Warning Major Spoilers to Follow
The Hobbit The Desolation Of Smaug has now been out for a few weeks and has done quite well for itself maintaining the number one spot a while and generating the word that it is better than the first film. There has been a lot of built up expectation for this series as a whole due to the success of the Lord Of The Ring films and the immense love of the novel, coupled with the financial success however mixed the critical response may have been for The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey has put considerable interest on this film. In terms of story this entry in particular had a lot riding on it because the grand focus of Thorin and companies quest Smaug makes his first real appearance while many of us know the real story has another finale in the Battle Of Five Armies one that Peter Jackson and the filmmakers will surely expand with all powers Hollywood effects have to offer aggrandizing it to point where all the battle scenes from the Lord of the Rings seem small. But really in the original story this seemed like after math to Smaug rather than a true climax, at least in my reading that was my impression. Either way Smaugs presence in this film means that this is not just meant some bridge filling time between the first and last film. And perhaps that’s why I feel let down by this film, for the most part it feels like filler a pointless waste of time adding space in order to force a cliff hanger.
Now don’t get me wrong I don’t hate the Ideas of changes in and of themselves, and there are a few good ones. And despite its many flaws I greatly enjoyed the first film. It may have been flawed but it did a great deal right. Yeah Radagast was brutally bad but the unexpected house party was fantastically well done and the fact that they kept the songs was enough to make me forgive a lot (and nearly cry like a little girl). As just a couple of examples. The problem with The Desolation of Smaug is that I do not feel like the tradeoff was nearly as favorable.
Now these films have been subject to a great deal of online scrutiny from the beginning and nitpicked to death about details like length and necessary scenes. As far as that goes I think an extremely faithful adaptation could have been done in two films. I have no problem with the filmmakers filling in the gaps in what Gandalf was doing during the parts in the story where he left the Dwarves from Tolkien’s other writings. At one Point the filmmakers had said the third film would bridge the gap between the Hobbit and the Lord of The Rings at this point it seems that will be entirely in the fashion of an epilogue rather than comprising most of a film. I was unsure about the prospect of a movie based entirely on notes but now that the Desolation of Smaug was about two-thirds filler I almost wish they had gone that route and taken a more faithful approach to the main story. It’s also interesting that many critics have complained that first film was boring and that it took too long for the film to leave the shire. Perhaps it’s just my fondness of the book or the old Rankin/Bass cartoon but I thought that the Dwarven history and the scenes with the Dwarves at Bilbos house through the initial setting out on their journey were by far the best parts of the film.
Now in regards to the major problems by which this film is held back, they can nearly all be filed under one word… filler. But there are noteworthy subcategories Escalation in which every little moment from the book becomes a massive event, Lord Of The Rings influence where it does not belong and Tauriel. So let’s take a look at each of these in more detail shall we?
Serial Escalation It’s Not Just For Anime And Comic Books
First off the Hobbit is not an epic really it’s more of a folk tale and a journey of self-discovery. In terms of how Tolkien approached it, in how it’s told and the fact he made more for children than his other stories it’s not like the other books it’s not the Lord of The Rings it’s not the Silmarillion. But this is Hollywood we are dealing with and prequel or not serial escalation comes into play and even though the story takes place earlier and the vast majority of it is much smaller in scale they wanted it to match or even exceed the previous films. And what’s scary is that given the amount of people who found the first Hobbit boring or the guy that came out behind me after The Desolation of Smaug complaining that there “wasn’t enough killing” perhaps that’s what the general audience expects as well, perhaps those hollywood executives are dead on? Well whatever the case may be a combination on of wanting to spread this book that’s in the range of 270-300 page long depending on the printing into an epic trilogy that can also match the scale and expectations of the original films many small events from the book have been “re-imagined”.
Well that’s putting it very politely. The truth of the matter is that every little event every twist and turn and nearly every pit stop on Thorin and companies journey becomes some battles, a bizarre chase sequence or some weird ride down cavern shafts that for some reason reminds me Donkey Kong or even the parody action scenes from the Disney Film the Emperor’s New Groove without the sense of irony.
