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:
- Is it as close as possible to the book’s details?
- Is it as close as possible to the book’s themes?
- Does it at least not contradict the book’s details?
- Does it at least not contradict the book’s themes?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- Burglary Becomes Giant Dragon Assault. Already discussed and challenged. I would need to grow to like this part. I likely won’t.
- 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.
- 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?