This second installment in the miraculously long Hobbit adaptation begins where the last film ended, with our fifteen intrepid adventurers sitting on the outside of a mountain after escaping a mine full of goblins and being pursued by a pack of wolf-mounted orcs. Sound familiar? It should to anyone who has seen Jackson’s first Tolkien-adapted trilogy, since this precise situation was the climax of The Fellowship of the Ring, with Frodo, Aragorn and company flying their foolish way out of the mines of Moria. And this isn’t the only thing that feels oddly familiar. From the film’s opening shot (a flashback to the town of Bree, one year before our story’s present) we see heavy-handed visual reiteration of images from Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Our reentrance into the familiar set of Bree is complete with not only a reprise of the mysterious stranger smoking a pipe in an alcove of the Prancing Pony (a la Aragorn’s introduction in Fellowship) but also an identical Peter Jackson cameo, as a townsperson loudly eating a carrot as our camera tracks by. While a few of these visual echoes can be charming or interesting, showing us how things in this world of Middle-earth are always the same, no matter what decade, their frequency and relentlessness, particularly in the introduction, give the feeling that Jackson is trying to remind the viewer of his bygone glory. “Look,” it seems to say, “remember when these images felt fresh and new?”
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro
Producers: Carolynne Cunningham, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Zane Weiner
Cinematographer: Andrew Lesnie
Editor: Jabez Olssen
Music: Howard Shore
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, James Nesbitt, Aidan Turner, Lee Pace, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Benedict Cumberbatch, Luke Evans, Stephen Frye
Runtime: 161 minutes
Genre: Adventure, Fantasy
US Premiere: December 2, 2013 – Los Angeles
US Theatrical Release: December 13, 2013
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
But as the film progresses, following our Hobbit and his thirteen dwarf friends on the road to the Lonely Mountain, these repetitions seem to peter off, allowing us to once again inhabit the world of this story, rather than The Lord of the Rings. As a big Tolkien fan, I was excited to see some of Jackson’s adaptation choices for this film, and I was consistently impressed. It is ballsy, deliberate, creative, and overall, fairly successful. It is also a relatively strange adaptation, injecting a lot more excitement into what is, on the large, a plodding section of Tolkien’s original text. This period of The Hobbit (the book) goes through a lot of exposition, introducing Beorn, the last of the shape shifters, by way of an uncomfortable (and boring) dinner party and moving on to what feels like 100 pages of starving semi-insane dwarves wandering through Mirkwood forest chasing after mysterious lights. Then it spends months with the dwarves imprisoned in the Elvenking’s hall before their miraculous, clever, and endearing escape. Despite the decision to split this 300-page children’s book into three feature-length films, the middle third of the book has been massively trimmed. The journey from the mountainside to Beorn’s, through Mirkwood, and in and out of the elf kingdom all happens at a sprint.
But something rather remarkable happens in that revision. The Hobbit, Tolkien’s book, is undoubtedly Bilbo’s story; Thorin Oakenshield is really the only discernible dwarf, with most of the rest merging into a collective mass. It is a cute and charming story, but a small one in scope, with Bilbo’s journey from dork to brigand and eventually hero at its center. (Purportedly Tolkien went back and tried to rewrite it after finishing The Lord of the Rings but found that after his edits “It just wasn’t The Hobbit.”) But here, Jackson demonstrates that The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug is actually something more than its source. The film’s dwarves are much more discernible than their literary corollaries; we could probably identify half of them by name and temperament. And, in our brief incursion into the world of the wood elves, we actually get to know the politics and personalities at hand. We meet Thranduil (Lee Pace), who is referred to in the original text simply as the Elvenking, and his son Legolas, an inclusion that somehow doesn’t feel as cheesy as all the visual repetition that mars the beginning of this film. And the film’s central romantic plotline, a love triangle involving Legolas; Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a tough-as-nails female elf; and Kili (Aidan Turner), the cutest of the dwarves locked in the cells, is actually quite compelling.
