the-desolation-of-tolkien

Lightning in a Bottle, an unfilmable story.

Last year, after a decade of speculation, failed starts and mountains of expectation, Peter Jackson released The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first in a trilogy of films adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy novel, The Hobbit, for the big screen. Following in the footsteps of its bigger brother, Jackson’s adaptation of Lord of the Rings, a modern film classic in its own right, The Hobbit was almost destined to disappoint. With his first trilogy, Jackson captured lightning in a bottle. He took the movie industry by storm, and revitalized mainstream excitement for fantasy to a level not seen since the ’80s. He did so, somehow, by executing an enormous passion project that seemed almost impossible under the circumstances: no major stars, a production and special effects company that no one had heard of, a story deemed unfilmable by many fans, and a film industry that had not seen anything of its scale since Lucas’ Star Wars (which, in itself, faced many challenges and doubters before it found success.)

When Jackson first approached New Line Cinema, he pitched them on an adaptation of The Hobbit, with a two-film adaptation of Lord of the Rings to follow. As these things go, film rights to The Hobbit were split between two companies (which would again later impede production of The Hobbit trilogy we know today), while Lord of the Rings was entirely under the umbrella of New Line Cinema’s owner, Saul Zaentz. Jackson, a relative unknown in the world of big budget Hollywood films, was given the reigns to one of the most revered entertainment properties in the world.

Review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, however, is a carefully crafted classic, adapted with care, love (and a few hiccups).

It’s difficult to guess at what Jackson’s original adaptation of The Hobbit would have looked liked. As one film, it would have been challenged to fit a fairly dense novel into a (being generous) three hour film. Perhaps a narrowly-focused character piece told strictly through Bilbo’s perspective, perhaps a mile-a-minute adventurelog attempting to fit all of the dwarfs misadventures into the allotted frames. We’ll never know, of course. The trilogy Jackson went onto create during that time period, however, is a carefully crafted classic, adapted with care, love (and a few hiccups.)

While Jackson’s additions and alterations to Tolkien’s original work were, inevitably, the weakest parts of the Lord of the Rings films, he and his co-writers, Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh, accomplished the near impossible: adapting Tolkien’s work in a manner respectful to the source material, but also appropriate for the medium. It was, at once, a grand adaptation and great cinema. That magic could not last forever, and, ten years later, it’s unfortunate to see the fingerprints of Hollywood all over Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit.

Let’s get this out of the way: The Desolation of Smaug, like its predecessor, is a poor adaptation of Tolkien’s work. It is, in many ways, no more than vivid fan fiction that tries to marries the success and epic grandeur of Jackson’s original film trilogy with a story that is meant to succeed more on its heart and naivety, than large scale action. Consider this: In the novel, Tolkien had Bilbo pass out before the climactic battle scene erupted in force, to spare hobbit and readers alike from the violence.) Like The Unexpected Journey before it, The Desolation of Smaug resembles its source material only insomuch as it follows the same general plot structure and linear path from The Shire to the Lonely Mountain. Otherwise, the methods for telling the tale, and the emotions evoked along the way, are entirely different.

Perhaps the most obvious sign of this positioning of Jackson’s film trilogy is in the trailers that precede the film. After the lights dim, viewers are blasted with twenty-odd minutes of hyper-violent, Americanized action movie fightfests, and only the trailer for Christopher Nolan’s upcoming film Interstellar breaks from this, offering, perhaps, some solace among the wastelands of Hollywood cinema. Lord of the Rings might have revolutionized the fantasy film industry, but it’s clear that The Hobbit films are being marketed directly as a winter version of the summer blockbuster. The journey may be more important than the destination, but the action scenes are most important of all. The Desolation of Smaug‘s overly long action sequences are linked together by only the barest of narrative transitions. Instead of trusting to Tolkien’s sense for suspense and pacing, Jackson and co. insist on packing every minute of The Desolation of Smaug with the same frenetic and endless action showcased in the trailers that preceded it.

Review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

I came from the end of bag, but no bag went over me. I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ring-winner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider.

