The Use of a Villain
Now, a story doesn’t have to have an external villain – hero vs self is a thing. However, there needs to be some antagonistic force causing the hero problems otherwise there isn’t a story, and it would be strange for a story of this type not to have an individualized external villain.
That having been said, The Hobbit has an impressive amount of conflict not tied to an individual villain or antagonist: There’s the internal conflict of Bilbo’s character development, there’s the political strife with Bard, and there’s the problem of the dwarves’ gold-sickness. However, The Hobbit has plenty of external conflict too: one villain who is a presence throughout the story (Smaug), an antagonist (Thranduil), a few of what I believe Joseph Cambell refers to as Gatekeepers (trolls, the Great Goblin, spiders), and a bonus villain at the end (Bolg).
Smaug is the only one from that list who’s causing trouble for the heroes throughout, and most of the time he’s a background influence: a looming threat or a baleful memory. Thranduil only comes in in the middle and then vanishes for a bit before reappearing, and he ends up as an ally, while Bolg only comes in right at the end. The Gatekeepers appear periodically to keep things spicy. However, this leaves space for the more nebulous conflicts and means that we’re not too overloaded with people to dislike.
The Hobbit movies have one, uh… let’s go with antagonist (The Master) though he’s really more of a minor villain, one pain in everyone’s neck and waste of our time (Alfrid), and five villains (Thranduil, Smaug, Sauron, Azog, and Bolg), each of whom appears to be trying to carry the weight of the conflict for the whole story.
That alone is already a major problem.
I’m sure there exists a story that proves me wrong here (probably A Song of Ice and Fire), but if so it’s an order of magnitude longer and more complex even than Lord of the Rings, let alone The Hobbit, and probably has a very different tone and possibly even sub-genre. As such, I’m going to go ahead and say it: there’s only room for one major antagonist per story. Certainly, per storyline.
You can have all the minor antagonists your heart may desire, but… take it, Gandalf.
See, in order to have multiple actual major independent villains with presence throughout the story, you need to give them all time, you need to give them all weight, and you need to resolve each conflict in the climax. That’s already inviting a jumbled mess, especially when you allegedly only have one protagonist.
Oh, look at what we got. Because with a caveat for Thranduil and Tauriel, all of these guys were Thorin’s antagonists. And the result was a mess.
Villains Generally in the Hobbit Movies
With notes on structure.
I mentioned that the movies have the same five villains fighting over the same story throughout. Well, that’s not entirely fair, but almost.
First we dump Thranduil and Smaug on Thorin simultaneously in the prologue (and I’m not even pretending Thorin’s not the single protagonist here). Then, a very short time later in-movie, we introduce Azog and don’t even bother pretending he’s not just backstory. So now Thorin has big problems with three people.
Azog is carrying the weight for the majority of Unexpected Journey, which is fine but means we shouldn’t have introduced Thranduil so early. Also, he’s competing with Smaug, who kind of seems to be dropped until the end of that movie: that even after all these dangers, there’s a dragon waiting at the end.
However, who have we forgotten?
Yeah, the movie also insisted Sauron was a factor. Now, Sauron has his own ream of problems as a villain which I’ll go into in his own section, but for now he’s actually villain number four who’s apparently hounding Thorin. And his intro was barely any time after Azog’s!
But OK, four villains now. Two of whom are looming threats, one of whom has dropped out of the story until wanted, and the fourth of whom is actually doing something.
That’s already too many, especially as this story can’t carry the weight of two looming villains: a problem exacerbated by the fact that it was written by someone who didn’t know how to handle one.
Clue: Occasional portentous references by a secondary character out of hearing of the protagonist is not how to do it.
So then we swap out the one active villain for another one without taking the active villain out of play. That makes up our five, and two of them are actually redundant.
OK, Bolg doesn’t actually come in until Desolation of Smaug and therefore technically isn’t in play for the whole story. However, he’s basically an offshoot of Azog and so I mentally date his introduction to Azog’s; these two chaacters should have been amalgamated, because with them both in play, the clutter problem really began to manifest in Battle of the Five Armies.
