Should the Last Hobbit Movie Have Kept Its Old Title?
Yesterday, the final installment in The Hobbit film trilogy changed its subtitle from There and Back Again to Battle of the Five Armies. There and Back Again is the subtitle of the novel The Hobbit and also the name of the fictional book Bilbo writes about his adventures. Why did the subtitle for the final film change? Should it have? Should you care?
If you’re anything but a die-hard Tolkien fan, thinking about the Hobbit films is an exercise in bafflement. Whereas Peter Jacksons’s cinematic Lord of the Rings trilogy turned three convoluted books into stirring and accessible films, the Hobbit film trilogy turned a concise and accessible book into three convoluted movies. Arguing for a shorter, more focused single Hobbit film might be way too obvious at this point to even be meaningful, but as recently as three years ago, the world believed there would only be two films: An Unexpected Journey and There and Back Again. Then, as the smoke from Cumberbatch catching fire turned Tolkien, we suddenly were told there would be three Hobbits with the second one all about Smaug the dragon. As subtitles of unnecessary midquels go, The Desolation of Smaug is pretty dope.
But There and Back Again was the original subtitle of a novel that, at this point, isn’t really the subject of these films, so in many ways, it’s fitting that the title of the last film is about something else now. And yet. It still feels wrong. There’s a weird dream sequence in my brain in which Peter Jackson is in an uncomfortable conversation with studio executives over what to call the final movie. It goes something like this:
Studio Executive: Peter. Peter. Peter. Can I call you PJ?
Peter Jackson: What?
Studio Exec: PJ. So… “There and Back Again?” We’re thinking no.
PJ: It’s the subtitle of the novel. You’ve already made me change the structure of the whole story, not to mention add new characters, all of which has been really emotionally challenging for me. Did I tell you I had to hypnotize myself to justifying all the stuff I’ve said publicly about how all of this makes sense? Please, don’t take the subtitle away from me.
Studio Exec: Listen, we just need it to be snappier.
Studio Exec: What do you think about this: “The Hobbit Part 3: Murder Death Rampage”
PJ: Can we tone that down a little?
Studio Exec: “Battle of Fire Blood?”
Studio Exec: I got it! “Dwarf Massacre”
PJ: How about “Battle of the Five Armies?”
Studio Exec: Close enough!
There seems to be an insane amount of last-minute changes surrounding the entire Hobbit film situation, which to be fair, happens to a lot of big movies. We’re all familiar with George Lucas changing the title of Revenge of the Jedi to Return of the Jedi at the last second, to say nothing of the fact that studio executives were nervous back in 2002 with the second Lord of the Rings film being called “The Two Towers.” Subtitles are tricky animals, and when they’re great they contain awe and specificity at the same time. To put it another way: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom may not be the best Indiana Jones movie, but it does have a great, great subtitle. Kingdom of the Cyrstal Skull? Now we’re in Battle of the Five Armies territory, which really, is just slightly better than Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
For me, a subtitle of a big adventure narrative like The Hobbit should be both specific enough to excite (Desolation of Smaug) or whimsical enough to capture the spirit of the characters and situations. To put it another way, if The Empire Strikes Back had been called Star Wars: Somebody’s Got a Secret! it might have been a more accurate subtitle, but it would have felt wrong. And Battle of the Five Armies feels wrong too. Tolkien already gave this story a great subtitle, and though this version of The Hobbit might not be “about” going there and back again anymore, it still feels wrong to change it. Not because I’m being a purist, but instead, because the rhythm of a subtitle usually reflects the confidence of the movie itself. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull already sounds like it’s going to suck, and sadly, so does Battle of the Five Armies.
The story of the Hobbit is all about bravery, and there’s nothing braver sometimes, than a simple title containing the whimsy and beauty of the character that the whole thing is about in the first place.
What do you think about the title?