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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit (poster)It’s been a year since Peter Jackson took us back to Middle Earth and Bilbo Baggins set out on An Unexpected Journey. After mixed reviews, the consensus seemed to be that Tolkien fans were largely disappointed with the adaptation, which seems inevitable when such a beloved classic is presented to fans through someone else’s eyes.

The second instalment is, in my opinion, a much better film – or at least a less ridiculous one – but it could never have lived up to enthusiast’s expectations, no matter how faithful it stayed to the text (which it doesn’t). And so it becomes something else.

The majority of fantasy fans will likely have Bilbo’s adventure etched on the inside of their skulls but, as with the first film, The Desolation of Smaug features an array of changes to Tolkien’s playful tale to make it a fitting prelude to Jackson’s decade old vision of The Lord of the Rings.

After a brief flashback that introduces Gandalf and Thorin’s real intentions for their burglar and makes use of the Prancing Pony set again, The Desolation of Smaug picks up shortly after An Unexpected Journey ends. The party of dwarves, along with Gandalf and the esteemed Mr Baggins, have somehow navigated their way down from the treacherous ledge of rock where the eagles dropped them off and are continuing on their journey east to the Lonely Mountain, still plagued by orcs but carrying a newfound respect for our dear Bilbo.

The Hobbit (poster 2)The New Zealand setting once again does Tolkien’s Middle Earth justice. The scope and scale of the adventurers’ journey is brought to life by the stunning landscape, from Bilbo’s freshly painted front door to the Lonely Mountain itself. There are odd occasions where the geography seems a bit strange, with whole mountain ranges seeming to disappear and forests leaping out of nowhere but these can be overlooked for the breathtaking views that complete a world long imagined.

The cast obviously hasn’t changed a great deal from An Unexpected Journey but there are a few welcome additions. Lee Pace is excellent as Thranduil, the ethereally sinister king of the wood elves and Stephen Fry delivers a great performance as a most unpleasant Master of Lake-town. Orlando Bloom pops in for an extended cameo of rigid acting, multiple fight scenes and skateboarding (on corpses this time) as Legolas, to end up in a love triangle between the most eye-catching of the overly-attractive dwarves and the fourth woman in Middle Earth; Evangeline Lilly plays the graceful she-elf Tauriel, captain of the guard. Although she is very good and provides some much-needed oestrogen to Tolkien’s masculine world, it remains to be seen whether her storyline will add any value to the tale.

The Hobbit - spidersThere have been a lot of complaints about how anyone can justify turning a 278 page children’s book into an eight hour epic spread across three films. While the profit values of this method of release speak for themselves, it is perhaps easy to forget the sheer amount Tolkien packed into those pages. In this second stage of their adventure alone, the party must spend time with a skin-changer, battle giant spiders, escape ruthless wood elves, deal with the politics of a town left ruined by the effects of the dragon that evicted them from their home, and eventually come face-to-face with the great beast himself. With the benefit of being the omniscient storyteller, Tolkien was able to condense most of these adventures into a chapter or sometimes just a paragraph or two. To depict everything that happens to Thorin and Company in an exciting and suspenseful way requires a decent amount of screen time.

The Desolation of Smaug is actually very fast-paced considering the amount it has to get through and attempts to complete the tale of the third age of Middle Earth with content outside of The Hobbit that was going on at the same time. This is where we start to see sections of the story that remained untold by Tolkien until the appendices of The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf’s “other business”, which takes him away from the dwarves when they could do with a wizard who knows everybody, is revealed and suspense starts to rise for the promise of more action and wizardly cleverness in the final part of the trilogy. The absence of Gandalf should have been Bilbo’s opportunity to shine but unfortunately changes to the story mean this isn’t the case and Martin Freeman’s excellent portrayal of the halfling ends up being somewhat wasted.

