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.
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.
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.
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.
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.