Consider one of The Hobbit‘s most iconic moments: The barrel-ride escape from the Woodland Realm. The film throws away the novel’s delicately crafted sense of suffocating despair, including Bilbo’s uncertainty whether his plan saved his friends or killed them, and replaces it with bombastic action full orcs, morgul arrows, whirling dwarf-filled barrels of death, and Legolas being, well… think of Legolas in the Lord of the Rings films, clambering up Oliphants or riding shields down stair sets, and crank it up to eleven. There’s nail-biting action aplenty, and Jackson does create a narrative twist from the battle that will have potentially interesting wide-ranging effects through the third film, but Tolkien’s original vision is lost. Quiet cleverness, so integral to the novel, and one of the delights of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, is discarded, and the overwhelming majority of the film’s tension and conflict is externalized, reinforcing within the filmgoer that they are strapped into an amusement park ride, rather than an equal partner in an adventure.

Jackson’s Lord of the Rings was created in a bubble of uncertainty. Nobody understood what sort of impact it might have, or who the audience would be. Would it appeal to mainstream movie goers, or just entrenched Tolkien fans? Would Jackson’s sweeping, grimy take on Tolkien work for a younger audience? Would an audience that grew up on Star Wars accept an equally grand Fantasy? Lord of the Rings was an enormous global success, appealing to nearly every demographic and proving that Fantasy was no longer in the ghetto. The Hobbit has no such question marks. It’s target audience is clear.

In early 2013, Tolkien’s son, and executor of his estate, blasted Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, saying:

“They gutted the book, making an action movie for 15-25 year olds. And it seems that The Hobbit will be of the same ilk. Tolkien became…devoured by his popularity and absorbed by the absurdity of the time. The gap widened between the beauty, the seriousness of the work, and what it has become is beyond me. This level of marketing reduces to nothing the aesthetic and philosophical significance of this work.”

Jackson’s take on The Hobbit at times feels like a parody of Christopher Tolkien’s comments. Like the band of orcs chasing the company of dwarfs, The Desolation of Smaug is relentless in driving from the foothills of the Misty Mountains to the dwarf’s singular home. The only chance we’re given to catch our breath, Beorn’s great house, comes early in the film and does not last long enough. Then it’s rollercoaster after rollercoaster. Though many Tolkien fans lambasted his son’s comments, it’s becoming easier to understand Christopher Tolkien’s unease with Jackson’s handling of his father’s work.

The film is gorgeous, there’s no doubting that. Beorn’s home, complete with mouse-sized bumblebees, is as warm and homely as I’d ever imagined it; the Woodland Realm is gorgeous and intricate; Laketown is a wonder, and Erebor is rugged and immense. The concept art of John Howe and Alan Lee is brought to life on screen, and their iconic vision of Middle-earth has never been more beautiful and otherworldly. More concerning, however, and, perhaps ultimately the biggest disappointment when comparing Jackson’s recent trilogy against Lord of the Rings, is the continued overuse for digital effects for many of the film’s most sweeping scenes. Middle-earth has never been so beautiful, or so lifeless.

The transportive qualities of Lord of the Rings and its embrace of New Zealand’s natural beauty, which encouraged viewers to lose themselves in Middle-earth alongside the Fellowship of the Ring, is lost in The Hobbit. Instead of iconic helicopter flybys of real-world locations, with all the immense age, menace and character of the world that Tolkien once described, viewers are treated to sound stages with green-screened artifices and vistas, imaginary nothingness that, while impressive and artistically attractive on, have none of the natural majesty that Middle-earth deserves.

Smaug destroys Esgaroth by Gaius

‘Smaug destroys Esgaroth’ by Gaius

King Under the Mountain

The star of this show, and testament Jackson, Walsh and Boyens’ skill at writing magnetic and instantly engaging characters, is Smaug, King Under the Mountain. Voiced by the electric Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug is a shining light of devilish wit, ferocity and gravity amid the desolate land that surrounds his mountain home. When Jackson’s adaptation was first announced, I believed that matching the gravitas of Tolkien’s dragon would be the biggest challenge he faced. He had experience with courage in small places, heroism, beautiful landscapes and clashing bodies, but outside of Shelob (who has no dialogue), and his work on King Kong (which is no shining example in an of itself), he had not yet shown that he could create characters with the magnitude of size and personality that Smaug needed to live up to expectations. Walking away from The Desolation of Smaug, it’s difficult to point to anything in the film that fell into place so perfectly as the dragon. In addition to Cumberbatch’s terrific performance, Smaug’s swagger, the dormant ferocity and bottled power, is captured wonderfully by Jackson’s team of artists and animators, equal to any of the visual feats in the Lord of the Rings films and any other digital character seen on film.

