‘The Hobbit’: An Unexpected ‘Desolation’

Aside from a surprise burglary-turned-dragon-assault and one glowing She-Elf, “The Desolation of Smaug” shines.
E. Stephen Burnett | Dec 16, 2013 | 11 comments |

poster_thehobbitthedesolationofsmaug_eyeofsmaugFrom the same movie theater at which my hopes for a decent Voyage of the Dawn Treader film were dashed, I walked out on Saturday with a similar sinking feeling, at least at first.

Spoilers will abound in my following micro-review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, second in Peter Jackson’s new Middle-earth trilogy. Upon reflection over two days, my reaction has improved. But my initial post-film thoughts were limited to two objections:

  • Why the need for a wholly invented, over-the-top, monster chase-and-ambush scene inside Erebor, featuring fire-breathing Smaug vs. Dwarves and titular Hobbit?

No, it’s not the action scenes I oppose. I also tolerate easily, and even enjoy, elements such as added action scenes. I was fine, for example, with a drawn-out scenario featuring dwarves-in-barrels on the equivalent of a Middle-earth flume ride, escaping the Elven-king’s fortress amidst battling orcs and Elves. “I laughed, I cried, it moved me, Bob.” My guiding principles here are:

  1. Is it as close as possible to the book’s details?
  2. Is it as close as possible to the book’s themes?
  3. Does it at least not contradict the book’s details?
  4. Does it at least not contradict the book’s themes?
  5. If none of the above: is it at least something the author could have written in a parallel universe?

The dwarves’ whitewater mid-battle barreling passed this test (at no. 4). The dwarves’ giant comical absurd intra-Erebor chase/ambush scene with Smaug — complete with dangling over crevasses and then the dragon’s very mouth, cartoon physics, and then REVEAL! giant gold dwarf-statue that is REVEAL 2! molten inside — this over-the-top finale doesn’t pass.

If I tried, I might force a no. 5. Maybe an alt-universe Tolkien would have written at least the outline of such a scene. He did describe great devastation outside the Lonely Mountain after Bilbo’s burglary and before Smaug’s vengeance on Laketown.

But then again, I don’t really have much of a choice but to try to make the change fit, do I?

  • Why the silly (though admittedly subtle) “love triangle” between Tauriel/Legolas/Kili?

This was already bad enough before Tauriel, by the film’s end (in an added parallel climax in Laketown), became Arwen-redux to save a pain-wracked Kili, who appeared ready to disgorge a wee dwarf laddie. As Kili gazes upon her, she goes all glowey. Touched By An Angel glowey. Way cheesier than Arwen-glowey from The Fellowship of the Ring. (That effect now seems entirely subtle and sensible, given Frodo’s exposure to a Morgul-blade and not merely a poisoned arrow.) At that point, I lost it.

Earlier in the film brought a surprisingly touching — yes, I said it! — conversation between Tauriel and Kili. I actually grew to love this, and could have done without Legolas watching nearby (of course). Tauriel suddenly became a sympathetic character. She’s not a Shooting Up Heroine, struggling to make it in a He-Elf’s World. She’s an expected warrior. And curious about the world beyond Mirkwood. This was all working — barely, but working. Then she lights up like a special-effects budget, and from there it’s all sliding downhill a pile of hoarded golden treasure. Or, if you prefer my initial and more-negative phrase from elsewhere:

So, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.”

At first magnificent, longer and lither, soaring high with sunlight reflecting off its scales and just a few splotches of fungus on its muscular hide …

Aaand then it ends in a great indulgent gold-plated steaming hot dragon turd.

Since I wrote that complaint, I’ve thought more about the film’s positives. And they are such strong positives.