So first we killed off Smaug in an anti-climax. I’ll talk more about that in his own section, but there went the character introduced as our main villain, leaving two potential replacements: we’ve been hearing a lot about how Sauron is the Big Bad, but he’s never actually done anything to hurt our heroes, and Azog has actually acted most like a villain, but has been diluted by the introduction of Bolg. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
Meanwhile, Thranduil’s still hanging around, but although he’s still making trouble for Thorin he’s completely directionless and seems actually to be acting more as a villain relative to Tauriel, despite the fact that he was introduced in opposition to Thorin and while I don’t oppose taking some spotlight off that guy and spreading the plot a little less unevenly, that’s just sloppy.
Sauron gets resolved in the White Council subplot with minimal fanfare and never does interfere with the main plot, but there are still two major villains involved in the Battle of the Five Armies, and only one protagonist between them. This is the problem with the redundant characters of Azog and Bolg: time and action that should have been given to Azog have to be given to Bolg and because they aren’t distinct enough characters, they end up both being dealt with simultaneously.
Which was how we ended up with the spectacle of Thorin’s climactic fight with Azog, to which the story has been building despite the prior introductions and claims of all the other villains, being cut up to insert clips of Legolas’ fight with Bolg, who was not his kill.
This is why we have structure, Movie! It’s the skeleton on which the flesh of your story hangs! One protagonist, one antagonist, the beats of the story match the conflict between those two so that the climax is the defeat of one by the other (or a double kill, as would have been appropriate here), and if you don’t know very clearly what you’re doing, don’t mess with the structure.
So on to to individual villains.
I’m getting this guy out of the way first because he’s only just worth discussing; he’s more of a Road to Nowhere than a villain, or even an enemy. I’m also going to cover Alfrid here, although as I said before he’s mostly just a pain in the neck that the movie seemed to think was hilarious.
Hmm… come to think of it, I think I now understand Star Wars fans’ loathing of Jar Jar Binks.
Anyway: the Master. There are a lot of problems with this guy as a villain, and I’m starting with the fact that as a character he makes no sense.
I don’t know how the Master got his position, I don’t know why anyone follows him, and if they don’t then I don’t know how he’s still in power. Given his demonstrated disrespect for the rule of law and the fact that he considers Bard a threat, I don’t know why Bard isn’t in jail or dead, and I don’t know why he considers Bard a threat, given that Bard has no demonstrated political following or power of any kind (and I do mean demonstrated), and on that subject I don’t know why he then had to be so underhanded about arresting Bard when he had just visibly lost his support and the Master was on the rise.
The Master is an utterly flat cartoon. Someone sat down and said, “OK, we need a ruler that the audience is meant to dislike. Uh… let’s make him hate democracy and talk loudly about how his doesn’t care if his people live or die.” And, I’m sorry, this isn’t a cartoon. You’ve put significant effort into telling me that this is a serious fantasy epic. Bard’s struggle against this oppressive regime is something I’m supposed to be taking seriously. But I can’t take this guy seriously and as a result he ruins the entire Laketown sequence.
Furthermore, the movie puts a lot of effort into building this guy up as a serious problem, and then he does precisely nothing to actually oppose, inconvenience, or even seriously question the heroes. It would be fine to have him be Bard’s antagonist and the dwarves inadvertently stumble into an existing crisis, and I think that’s what the movie was trying to do, but in that case, here’s my suggestion:
Thorin weighs his options and realises that while Bard may be right about ties to Mirkwood, the Master can probably help more than he can harm. He realises that a refounded Erebor would bring prosperity and that would tempt the Master from observation of the dynamics of Bard’s interactions with the guards. He also observes from that that the Master is not secure and Bard is considered a threat to him, and suspects that Bard may be planning to hold him to a debt in exchange for political support.
Thorin, with an honour guard (Let’s say Fili, Balin, and Dwalin), goes openly to the Master and publicly makes an offer of alliance. The Master is put in a quandary as he’s shocked and doesn’t think they’re for real, but people are clearly tempted by the prospect of the wealth of Erebor.
