Film

Trilogy's stars take a nostalgic look back on Tolkien adaptation

Armies ready for battle in final ‘Hobbit’ film

by George Hadley-Garcia

Special To The Japan Times

There’s a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill: Volume 2” where Michael Madsen’s Budd character asks Daryl Hannah’s Elle: “Now you ain’t gonna hafta face your enemy on the battlefield no more, which ‘R’ are you filled with: relief or regret?”

Elle tries to dodge by saying both, but eventually admits to feeling more regret.

On a different battlefield, one populated with five armies, the cast of “The Hobbit” are preparing to face the same choice, which may account for the tinge of sadness I feel when talking to both Martin Freeman and Sir Ian McKellen.

Freeman, who plays Bilbo Baggins, the star of the trilogy, says that when making “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” he hadn’t anticipated how emotional he would get by the end of filming.

“It was damned hard work. These are not easy movies to make, and the patience required is quite substantial,” Freeman tells The Japan Times. “But then came the realization that this monumental part of my life is over, something I was quite privileged to be involved in.

“Also that I may not work with most of these people, either in front of or behind the camera, again. They did become like family — more than I’d realized. One takes situations and people rather for granted after a time, but then, when all is over and done with, comes the nostalgia, some regret and . . . (a sense of) missing those people.”

“Five Armies” comes after 2012’s “An Unexpected Journey” and 2013’s “The Desolation of Smaug” in “The Hobbit” trilogy. The trilogy is a prequel to the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy that dominated the box office in the early 2000s. All films were based on novels of the same name by British author JRR Tolkien, but while “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy was based on three volumes of Tolkien’s work, “The Hobbit” was based on only one book.

At 163 cm, Freeman, who is now 43, remembers jumping at the chance to play Bilbo.

“It was like winning the lottery,” he says, “at least a lottery for height-challenged actors.”

Jokes aside, Freeman mentions that it was director Peter Jackson’s passion for the project that most impressed him, and he agreed with Jackson’s decision to stretch the source material into three films. (He also agreed with Jackson’s decision to change the title of the third film during filming. It had originally been called “The Hobbit: There and Back Again.”)

“Peter did not make it into a trilogy for extra (box office) gross,” Freeman says. “He did it sincerely, to better tell and complete the entire story and please the fans. He always has Tolkien’s fans in mind.”

McKellen, whose character Gandalf has participated in all six movies, feels nostalgic but admits he’s also a little bit relieved.

“It was a wonderful part, I hesitate to use the overused ‘iconic,’ ” he says. “It had a Shakespearean sweep and shooting the pictures — the whole experience — was in many ways an actor’s dream. Yet I confess to relief that I can now hang up my robes and move on. I may never escape Gandalf’s long shadow, but I promise you I shall try.”

The 75-year-old British actor also speaks highly of the friendships he made.

“They shall last, and there is no impediment to remaining friends and keeping in touch,” he says.

McKellen’s reminiscing leads him to recall the first time he was approached to join “The Lord of the Rings.”

“Some friends were aghast that I would go to work — in far-off New Zealand, no less — for that ‘splatter’ director,” he says, referring to Jackson’s past indie work. “I had some doubts, kept them to myself and reminded people that Peter had done the creatively unique and riveting ‘Heavenly Creatures,’ which pleased any number of critics and filmgoers.”

In this concluding installment of “The Hobbit,” a huge treasure has been reclaimed from the villainous dragon Smaug, but a new villainy arises in the shape of Thorin Oakenshield’s greed and betrayal of friends when he embarks on a search for the Arkenstone. The consequences are catastrophic, but Thorin’s wrongheaded pride and stubbornness are immune to the innate good in Bilbo and his companions. Everyone must eventually band together for the common good of Middle-earth.

Returning as Thorin is British actor Richard Armitage, who says a major theme in the film is how power corrupts.

“Thorin is not born a villain,” he says. “I suppose very few people are, even the great villains of the 20th century that we learned about in school. Being given enormous power and adulation must have magnified the flaws they already had, then turned them into monsters.”

Armitage believes that Thorin, faced with great possibilities and temptation, is one of these flawed characters.

“I think he’s also lonely and rather scared at times,” he adds “And believes that what he seeks will change him, make him secure and adulated, with no more doubts or fears. The rise of his villainy puts his own gentleness to one side and, frankly, I think that makes a much more compelling villain than somebody depicted as rotten from the get-go.”

Armitage, 43, spent this past summer at London’s Old Vic theater starring in an Arthur Miller play about opportunistic villainy, “The Crucible.” He does considerable voice work, including reading poems on the radio, which also led him to attempt illustrating Thorin’s evolution — or devolution — in personality via subtle vocal alterations.

“You study the voices of dictators and it’s rather fascinating,” he says. They may speak one way privately or semipublicly, another way giving speeches, and sometimes they try to convince an audience by not shouting or haranguing. A nondictatorial example was a more recent one: Meryl Streep as a very intimidating boss from hell (in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’), who in point of fact never raises her voice. So I got to borrow from several sources.”

Asked how Gandalf has evolved over the course of six films, McKellen says he didn’t think the character needed it.

“Oh, I don’t think he had much room for that,” he says. “He was somewhat already perfected, sort of a Merlin figure. Some learned authorities told me, years ago, that Tolkien, a philology professor, used Merlin as an inspiration for his own wizard.”

Asked the same question about Bilbo, Freeman says: “He’s gone through almost every emotion and myriad adventures. I think he’s learned to live within himself more contentedly. He’s no longer as young and fresh, he’s more disappointed with people — well, look at Thorin, he should be disappointed! — and by the persistence of evil in the world . . . specifically in Middle-earth.”

Also returning to Middle-earth are Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Orlando Bloom (Legolas) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Smaug/Necromancer). As far as visuals go, “The Battle of the Five Armies” is a spectacular way to end the year.

“I think Tolkien would be flabbergasted if he came back and saw all this,” Freeman says. “He seems to have created this entire world in a casual and lighthearted way, but now it has been completed and immortalized. Enough time and money have been used that I don’t think his worldview or his story could be better told than it is.”

McKellen concurs on the special effects and mentions that the spectacle of the film has also been achieved without relying on gratuitous violence.

As of now, the “Hobbit” cast isn’t expecting to grab the kinds of accolades that the final “Lord of the Rings” film did. However, many critics have been generous with their praise for the film.

“Could it be that the ending of something is sometimes deemed the best part of an effort, both because it means there’s no more, and out of an unadmitted sense of relief that there is no more?” McKellen says.

Philosophy aside, he is satisfied with the end of the experience and believes the series will stand the test of time.

Looking back at the first “Lord of the Rings” movie in 2001, he offers, “In all seriousness, I’m honored to have been Gandalf and I will gladly work with Peter again on almost any picture. My sole fear is that somebody may carve on my tombstone ‘aka Gandalf.’ Which won’t happen if I have my ashes scattered over New Zealand’s South Island.”

Armitage, who wasn’t in “The Lord of the Rings” but has been with “The Hobbit” from the start, also feels honored to have been a part of the trilogy and speaks highly of the world it created.

“I’m gratified when people say, whether they love him or hate him or pity him, that (Thorin is) fascinating to watch,” he says. “But so is this movie, and so is this marvelous posthumous collaboration of Peter Jackson with JRR Tolkien, which I’m sure Peter is proud of and is relieved to have behind him. Now it belongs to posterity.”

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” open in cinemas nationwide on Dec. 13. For more information, visit www.thehobbit.com.