On Thursday, Sir Peter Jackson announced via his Facebook page that the third film in his Hobbit trilogy was to be renamed from ‘There and Back Again’ to ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’. I agree with him.
For a couple of weeks we’ve been hearing rumours that Jackson/Warner Bros. have been considering changing the name of the third Hobbit film from ‘There and Back Again’ to either ‘Into the Fire’ or ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’. It’s common for studios to market-test different names – Warner Bros. first registered ‘Battle of the Five Armies’ as an option in July 2012 – and I have no doubt that executives at the studio would not have agreed to the decision unless they did believe it would boost the film’s popularity and, therefore, its box office takings.
This is particularly salient in light of the fact that the second Hobbit film grossed $67 million less than the first (highly unusual in itself), that both films failed to take more at the box office than The Return of the King (and that’s not even factoring in inflation), and that The Desolation of Smaug fell behind Iron Man 3, Frozen and Despicable Me 2 in box office takings for 2013. So, there may be financial calculations going on here, but that does not mean that the decision is a bad one. If more people will see the final film as a result of this change I think that is emphatically a good thing. I want people to experience Tolkien’s works and if they do come to the books via the films then that is surely good news all round.
I know that some Tolkien aficionados have compared The Hobbit films unfavourably to Jackson’s 10-year-old Lord of the Rings. In particular, they feel that there is a lack of character development and an over-emphasis on CGI and ‘action scenes’ which has now been confirmed in the name change. But, these action scenes are nothing new to Jackson’s films or Tolkien’s books: ‘A Knife in the Dark’, ‘The Bridge of Khazad-dûm’, ‘The Breaking of the Fellowship’, the Battle of the Hornburg, ‘The Battle of the Pelennor Fields’ (including the powerful Ride of the Rohirrim) and the Battle of the Black Gate all feature prominently as key events in both The Lord of the Rings film trilogy and the book. Furthemore, there were several more battle/action scenes from The Lord of the Rings that were omitted: ‘Fog on the Barrow-downs’, the warg attack on Caradhras, and, of course, the Battle of Bywater in ‘The Scouring of the Shire’, to name a few.
Just because the film is named ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’ does not mean that it is just a battle, no more than The Return of the King focussed exclusively on Aragorn being crowned. The second film was named ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ yet in both the book and film the Company pass through the Desolation in a blink of an eye. We already know that the third film will make further use of ‘The Appendices’ so let’s not become too worried that buying a ticket to The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is paying to see a three-hour-long battle sequence.
I understand why fans are frustrated. ‘There and Back Again’ was a name they felt attached to because it clearly harked back to Tolkien’s 1937 book. But, the name is a bad fit: ‘There and Back Again’ conjures up images of a grand journey but, as Jackson has said, ‘Bilbo has already arrived “there” in the “Desolation of Smaug”‘. Furthermore, Jackson has already conceded that, ‘As Professor Tolkien intended, “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‘. Jackson is right that it is unfair to Tolkien to use ‘There and Back Again’ as a subtitle for only one third of his beautiful book.
‘The Battle of the Five Armies’ much better captures the focus of the film but also more accurately channels the essence of the story. The Battle of the Five Armies isn’t just simply a gratuitous fight scene, it’s about the dwarves, men and elves (with some eagles, Beorn, Gandalf, and a hobbit) coming together to fight the combined forces of the orcs and wargs. In the book, the battle is the catalyst for the reconciliation of the groups in the defeat of evil – I expect the same will be true of the film.
Not only is ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’ a better description of the film but, as a name, it is more faithful to the book. The phrase ‘An Unexpected Journey’ – despite its allusions to ‘An Unexpected Party’ – does not exist in The Hobbit book at all whilst the phrase ‘Desolation of Smaug’ only occurs on the accompanying map. However, ‘Battle of Five Armies’ is clearly named as it dominates the chapter ‘The Clouds Burst’ and it provides the conclusion for the story.
At worst, many have viewed the name change as proof that Jackson has betrayed fans and the source material in pursuit of personal profit; at best, they argue he is complicit in the “Hollywoodisation” of Tolkien’s beloved children’s story. Jackson is a creative and a massive fan of Tolkien’s works – this change is the right decision for the film and the right decision to honour J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary classic.