Bard steps in and warns against taking the Mountain, as in the movie. The Master leaps on the opportunity to turn the people against him and throws his support behind Thorin. Thorin is angry to discover that Bard is in fact the descendent of the man whose failure to kill Smaug led to the fall of Erebor.
The Master has Bard arrested for undermining the prosperity of the town (or something) and Thorin says nothing. When questioned afterwards, he says Bard was obstructing them for his own purposes and this way the Master owes him for helping him cement his rule.
Cold, calculating, intelligent use of an existing crisis which also showcases Thorin’s pride and lays the foundations for resentment of Bard. Showing the characters taking a risk to gain something they need. Allowing Thorin to side with the ‘wrong’ person and thus demonstrate fallibility. Also, in this system, the Master is not Thorin’s antagonist, but Bard’s, and it makes sense that he never actually gives Thorin any trouble.
Of course, it wouldn’t solve the problem of the complete anti-climax of the Master’s death. I’ve already complained about this, but I think there needs to be some system of artistic licensing so that we can take away the license of whoever thought killing the Master off-hand by dropping Smaug on him was a good idea.
We set up the Master as an enemy of Thorin because everything needs to be about that guy, but that vanished as soon as it would actually cause a serious problem and we had to fall back on him being an antagonist to one of our minor heroic figures (whose straightforward antagonist he should have been in the first place)… whose life he did not wreck – Bard and family were never in real danger as far as we could see – and who didn’t get to defeat him.
But it’s OK. Because as with Azog and Bolg, we then handed the Master’s role off to Alfrid, albeit they did have the manners not to still have the Master around being redundant. The problem is that Alfrid never really does anything either other than just be annoying. He never does anything to harm or undermine Bard, never does something like try to pick up as the Master’s successor himself (maybe doing some of his own rabble-rousing by pointing out that under Bard’s leadership they’re now living in a ruin under the feet of an elvish army whose leader treats Bard like crap), never sabotages efforts to negotiate with Thorin, nothing.
Maybe he’s supposed to be a foil? But that seems like a lot of work when you could have tightened this up significantly by having Thranduil be Bard’s foil. Alfrid’s also not even any good as a foil; the only reason I include it as a possibility is that ham-handed thing in Battle of the Five Armies about Alfrid valuing gold and Bard valuing his children. The contrast could have been much stronger if, again, Alfrid had been grasping at power and trampling others to get it while Bard accepted power thrust on him but mostly tried to raise up others.
Maybe they were trying to do that, but they shot themselves in the foot in that case by having Alfrid be so ostentatiously subservient to Bard and having them do precisely nothing to actually oppose each other.
Oh, and then we have the fact that Alfrid’s the only character in these movies who had a goal and achieved it at a cost he found acceptable. As such, he’s the only one who got a happy ending.
Both these villains were terribly handled. They got a disproportionate amount of narrative attention while not actually being much more than an annoyance to the heroes, their very existence and behaviour made no sense at all, and they weren’t actually dealt with.
Oh, while we’re on the subject of anticlimactic deaths…
OK, Smaug is difficult to deal with because he breaks that structure I was talking about. However, Tolkien knew how to mess about with structure and can get away with it. These movies… don’t.
When I heard that The Hobbit was going to be split into three movies, my big hope was that they wouldn’t kill Smaug in the second movie and dedicate the whole of the third to the battle. I still remember reading the book and being confused that there was still so much more book after the death of the dragon that our heroes had set out to slay (oddly, I had no trouble with him being killed by a completely new character). However, on sober reflection and looking back at the arcs of each movie and the story and characters as a whole… they should have killed Smaug in Desolation of Smaug.
Not only would we then have been spared the Long, Stupid, Bloated Dragon Chase Scene because the action climax of Desolation of Smaug would have been the destruction of Laketown, but it would have allowed the death of Smaug to actually be climactic. As it was… yeah, it was a…n action scene (I was going to say a perfectly good one, but that would be a lie), but it was an opening action scene. This was not the major setpiece, it was just getting us all pumped up.
I think that’s the problem at the heart of my feeling that the death of Smaug was an utter anticlimax. In many ways, it didn’t feel earned.