  1. Queer Lodgings. Beorn is boss. Post-transformation, though, he’s also, erm, buck—- nude, though arguably tastefully done in only faint moonlight (and with, I believe, a CG posterior). But we see less of Beorn than you might expect. He’s mostly being set up for an inevitable appearance in the Battle of Five Armies. And this may be the first time Tolkien mentioned an amazing drawn-out action sequence — Beorn vs. goblins in a nighttime raid — and Peter Jackson turned down this opportunity.
  2. Flies and Spiders. Appropriately creepy, though it feels abbreviated. Again, the film had less creepiness than the book? Who’d have thought? Hobbit book fans will miss the enchanted river, the boat debacle, and the unfortunately surprising hart that sends one dwarf into a frustrating enchanted sleep. But you won’t miss the spiders. And yes, those spiders are able to do something they do in the book, and for a great movie-logic-enabled reason. Just you wait.
  3. The Wood-elves (extra-book scenes). Legolas’s presence is fine here, and logical, and Thranduil is excellent. Thranduil channels Tom Hiddleston’s Loki a bit, if I’m not mistaken. And new character Tauriel is not just eye candy or a Female Presence, or even a regrettable love-triangle enabler. She works well to personify the Wood-elves’ need to be involved in Middle-earth. She will clearly be a means to Legolas and others, including Thranduil himself, to become more involved in Middle-earth politics and finally The Battle of Five Armies.
  4. Barrels Out of Bond. Wonderfully done. Very true to the book. I’m glad my prediction proved untrue that Legolas and/or Tauriel would help Bilbo. You’ll even see onscreen an exact reenactment of the book’s line: “It was just as this moment that Bilbo suddenly discovered the weak point in his plan. Most likely you saw it some time ago and have been laughing at him.”
  5. A Warm Welcome. Excellent, though Lake-town is a grimier and colder place than you would think. If you’re bothered at first with all the skulking and skullduggery, the film does eventually reach the point of everyone warmly welcoming the dwarves. But I could have done with more of what I’ve called Tolkien’s surprisingly modernistic subversion of the returning-king archetype.
  6. On the Doorstep. Some changed material here. Erebor’s door’s location isn’t nearly as hidden as in the book; this place has a very Argonath-looking statue incidentally guarding the way, though the door itself is far more secret. One “key” change actually makes a lot of sense.
  7. Inside Information. Yes, you’ll love Smaug. Don’t leave this live dragon out of your calculations, if you critique the film near him. Bilbo’s response to the revealed dragon, and especially his very from-the-book banter, is perfect. Moreover, though the dragon is certainly more aware of the rising threat thanks to Melkor’s famed servant, the foreshadowing is not too overdone (certainly not to the levels of other certain fan-panned fantasy prequels).
  8. Burglary Becomes Giant Dragon Assault. Already discussed and challenged. I would need to grow to like this part. I likely won’t.
  9. Laketown Raid / Glowey Tauriel. The raid I can handle. I’ll even accept Legolas’s Boss Battle with Bolg. But I can’t grow to like Glowey Tauriel. So I won’t. Instead I will be forced to laugh. More than at Arwen’s silly line, “What’s this? A Ranger, caught off his guard?” from Fellowship.
  10. Gandalf vs. Necromancer. Some fans are hating this. I am not. I think it works visually and viscerally, as a film and as an adaptation from Tolkien’s own materials describing what Gandalf was doing when he left the Dwarves this time. One friend of mine called the magic appearance more cartoonish than Harry Potter, with buildup to a foregone conclusion (why, so the Necromancer is Sauron after all!). I’ve considered that, but can’t agree. My experience with those elements — based on Tolkien! — was more positive.

I found the magic much more Tolkienesque in its execution and far better than the silly wizard gravity-punch battle in “The Fellowship of the Ring.” And I don’t mind the drawing-out of the reveal (as much as it was drawn out), because Sauron was truly thought long-lost after the climactic battle in Mordor. Also: magical concealment. Most thought it was simply a low-level Necromancer.

Also, my wife just points out that Gandalf had figured out this was no mere man dabbling in dark magic. But Saruman wasn’t believing him, and Galadriel was open to the possibility. It makes sense in movie-logic, and does correspond to what Tolkien wrote as background.

