On My Shelves: The Desolation of Smaug

Share

 

     Well, technically, this is something that WILL be On My Shelves, but isn’t yet since it can’t be purchased for quite a while – movie still being in the theaters and all. Overall, all four of us who went to see it a few days ago *loved* it. I’ll discuss details farther below after some more general remarks. The short-short summary: purists will **HATE** it. But those who realize that movies aren’t books and can ignore diversions from the original will mostly have a hell of a time.

 

     “The Desolation of Smaug” is a wonderful adventure, charging headlong from the moment it opens until the closing credits into great spectacle, bright character moments, important choices, and some absolutely stunning scenes that bring parts of the original book to awe-inspiring life. Bilbo, played beautifully by Martin Freeman, continues his journey towards being a hero and a conscience to those around him. Richard Armitage’s Thorin Oakenshield walks perilously between determination and outright obsession and nearly tips over the edge on more than one occasion. All of the other Dwarves get their moments to shine, and the Elves show both their grimmer and lighter sides in different characters.

 

     Benedict Cumberbatch is BRILLIANT as Smaug, the arrogant, self-absorbed, sly yet bombastic Dragon,speaking quiet poisonous words and then suddenly erupting into scenery-chewing rants – scenery-chewing in BOTH senses of the word. This fits SO well with the Dragon from the actual book; no matter what departures Jackson might have from the book elsewhere, THIS is Smaug, done perfectly. As with the Balrog from “The Fellowship of the Ring”, Smaug alone was worth the price of admission – and we get a LOT more of Smaug than we did Balrog.

 

     Okay, you know that I loved the movie; now let’s get to the details and the things other people didn’t like… and why I do. It’s odd; in some ways, this movie departs more from the original than any of his Tolkien movies to date, and at the same time it avoids – at least for me and my friends – the “WTF?” violations that annoyed me in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (most blatant being the transformation of Denethor).

 

     “The Desolation of Smaug” is the second of the three movies Peter Jackson is making based on The Hobbit and the backstory that the novel implies, but does not detail – specifically, the investigation of the Necromancer, the revelation that he is Sauron, and the driving forth of the Necromancer from Dol Guldur by the White Council. This latter plot thread grew from two practical considerations and one literary motive: firstly, making The Hobbit as a single movie would require cutting a LOT, while making it as the traditional trilogy of movies without a “B plot” might stretch the patience of the audience too much because, after all, a lot of The Hobbit is stuff that works better in print than on the screen. The second practical reason is of course that the studio backing Jackson undoubtedly wanted more movies than just one.

 

     The literary motive is that, honestly, many readers (myself included) feel vaguely cheated when Gandalf basically summarizes this incredibly exciting adventure HE was on in a few sentences. Why didn’t Tolkien show us THIS? It would have been awesome.

 

     As we have come to expect from Jackson’s work on prior Tolkien-based movies, the cinematography and scenery are gorgeous, using New Zealand’s natural beauty and the finest in sets and Weta’s CGI to best effect. Once more he brings parts of Middle-Earth to life. These movies have always been visual spectacles, as Jackson is clearly aware that this is one of the major points of filming such well-known written works: to allow us to feast our eyes on images such as we could only imagine before – and he spreads quite a banquet before us in “The Desolation of Smaug”.

 

     The change that will most stand out on cursory viewing is the presence of a female Elf, Tauriel, as a significant character. Others include significant modification of various sequences such as the meeting with Beorn, the spiders, and so on, and the presence of Legolas as a significant character.

 

     The latter – and certain logical questions introduced by the B Plot about the Necromancer – is actually a consequence of Tolkien’s retcon that made The Hobbit a prequel to Lord of the Rings, which didn’t really exist at the time he wrote The Hobbit and hadn’t originally been considered that way; for instance, originally in The Hobbit Bilbo *had* won the Ring from Gollum in a contest, rather than finding it along the way.

