we could relate to what had been lost. That’s even more important in the written word.

2. Secondary characters should be real

It was fascinating listening to the script writers talk about the characters in the kid’s book.  If you’ve read it you will recall that most of the dwarfs are not much more than two dimensional sketches, distinguished mainly by the colour of their hats. Thorin, of course, is filled out a little more. But in the Hobbit movie, every one of the dwarfs was fleshed out as an individual, each with his own eccentricities, his own costume, his own behaviour.  They, of course, are the main characters in the movies. But this attention to detail (see above) went into the secondary characters, too. Particularly fascinating was Thranduil, Legolas’s father. In the book, Thranduil isn’t named at all. He’s just the elvenking. We learn his name in Lord of the Rings, where we meet Legolas. As an aside, given that Legolas is Thranduil’s son, it would have been quite odd if he had not appeared in the Hobbit. But back to Thranduil. The script writers fleshed out his back story, made him cold, arrogant and distant. Gave him a reason to attack the Lonely Mountain and by the end of the movie, he had grown and changed. Bloody brilliant.

3. Not everything has to be explained

Thranduil is probably my most favourite character from the movies because of his complexity. And because I find men like him – handsome, distant, positively arrogant in their self-assurance – attractive. Thranduil didn’t need a crown. He was the king. End of story. But there was something else about him, something about his obsession with the white gems that were heirlooms of his people. Although we are never told at any stage what that was about, over time we are given hints, sufficient to work out our own theories on what has caused Thranduil to put up those barriers. It keeps the man interesting. And in the appendices my theory was confirmed.

4. Not everything has to work the first time

Costume designers start working on a costume before an actor is chosen. The she-elf, Tauriel, isn’t in the book, so she was a clean sheet. Richard Taylor, the chief of Weta Workshop, the company which created the props for the films, came across a designer who did some wonderful things with chain mail and thought the effect would be perfect for Tauriel. The costume was made – long, painstaking work – the actor put it on and it looked terrible. Scrub that, start again. The prosthetics used for Dain, played by Billy Connolly, were changed several times so that we could still see the man behind the makeup. Whole scenes were shot and then cut completely because they didn’t contribute to the plot. That’s like writing the first draft, or the second edit. And that’s okay. You can go back and make changes – until you publish. And all a writer has to change is a scene here, a few words there…

5. The villain has to be powerful

There are a number of villains in the Hobbit movies. One of them is Smaug, played and voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. Smaug may be a digital image, but he’s absolutely arrogant, sure of his power, clever and vindictive. Him landing on the rooftops of Lake town and advancing on Bard matched the dragon’s character. Playing with his food, so to speak. And so much better visually than in the book, where someone who is just a name shoots the beast down.

Then there’s Azog. If you’re a Tolkien tragic you will know he actually died at the gates of Moria, slain by none other than Dain Ironfoot. Be that as it may, the screen writers kept him alive as an adversary for Thorin and the company, and reserved Bolg for Legolas. And over the top of all this, we have the Necromancer/Sauron. All of these villains were necessary. Gandalf was faced with something greater than himself, a story which fitted into the Lord of the Rings. That’s an important lesson for writers of series. We should always remember that the Hobbit is the prequel for LOTR and what happens in that little book leads on to greater things. The enmity between dwarfs and elves  is clearly established and doesn’t waiver until they are faced with the common, hated foe. And the orcs are no push-over, assisted as they are by wargs and trolls. It’s a real battle, all the way. Each battle is personal – Thorin vs Azog, Gandalf vs Sauron, Bard vs Smaug, Legolas vs Bolg. We have an investment in the struggle, even if we know how it will end.

6. You can get away with things in film that you can’t in words

In the movie, Azog sets up a command post on Ravenhill, above the gates of Erebor, from which to direct his battle. He stands up there and uses a semaphore system to direct his commanders. Not only does that show the audience that the orcs are more than mindless fighters, it gives the script writers the opportunity to set up a confrontation between Thorin and Azog. It works exceedingly well and we’re so caught up in the battle of five armies (which Tolkien covered in a couple of sentences in his book) that we don’t even think about the elephant in the room. How did Azog and his boys get up there and set up a semaphore system without anybody noticing? The other issue, how did Thorin, Fili and Kili – and Bilbo, get up there with an army of orcs in the way, is addressed, especially in the extra footage. I confess I hadn’t thought about how the command post was set up. The battle scenes are so fast-paced and so absorbing I didn’t notice. But if you’re going to pull something like that in a book, you’d better have thought it through.

7. Consider your audience

I’m adding this for the one thing that I believe was not a success. Sorry, but a love story between a dwarf and an elf – especially one that happen so quickly – doesn’t work for me. I have no objection to adding Tauriel to the cast. She was great as a fighter, and as an elf with a different view of the world from Thranduil and his son. I can kinda see what the writers were trying to do and in the appendices reference is made back to Gimli and Galadriel, but that wasn’t a love story. Not to me, anyway, and I know I’m not alone. Millions of people have read and loved the Hobbit and LOTR. They have their own ideas about how the races interacted. Tolkien himself described several instances of marriages between men and elves, but never dwarfs – and any other race, really. So that’s about reader expectation. Some things perhaps you can’t, or shouldn’t, do.

Anything you’d like to add? Please share your wisdom.

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