Jackson caught a lot of flack in his initial Lord of the Rings films for beefing up Tolkien’s nearly non-existent romantic plotline to draw in a wider audience of viewers, but something in the screen chemistry between Lilly and Turner makes you forget about that. This isn’t the flat, dutiful romance between Aragorn and Arwen, this is an honest-to-god Shakespearean love triangle slipped into the middle of an action movie for kids. And most remarkable of all, it works! Just like he did in his first Tolkien adaptations, Jackson has really transformed this into an ensemble film, with the many storylines and motivations of different characters intermingling nicely, so that when the group splits up periodically, it is actually fun to see what happens to the B team. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as it is one of the biggest strengths of the Lord of the Rings movies, but after the god-awful The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I was worried.
The rest of the film bears some typical Jackson fare; orc-fighting sequences that hit that particular sweet spot between awesome and goofily kid-friendly (most notably a fifteen minute CGI-fest following the dwarves and hobbit as they float down a river in barrels that is actually pretty stunning); mysterious dark strangers who help our crew only to later reveal that they are secretly royalty; selfish, ill-loved leaders and their sniveling yes-men; Gandalf fighting with magic we can’t understand (except that light is involved in some way); legends and prophecies coming true seconds after everyone declares that they are bunk; and of course, the film’s nominal dragon.
And so on to Smaug, whose Desolation is so heavily featured in this film. Smaug presents for me a quandary. He is brought to life so well by Benedict Cumberbatch, whose smarmy arrogance is perfect for the role. Unfortunately, Smaug is where the adaptation choices seem to collapse in favor of shiny CGI wizardry. Smaug is indeed a terrifying beast, ten tons of scaly, fiery, awful fury, with a brain that can riddle with master riddler, Bilbo Baggins. But, in an attempt to inject more action into this film, Jackson has effectively declawed the terrifying creature.
Here, we go back to the book again. Tolkien’s Smaug is so frightening he has no desire to kill Bilbo. He doesn’t fear the little hobbit with a magic ring (which, by the way, he just wears all the time in the book; in this film adaptation I found myself yelling “Put on your fucking magic ring,” about once every 5 seconds we spent with Bilbo). But the scene is powerful because it takes such tremendous courage for Bilbo to tiptoe his way in and talk with the behemoth. Smaug in our filmic adaptation has lost all of that terrifying might. Sure he is huge, spits fire, and eats dwarves like us for breakfast, but he spends the whole riddling scene trying to catch Bilbo—and failing. For the literary Smaug, catching this morsel would be child’s play; he just chooses not to eat this little creature because he is curious about a creature he has never smelled before. But then, as our dwarves enter the scene, instead of simply running away, they decide to fight this enormous death machine. And remarkably, they do well. This is, remember, despite the fact that Smaug only clawed his way into this mountain by killing thousands of dwarves and humans and never batting an eyelash. The whole spinning, twisting indoor dragon fight is just too much silliness and the fact that this demon personified can’t even get one dwarf-kebab is just pitiful. While Cumberbatch’s voice does justice to the majesty and terror of this giant thing, Smaug’s tremendous failure at what seems a fairly simple task takes all the teeth out of his bite.
This is the biggest failing in what is otherwise a quite impressive undertaking, and the cliffhanger ending, especially considering the emotional stakes the characters are under, is very well done. It leaves me wanting more, which thankfully comes this summer rather than another full year later. Jackson’s adaptation is good, even great, with many of his choices exceeding their subject matter. He fails in regards to the dragon, sure, but he succeeds with the challenging task of developing Tolkien’s flat characters while at the same time keeping the emotional arc for Bilbo that makes the original story compelling. What is clearest is that, of the three, this is the film that Jackson was most excited to direct. This part of Tolkien’s story is the most epic in scale and transformative in character. “I found something in that cave,” Bilbo tells Gandalf. He almost spills the beans about the magic ring he found, one we know far more about than any characters in this film, but instead at the last second he corrects it to, “my courage.” But he is indeed right. This is the part of the story where we see a bookish indoor kid turn into a creative adventurer, fighting against giant spiders, sneaking around, and riddling with deadly dragons. This is little Bilbo’s coming of age, and as he is at the center of Tolkien’s story, it should be no wonder that this is a more compelling and exciting episode than the opener. And after this impressive display, we should hold out hope for the third iteration. Just pray that it won’t be as long as The Return of the King.