Caution: here be spoilers! Don’t say I didn’t warn you…
Yesterday I went to see The Desolation of Smaug, the second instalment of Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson’s epic retelling of Tolkien’s classic children’s tale.
My overall verdict is that it was slightly better than I was expecting. To explain that assessment, I need to back up a bit.
I am unashamedly a huge fan of all of Tolkien’s work, and The Hobbit is where my love for it began: it’s the first book I remember my parents reading to my sister and I when we were little. In many ways it’s the ideal book for reading aloud to children: it combines a colourful cast of characters on a dizzying journey of adventure with underlying values of courage, integrity and basic decency, all set against a backdrop of good versus evil. For these reasons, The Hobbit will always hold a special place in my heart.
Like many Tolkien fans, I was a little nervous ahead of the release of the first instalment of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy: would it do the books justice? The answer, for me, was a resounding “yes”. Sure, there were some deviations and omissions from Tolkien’s narrative, but they were relatively trivial and could be forgiven, especially in light of the huge challenge of compressing such a monumental work of literature into three films.
There were two things I particularly enjoyed about the LOTR films. First, Jackson created a Middle Earth that was entirely believable: from the tranquillity of the Shire to the oppressive gloom of Mordor, Jackson’s world was not only beautifully imagined, but was almost exactly as I had imagined it. And second, I felt that, in spite of a few minor plot deviations, Jackson’s films were faithful to the overall spirit of Tolkien’s books: the themes of courage, integrity, duty and discipline shone through clearly, as did the triumph of good over evil not only through epic battles but also, and above all, through courageous decisions by ordinary people (and hobbits) even in the face of overwhelming odds.
Returning to The Desolation of Smaug, I’m happy to say that Jackson has once again done an impressive job of rendering the scenery of Middle Earth (as he did in An Unexpected Journey). Everything from the spiders’ lair in Mirkwood to Lake Town and the Lonely Mountain is brought to life very compellingly. I should also say, in fairness, that all the acting is top-notch. (Having said that, I do wonder why on earth Stephen Fry was cast in the role of Master of Lake Town, other than to fill out the movie’s celebrity billing.)
Sadly, however, where this second instalment of The Hobbit falls down is precisely where its predecessor did: in summary, it is not true to the spirit of the book on which it is based.
Tolkien’s book is primarily a children’s story about an ordinary and decidedly unadventurous hobbit who finds himself thrust into an adventure in spite of himself. The Bilbo of the book has an enduring air of befuddlement – how ever did he find himself caught up with an unruly band of dwarves and involved in such questionable and perilous escapades? In the book, whenever Bilbo manages to escape from a life-and-death episode, one has the feeling that it is more by luck than judgement. If, in the end, he succeeds in making it “there and back again”, it is in spite of his lack of skill, experience and sang-froid, not because he has an abundance of such things.
By contrast, in the film we see Bilbo the swordsman casually slaying orcs, Bilbo the confident escape artist suavely freeing his dwarvish colleagues from the clutches of the elves, and Bilbo the self-assured dragon-whisperer calmly conversing with the fearsome Smaug without so much as breaking a sweat. The Bilbo of the movie may share his literary cousin’s name, but – in this reviewer’s humble opinion – he doesn’t share much else.
As well as transforming Bilbo from a bemused and reluctant burglar into a bold adventurer, Jackson has also shifted the story’s entire emphasis away from a series of hair-raising but vaguely funny antics and towards a succession of increasingly outlandish set piece battles, culminating in an attempt by the dwarves to kill Smaug which, frankly, stretches credulity beyond its limits. Throw in a wholly gratuitous plot line about a beautiful female elf falling in love with a wounded dwarf, and you begin to see just how far from its source material the story has strayed.
Many reviewers have commented that the way to appreciate Jackson’s Hobbit movies is to dissociate them from Tolkien’s book: to consider them as being inspired by the book but in no way attempting to simply retell the same story on film. But while Jackson has every right to reimagine The Hobbit in this way if he so wishes, I would venture that he and his paymasters have done so not for artistic reasons but for financial ones.
The challenge of the LOTR movies was how to compress an epic work of literature down to three films. The challenge Jackson has set himself with The Hobbit is how to pad out a book of barely four hundred pages into three films. As far as I can see, the decision to make three films, rather than the originally planned single film, can only have been a financial one: more films equals more box office receipts, more income from merchandise and more sales of DVD and Blu-ray releases. The consequences of that decision are obvious: you have to add in all kinds of extraneous story elements to make up three movies’ worth of material, and you have to make the whole thing as exciting, dramatic, thrilling and entertaining as possible in order to sustain an audience’s interest over three movies instead of one.
At the beginning of this post, I said I found The Desolation of Smaug slightly better than I was expecting. Most of what I’ve written above I could have written about An Unexpected Journey, which I found ridiculous in several places. For that reason, my expectations going into the latest Hobbit film were pretty low. I suppose I should be grateful that Jackson managed to exceed them by restraining himself from even more and greater ridiculousness.
I feel sorry for the many people who will go to see The Hobbit movies without having first read the book from which they draw their inspiration. Anyone watching the LOTR films and then reading the books could find enough in common to recognise that the former was at least an attempt to faithfully retell the latter. Sadly, I fear that the Hobbit films are really doing little more than borrowing Tolkien’s characters, locations and a few key plot elements and setting them in a different kind of story altogether.
I don’t want to discourage anyone from going to see The Desolation of Smaug. If you can forget about what it’s based on and just go expecting a fantasy adventure with plenty of violence, some comedy, a hint of romance and a very impressive CGI dragon, you’ll be fine. But if you’re hoping to see a faithful rendition of Tolkien’s beloved book, there’s at least a good chance you’ll be disappointed.