Now, this would actually have been less of a problem had they done it with a different villain. If they’d used the banishment of Sauron, or killed off one of the orcs, that would have been fine. However, although Smaug got very little emphasis in the story compared to the others, he holds a special place: his attack was the inciting incident.
That should immediately raise him. The quest was “to reclaim a homeland and slay a dragon”. He didn’t get talked about constantly, but he didn’t need to be, because defeating him was the point of the quest, and we knew it.
But then comes the problem with not having him emphasised. Because even while Tolkien threw other problems at the Company, the threat of the dragon was always waiting in the narrator’s mind and in the back of Bibo’s. Conversely, while we’re aware of Smaug in the movie, we don’t dread him. I mean, yeah, he’s a dragon and dragons are dangerous, but from the emphasis of the movie he’s not as threatening as, say, Azog.
And then we meet him. And he acts like he’s absolutely bound and determined not to singe a single hair of one of our heroes, and I’m sorry, we’re supposed to be afraid of him… why?
This is sloppy, Movie. The antagonist introduced in the inciting incident should be a major force in direct opposition to the main protagonist, and that means that he should try to cause serious problems for the said protagonist, and that his defeat should be a major climactic moment. Granted, the defeat is not being carried out by Thorin himself, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the defeat should be climactic.
As it was, they killed him off quickly to get us pumped up for the main battle.
Smaug was introduced as the main villain, but he didn’t act like it and wasn’t treated like it, and as a result he was wasted.
Poor old Thranduil. The movie didn’t really know what to do with you, did it?
Thranduil’s another character who shouldn’t have been attached to Thorin as a major antagonist, but I’ll get to that in a minute. First of all, I want to discuss a structure problem.
I mentioned earlier that Thranduil is introduced as an enemy alongside Smaug. He comes into the story very early and Thorin’s emnity with him is there right from the beginning. However, he doesn’t actually appear in the main story until halfway through Desolation of Smaug. This means, Movie, that you’ve got an extra villain just kind of sitting around making the viewers wonder why you introduced him.
You could have managed by using him as a characterisation point for Thorin if you’d actually been prepared to let Thorin be unreasonable. You wanted to have him feel so betrayed by Thranduil that he now irrationally hates elves to the point where he’ll sabotage his own quest to avoid them? Go there. Bring up the fact that he’s tarring all elves with one brush and assuming they’re a hive mind. Bring up that he’s allowed himself to be twisted by this grudge. Let him be wrong.
But even this option means that the place to introduce Thranduil was when they were discussing whether or not to detour to Rivendell. He could be raised in dialogue as an elvish enemy of Thorin’s, have his influence on Thorin’s psyche present, but we don’t actually meet him until Desolation of Smaug. Another opportunity might be to raise the question of crossing Mirkwood earlier, perhaps in the Misty Mountains, so that we could learn a bit more about this grudge. Maybe slip in some worldbuilding about the elves needing the dwarves and the possibility that Thorin can lever that as his grandfather did. Again, it’s calculating and political and while it doesn’t make Thorin especially glorious, it at least makes him practical and clever. Perhaps you could even mention the necklace.
This would mean that Thranduil would have presence and we would know he was a potential problem right from the start, meaning that them being captured by him is a logical next step, but, and here’s the thing, him offering to help them is also logical. Because there’s a big characterisation problem with Thranduil, and I’m not just talking about the fact that his motivations are all out of round.
What did they want to do with Thranduil? That’s a hard question to answer, but I’ll do my best.
They wanted him to be a villain. They wanted him to be uncaring and selfish to the point where he can’t even help starving refugees without making it clear that he’s in this for himself. They wanted him to be so consumed by desire for one necklace that he pushes away his own son. They wanted him to not understand love. They wanted him to not give a damn about the deaths of innocent people if they were outside his borders.
And yeah, all that stuff was in there, but here’s where they once again shoot themselves in the foot. Because Thranduil does put himself out to help people, and because those gems he wanted? His by right. He’s trying to reclaim stolen treasure. That’s also Thorin’s motivation.
Massive, glaring double standard is not a good way to introduce a villain, Movie.
