Movies: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage
Directed By: Peter Jackson
Written By: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien (barely)
Warner Bros./New Line, 2013
PG-13; 161 mins
3 stars (out of 5)


I know Peter Jackson puts himself in each of these movies as a cutesy kind of cameo, but the Bugs Bunnyesque shot of him eating a carrot or whatever wasn't clever, merely distracting. Which goes to the kind of hubris that has arisen with this whole Lord-of-the-Rings-and-now-also-The-Hobbit operation. It's sort of like when an artist first begins making beautiful, handcrafted paintings or carvings or whatever and then becomes so popular he moves on to mass-produced, machine-made versions. Something is lost in the process.

What's lost here is Tolkien's original story. The Hobbit is such a lovely little adventure tale. Somehow Jackson and company felt they could improve upon it by bloating and expanding it. They wanted another epic like Lord of the Rings, which The Hobbit isn't. And they are desperate to tie the two together . . . Yes, I realize that what goes unsaid in Tolkien's novel presages the events in The Lord of the Rings. But art is as much in the spaces as the lines, and music is as much in the silences as the notes. Filling in the gaps (yes, let's insert the Necromancer/Sauron, let's composite all the evils and manufacture a few more for good measure, let's bring back or at least mention characters from The Lord of the Rings that have no place in this story) has not made The Hobbit any better and offends the audience by suggesting we need it spelled out for us because we are otherwise too stupid to see the connections.

Not only that but we are pandered to by having a fabricated dwarf-elf love story thrust under our noses, as if somehow it could not be any kind of "real" movie if there were not a romantic subplot and some token female character, either for girls to look up to or fanboys to drool over. Sigh.

Well, I've said it all before, and here it is again. Best that can be said for it is The Desolation of Smaug is slightly better than the previous installment, but that may only be because I forewent 3D and 48 fps and watched this one "old style." The padding, as I've mentioned, is egregious, and the interchange between Bilbo and Smaug is weak compared to the book; in places the dialogue is too on-the-nose to be any good. (As in when Smaug suddenly concludes the dwarves are in league with Lake-town and Bilbo attempts to prevent him from going to burn the village. Smaug's response: "You care about them. Good. I will show you revenge. I will burn them." Or something to that effect. You realize, screenwriters, we would have got all that without you spelling it out so baldly? And while in the book Smaug does conclude Esgaroth is behind his being disturbed, there is no such hamfisted exchange between him and Bilbo over it. Because Tolkien wrote better than that. Sure, have Smaug mention—we cannot read his thoughts as the omniscient narrator of The Hobbit does—that he suspects the lake-men, but do not wrap the whole conversation in forced sentiment; it only shows you to be bad at your work.)

If you're wondering about what bits of the book are encompassed by this middling installment, we get only the briefest pass at Beorn, we get Mirkwood and the spiders (my eyes were closed during this bit; my 8-year-old son had to tell me when it was safe to look), the elven prison and subsequent barrel ride to Lake-town, and the entrance into the mountain. The movie ends when Smaug flies off to terrorize the lake people.

Included as unwanted bonus prizes: a flashback to Gandalf meeting Thorin at Bree prior to the quest, more of Azog (him being summoned by the Necromancer to Dol Guldur and pursuing our group through to Esgaroth), Legolas and the invented Tauriel (plus Tauriel's love-at-first-sight with Kili, leaving Legolas jealous), Gandalf traveling to Dol Guldur and being imprisoned by Azog and/or the Necromancer (after sending Radagast off to warn Galadriel), Kili being so wounded he and some of the other dwarves are left behind in Lake-town (and then the orcs come, and so do Legolas and Tauriel) . . . You see how it is. Filler. And not even very good filler. I mean, if you're going to turn a perfectly good chocolate bar into a creme-centered cordial, at least don't fill it with poo.

And yet things like Beorn and the river through Mirkwood are given short shrift. Perhaps these things are not exciting enough for viewers. Perhaps they are too difficult to communicate on film. I'm sure there were reasons. But reasons or not, I'm not sure there's ever really a good excuse for taking a great book and turning into not even one, but three, not-so-great movies.

Related: My 5-year-old daughter's take on Smaug.


Roland D. Yeomans said...

Writers with a great turn of phrase and moving prose like J R R Tolkien and Robert E Howard do not fare well when their novels are turned into movies.

The movies are flat compared to the stirring prose tales. I had never read LORD OF THE RINGS so the movies were entertaining to me.

Did your son like the movie? He was the right age for it.

M said...

Hard to tell if my son liked it. He's read the book a few times over, and he says he liked the movie, but when I asked him what he liked about it, he couldn't really find an answer. But then, he's eight. Wouldn't necessarily expect him to be able to articulate and expound on the aspects of any film.

M said...

Oh, I did forget that my son's first comment was: "Smaug wasn't as red as I thought he would be." We discussed whether that might be because the mountain caves were just dim or if maybe Smaug needs to get out more . . .

Roland D. Yeomans said...

My vote is that he should get out more. Sleeping under tons of gold washes you out obviously. :-)