The Hobbit (poster 3)By now it is clear that the biggest alteration in this adaptation of Tolkien’s classic tale is its core message. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are very different books that tackle very different themes and even have different audiences despite featuring many of the same characters. To package them together involves major plot-upheaval, which Peter Jackson seems happy to take on. The point of The Hobbit, which is much more a folktale than its epic sequel, is that you don’t have to be a big warrior to be a hero, but the message is lost somewhere when the Bilbo-focused quest is turned into an ensemble chase scene that acts as a prelude to a world war. This is made particularly clear by the ending of the second instalment.

We were given a glimpse of Smaug, “greatest and chiefest of calamaties”, at the end of the first film for suspense purposes. Despite him being the wrong colour (as per Tolkien’s description he’s supposed to be red-gold), this glimpse worked completely and when we finally see him in all his glory at the end of The Desolation of Smaug, the rumbling quake he causes as he stomps about looking for Bilbo among tottering piles of treasure is pretty intimidating. Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, who brought to life the booming dragon by impersonating his father reading the book aloud to him as a child, the character of Smaug epitomises the danger of the adventure that justifies Thorin’s perpetual gloom and makes for a great climax to the film – or would have done if we were following Tolkien’s narrative.

The filmmakers still use a lot of the dialogue from the book for this climax, which fans can appreciate, but instead of the dragon securing his own death sentence with his arrogance the adapted scenes take away the significance of Bilbo’s courage and cunning and the “overwhelming personality” of Smaug. Instead, there is a strange and probably very expensive sequence where Thorin steals the show but nothing is really achieved.

The Hobbit - dragonAlthough I found this sequence disappointing from a fan perspective, it’s easy to see how Jackson and Co. might have had difficulty adapting the story. In the book, the dwarves don’t really have a plan for facing the dragon, a lot of the events and characters appear out of nowhere, only being introduced when they’re needed, and much of the resolution relies on talking birds. As much as we might love it this wouldn’t work in a film, especially for audience members who haven’t read the book, and so in order to fit into Jackson’s pre-created world of The Lord of the Rings, some changes were probably necessary. The problem with this is that because there are so many characters it is difficult to give them all an adequate amount of motivation and backstory. Consequently, the tale ends up going off on endless tangents as each problem solved creates another one. This is bad news for Bilbo, who ends up as more of a tension-breaking comedy character than a half-sized hero, and for many of the dwarves who are completely overlooked in favour of their better looking kin, the elegant elves or the troubled Bard of Lake-town.

For life-long fans of the book there is a lot about this film that can be irritating if one chooses to look for it. However, as a film The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is an enjoyable and fast-paced adventure, with some very entertaining action scenes and colourful characters, packaged in a beautiful setting at a dazzling 48 frames per second. For entertainment’s sake, it’s worth looking at it as something different.

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4 Comments

  1. Nice review. I haven’t seen any of the movies, yet (I’m kind of holding off until I can see them all within a few weeks of each other) but I’m attracted to the idea of telling other parts of the back story in Parallel with The Hobbit. I’m sorry it sounds like the “little guy can be the hero” message is getting lost in the spectacle. It’s hard not to think that on some level it’s about raking in my bucks that drove them to a trilogy instead of producitng a single movie that would allow fans to return to Middle Earth but mostly stick to the original story.

  2. […] Steff Humm at Fantasy Faction has offered a thoughtful review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. […]

  3. I completely agree with you that a lot was taken away from Bilbo, leaving him not really the protagonist any more. I disagree about the action sequences; I found them cartoonish, absurd, pointless and lacking in any true suspense. But the visual spectacle was wonderful.

  4. KJ Braxton says:

    I’m glad you pointed out how the film has to become something different from the book because if you consider it to be an adaptation of the book you can come away quite angry (as I did initially). I felt Smaug was the big highlight as I actually found him really sinister and Bard is also great. The female elf though entertaining received far more attention than necessary considering she’s not in the books. I wish there was more Beorn but the scenes with him were great.

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