Also, I’m going to go ahead and give @dionetaofavalon‘s ongoing series on the necklace subplot a big plug.
Furthermore, the movie wants us to see Thranduil as selfish, uncaring, and incapable of love, but it also tells us that he’s acting out of a desire to save his people and that he’s in deep mourning for his wife. Now, granted, the way he expresses his desire to save his people still makes him a racist sack of crap, but you’re not going to get me to hate someone for retreating from a rout in which he’s lost 99% of his army. The most anger he’s going to get from me on that specific score is that he didn’t retreat sooner.
And bringing them together? We know Thranduil just wants his stolen treasure back. We know that he wants to protect his people from dragonfire and orcs. We also know that he offers help and renewed diplomatic relations to Thorin and supplies and an alliance to Bard. Yeah, he does it to get his gems back, but he still does it. He’s offering an exchange, and in Bard’s case he’s making an offer to someone who probably can’t help him achieve his goals and doing so before even asking anything from him!
All anyone else seems to offer is “Give me what I want and I’ll consider saying thank you”. Am I supposed to hate Thranduil for wanting to trade favours to achieve his goals? For trying to engage in some diplomatic give-and-take rather than just making demands and getting pissy when they’re not fulfilled immediately and with much tugging of forelocks?
Oh, right, diplomacy. Can’t have that. Man, next I’ll be suggesting the characters avoid killing people.
So there’s a really big characterisation problem with Thranduil because his actions don’t match what the movie wants us to think and what the characters do think. As a result, he’s an asshole, but they’re much worse and the whiplash between the movie hammering us with how horrible he is and him actually acting reasonably is, I think, a contributing factor to Thranduil making no sense.
So I was going to go back to Thranduil not being a great antagonist for Thorin. Well, part of that is that he causes him trouble, but is actually pretty reasonable to him: “I’ll give you help and protection and recognise you as king if you return my stolen treasure”. And that’s not the only case; dionetaofavalon has some excellent analysis of how the light hand with Thranduil’s characterisation in favour of action scenes means we don’t even see him oppose Thorin’s escape.
Another part is that he’s a much better antagonist for someone else.
Yeah. Thranduil’s introduced as Thorin’s antagonist, but he acts and is treated like Tauriel’s. She’s the one to whom he’s actually in opposition: his isolationism against her desire to go out and find things to kill rather than waiting for them to come to her.
OK, fine, her interest in and desire to protect others. Let’s go with that, because that’s what the movie wanted her to be and hating on Tauriel is not my point here.
What’s more, she’s the one who actually confronts and defeats him in the climax. Like it or not, Tauriel vs Thranduil is actually almost a well-formed plot arc. I say almost because most of the beats of her story are actually about getting to first base with Kili and not about defeating Thranduil, but I wasn’t going to pick on her. In any case, the movie does actually put some work into setting up her arc in opposition to Thranduil: she says it’s to defy him and his orders that she runs away; Legolas is choosing between her and Thranduil when he decides to stay with her and when he defends her; and her resolution is with Thranduil at Kili’s deathbed.
When it comes to Thorin, Thranduil is fighting other antagonists for space, and that’s where we start running into problems with the Barrels out of Bond scene, for example: by all rights, there are actually two sets of people threatening Thorin, but because they’re never linked or ranked in any way (Thranduil’s orders are to defend the borders and then recapture the prisoners, for example, so the elves aren’t a threat to the dwarves as long as there are orcs about) they’re competing rather than building threat on threat. Then we get to the main section of Battle of the Five Armies in which Thranduil is just kind of being a generic asshole, but is still helping Bard and opposing an even-more-assholey Thorin, and then the battle, in which he continues to go against his own wishes to help others and only runs when it would be absurd for him to do otherwise. And none of that is in opposition to Thorin.
This needed to be another case of the Company stumbling into an existing rivalry, this time between Tauriel and Thranduil. Here’s a rough suggestion:
Introduce Thranduil in dialogue and foreshadow trouble from him as I previously mentioned, using it to highlight the fact that Thorin holds grudges.