While I mean to focus on the Desolation of Smaug For this category I am going to use a few examples from the first film as well as it was so prevalent there as well. And I fear would be so in the third film if there were to be as much traveling in it but perhaps the nature of the story itself will curtail it to some degree. The perfect example would be to take the scene from the book that says “When he (Bilbo) peeped out in the lightning-flashes, he saw that across the valley the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one another for a game, and catching them, and tossing them down into the darkness where they smashed among the trees far below, or splintered into little bits with a bang. “This very minor annoyance for characters was turned into an action scene where the area the Dwarves are on turns out to be the stone Giants themselves (who appear to be killing one another) and they have to desperately run across the legs of each creature with Bilbo nearly falling to his death. This results in Thorins growing doubts in Bilbo to become so apparent that Bilbo attempts to leave the group.
While I appreciate the effort at character growth it still comes off forced and almost bizarrely expands upon a scene that was barely there in the source material. Similarly the scenes in Goblin town which for the most part worked at first included the Dwarves ending up on a chunk of bridge being turned into a pendulum, riding a chunk of debris down the caverns and similarly towards the end when they were chased up the trees by Azogs Ocrs it was not enough to be trapped by blood thirsty warriors and Wargs the trees had to tip over the cliffs leaving several Dwarves dangling ever the conveniently placed cliff side. Now some of that would not be so bad but all of it one after another gets tiring or even worse boring.
I personally despise when people say this movie or that feels like a video game as an insult but when you pull stuff like this the comparison begins to feel a bit more apt. Now while I considered it an annoying problem in An Unexpected Journey in The Desolation of Smaug it’s borderline maddening it feels like Thorin and Company can’t take two steps without being attacked by Orcs or some other creature. To be honest there are a few acceptable ones after Bilbo frees the Dwarves from the spiders they have a few more show up for them all to fight. All and all I am ok with occasional changes like that. But just a bit later the stealthy Barrel river escape of all things turns into a battle with Bolg (Azog’s son) leading an attack on the Dwarves and the Woodland Elves. It’s completely unnecessary and not particularly interesting.
Of particular note is the during this prolonged sequence is an over the top gag involving Bombur that is not nearly as amusing as the production staff probably thought it was and only continues treating him as a boring joke, well he does at least get one good scene earlier which is something I suppose. Furthermore half of the scene is taken up with Legolas doing his thing and Tauriel yet again killing up a storm to try to convince everybody that her martial skills and her gender is enough to excuse the fact she was made up for the film and is taking up time that could be used on more interesting characters like say Balin or Fili, or Thorin or I don’t know freaking Bilbo. Well Rest assured that we will revisit Tauriel in just a bit touch on Legolas as well. But back to Bolg if you’re familiar with the novel version of the Hobbit you may remember he is the guy that was actually in charge of the Goblin (Orc) army as Azog was long since dead. In The Desolation Of Smaug you will get to see him quite a bit though he is not quite as interesting or commanding as Azog is. The problem is he and his men keep popping up similar to their appearance in Barrel escape they show up in Lake-town just to provide a quick slaughter and fill time.
Another more expansive example is Bilbos encounter and the Dwarves subsequent battle with Smaug. I can Imagine if you reading this without seeing the film but having read the but that line may be really confusing or perhaps enraging depending on your temperament. But for those who don’t know in the book Bilbo confronts Smaug invisibly and Smaug talks to try to draw him out and discern who he is. For a reclusive hoarder he is quite clever and fairly intelligent and it’s an interesting cat and mouse situation. He also does some old school medieval style boasting about how badass he is to try to intimidate Bilbo and to try to get him to slip up. Bilbo Likewise brags back with clever little titles he gives himself based on what he has achieved on his journey. But Bilbo Unintentionally implicates Lake-town and eventually Enrages Smaug who leaves to attack the city. Here the movie does something odd it takes the scene and tweaks things like they always do, like you may expect. Bilbo reveals himself to Smaug which changes the dynamic considerably and not for the better but the scene was still fun. But then it sort of stops the monologue Smaug had from the book and the Dwarves enter the cave to help Bilbo and we are treated to a prolonged boring chase sequence. The sequence is not interesting there are no real cool moments to save it, it’s entirely filler, it’s long I didn’t time it but it felt like it was 45 minute long so it had to be at least 15 to 25, It had more of those corny imperiled dangling from cliff type moments that Peter Jackson seems to have become so fond of. But what makes it worse is the shear and total lack of necessity adding some stuff to Lake-town worked for the most part, fleshing out Bard and his family worked but this was awful.
