The Desolation of Tolkien

Ethan Gilsdorf reviews The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, where we see more clearly Jackson's vision to give The Hobbit the look, feel and slow majesty of The Lord of the Rings.

By Ethan Gilsdorf at 6:34 am Fri, Dec 13, 2013

In a story fragment called "The Quest of Erebor," from J.R.R. Tolkien's tome Unfinished Tales, there's mention of a chance meeting between the wizard Gandalf and the royal-blooded dwarf Thorin Oakenshield. This takes place before the events of The Hobbit

There's also talk of evil genius Sauron rising again, and of the dragon Smaug, who Gandalf worries "Sauron might use with terrible effect." There is further elaboration on the story of how Gandalf came upon the map and key he gave to Thorin, which reveals the location of the secret door into the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug is holed up, guarding vast treasures.

And, in an even earlier version of this never-completed and posthumously-published story, we get the lengthy dialogue of Gandalf persuading Thorin that the best chance for his quest to win back their kingdom from the dragon lies not in battle, but by "stealth," via employing a certain hobbit named Bilbo Baggins. 

"This Hobbit is rather unusual," Gandalf says to Thorin. "I think he could be persuaded to go into a tight place."

All of this extra material was never mentioned in Tolkien's book 1937 The Hobbit. But in the latest installment of Tolkienania, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which opens today in theaters nationwide, you'll find the threads of this conversation between Gandalf and Thorin's from "The Quest of Erebor," and more lost tales, appendices and footnotes, twisted into the plot -- or hopelessly tangling up the plot, depending on one's opinion of Peter Jackson's film version.

Like with the trilogy's first episode, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, this next chapter even further widens the viewfinder beyond the fates of Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the Company of dwarves, lead by Thorin (Richard Armitage). If you recall, their journey thus far took our heroes from Bilbo's hobbit hole in the Shire, past some trolls, under the Misty Mountains, escaping a seemingly infinite supply of goblins, ending just shy of Mirkwood forest, with the Lonely Mountain, their target, towering in the distance. We last left them after they'd battled orcs and wargs, having just been rescued by eagles from flaming trees and the brink of doom. An Unexpected Journey took 182 minutes to tell, and covered only about 125 of Tolkien's 375 pages (in my version of the book, anyway). The Desolation of Smaug is slightly shorter, but still runs a hefty 161 minutes, and takes us about 2/3 of the way through the story. Where exactly the film leaves Bilbo, Thorin et al, I won't say here.

If part 1 plodded, then part 2 flies. But in what directions! And, quite possibly, asunder.

Here's one way to skin this issue. One's stance towards The Desolation of Smaug depends on one's philosophy of adapting a beloved book into a commercial, mainstream film.

If you are resigned to the idea of Jackson and co-screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro cribbing from other source materials in the Tolkien legendarium to expand the world of The Hobbit, then Smaug might sit right with you. But if you insist on even moderate fealty to Tolkien's book, then Smaug might feel overlong, bloated, and unfaithful.

For The Desolation of Smaug takes even further liberties than An Unexpected Journey did with the original source materials, including fabricating characters and sequences that Tolkien never intended. These include a female elf named Tauriel (played by Evangeline Lilly), providing Lake-town archer Bard (Luke Evans) a family and a Han Solo-like smuggler bargeman backstory, and giving the Master of Lake-town (Stephen Fry) a toadying assistant Alfrid (Ryan Gage). There's also more Gandalf and Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) wizardly interplay, who take side-trips places to gloomy places like Dol Guldur (known as "the dungeons of the Necromancer" in the original book) and the Tombs of the High Fells, which do not exist in any of Tolkien's works.

Also unexpected: The journey of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), the son of Thranduil (Lee Pace), the Elven-king in Mirkwood. Legolas, who never appeared in The Hobbit, plays a substantial supporting part here. His presence not only connects The Hobbit with the events of The Lord of the Rings, but as the film's press notes admit, fulfills a desire by "Jackson and his collaborators ... to infuse the action with the kinds of iconic Legolas moments that became an audience favorite in the earlier Trilogy." Indeed, without spoiling too much, Bloom fans may rejoice at his deft and dextrous killing ways, as he comes to the rescue several times, by leaping, stabbing with his blades, and firing his machine gun-like bow and arrow at any orc that so much as makes a peep. His and the dwarves' barrel escape and skirmish sequence --- the film's action showstopper --- is a thrilling piece of moviemaking, but also absurdly unbelievable. Look for the Thorin & Company's Wild Water Rapids Adventure to be an E ticket ride when Middle-earth Orlando opens in 2024.

Jackson's Hobbit II so little resembles the book, it may as well be called Some Further Adventures in Middle-earth.

But hear out the opposing side. The argument for adding more story is that, after that Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings, he realized that story and The Hobbit did not line up. He spent much writerly manna reconciling the child-like tone and hermetic story of 1937 Bilbo with his later, expanded stories, which elaborated on the true purpose of the ring of power. Tolkien went back and tinkered with the details, so that the history of his burgeoning Middle-earth made logical sense. Fair enough. 

With Smaug, we see even more clearly than in the part one, Jackson's vision to give The Hobbit the Rings treatment. This newer Hobbit trilogy now better matches the mood and epic timbre of Jackson's earlier Rings trilogy whose events, chronologically, take place 60 years after the events of The Hobbit. Follow?

If you're a fan who's grumpy about this overall tonal shift, at least you'll recognize the touch-points from the real McCoy. In Smaug, the gang still encounters the imposing shape-shifter Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), although the visit feels short. Bilbo and the dwarves still enter Mirkwood and are attacked by giant spiders. They are captured by Mirkwood elves, led by Thranduil, whose eyes literally glitter with greed. The dwarves escape in barrels. They end up in Lake-town, and eventually make their way to the Lonely Mountain to confront Smaug. (These aren't spoilers, if you've seen the trailer and read the book.) 