 

In Lord of the Rings, we discover Legolas is the son of the King of Mirkwood, Thranduil, which logically implies Legolas would have been present at the events in The Hobbit, but neither Thranduil or Legolas were even named. Given that Legolas is well-known and popular, and WOULD have been present… well, getting Orlando Bloom to do a cameo just doesn’t make sense, and leaving Legolas out completely makes less sense, so Legolas was logically going to end up with a bigger role.

 

     Tauriel is the Captain of the Guard. In the book, the Captain was a nonentity – a man who has a few nondescript lines and gets drunk and passes out. Tauriel firstly provides at least some relief from the otherwise almost entirely male cast (Galadriel gets some scenes, but is typically remote and mysterious – as she tended to be), and secondly provides some human contact and a “face” for the Wood Elves that (along with Legolas’ later actions) shows that, despite Thranduil’s completely cold and isolationist behavior, not ALL Elves are bastards.

 

This is was, in my view, necessary. All Elves were shown as reserved but basically good guys in Lord of the Rings; in The Hobbit as written, the Wood Elves are not precisely evil, but are isolationist and in some interpretations somewhat cruel, and mostly cardboard obstacles to hold the Dwarves and give Bilbo something to overcome and prove his worth.

 

     Much venom (and much squeeing, to be fair) has been spewed over the romantic subplot between Tauriel and Kili and Legolas. While interpreting the events and most of the dialogue according to well-known movie tropes does make this a classic love triangle, with both Kili and Legolas interested in Tauriel and she torn between them – Legolas being a prince, she being a commoner, and Kili not only being of a different race but unbeknownst to her ALSO a Prince in exile – it’s actually much more interesting than that depending on how you view it.

 

     Kathleen pointed out to me something *EXTREMELY* interesting: at *no* point in the movie does Taurien express anything beyond fondness or affection for either Legolas or Kili. She clearly comes to LIKE Kili during his imprisonment, and she also obviously likes Legolas as a friend, but at no time does she mention the word “love”, she does not appear to pine for either of them, and while she does set out to rescue Kili upon discovering that he’s taken a wound that will kill him without proper treatment that lies beyond Dwarvish medicine, there is in actuality _no indication whatsoever_ that she’s doing this for infatuation’s sake; her later dialogue and prior actions could just as easily show that it’s because she (A) feels that Thranduil’s actions are just plain wrong – something explicitly shown in an argument with the King – and (B) she wishes to help Kili keep a promise that he told her about, one that touches her significantly.

 

     While there is nothing that specifically says she *cannot* be in love, or at least infatuation, with either or both of Kili and Legolas, there is, in fact, nothing to tell us that she *is*, either. Kathleen and some others think that her initial interactions seem much more big-sister/maternal than romantic with respect to Kili.

 

     Kili’s injury leads also to one of the other significant plot changes: Thorin decides (quite correctly) that Kili is too injured to continue on to the Lonely Mountain and leaves him in Laketown to recover; Fili refuses to leave his brother alone, and Oin, who has been serving as the party’s medic/healer, also stays to look after Kili. I suspect I can guess what this separation will lead to in the final film, but we’ll see.

 

     Other significant changes have to do with things that work well in a book, but don’t work on film. The meeting with Beorn, for instance, is a lovely low-key comedy sequence, showing Gandalf ingratiating the party with Beorn through storytelling and careful introduction of the party members. It works very nicely in the book, both because we have effectively unlimited time in a book and because The Hobbit is originally a childrens’ book and this is the kind of sequence appropriate to such a novel.

 

     In a movie, this would be DEADLY slow. It would take 15-20 minutes of screen time to perform properly and for many if not most filmgoers it would *drag* terribly. Jackson instead opts to have the party chased into Beorn’s home at night by goblins and Wargs, with Beorn also potentially a threat in his bear form. This establishes all of the situation necessary to get the characters into Beorn’s house, shows to Beorn that they are enemies of his most hated enemies (and thus though he doesn’t like or trust Dwarves he’s willing to give them some assistance), and demonstrates Beorn’s powers and general attitude.