[pullquote]Perhaps if I were to say there was one redeeming element of the entire scene it may be the expression on Smaugs face at the end of the sequence when the Dwarves finish their grand scheme to GoldFinger him.[/pullquote]
In the book the Dwarves toil and travel and fight across the land to their homeland and the big question is what will they do when they finally meet Smaug this massive Dragon whose wings are as hurricanes, teeth like swords, claws like spears? And then when they meet them get there he takes off and get killed in town it’s actually a huge twist. While some may say that since they didn’t defeat him that they still preserved that in some fashion. I fully disagree. The confrontation in itself completely destroys the intent of the original story, yes the Dwarves are still denied their revenge but they get to confront Smaug and in some small fashion best him. They outsmart him, outmaneuver him and drive him out of their home reclaiming their dignity. Perhaps if I were to say there was one redeeming element of the entire scene it may be the expression on Smaugs face at the end of the sequence when the Dwarves finish their grand scheme to GoldFinger him. The look on his reptilian face as he gazed in such dorky awe at the molten gold before it cascaded upon him was almost enough to cheer me up after all that cinematic butchery I had been subjected to over the last half hour. Then again perhaps I am being overly harsh, perhaps in that moment I actually smiled.
The heirs of Tolkien’s estate have many times claimed that he would likely be less than thrilled with the adaptations of his works. I have always been somewhat skeptical of their claims. Granted he was critical of Hollywood and openly discussed his disliked Disney but in the end he sold the film and stage rights to his works in 1968 albeit with a special clause that Disney never be involved in any adaptation. My point is that he was a very intelligent man, surely he knew that if his works were ever adapted they would be likely be so with some liberty. I always assumed he could enjoy the films to some degree for what they were. “It might be advisable [...] to let the Americans do what seems good to them — as long as it was possible [...] to veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartfelt loathing).” JRR Tolkien in a letter in 1968.
But with this particular string of events and changes perhaps they were right. Because I simply cannot imagine he would be pleased with the prospect of the Dwarves (divided by circumstances created to promoted a love triangle no less!) getting a chance to bravely face off against the Greatest of Calamities.
To the Lord of the Rings and Back Again
There something else interesting about these films that bothers me something of much greater debatability I suppose. There is too much influence and thrown in element from the Lord of The Rings in places where they do not belong. Don’t misunderstand I want proper consistency and continuity in fact I am something of a freak about details like that but the film seems to put in elements and characters to remind the viewers that this is connected when it does not need to. Many people complained about the opening scenes in the An Unexpected Journey with Ian Holm as Bilbo and how they turned into something of a deleted scene from the Lord of the Rings. And while this may seem odd given some of my other complaints I kind of enjoyed it. Sure it was unnecessary and I think it did not give the audience any credit if the filmmakers thought that they needed such a long scene to establish things. Surely the first little bit with him writing would have worked, but there was a novelty to it and a great deal of nostalgia and it in no way hurt the story.
