Warning: Complete spoilers follow.
This is the second in a two-part series reviewing the recently released The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. It is written from a fan’s perspective (of both the original work by Tolkien as well as Jackson’s cinematic adaptations).
Having been a fan of Tolkien for over half of my life, and a fan of Jackson’s adaptations of that work for over a decade, I was, understandably, quite excited to be going into The Desolation of Smaug. Unlike many, I was also pleased with An Unexpected Journey and, having seen the follow-up, I am even more pleased with Desolation. Here are the reasons why (as well as some reflections on the changes Jackson makes).
SMAUG: His name is right in the title, and deservedly so. Deliciously and sinuously portrayed by British great Benedict Cumberbatch, this is the dragon that we have all been waiting to see, and fans of Tolkien should not be disappointed. This is the cunning, cruel, yet fascinatingly charismatic drake that we have been waiting for these many years, and he well lives up to the many appellations that Bilbo (perhaps facetiously) bestows on him during their famous battle of wits in the halls of Erebor. Nor is Smaug a slouch in the action department, for he shows, frequently, that he has the brawn to back up the brains. Sure, some of the action between him and the Dwarves may be a little overdone, but if you’re going to invest a ton of time and money into making a CGI dragon, you have to give him something to do. And let’s face it, the scene where he shakes off the molten gold like so many droplets of water and takes to the air to rain down fire and death on Laketown, is going to go down as one of the most visually stunning moments in cinematic adaptations of Tolkien.
Likewise, the duel between Gandalf and the Necromancer is both terrifying and visually electrifying. If anything justified the price of a 3-D IMAX ticket, this was definitely it. While some have complained that Gandalf’s use of force violates his mandate from the Valar not to use force to combat Sauron, I prefer to think of his use not as an attempt to overcome Sauron, but to force him to reveal himself for who he truly is. Gandalf goes into Dol Guldur fully knowing that he is entering a trap, but his whole point is to force the Necromancer’s hand, so that he can in turn convince the White Council (particularly the recalcitrant Saurman) to finally make a move against him. The only way to do so is to make sure that he feels threatened enough to reveal himself in all of his dark and terrible might, as well as to unleash the legions that he has summoned to his cause (although it is never explicitly stated in either of Tolkien’s original works that Sauron in his guise as the Necromancer was responsible for the Orcs moving against the Dwarves, it is suggested several times that most of the evil in Middle-earth is either explicitly or implicitly linked to Sauron’s desires and/or influence. I therefore see no problem with Jackson making this more explicit for the film’s purposes).
I also really appreciated the new shadings of character that we see given to the Elves, particularly the trio of Thranduil, Tauriel, and Legolas. To me, Thranduil is exactly as Tolkien portrayed him: gifted with a measure of the wisdom of the High Elves, but still not as great nor as far-seeing as most of his brethren. Thus his obvious desire for a share of the treasure of Erebor (which is reflected in the novel, as well), and his (very Elvisih) desire to protect his homeland, even if it means sacrificing the rest of the outside world to its fate. For his part, Legolas already shows signs of the independent spirit that will lead him to be more farsighted and altruistic than his father. And finally, and I know I may not be in the majority on this one, but I found Tauriel to be very captivating. She does not quite have the ethereal quality of Arwen (and why would she?) What she lacks in wisdom, however, she makes up for in her fiery spirit and her desire to reach out to the outside world. I’m very interested to see what directions her character takes in the final film.
All in all, I think this film is a stirring second chapter, and it points out why a trilogy was, in fact, needed to provide a certain contingent of Tolkien fans with a fully-fleshed-out vision of Tolkien’s narrative. It is also worth noting that, while some of the events depicted in the films take place (sometimes hundreds) of years before the actual story of The Hobbit, it makes sense filmically to have them take place now. Thus, we see the corruption of Mirkwood taking place during the timespan of An Unexpected Journey and Gandalf’s discovery of the Necromancer’s true identity in Desolation in the filmic present because otherwise we would either not get to see them or they would have to be told in extensive flashbacks. The latter worked in Fellowship because it was fairly brief and because it served as background, while in this new trilogy it is one of the fully-explored narrative arcs. Since I have always wanted to see the White Council and its actions against the Necromancer depicted in an adaptation of The Hobbit, I am quite elated to see them so powerfully brought to visual life.
Does The Desolation of Smaug make some substantial changes to the source text? Absolutely. But the bare bones of the original story are still there and, for the most part, the changes make logical narrative sense. Does it replay some of the same scenes and emotions from The Lord of the Rings? Again, the answer is yes. But we would do well to remember that Tolkien himself did something similar, except in a reverse order. One need look only at the basic narrative structure of the two novels to see their similarities. Besides which, the controversy-laden relationship between Tauriel and Kili, while seemingly very similar to that of Aragon and Arwen will, it can be hoped, not end in the same way. Indeed, Kili’s imminent death in There and Back Again will, as a result of his romance, be at the level of tragedy and pathos that we saw in The Lord of the Rings. At least, that’s my prediction. We’ll have to wait until next December to see if I’m right.
That’s all for now. I’m sure I’ll have more reflections on the film as I see it several more times (which we all know is inevitable).