When they are captured, introduce Tauriel, maybe make her a little less of a racist herself and a little more generally friendly and curious.
Have Thranduil and Thorin attempt to come to terms, but Thranduil is intractable about the return of his gems and Thorin – not entirely unreasonably – refuses to bargain while a prisoner.
Thranduil and Tauriel discuss the dwarves and orc attacks and quarrel about foreign policy (giving them both good points) in a manner suggesting that this is a standing major disagreement and also that Tauriel is in a position to question Thranduil’s orders. Thranduil eventually shuts Tauriel down rather curtly and she storms away. Have Bilbo listen in and realise that her frustration could make her an ally.
Since she already gets on well with Kili, Bilbo talks to him and he tries to persuade her to help them (separate the dwarves a little more so that there’s a reason the others don’t interrupt). She’s clearly tempted to help, since they’re actually doing something rather than, as she sees it, hiding.
Bilbo gets the dwarves out and Tauriel defends them from the orcs, also giving the order to her men that the dwarves are not to be harmed and their priority is the orcs (though not at the cost of their own lives, of course), perhaps tossing in a moment where Legolas pulls her aside and says his father will want the dwarves stopped with lethal force if necessary: an implied order that she disobeys.
This can then lead to further disagreement with Thranduil and her spinning off on her own to form an allied force for the dwarves, still in opposition to Thranduil with regard to her political views and her love life.
Once again, the Company is using an existing conflict into which they have stumbled but which is not directly related to them. However, since Thranduil is now a far bigger part of Tauriel’s storyline while still being related to what’s happening with Thorin, Thorin’s plotline is a little cleaner and Thranduil’s characterisation makes a little more sense.
Finally, another possible thing to do with Thranduil: I mentioned earlier that he would have made a better foil for Bard than Alfrid did. You want to make Thranduil and Legolas estranged because Thranduil is more interested in collecting material mementos of his wife than he is in caring for their son? OK, well, bring that up clearly and early and contrast it with Bard moving hell and high water for his kids. Bring those motivations out. Have Bard be the one judging Thranduil rather than Gandalf. Talk about Bard not wanting to become king because he sees Thranduil and Legolas and is afraid he’s looking at himself and Bain if he accepts that crown.
If you’re going to introduce that characterisation element, do something with it!
At the end of the day, Thranduil isn’t an antagonist to Thorin. Not really. But he’s introduced as one, and the result is to add to the general mess. What he needed, if villain he was to be, was to have that aspect confined to Tauriel’s subplot. He was her antagonist, and there wasn’t space for him to be Thorin’s too.
Ah, the cardinal waste of our time, for whom there wasn’t space in this movie.
Out of all the villains, he’s the least active.
He never even comes into direct contact with the main plot and Thorin is unaware of his existence.
Attempts to align other villains with him undermine them.
I’ve complained about Sauron’s lack of activity in the past, but it’s probably the biggest problem with him. He gets a lot of attention and narrative time in the movies, but he spends the entire time sitting in his castle, doing nothing.
OK, so he’s apparently behind Azog’s final attack, and he’s implied to have unleased the spiders, but… Yeah, no, that doesn’t wash.
First, Azog already had plenty of motivation and he was doing quite well until Sauron actually disrupted his quest out of nowhere and for no reason. There was no suggestion that he needed Sauron’s help and what force he could command independent of Sauron was never stated. If he did have a positive effect on the plot through Azog, therefore, it was very unclear.
Second, the spiders were never seen or heard of again after Tauriel’s conversation with Thranduil. They introduced the existence of Dol Guldur, provided a quick and dirty action scene, and assured us that Tauriel has military Nowlege and Skillz. They were irrelevant to the story.
This lack of activity is a problem in one of our major movie-wide villains. Granted, the antagonist should be acting in opposition to the protagonist and may therefore be reactive. However, the antagonist does have to be active. Proactive or reactive, they have to be something-active. There’s no point in having a villain who doesn’t do anything.