Once again, Jackson's art team has done a mesmerizing job visualizing the various stops on this Middle-earth tour. The Elvenking's Hall, an intricately carved wood and rock dungeon, is magnificent. Mirkwood and its tangle of paths, tree-trunks, toadstools and spiderwebs feels like a mushroom trip gone bad. The Tombs of the High Fells and the crumbed fortress of Dol Guldur would be any D&Der's wet dream. Set on piers and walkways over the water, Lake-town resembles a Renaissance-inspired Venice made of wood. The secret mountain stairway to the back door of Smaug's lair, which the Company must ascend, proves to be a masterpiece of design. All are jaw-plummeting environments where I wanted to linger longer. In fact, I'd wished PJ had told his editor Jabez Olssen to let each shot linger a little longer, and asked cinematographer Andrew Lesnie to please hold his shots steady and in place --- sans some swooping camera move --- for more than five seconds. 

Fortunately, Jackson does hit pause on the game of wits between our hobbit and our dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, whose face was also motion-captured for the impressively-modeled CG Smaug). Their entire encounter, set amidst a sea of gold and silver, is a delight. (Speaking of coin, Weta Workshop cranked out some 170,000 aluminum gold plated coins to deck Smaug's halls.)

"I am Ring-winner and Luckwearer," Bilbo says, "and I am Barrel-rider." "You have nice manners for a thief and a liar," is one of the dragon's familiar retorts. This Bilbo and Smaug game of cat and mouse feels torn from the pages of Tolkien.  

Less delightful? 1) A superfluous love interest between two unlikely lovers. 2) Armitage's Thorin channeling an angst-ridden, tormented Boromir (Sean Bean, from The Fellowship of the Ring). 3) Contemporary humor, like this line from one from Bard's daughters: "Why are there dwarves coming out of the toilet?" 4) Orc villains Azog and Bolg, who growl lines like "Kill the she-elf!" More fights in Lake-town. 5) And a completely unnecessary and tedious finale action sequence --- and another potential theme park ride --- involving the dwarves that dispels the magical effect of Bilbo and Smaug's back-and-forth.

Also regrettable: The disappearance of Bilbo.

I'm not talking about invisibility. What I mean is, what happened to the story of this modest hobbit gradually gaining courage and confidence, and coming into his own? Yes, we see glimmers of his character arc as he fights with the spiders, and verbally spars with Smaug. We see hints of how the ring might be making him nuts. But Bilbo's personal quest and what's at stake for him is superseded by these grander events and lengthy cutaways, which creep in from the edges of the film like the menacing vapor-like mist of the proto-Sauron taking shape in Dol Guldur. 

If you recall, the original children's book was largely limited to Bilbo's point of view, with the exceptional departure for limited scenes where Bilbo was not present (e.g., a chat between the eagles). Smaug presents half a dozen stories we the viewer must juggle. The cost is that we've got less sympathy for everyone, especially Bilbo, whose plight should be the core of the film. 

"You've changed, Bilbo Baggins," Gandalf says in one short scene. "You are not the same hobbit who left the Shire." I disagree.

As the most human-like and innocent, Bilbo stands in for us. But by the time we get Bilbo and the dragon alone, our attention has been divided and refracted. He's received such scant screen time, we're less engaged with his story. There's more dialogue between two minor characters (one of which isn't even in Tolkien's book) than any exchange involving Bilbo, except the finale involving Smaug. In the same way the Arkenstone is buried under tons of coin, poor old Bilbo's tale is buried under easily 45 minutes of chases, captures, narrow escapes, more escapes, melees and other heroics, often comically-staged with acrobatics, and sometimes gruesome with orc-beheadings. (Parents of young children, be forewarned!)

Let me set my biases free. As a fan of Tolkien and a fan of Jackson's first trilogy, it's difficult to distance myself from my desire for the movie that I'd hoped The Hobbit would deliver. This Hobbit Peter Jackson is less impressive than the Peter Jackson I came to know, respect and love in Lord of the Rings. This is an undisciplined director on display, showing no restraint. To me, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is too too loud, too fast, too much focused on action and distracting plot threads. I prefer the relative simplicity of Tolkien's first Hobbit to the over-inflated, overblown, over-the-top epic Jackson aims his bow at here. Even if you accept the liberties Jackson and Company take with the script, to my mind, the movie as a movie experience, independent of the book, is not well served by all this extra material. 

The question remains, how much of this can audiences withstand? How hard can Jackson pound on their armor before their defenses of patience give way? My suspicion is that chink in their dragon scales, if there is one, will be revealed when the final film in the trilogy, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, hits us with its Black Arrow next December.

Published 6:34 am Fri, Dec 13, 2013

About the Author

Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, critic, poet, and teacher. He wrote the award-winning travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. Gilsdorf's articles, essays, op-eds and reviews on the arts, pop culture, film, books, gaming, geek culture and travel regularly appear in the New York Times, Boston GlobeSalon.comBoingBoing.netPsychologyToday.com, GeekDad, Washington Post and wired.com and dozens of other magazines, newspapers, websites and guidebooks worldwide. As an expert on geek culture, Gilsdorf frequently speaks in public, and appears on TV, radio, Internet media and in documentary films. He is a lover of ELO and a hater of littering. Sometimes he wears a tunic and chainmail, or these grampy pants. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. More info at ethangilsdorf.com or follow him on Twitter.

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