[…]

Just did some checking. Yes, it’s more Tolkien. Sauron was able to appear briefly only as a “dark lord” of flame in the Third Age. He also appeared as a cloud of darkness at the end of The Return of the King, hovering formless over Mordor before a wind from the West finally drove him away, destroying him forever. My reasons for supporting the Dol Guldur showdown are only Tolkien-based.

Same thing for the revelation. Unlike other attempts at prequels, I don’t find this reveal! annoying. It’s only that way because the films are made in the “wrong” order. Howard Shore also composes the music similarly. Themes aren’t yet fully realized. New ones apply only to “The Hobbit.” When Bilbo in film 1, though, arrives in Rivendell, that theme “returns” but is actually fuller and longer. That ultimately makes the Rivendell visit and themes in “FotR” a reprise. Frodo’s early adventures should be seen in light of Bilbo’s.

Finally, Shore’s score was incredible. I can’t wait to hear the full version. And his “Feast of Starlight” theme has been haunting me all weekend — in a very, very good way.

Conclusion: 3.5–4 gold pieces out of 5. Yet that missing fifth is quite the chunk of gold-plated dragon dung.

What were your Hobbit thoughts? Mostly good, mostly bad, mixed?

How did you view the film both as an adaptation, and as a film on its own merits?

E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor (with Ted Turnau and Jared Moore) of The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids Engage Their World for Christ, which will release in spring 2020 from New Growth Press. He also explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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Ashlee
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Very interesting! I always anticipate these movies with a combination of hope and premature disappointment. I have not seen this one yet, but am looking forward to it, faults and all. Thanks so much for the insight into the film’s pros and cons!

Julie D
Guest

In addition to carefully reading Tolkien, you seem to have read my mind, as my experience followed the same timeline: initial disappointment, followed by general approval. I must keep that test in mind for other adaptions — Princess Bride tends to pass at level 1 (not surprising, since the author wrote the screenplay), while LWW is at 3.5 or so.
Glowy Tauriel and Golden Statue are my remaining criticisms of the film. Though your comments about Tauriel may further improve my view of her.
For those who have read The Silmarillion–did you notice any parallels between Thranduil and Thingol, especially in “let the outside world alone” attitude? The lack of a Maiar ally makes it rather harder for Thranduil to sustain his realm, but he can’t be entirely blamed for trying.

Hannah Williams
Member

First off, I’m a huge Tolkien Fan, and despite having mixed feelings concerning many of the same elements as expressed in the review above, I LOVED the movie.
Second: Julie, I’m so delighted to heard that someone else thought Thranduil was given Thingol’s attitude! It took me a bit to get used to this new Thranduil, but I did enjoy him. I just hope his nobility will be brought out more in the next movie!

Austin Gunderson
Member

I’m here to tell you that you don’t, in fact, have to “grow to like” the dwarves vs. dragon fracas which constitutes the climax of Desolation. There are very specific reasons that entire sequence is an embarrassment and a disgrace, and those reasons have nothing at all to do with the fact that it’s absent from Tolkien’s book.

The final half-hour of The Desolation of Smaug consists of Smaug and Thorin & Co. trying to kill each other throughout the bowels of Erebor. What’s wrong with this picture? You know – deep down in your gut – that something is terribly wrong, but you’re tempted to brush the feeling off as a spasm of irrational purism. Resist that urge; in this instance, your gut knows more than your brain. I’ll tell you what’s wrong: Smaug the Golden, greatest of the dragons of the north, doesn’t try to kill anything. If he wants you dead, he kills you. Period. Every single instant in which Thorin & Co. remain alive after Smaug lays eyes on them for the first time is an insult to his reputation, a diminishment of his terror. It’s not even as though we can pretend he’s having trouble hitting a small, moving target; a company of eleven makes for a target-rich environment. At one point, Thorin goads Smaug into a trap by describing him as “slow and fat in [his] dotage.” I couldn’t help but agree with that assessment. I actually felt sorry for Smaug. It was a terrible, chilling sensation. It meant that everything had gone wrong with PJ’s storytelling. Everything.