As I have mentioned earlier the Hobbit is not the Lord Of The Rings in fact it was not even conceived as a part of his Middle Earth but was sort of retconned in later. Tolkien even created an edited version of the book to make it match up a bit better world wise. While the details may have lined up better things like tone and scale stayed the same but Tolkien was clever and he did turn the Hobbit into an extremely important part of his legendarium. It set the stage for the Lord of The Rings but it still kept its identity. Which makes aspect of these films and their attempts of rework what has come before thoroughly vexing. At times it feels like they are intentionally ignoring the source material in favor of the flourishes and familiarity of the previous trilogies conventions. Granted these are adaptations and as I said I like consistency where it should be but this is a prequel not a sequel certain traits for example should be less pronounced.
A good example from the first film that I am sure most people will disagree with is Gollum. In the Hobbit Gollum does not talk to himself or show any indication of having a split personality. While he is certainly disturbed he actually comes off more intelligent, focused and menacing albeit creepy, strange and pathetic. It seems that the time spent after Biblo stole the one ring was quite the downward spiral for Gollum… Well that and the torture. But in the film he portrayed pretty much exactly the same way as before. When I was at the theater people loved the scene so it may be that it was the right move. Gollum is after all a fan favorite. And it could be that fidelity to the source material is a small thing compared to playing to the expectations of the audience they are after all your faithful customers and those whom you must please. But in terms of story I think about how any development the little guy had was dropped and how really would he have been any less amusing had he not been talking to himself and acting overly manic? Who knows perhaps we could have had time for a few more riddles, but perhaps people would have found that tedious.
In terms of The Desolation of Smaug the influence is all over the place from cameos to changing plot element to characters. But a few in particular bother me. Bilbo being affected by the one ring in this film to the point that it influences his decisions and he even goes nearly berserk killing a bug like critter to get it back. The guy has the ring for like 60 years and handles it fairly well and really the only reason Frodo is so broken by it in the Lord of the Rings is Sauron has been getting more powerful and is making his move, is looking for him, calling for the ring pretty aggressively and Frodo is in closer proximity. At the point this story take place he shouldn’t be affected so quickly. And needless to say in the book he was not. But really that’s just quibbling I would not mind a little bit Bilbo of being affected if it were handled more subtly but they really went all out with him hearing the voices and seeing the Eye Of Sauron and everything.
And then there is Legolas who is quite the popular character. To be honest it make sense to give a cameo, his father Thranduil is an important character and Legolas was likely around when all this occurred. In fact his first scene would have been perfect it’s an amusing play on the original series and is a very funny exchange with Gloin. It’s also worth noting that Orlando Bloom in some crazy combination of age and improved makeup effect looks much creepier as Legolas now (in a good way). Now despite that first cool scene Legolas sticks around and keeps popping up mostly thanks to a brutally bad love triangle (more on that soon). It’s one thing to add in some cameos or work in characters where they make sense but it’s another to make up a subplot that’s as long as an episode of Frasier. Even worse to do so while leaving other characters undeveloped or as little more that jokes. He does at least have one very cool fight scene in Lake-town during the completely needless and completely filler Orc raid. There are many other random elements that pop up here and there from time to time some help flesh out world but all too often many feel forced. The Kingsfoil/Athelas was one such example it felt like a completely unnecessary and terribly forced callback or even the masters of Lake-town’s adviser Alfrid coming off a bit too much like Wormtongue. Even though it’s at times small things it still feels like they are trying to dang hard, like too many moments in this film.
But perhaps the real problem here was that The Lord of The Rings was too successful for the Hobbit to come out from under its shadow in the eyes of the studio executives. It could be that the only chance that these films had to truly have their own identity and to be true to the source material would to have been made before the original film trilogy.
Now amongst the problems I have expounded upon some are fairly substantial and damaging. But there is nothing that damages the plot so thoroughly as one maddeningly terrible addition to the story, one superfluous character whose very presence condescends to the intelligence of women, who with every scene distorts Tolkien’s masterpiece. Her name is Tauriel.
From the very announcement that the filmmakers would be adding in a newly made up character there has been some controversy. Purists have obviously been skeptical to outright angry, the internet has done its thing, and the mainstream press as it always does in a situation involving a “strong woman” has embraced it dismissing any complaints as the ravings of overzealous fans. Oddly enough many of the reviews I have read seem to be quite found of her as well, which I was actually surprised by.