The problem is then exacerbated by the fact that, in order to tie into Lord of the Rings, the movies insisted on putting other villains under Sauron’s control. I’ve already briefly talked about Azog (and by extension Bolg) and will again, but there’s also Smaug to consider. And for this, I’m just going to quote myself:
Smaug’s connection with… OK, I’m going to go ahead and refer to the Necromancer as Sauron, since the film really doesn’t try to hide his identity, which I’ll get to in a moment. How are these two in contact? And why does Smaug care what’s going on outside his little domain? He has food (presumably), he has gold, we’re not given any indication that he’s not an independent agent bar Gandalf being worried about it in the opening scene and during An Unexpected Journey, but suddenly he’s talking to Bilbo about the rising darkness. Even independent of the book, I don’t think that makes sense, not without some explanation of Smaug’s interest. I suppose we’re supposed to just assume that he’s keen on evil taking over the world because he’s evil and Evil is One Big Happy Family, but… that’s really not good enough. It leaves too many questions.
– My Post on the Villains in Desolation of Smaug
If they were going to link Smaug and Sauron, they needed to be clear on how that worked. Otherwise, it’s just confusing. And it never is explained. As a result, you’ve taken a perfectly good villain and opened up a massive, gaping plot hole surrounding him.
Sauron’s involvement was a big, big mistake because he was a distraction. It’s really as simple as that.
Now, since I’ve done it with all the others, let me have a go at fixing it.
The big thing is what we did at rewritingthehobbitmovies: have Sauron act as a patron to… the main orcish villain. We said Bolg, and I’ll get to that, but for the time being let’s stick with Azog. However, there’s more to it than that. The movie would need to make it clear that Azog needed that support. Have him go to Sauron, perhaps believing him to just be another evil force, and seek military aid, perhaps in return for a share of the spoils, since Azog’s primarily interested in revenge. The viewers are privy to the White Council plot and know there’s more going on, but that’s in the background and Azog remains independent, as does Smaug.
This actually pulls Sauron out into the White Council suplot, though he is still having an influence, and we could have his defeat by the White Council affect Azog’s new army in some way, thus making him, and the associated subplot, more relevant.
It also means that while we see him, he’s kept in reserve for Lord of the Rings. Because another problem that I’ve not gone into is what this sequence does for Sauron’s effectiveness in Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit movies make a habit of referencing Lord of the Rings by anticipating Lord of the Rings. It was noteworthy that Legolas and Gimli became friends, thus bridging the elf-dwarf divide that had existed for all of history? Well, Tauriel and Kili fell in love first! So that’s not a big deal any more. Saruman’s use of gunpowder brought a never-before-seen destructive force to the Battle for Helm’s Deep? Well, the dwarves just kinda had it in Erebor centuries earlier! So that’s not a big deal either. There are a few more, but right now I’m going to focus on Gandalf and the White Council going toe-to-toe with Sauron and the Ringwraiths in an action sequence.
Kinda diminishes his looming, all-powerful threat in Lord of the Rings, doesn’t it, if we’ve already seen him get the crap beaten out of him and his most powerful minions? As well as making Gandalf’s claim that there are forces ranged against them against whom he has not yet been tested a lie!
Sauron should have been a looming threat, given a setback here but clearly by no means defeated and retreating on his own terms. That, if you wanted to include him and the accompanying pointer to Lord of the Rings, would actually set him up as a serious threat who could not be defeated by power. However, that setback could be used to ease the Battle of the Five Armies and thus buy the forces of good time, thereby making it, and this story, significant to Lord of the Rings in which Bilbo’s heir finishes the job, attacking through weakness rather than through power.
But that would have involved actually tying this story to Lord of the Rings rather than merely blindly copying some of the stuff we thought might have worked in Lord of the Rings, so of course we couldn’t do it.
I’m sorry, that was mean.
That was a lie. I’m not sorry. At all.
Azog and Bolg
These characters should have been amalgamated. Preferably as Bolg, since there was no reason to make that change, but whatever. You introduced Azog, you keep him. It’s not as if anyone cared about what was in the book anyway.
OK, I am sorry this time, I’ll try to keep the bitterness under control. After all, it’s Christmas. Or shortly thereafter.