In Tolkien’s book, the first time we see Smaug become angry he sets a town ablaze and gets himself slain. Smaug is no oafish stone troll, cackling orc king, or small-minded spider. The dwarves are terrified of him, and for good reason: you can’t antagonize Smaug without bringing swift destruction down upon either your own head or the head of whoever’s standing nearby. But because PJ, in his bloated hubris, thought himself capable of turning a 300-page book into nine hours’ worth of movie, he needed to invent a sequence that’d feel like a climax for Part Two. He couldn’t very well end it with Smaug’s death, because then he’d need to spend at least another half-hour setting up the Battle of Five Armies in order to hook his audience for the third and final installment. So what’s he do? He sacrifices Smaug’s dignity and majesty for a series of cheap thrills which culminate in a gigantic “Huh?!” moment of insufficiently-cooled molten gold. (No, I didn’t get it. Maybe I was just slow on the uptake during the chase scenes, but it speaks to my total distrust of PJ that I actually expected that statue to open its eyes and turn into some kind of massive dwarf-mecha there at the end. I was so afraid that that was gonna happen, I actually got light-headed. True story.)

Unacceptable effect: I’m no longer afraid of Smaug. Futile prescription: Kill off some dwarves! Seriously. I mean, you’ve got dwarves to spare, right? For crying out loud, PJ, you’re buried in ’em up to your kneecaps, and only a handful even have speaking parts! If you’re gonna diverge so drastically from the story we all know and love, you might as well make it worth the time and effort. If you wanna insert a big showstopping climax where none existed before, then you’re gonna have to pay for it. And an antagonist that doesn’t destroy anything that we as an audience care for is weak, weak, weak. And Smaug should never appear weak!  He’s the Big Bad, the chief peril of the Quest, the titular villain! To strip him of dignity is to strip the story itself.

David Alford
Member

So, should I even bother seeing this movie? I have yet to hear an “Oh man, this is amazing!” review from anybody. I either get “it doesn’t follow the book” or “it’s pretty good”. I’d rather not waste a theater visit when quality material like Frozen is still around.

Austin Gunderson
Member

Well, to be fair, my above critique applies exclusively to the film’s final half-hour.  Granted, it’s the most important half-hour, but a half-hour of cheese doth not a total waste make.  The film overall is pointedly hit-and-miss.  I loved the Mirkwood sequences unreservedly (which is odd, as that’s the part of the story I’d deemed most likely to get tweaked beyond all recognition).  After the dud that was Shelob, it seems PJ’s finally figured out how to effectively portray Tolkien Spiders on screen.  Not only were they frightening in appearance, but said appearance was withheld until the last possible instant in order to maximize suspense.  I also loved Thranduil (who beats PJ’s Celeborn all to heck) and Legolas with his inexhaustible, Rule of Cool-compliant acrobatics (if you hated him in LotR, you’ll really hate him here), and developed a surprising fondness for Tauriel (for her as a character, that is; her role in the plot is all gag-inducing, hope-in-humanity’s-creativity-crushing melodrama).  Also, I found Lake Town to be aesthetically pleasing (based as its architecture is on the Scandinavian stake church template).  So there’s that.

But I also have more complaints.  Seven of ’em, to be exact, delineated in a lengthy Facebook review which I won’t regurgitate here.  Point is, for everything that Desolation did well, there’s at least one other thing it did poorly.

And Frozen is a better movie, hands down.

Arizona Mike
Guest
Arizona Mike

All of my complaints with this film can essentially be reduced to two characters: one numeral and one letter. Those two characters are the reason why so many films are terrible these days.
 