 

     Similarly, the sequence in Mirkwood is significantly tightened as a story. First, Jackson doesn’t spend a long time showing Dwarves getting simply tired of wandering in the woods and then doing foolish things that they shouldn’t have partly just because the plot demands they get off the path and become lost, despite the dire, dire warnings from their Wizard.

 

 just as he upped the Ring’s corruptive power for the LotR trilogy in order to make clear that it wasn’t just a matter of covetousness on the part of those seeing the ring, but an actual mystical effect, so he boosts the oppressivness and misleading power of Mirkwood to show that the Dwarves and Bilbo are being acted upon by a hostile force. This confuses and weakens them for a while until they understand what is happening.

 

Then, instead of being isolated incidents, the battle with the spiders leads to the encounter with the Elves, who capture the party after helping kill off the Spiders (though the party, and especially Bilbo, show that they are not to be taken lightly). This is a huge improvement, screen-wise, for the story, which is otherwise a slow journey interspersed with incidents that, themselves, would take much longer to show.

 

It also eliminates what appears to be almost tauntingly cruel, and in some ways inexplicable, behavior by the elves in having parties that start up and literally disappear whenever the Dwarves arrive; they could have captured the intruders at any time, yet choose to keep starting parties and not doing anything to either assist or discourage the strangers except to instantaneously shut down their party and then go start it up somewhere else; that’s GOT to be annoying for everyone concerned, elves as much as dwarves.

 

In this interpretation, Thranduil is an isolationist, unwilling to look beyond his borders and only interested in protecting his own enclave. He offers a deal to Thorin (who he recognizes), but appears to have forgotten or discounted the fact that when Thorin’s people were driven from the mountain and set wandering, Thorin SAW Thranduil watching… and turn away, offering not a single bit of aid to the now-homeless. While Thranduil has his reasons for not liking Dwarves, that action went far beyond the forgiveable for Thorin, and his offer is rejected.

 

Jackson has also recognized the improbability of timing seen in the Hobbit’s finale, and has addressed it by giving us an ongoing threat from the orcs and goblins, pursuing the party of Dwarves and connected to Dol Guldur and the B Plot with Gandalf and the White Council slowly discovering the nature of their adversary.

 

This is actually an extremely useful device. It drives the plot forward when the book had sections that would be very slow if put onscreen, and will later justify the timing of the goblin assault on Erebor. Their pursuit is combined with the Dwarves’ escape to produce one of the most exciting sequences of the movie, a pursuit down the river which allows everyone in the party to showcase their skills.

 

In addition it provides more personal opposition and threat than the more low-key resistance that was the majority of the opposition that they met in the book from that point up until the seige of Erebor. Again, things like that can play fairly well in a book but will tend to drag in a movie.

 

The sequences with the White Council and Gandalf are actually quite well done and give us a lot more insight into the powers involved, the personalities of the Wizards, and also makes explicit a number of things implied in The Hobbit – most obviously why Gandalf, who clearly wants to make sure the Dwarves succeed, deserts them at one of the most perilous portions of their quest and fails to meet them to assist later; he finally discovers the true nature of their enemy, confronts him, and is captured and held (presumably to either escape or be rescued in the third film).

 

This parallels events in Lord of the Rings, in which Gandalf confronts Sauruman and is also defeated and temporarily imprisoned. Parallels like this are common in this adaptation of The Hobbit; Tauriel’s application of Elven healing to Kili echoes the similar actions of Arwen in the movie version of LotR.

 

One very interesting inversion, however, has to do with the Ring. There are several points at which Bilbo would have been wise to wear the Ring constantly, but doesn’t (fighting the Spiders, and in Smaug’s lair). Martin Freeman’s acting, and Jackson’s direction, shows that there’s a good reason for this; the Ring creeps Bilbo out. He’s had a mometary flash of something nasty associated with the Ring, and he is clearly very reluctant to use it unless he *absolutely* has to.

