The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson, 2013)
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, depending on which printed version you read, is about 300 pages long. It’s a slim volume of great fantasy writing, in which we meet Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit of Middle Earth who is the most reluctant of adventurers. Part of what makes The Hobbit so enchanting (to this reader) is its simplicity of plot, which allows for a wonderful complexity of world design. We are on a quest, in search of treasure guarded by a dragon, in the company of dwarves, elves, and a powerful wizard named Gandalf. Good folk must rise to the occasion, and bad folk must die. By the time it is done, we have indeed been “there and back again” (the subtitle of the novel), and have returned from our journey as changed in spirit as is Bilbo.
Later, Mr. Tolkien expanded his tale with the renowned sort-of-sequel trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, which is grander in ambition and scale than its predecessor. I have always been a big fan of the first book of that series, The Fellowship of the Ring; less of a fan of the second book, The Two Towers; and even less of a fan of the final book, The Return of the King. I’ve never even attempted to read The Silmarillion, the not-quite-finished-at-the-time-of-Tolkien’s-death work that was supposed to expand and explain the world of Middle Earth to an even greater degree. My problem with The Lord of the Rings has always been the fact that the writing begins to overwhelm the story after Book One: I stop caring about the legions of orcs and goblins, and the battle scenes are interminable and dense.
I felt very much the same way about Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptations of the trilogy, which began in 2001, continued in 2002, and ended in 2003 (with an Academy Award for Best Picture, no less): I loved the first one, and liked each subsequent film less and less. I was amazed at the technical wizardry on display, and thought the actors were all excellent. I just found the story too unnecessarily abstruse and the battle scenes too damn long.
I was excited, however, when I heard that Peter Jackson was adapting The Hobbit, as I figured the brevity of the book would keep Jackson’s tendency towards excess in check. Ha, ha! Not so! He had other plans. The Hobbit would be split into three movies – all close to the three-hour mark in length – to allow for a prequel of equal scale to The Lord of the Rings. Argh. If you can’t get enough of Tolkien, then this is your dream come true. If you like stories contained by a semblance of structure, however, too bad. You can read my thoughts on the first film of this new trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (released a year ago), and see that though I admired Jackson’s vivid imagination, I deeply regretted his choice to blow up the story as he did.
One of the best things I can say about this new movie is that the 48 frames-per-second technology is a lot less distracting this time around. I was also a big fan of a romantic subplot (a complete invention of the filmmakers) between an elf and a dwarf. In the midst of all the bloated filler that the almost nine-hour length of the series requires, the interspecies love story was a surprisingly moving addition, mostly because of the charming performances of Evangeline Lilly (Kate from “Lost“) as the “she-elf” Tauriel and Aidan Turner (Mitchell on “Being Human“) as the “tall for a dwarf” Kili.
Other than that, I was annoyed. Granted, the actors are all fully committed to their characters – Martin Freeman (Watson on “Sherlock“), as Bilbo, especially – and the visual effects by Weta Digital are, as always, impressive (Smaug, the dragon, is amazing to behold). But the story is a mess, and proceeds at a snail’s pace in spite of the almost nonstop action (how is that possible?). After all, we need to leave something for the third movie . . .
But the worst sin of all is the attempt by Jackson and his screenwriting partners to make Bilbo’s story a direct prequel to the doom and gloom of The Lord of the Rings. Instead of a fast-paced journey “there and back again,” we get a series of portentous scenes in which Sauron – the evil necromancer at the heart of Tolkien’s trilogy – is shown to be at work behind every evil deed. Even Smaug cannot escape Sauron’s reach. Jackson links the former to the latter with a visual dissolve from Smaug’s eye to Sauron’s eye; a neat trick, perhaps, but one that diminishes Smaug’s own power. If the dragon is just another puppet of Sauron, then he’s nothing but a really big orc. I would have preferred to see the dragon invested with greater personal agency.
It’s not worth recounting the entire plot, but to those who know the book (or saw the first film), I’ll summarize it as follows. We begin our story with Gandalf, the dwarves and Bilbo getting ever (slowly) closer to the Lonely Mountain, the former home of Thorin (the lead dwarf, heir of kings) and their ultimate destination. After a series of adventures involving orcs (of course), giant spiders (creepy), and wilder-than-in-Rivendell elves (amongst whom we meet Orlando Bloom as Legolas and Evangeline Lilly), the company (minus Gandalf, who has gone off to confront – surprise! – Sauron) arrives at Dale, the town just below the Lonely Mountain, where they are helped by Bard, a descendant of a former Lord of Dale (who tried, but failed, to kill Smaug when he first arrived). After some initial conflict over local politics, Thorin, Bilbo and most of the other dwarves (minus an injured Kili and those who choose to stay with him), make their way up the mountain and find a way in by the “last light of Durin’s Day” (part of the prophecy that guides Thorin). Once inside, they confront Smaug (first Bilbo, alone, and then all together). Though almost incinerated, they nearly defeat him. Smaug proves too strong, however, and the movie ends with him leaving the mountain to destroy the town below. In my version of the book, Smaug flies out of the mountain on page 231 (out of 302). We’ll see how Jackson fills out the remaining 72 pages in The Hobbit: There and Back Again, coming to a theater near you in 2014.
Now, lest you mistake me for someone who dislikes unfaithful adaptations of books, and sees that as the main reason for my annoyance with Jackson, know that the real problem is that he’s not doing anything new here. All we’re getting is Lord of the Rings lite, with end-of-the-world evil at work. The tone is exactly the same as in the Ring series. I would have preferred a prequel that introduced the various species of Middle Earth, as well as Gandalf, and hinted at the power of the ring. Then, at the end, if he really wanted to, Jackson could have brought in a foreshadowing of the conflict to come. That was not to be, at least not in this version.
In spite of all that I’ve just written, I am sure that this film will have immense appeal to all die-hard Tolkien fans. And in an age of never-ending long-form drama series such as “Game of Thrones,” I am also sure that many viewers will not even care about my concerns over the lack of a tight structure. It’s fun just to inhabit the universe for a few (or more) hours. So be it. If that’s you, then enjoy.
I’ve been leery of watching either movie, as I read The Hobbit: There and Back Again when I was young and loved the book so much. I think I may re-read the book, and pass on the movies. But, there is a pull to see the grand special effects. 🙂
And the special effects are both special and grand, indeed!