They actually started out pretty well with Azog. He was introduced at a good time, he had a strong tie to Thorin, and he actually had an interesting motivation: he had sworn to wipe out the line of Durin. Now, maybe we could do with some reason he did that, but I’ll take it nonetheless; it’s good and quick and we have something to work with that makes him an immediate threat. And he was a threat – he was chasing them and made an effort to kill them whenever he had an opportunity. He was also scary because of the obvious pleasure he took in doing it; that in turn made it make sense when he took a moment to relish killing.
But then came the part where Sauron whistled him off the hunt. We’d seen nothing to suggest he wasn’t independent, but suddenly he was apparently Sauron’s servant the whole time. He then stops chasing Thorin, and proves to have been a waste of potential.
We then swap him out for Bolg, who doesn’t have the motivation of the oath to wipe out the line of Durin, and nothing’s offered to replace it. We don’t even get something like a confirmation that Azog and Bolg are father and son. To all appearences, Bolg is just following orders and, I guess, he likes killing dwarves. That’s significantly weaker, especially since Azog then joins Sauron in sitting in Dol Guldur doing nothing.
But Bolg does OK; he’s active and targets the heroes, and, if we assume Thorin specifically is his target, despite the fact that that was never established and he has no particular motivation, he stays on-target.
Unfortunately, in Battle of the Five Armies, these two meet up again, and this is where the bigger problem starts to manifest. So far we’ve lost out on focus by temporarily replacing Azog with Bolg, but when they were reunited the redundancy became a problem because it meant that we had two major villains with the same role in the same place. I know that Bolg went off to get a second army, but that really made no difference to his role. And that’s how we ended up with intercutting between Thorin fighting Azog and – of all people – Legolas fighting Bolg.
AKA a really badly-designed climax.
Yeah, that’s another thing. Protagonist-Antagonist. It’s a pair. The rule was actually upheld with Bard and Smaug because of the heavier focus on Girion and Bard’s issues with his ancestry; Sauron was the White Council’s antagonist, and they couldn’t actually take him down because he was needed for Lord of the Rings; Azog was very much Thorin’s antagonist; Thranduil, as I’ve discussed, was Tauriel’s; but Bolg?
Bolg was nobody’s antagonist until he killed Kili in front of Tauriel. Then he became hers. At no point was he associated with or antagonistic to Legolas except to the same level as he was antagonistic to Random Elf #3 in the Barrels out of Bond scene. They fought in one scene. That’s not enough.
Bolg, as I’ve said so many times, was Tauriel’s kill. If they wanted to avoid doubling up on antagonists for her, they needed to focus him elsewhere.
OK, so fixing it, assuming that we couldn’t amalgamate them for some reason that escapes me.
First suggestion: Kill Azog at the end of Unexpected Journey and then have Bolg pick up his quest in Desolation of Smaug, so the Company thinks they’ve defeated this enemy only to find that his son is now on their tails with the added motivation of revenge. Heck, do enough with Thranduil + Legolas, Bard + Bain, and Thorin + Fili and Kili, and you could have yourself quite an interesting undercurrent about father-son relationships here. In any case, this would provide a lift that’s then dashed, and mean that these two very similar villains don’t overlap. It would, however, make the addition of Azog to the story (relative to the book) pretty pointless.
Second suggestion: Kill Bolg earlier in the battle of the five armies. Perhaps have Thorin kill Bolg in his first charge and Azog see him do it, and Azog then raises the death of his own heir when he’s killing Fili in front of Thorin. That adds an extra personal level to it as well as arguably pulling in some ‘not so different’ between them, which I think would have added some more punch to Azog as a villain.
Either way, though, even if they had to overlap in order to tie in Sauron, it was a big mistake to have the final battles side-by-side, especially using such a minor character as Legolas.
The mistakes made with the villains really highlight the poor craft on display here. It’s entirely possible that I’ll want to revisit Thranduil in particular, but for the time being I hope this serves as an overview of the problems here:
Too many major villains
Too much focus on minor villains
Redundancy in villain identity and role
Lack of focus in protagonist-antagonist pairings
Poor handling of defeats
All problems that could and should have been ironed out early in planning.