 

The use/not use of the Ring also provides an opportunity for Jackson to do something extremely clever: the Spiders are not heard to talk _until Bilbo puts the Ring on_. Then they have voices which in some overtones sound similar to the Wraiths. This makes a great deal of sense; these are dark, semi-demonic creatures made stronger by the evil magic of the Necromancer (Sauron); thus their nature, and words, can be only clearly perceived by one who can enter the half-world in which their essence dwells.

 

One of the best aspects of “The Desolation of Smaug” is that Jackson takes the opportunity to make characters *active* rather than Reactive. There are several examples, but the most obvious is towards the end, when the Dwarves realize they are effectively trapped inside the Mountain unless either the Dragon leaves on his own, or they kill the Dragon. They refuse to just die waiting, as some of their ancestors did, and concoct a daring, elaborate scheme to take Smaug out themselves – and nearly succeed. They do trap him, they just vastly underestimate Smaug’s toughness. Not surprising; Smaug is basically a juggernaut. But this is VASTLY better story-wise than just having them sit around in the Mountain waiting for some days, then eventually getting the courage to creep down into the bowels of the Mountain and take control of it because Smaug’s dead. This gives more agency to the Dwarves and allows a confrontation with the gold-sickness that we’ve been warned runs in the blood of Thorin’s family.

 

(Note to those complaining about certain aspects of that and related scenes: yes, Thorin should have gotten barbequed. However, the same argument applies to Frodo and Sam in both the book and movie versions of Lord of the Rings: they should have died from incredible heat and toxic fumes long before they even reached the Forge, and the movie’s scene with lava flowing around them? They would have been charcoal briquettes before the Eagles arrived. Rule of Cool is the key principle here.)

 

All in all, while there were a lot of specific changes, the ­_essence­_ of the adventure is still there, and as a movie this is a great, fun ride, one of the most fun movies I’ve been to since “The Avengers”!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Louis Robinson says:

    I rise on a point of personal privilege: I _am_ a purist – I won’t purchase a copy of LOTR that doesn’t have the full appendices, since i regard them as the best part of the book – but that didn’t make me hate this movie. I just went in assuming that it would have little or no relation to a book that you _can’t_ make 3 films out of [2, but not 3]. On it’s own terms, it’s fantastic, and, as you say, the departures are, for the most part, narrative improvements.

    The one thing I don’t particularly like is the shift to Gandalf learning who the Necromancer is at list point, presumably followed by an immediate attack by the Council. The original back-story, of him getting the key and map from a raving Thrain who doesn’t manage to identify either himself or Thorin properly before he dies, while skulking around the dungeons of Dol Guldur digging out the proprietor’s identity, really pulls the whole sequence together much better, IMV. It also provides an opportunity to demonstrate that Saruman’s treason and fall has already begun. IOW, it would fit better into the context of the entire sequence. OTOH, i have to concede that it may not be practical. A 12 Angry Men-style debate leading to the decision to attack Dol Guldur [basically compressing the various Council debates into a single scene], clearly, could make for great cinema, but it may fit neither the rest of the film nor Jackson’s own style.

    As for Thranduil: It’s occurred to me that his dislike for dwarves isn’t ever clearly explained, but it’s pretty clear even in the book. Of course, there may have been something to revive it in the 1000 years since the founding of the Kingdom under the Mountain, but the real roots are very, very deep: Thranduil is a Sindar, and it was dwarves who murdered Thingol Greycloak and stole the Silmaril, fatally weakening the Sindarin kingdom of Doriath. If Jackson ever does the Silmarillion, that’s a natural hook back to the Hobbit, as well as Lord of the Rings, because Thranduil would have been there, just as Elrond saw the sack of Gondolin and Galadriel the fall of Nargothrond. That’s the nice thing about Elves: you can cover 10,000 years of history and still have continuing characters :)

Your comments or questions welcomed!