The first and most obvious problem with Tauriel is that she is entirely the creation of the films writers. There are no female characters in the Hobbit at all. I don’t mind the inclusion of Galadriel since they are working in aspects of Gandalfs encounter with the necromancer from the unfinished tales and appendices or details like Bards family but adding in an entirely new character is too much especially one who takes up so much blasted time. What’s worse is the reasoning needing to give girls someone to identify with. This is a terribly condescending attitude, women are not stupid or easily bored just by the gender of a cast. Women and young girls have been enjoying Tolkien’s works for the better part of a century they don’t need to have characters exactly like them to identify with. And while several female reviewers and feminist sites have remarked favorably to this addition I wonder how they would feel about an adaptation of Little Women where there was a March brother?
The larger Issue is execution I assumed Tauriel would be involved in the Dwarven capture in Mirkwood and be a focus point during the Battle of Five Armies. But alas her role is much larger and where she treads the unraveling of the original plot follows. Everything about Tauriel screams trying too bloody hard. Take her introduction, it’s in Mirkwood the Dwarves are in the heat of battle covered in the remnants of web amongst some large spiders intent on a nice musky hairy feast and then at the moment when things start to look grim down comes Legolas pulling off all those cool slides, borderline skateboarding moves down ruins and signature stylized combative maneuvers seemingly saving everyone before taking the time to talk some crap. But then behold, with music twice as loud and three times as epic we see Tauriel jumping from sixty feet in the air shooting the beasties with unmatched elegance and beauty and killing twice the arachnids as anyone else. It’s as if the Filmmakers were saying “see we told you she was a badass”. And this will be a trend, I mentioned a man in the theater complaining that there was not enough killing in this film. Well he was a fool, the movie Conan was famous for being violent Conan kills something like 27 men and one large snake. I didn’t count but I can almost certainly say that Tauriel tops that on her own with ease. While that scene was annoying and the following scenes to build up her background really did nothing for me except make me wonder; what Balin was up to?
The bigger problem comes from them giving her more to do and how those changes hurt the plot. First there is the love triangle. It goes without saying that without any women Tolkien a devout Catholic didn’t have any love triangles in the Hobbit. In the Film a terribly uninteresting one develops between Kili who is possibly my least favorite Dwarf and Tauriel and their mutual attraction and poor Legolas who just won’t leave. It adds nothing to the story but it does kind of take away from the friendship between Gimli and Legolas. Their friendship was meant to be unprecedented and possibly represent the barrier between the races breaking down. Having Tauriel and Kili being flirty and making double entendres is not exactly the same but it certainly diminishes the uniqueness of Ghimli and Legolass’s relationship.
And then every time the writers want her to have something to do they just have a band of Orcs show up. Thorin and company escaping in the barrels was a funny but effective little episode in the book and they get away with relative ease but in this the bloody Orcs show up block the gate and Tauriel shows up to save the day slaying a ton of Orcs. Though don’t get me wrong Legolas tags along and kills up a storm but I have a feeling that if it were not for Tauriel his role would have ended in the Woodland Elves court. What’s worse is Kili is injured to advance their love triangle in fact he takes the arrow equivalent of a Morgul (another odd call back) blade right above the knee. As a direct result what is probably my least or maybe second least favorite change occurs because of this. Kili is so wounded that Thorin leaves him behind at Bards house in Lake-town and Oin, Fili, and Bofur stay as well. Separating the group is unforgivable I know many people claim the Dwarves don’t have enough personality and that many people have a hard time keeping track of them but this is an incredibly stupid change. The reason behind it is a scene where Tauriel shows up has to fight off another Orc attack and heals Kilis wound with Kingsfoil. And even that is terrible. She shows up and heals Kili fairly effectively in the Lord of The Rings Aragorn could only slow the poison in Frodos wound and Kingsfoil is more effective is more effective in the hands of royalty and in the books Glorfindel a high-born Elf lord could not heal it and had to hand Frodo over to Elrond to take care of him. But Tauriel a self-referred common Elf can? This is compounded by the fact that the healing powers of the Elves are said to diminish with every life they take whether in defense or not. And as this film has established Tauriel can’t seem to go anywhere without killing a dozen or so creatures.