In addition to Cumberbatch, the film is filled with many other inspired and likeable performances that help breath life into Jackson’s chaotic take on Tolkien’s meandering tale. Martin Freeman continues to pay dividends as Bilbo, at once charming, bumbling and (ever so slowly) courageous. Sure, he feels more like a caricature than Elijah Wood’s Frodo did, but, given the film’s source material, the droll comedy and straightforward performance feels natural. Each of the dwarfs continues to do their best to shine among the ensemble, with the standouts continuing to be Richard Armitage as Thorin, and Aidan Turner as Kili. Kili’s increased narrative presence is buoyed by Turner’s natural chemistry with Evengeline Lily’s Tauriel (a surprisingly welcome addition by Jackson, increasing, at least by a smidge, the male:female character ratio in the film), and gives some character to the otherwise homogenous group of dwarfs.

In many ways, this trilogy is proving to be Thorin’s tale […] one of vengeance, greed and redemption.

In many ways, this trilogy is proving to be Thorin’s tale as much as the titular hobbit’s. This change, in many ways, is at the heart of why the films feel poor as adaptations, but rich as adventures. Bilbo Baggins’ quest, as told by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Hobbit, is one of self discovery and building courage. An adventure. Thorin’s quest, which is secondary from a storytelling perspective in the novel, but takes a front seat in the films, is one of vengeance, greed and redemption. In attempting to recapture the sprawling, epic nature of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it is obvious that Jackson saw in Thorin’s desperation and unquenchable thirst for his stolen home a canvas on which the films could be expanded. Armitage’s brooding menace and innate tension is the brush Jackson uses for painting on that canvas. Just as Bilbo begins The Hobbit as a passive tag-along, so he becomes the viewport through which Jackson is able to show Thorin’s redemption. A leaf caught in a maelstrom, Bilbo’s story is not the most important to Jackson’s films, and this realization is the key to setting aside all of the disappointments in the series as an adaptation and embracing it as the action adventure film it wants to be.

Review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

In spite of inspired performances, beautiful art direction and cutting-edge special effects, The Desolation of Smaug stumbles under the weight of its legacy.

Decades from now, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit will not be remembered. It is not a classic. As time moves on and Lord of the Rings inspires new generations of film lovers and young readers, The Hobbit will fade from memory as a trivial diversion, an interesting and ultimately unsuccessful experiment. It is not a children’s film, so no children will find joy in discovering the film at a young age, then experience the wonder of reading the book for the first time. It is a film for adults only so far as its reliance on violent conflict requires it to be. In this sense, it is difficult to consider The Desolation of Smaug anything but a disappointment. Jackson’s meddling took something great and made of it something difficult to love.

In spite of inspired performances, beautiful art direction and cutting-edge special effects, The Desolation of Smaug stumbles under the weight of its legacy and cannot recover from the overambitious airs of its director. It is a fun film, and a marked step up from its predecessor, solving many of the pacing and structural issues of The Unexpected Journey, but the film’s ultimate success rides too heavily on the viewer’s ability to reconcile their affections for Tolkien’s novel with Jackson’s bombastic adaptation. New fans will find a lot to love, but readers entrenched in the master fantasist’s work will likely find more frustration than fun before the final credits roll.

Discussion
  • Henry December 20, 2013 at 10:30 am

    Ignoring the content of the piece that is a fantastic bit of writing there Aidan, well considered and well told.

    Considering the content I have nothing to add as my views chime too closely with yours to add to any debate meaningfully.

  • Aidan Moher December 20, 2013 at 10:44 am

    Thank you, Henry.