“3” and “D”
 
Because the Hobbit was released in a 3D version, the need to have action-heavy sequences where things are suspended in space (to effectively use the process) means that we have to see endless time-wasting sequences where characters leap, spin, fall, somersault,  crash, and fall (then get up and dust themselves off from falls that would land any biped in the hospital for months) for the entertainment of juveniles and the juvenile-minded. Because moviegoers want to “ooh” and “ah” with each literal poke between our collective eyes.  That kills effective storytelling and turns the film into the cinematic equivalent of a carny dark ride..  You didn’t have (or need) that in the far-superior LOTR films.  (And one is glad that “Citizen Kane” was not filmed in 3D.) 
 

R. J. Anderson
Member

I thought I’d adequately braced myself for this movie being essentially a three-hour play-through of a video game called “Orc Hunt”, but I was really unprepared for how totally awful and even, yes, boring the movie was. All those tedious action sequences, crammed one after another with scarcely a breath between them, left me numb and completely indifferent to the fates of everyone in the film except, curiously enough, Tauriel. She is after all the one character whose ultimate fate we don’t and can’t know from the books, so I found her story at least somewhat piqued my interest and curiosity. Though I agree that the love triangle was a capital error (and Evangeline Lilly herself would heartily agree with us on that as well, especially she’d originally agreed to do the film on the condition that there NOT be a love triangle for Tauriel, and then they sprang it on her in reshoots. Stay classy, PJ & Co.).

I thought I’d reconciled myself to this movie being essentially Peter Jackson writing Tolkien fanfic with little regard for the canon, but it wasn’t even GOOD fanfic. It was just one tiresome cliche and brain-numbing battle scene piled on top of one another until all of a sudden, the narrative cuts off with a resounding thud. I was sorry I’d taken my boys (aged 8 and 11) to see the film, not only  because of all the gratuitous beheadings and other unnecessary grue, but also because they were just as visibly disappointed and confused by the egregious stupidity of it all as I was. Smaug’s magnificence revived their spirits a little (my 8 year old loves dragons), but they all HATED the ending and didn’t even want to talk about the movie afterward except to pick it apart.

I am not at all looking forward to part 3.

David Alford
Member

So, I saw the movie. And I know in the comments above that everyone seems to be panning it because “It doesn’t follow the book.” Well, I have never cared one iota about movie adaptations following their source material. I also have not read the Hobbit in like 15 years.

That said, I think Hobbit earned the “lamest movie of 2013” award. Emphasis on “earned”. It did nothing well. It had no plot. It had no character development. It had no real characters. The love “triangle” was missing a dimension (or 2). Namely, time. What on earth did Kili fall in love with? Her knife skills? And what did Tauriel fall in love with? His height? I cared zero about Tauriel or Kili coming out of the theater (in fact my cousin and I were cracking jokes about her). I was actually hoping Kili would die and Tauriel would arrive too late but I already knew that wasn’t going to happen. When the audience has more residual care for Dave the Minion, then your buttkicking warrior damsel (I’m pretty sure elves have a corner on the term “warrior damsel”), you should stay home. The sets and costumes were good I guess, but when you come out of the theater comparing it to the Narnia movies (and not the recent ones either), you know that someone overpaid. One of those people was me. I will not even be wasting a blog post on this garbage.
Best moment of the movie: Bombur’s barrel bouncing and my cousin, after the 4th or 5th bounce saying loud enough for people around us to hear, “Penta kill!” 
If someone wants to argue for any “goodness” in this movie such as “I like Tauriel.”, I’m open for criticism. I just didn’t see it. If you want to see a quality movie right now, go see Frozen. Or, if you can find a theater still showing it, go see Gravity.

Austin Gunderson
Member

Desolation of Smaug is the best Saturday-morning cartoon I’ve seen in years.

Joanna
Guest

I just couldn’t get past all the blatant computer/video game levels though the movie — it was like Hollywood wasn’t even trying to pretend this whole movie didn’t simply exist in order to sell stuff — especially the video game.
 
Honestly, if I want to watch someone play a video game, I’ll watch someone play a video game.
 
And the thing with Gandalf and the Necromancer? It would have been better if it didn’t just feel like a replay of stuff from the LOTR movies.
 
And glowy elf maid. Just… no. >_<