Now if we are to look at her just as a character what do we get? She has a beautiful kind of flawless no hair out of place sort of look…but she is an Elf so that’s not really a problem. I do take serious Issue with her having red hair as according to Tolkien only five Elves have ever had red hair and they were all from Nerdanel’s family. Herself (though this is debated) her father and three sons. But by this point I knew Jackson’s crew was not really following the hair color rules. Back to the point at hand she is intelligent, well allegedly. She makes some questionable choices but is presented as intelligent and speaks multiple languages knows herbology, magic, and at six hundred or so should know some history. She is a powerful independent woman… yeah well she is incredibly deadly, pretty much untouchable. In fact her intro was done pretty much done in such a way as to show that she could one up Legolas. She is independent she disobeys the orders of her king and advising of her friends assuming she considers Legolas more a friend and less
She is treated as flawless her disobedience is treated as the right thing in the circumstances and leads to Kilis life being saved. And it even looks as if her possible death in the battle of five armies may lead to Legolas taking a more active interest in the world outside his father kingdom as he is rather more cold and distant in this film. Though I am just assuming they will explain why she doesn’t show up later and single-handedly kill Sauron. Everything she does is a positive and she is almost superheroic. Where other main characters like Bilbo, Thorin,Legolas and even Gandalf are quite flawed and when making The Lord of The Rings Peter Jackson said that Aragorn need a problem to work through so he gave himself doubts. Tauriel almost defines Mary Sue or would if so many people didn’t use that term in so many different ways. But it’s safe to say that she is less a fully developed character than a violent idealized to fault portrayal of feminine perfection for girls to look up to. She is there to look cool, kill things and fall in love in a fashion that is not all that different from any character from the Expendables (a film I enjoy) but in medieval clothing. I just can’t for the life of me understand what she is doing in the Hobbit.
To Long Things an Abrupt End
I had very high hopes for this film and the new trilogy as a whole for all my complaints about An Unexpected Journey I greatly enjoyed it, while it was flawed it hit enough of the right notes. I love the book and I grew up loving the old Rankin/Bass Cartoon. It is a good story one that deserves to be told; but better than this. Now much of my criticism could be countered with “it’s its own thing” or “if you want it exact read the book” or some such. When you are adapting a book or a comic or whatever there will always be some degree of change, that’s a given. But you are also saying that this work is so good it deserves to be told, that this story is so great and touching that it needs to be adapted, that you respect the work enough that you wish to help it work in another medium. The changes should only help the story in the transition never to hinder it or to lose what makes it special. And that is the problem with this film and with the approach the writers or perhaps Peter Jackson himself took. The vast majority of the changes in this film from the goofy action sequences, to the overdone callbacks, to the immense amount of filler, or the dreadful fan fiction-esque love triangle and especially the Dwarves personally challenging Smaug hurt it as an adaptation and the intent of the original story they distorted it and by the end it is nearly unrecognizable. In a way it’s not unlike poor Gollum… but it’s far less amusing.
The Hobbit its story, the characters, and the setting they first appeared in September 21, 1937 it was a story Tolkien originally created for his children but in the end became the launching point for his life’s work. The very first place people would get a glimpse of his legendarium that he worked on for nearly his entire life. Creating entire languages and histories and the four stories people are more familiar with. While there are those who disagree I think the quality of his work deserved better than this a self-indulgent, corporately manipulated film distorted from its original form to desperately attempt to stretch it into that box office holy grail that is the “trilogy” and to appeal to a vapid perception of what they think certain facets of audience want. Well Mayhaps the third one will be a bit less vexing. We can only hope.