  • Brian Boru December 20, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    Appropriately titled and for the time being I will say that I agree with the following comment in it amongst others:

    Jackson’s take on The Hobbit at times feels like a parody of Christopher Tolkien’s comments. Like the band of orcs chasing the company of dwarfs, The Desolation of Smaug is relentless in driving from the foothills of the Misty Mountains to the dwarf’s singular home. The only chance we’re given to catch our breath, Beorn’s great house, comes early in the film and does not last long enough. Then it’s rollercoaster after rollercoaster. Though many Tolkien fans lambasted his son’s comments, it’s becoming easier to understand Christopher Tolkien’s unease with Jackson’s handling of his father’s work.

  • Brian Boru December 20, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    Appropriately titled and I will say for the time being that I agree with the following comment:

    Jackson’s take on The Hobbit at times feels like a parody of Christopher Tolkien’s comments. Like the band of orcs chasing the company of dwarfs, The Desolation of Smaug is relentless in driving from the foothills of the Misty Mountains to the dwarf’s singular home. The only chance we’re given to catch our breath, Beorn’s great house, comes early in the film and does not last long enough. Then it’s rollercoaster after rollercoaster. Though many Tolkien fans lambasted his son’s comments, it’s becoming easier to understand Christopher Tolkien’s unease with Jackson’s handling of his father’s work.

  • Semigeekly December 20, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    My review came out a touch more unforgiving (http://wp.me/s3TIkQ-hobbit2), but I had much the same reaction to the film. Expertly expressed!

  • Philipa December 20, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    Yes frustration is the lingering aftertaste to the buzz of an albeit beautifully crafted blockbuster.

  • Adam Whitehead December 21, 2013 at 9:05 am

    Slight correction:

    “while Lord of the Rings was entirely under the umbrella of New Line Cinema’s owner, Saul Zaentz”

    Saul Zaentz has never owned New Line; that’s Bob Shaye. Saul Zaentz bought the movie rights to LotR and THE HOBBIT in the 1970s and licensed the production of the animated HOBBIT and RETURN OF THE KING musicals, as well as Ralph Bakshi’s LORD OF THE RINGS movie. However, the production of THE HOBBIT film was shared with NBC, now owned by Universal, which created the rights chaos when it came to making the live-action HOBBIT films.

  • Oki December 21, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    Aidan, do you think that the Hobbit should have been produced? I guess I’m asking if you think it’s a cinematic book in the first place.

  • Sam December 22, 2013 at 2:59 pm

    I saw this movie the day it came out! Good review. I suppose we have to wait another year for the next installment.
    -Samantha
    http://youngwriterscafe.wordpress.com/

  • Brian Boru December 25, 2013 at 11:38 am

    If I am grateful to The Hobbit movies for anything it would have to be that they have made it possible for me to expound a theory that I have held for several years now about the possible origins of Hobbits, which grew out of the liberties that were taken in The Lord of the Rings movies. This is with one such liberty being Aragorn saying that it is because of the beards that Dwarf- women take after Dwarf-men in voice and appearance when Tolkien was rather ambiguous about that in the book’s appendices.

    Meanwhile, in the prologue of the book Tolkien in his revised account of how Bilbo found the Ring refers to how the authorities differ about whether or not Bilbo’s asking Gollum what he had in his pocket was a question or a riddle. Because Tolkien was an Old and Middle English and Old Icelandic specialist it can be extrapolated that he could be referring to authoritative texts in the Old Icelandic canon which include riddle games that end in questionable non-riddles, and in the Old English canon which includes riddles of an adult nature such as a riddle about a key in a man’s pocket that could be inferring a certain part of a male’s anatomy. Hence Bilbo’s asking Gollum what he had in his pocket could either be just a question or a reference to a riddle not suitable for children, while saying something at the same time about Sauron’s impotency.

