George Lucas could tell Peter Jackson a thing or two about the pitfalls of prequels.
I’m only going to talk about one of the problems, and that’s as a storyteller, not as a fan. Because as a fan, I could go on and on, and none of us wants that.
The problem that struck me hardest – practically slapping me in the face repeatedly – was the lack of continuity of the storyline surrounding Legolas and its violation of the pact between writer and reader (or in this case, filmmaker and audience) known as the “willing suspension of disbelief.” You and the author are partners in your own self-deception: you agree that, for the length of time that you are involved in it, you will believe everything the author tells you (magic rings are real) and in return, the author will not mess with your trust by doing anything so stupid or outrageous (suddenly changing what the ring does) that you can’t possibly strain your credulity any further.
As long as this pact is maintained, fiction works. When this logic is broken, we get a feeling like, “There’s something wrong here” or worse, “That’s it, I’m done with this story.” This can happen when a hero suddenly develops powers we never saw him have in order to save the day, or where a character acts in a bizarre way in order to advance the plot, or a simple question that would resolve everyone’s problems remains unasked (as in every bad romantic comedy ever). You find yourself throwing the book across the room or shouting at the screen in frustration, right?
And so we come to Legolas and his violation of the pact.
First of all, he is simply and quite obviously older, even though these films take place approximately seventy-five years before the events of the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) films. Elves are not supposed to age but unfortunately that does not apply to humans. Poor Orlando Bloom.
But as jarring as his physical appearance was, it is nothing to the betrayal of CHARACTER that takes place.
In LOTR, Legolas arrives at Rivendell as his father’s representative to the Council of Elrond. But at that point he doesn’t show any recognition of hobbits generally or of Bilbo specifically despite the fact that they had had this rollicking adventure together. Because, of course, they hadn’t. Legolas was inserted into the Hobbit narrative when it became a film so that – what? More girls would show up? When is Hollywood going to understand that lots of women love fantasy and sci-fi and we don’t need a pretty face to be drawn in? (Not to mention how many women were going to show up for Martin Freeman. Or for Benedict Cumberbatch’s mere voice. Poor Hollywood. You just don’t get women. At all.)
But worse, unimaginably worse, is the destruction of his innocence. Legolas has two beautiful moments in LOTR when he witnesses death. When Gandalf falls in Moria, and again when Boromir dies, Legolas is stunned like the others, but his grief has a complexity to it: this is an immortal being confronting mortality. He is unaccustomed to it. In fact, in the words of the director/writers’ commentary track, he has never witnessed it before, nor has he witnessed other people’s suffering in the face of it. And give the young Orlando Bloom credit: he displays this bewilderment and awe in his eyes, on his face, in his body.
But wait. Here we are in the Hobbit films and Legolas is surrounded by death. Not just death, but slaughter on a massive scale. At the Battle of the Five Armies, the ground is littered with bodies – elves, dwarves, men and even animals – and when Thranduil, Legolas’ father, walks among them up to his knees in carnage, he is nearly expressionless. Numb. As are we. It’s too much to take in.
Not only has Legolas participated in this horrific slaughter, earlier in the same film, he describes to Tauriel how his mother was captured and killed by the Witchking of Angmar.
This Legolas is fully familiar with loss and death, both mass destruction and personal pain.
This Legolas would not have reacted as that Legolas did when Gandalf fell and when Boromir died. He would have shown a different quality to his sadness. He would not have been desolate in the same way because it would not have been new to him. He would not have been experiencing it for the first time.
This hardened, battle-scarred, world-weary Legolas – this GROWN UP Legolas – doesn’t belong in the Hobbit. He can’t be there, because then he would have been there in LOTR, but he wasn’t. The future can’t be different just because you filmed it first.
You violated the pact, Mr. Jackson.
Perhaps I felt this more because I had just watched all the LOTR movies before watching the final Hobbit movie, or perhaps it’s because of my obsessively detailed memory; perhaps most people wouldn’t notice this change in Legolas’ character. Perhaps Jackson and his cowriters were counting on the latter. I doubt it though; LOTR fans are among the most obsessive in the world.
And anyway, just because someone doesn’t notice that you cheated doesn’t make it right.