    Because these things can be inferred it suggests the possibility that Hobbits only break down into three groups of Hobbits, referred to also in the prologue, because the Men, Elves and Dwarves in the area that the Hobbits originated in cohabitated with each other, thus also possibly explaining the latter’s origin. These groups were known as the Fallohides (which translates from Old English as ‘fallow-hide/fair-skin’), who have an affinity with Elves, the Stoors (which translates from Old English as ‘strong’), who have an affinity with Men, and the Harfoots (which translates from Old English as ‘hairy-foot’), who have an affinity with Dwarves.

    These things also could explain how Hobbits in general were good at disappearing like Elves, were mortal like Men and small in height like Dwarves with them all originally having at least one grandparent that was an Elf, one that was a Human and one that was a Dwarf. This is while originally the Fallohides fourth grandparent would have been another Elf, while for the Stoors it would have been another Human and for the Harfoots it would have been another Dwarf.

    This theory seems to have a textual basis, at least as far as the Fallohides and the Stoors are concerned, given that it was rumoured that an ancestor of the Tooks, who took after the Fallohides, may have had a Fairy/Elf wife and that it was rumoured that there was Bree-blood in the Brandybucks, who took after the Stoors. Meanwhile, there are of course a lot of stories about Elves and Men cohabitating with each other, not to mention one of the Maiar, which the Wizards were originally, cohabitating with an Elf. However, the only possible textual rumour of Hobbits having Dwarf-blood in them is in the name of Farmer Maggot who in The Lord of the Rings could be a conflation of the occasional farmer and Dwarf that Gandalf, Bilbo and the Dwarves meet as they make their way through the Shire in The Hobbit. This is when considering that the Dwarves’ names come from Old Icelandic literature where Dwarves are made out of the maggots imbedded in the giant Ymir’s flesh from who Midgard/Middle-earth was made by Odin and his brothers. But this rumour gets rather lost in foolish notions amongst Men that Dwarves came out of holes in the ground because Dwarf-women took so much after Dwarf-men in voice and appearance leading to the belief that there were no Dwarf-women.

    However, because of the creation of the character Tauriel the Elf in The Hobbit movies and the relationship that is developing between her and Kili the Dwarf, whose mother is the only Dwarf-woman named in Tolkien’s legendarium, there is now the possibility for a rumour that maybe there is Dwarf-blood in the Hobbits after all, which could become more substantiated if Tauriel indeed finds something in Kili’s trousers. Hence I am grateful to The Hobbit movies for enabling me to expound that and all that may infer! I think though if my theory is correct Tolkien might be annoyed at The Hobbit movies blowing the subtlety of such inferences especially since the text also said that the rumour of Fairy/Elf blood in the Tooks was absurd and that Bree society is made up of both Men and Hobbits.

    My tongue is in my cheek!

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  • […] Reviews, opinions, parodies, rants, rhapsodies about The Desolation of Smaug have sprung up all over the place since the film was released. Here are a couple that particularly took my fancy. At his blog, A Dribble of Ink, Aidan Moher said a lot of the things I wanted to say, and much more coherently in his review: […]

  • Brian Boru March 5, 2014 at 6:07 pm

    So, just like The Unexpected Journey , The Desolation of Smaug wins no Oscars in the catergories that they were nominated in. It is not all that surprising and they were boring categories anyway. Meanwhile, I am of the view that The Lord of the Rings movies were nominated for Best Picture on three occasions and Best Director on two occasions (securing wins for each category on the last occasion) because the production had the sense to engage people like Tom Shippey in the promotion of them. Tom Shippey is described as a Tolkien biographer but he is actually more than that. He is in fact an Old and Middle English and Old Icelandic literature expert. He gave these movies a rousing endorsement (in fact too much so as other experts in Old and Middle English and Old Icelandic say). And this is something that The Hobbit movie production has dismissed and think that the movies’ success can be carried just on Peter Jackson and their special effects. Hence why they only got nominations in boring categories. They may have done well in box office figures without factoring in inflation but at the end of the day they won’t be of long term substance while finally killing off the substance of The Lord of the Rings movies.

  • […] intentions. I must say he falls quite short. My views are mostly in line with this reviewer The Desolation of Tolkien: A review of The Desolation of Smaug __________________ Aric K e i t h ———— In Loving Memory of my Father, Russell Keith. […]

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