[Editor’s Note: Fear not, dear readers, TORn staffer Quickbeam presents our first official review of DOS *spoiler-free* until loudly noted in the later section (with plenty of buffer space) where inquisitive minds may read further with spoiler-iffic abandon.]
The Great Schism: Splendid Smaug Splits Fandom?
Hobbit Version 2.0: Jackson Does it Differently
I know it’s been a long year to wait. Ringer fans are going into ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ with high hopes for another thrilling chapter in the ongoing saga adapted by our fellow fan, Peter Jackson. Indeed it is thrilling. And indeed it bears all the hallmarks of a P.J. film, replete with energetic action set pieces and gorgeously realized creatures and places that only cinema can properly provide to our senses.
Be forewarned Book Fans, because of the extent DOS deviates from J.R.R. Tolkien’s original, you can bet your bottom dollar there will be a very vocal fan reaction, if not an outright scream of frustration from one or two up in the balcony. The filmmakers have certainly delivered the goods; it is a very enjoyable movie that pretty much blows the audience away with well-crafted storytelling. It is by turns breathlessly paced and frightening and funny and gorgeous (Smaug especially has much of his “muchness”). But by the end credits, it no longer resembles the book you read as a kid, not by a long shot.
Which is something I must mention up front because of the laborious efforts towards fidelity in ‘An Unexpected Journey.’ In fact, much of the LOTR Trilogy was a concentrated effort to (mostly) honor the source material. True, there were odd bits that didn’t ring true to Tolkien; like Faramir dragging the hobbits to Osgiliath and Frodo sending Sam home (piffle) but what happens in DOS is just completely off the rails, especially in the third act.
You guys certainly got a ton of fan-service with AUJ — you got to linger in Bag End for nearly an hour before the adventure begins, you got Dwarven singing, Chip the Glasses merriment, you got yourself a perfect Riddles in the Dark sequence and more geeky exposition from the White Council. THAT was all fan-service; and undoubtedly those were the highlights of AUJ for me. I guess that tells you what kind of Ringer fan I am; the meandering and pleasantries that others complained about, well, I was grateful for. Last year I called AUJ “a leisurely Sunday drive, with the top down.” But the reverential approach has now left the filmmakers, evidently, as P.J. has been quoted in Empire as saying “I’m quite enjoying deviating from the books!” But I was still a bit surprised at how far afield things actually went here… This stuff *really* deviates. I also found some repetition of things we’ve seen in LOTR that gave me pause.
What’s best about the 2nd Hobbit installment? A script teeming with incident and great characters. An opening prologue that makes you want to read the Appendices in LOTR again. The confident hand of the Editors and the Director while taking these characters deeper into peril. Fabulous acting from several new performers (especially Luke Evans as Bard, Stephen Fry as the Master of Lake-town, and a returning Orlando Bloom, looking beefier actually). A really good and ultimately too brief turn from Mikael Persbrandt as Beorn. Spiders attacking with superb “gotcha!” moments. A rollicking water flume ride with Barrels Out of Bond, executed with precision. Particularly intriguing are Dol Guldur, the Elven-king’s Halls and certainly the Lake-town environments; which are all realized with ass-kicking verisimilitude.
There is so much to enjoy here from the technical side — the cinematography, music, effects, sound design. You know WETA has the Midas touch — and all that gold Bilbo walks around on within the halls of Erebor really indicates that Richard Taylor and artists such as Daniel Falconer have perfected their craft. The incredibly appealing atmosphere of Thranduil’s halls; the way shafts of light dance among “tree columns” while the rushing Forest River flows right under extended walkways; the noticeable difference between how Dwarves live underground (Moria) versus how Elves do it — these are the great aesthetic pleasures to be savored.
Special praise where it’s due: the animators who worked on Smaug deserve a new award we haven’t invented yet. As much fun as we had seeing him on the side of Air New Zealand’s jet, the cinematic experience of Smaug is unforgettable. His silky smooth Benedict Cumberbatch-fueled voice is delicious. Witness the greatest ego Tolkien ever created — and then witness Martin Freeman walking around the dragon’s hoard like a tiny mouse. Yet Bilbo has a great deal of pluck and that’s why we love him. Again, when he is offscreen you really want him back; the more of him the better. The Dwarves are still getting dialogue at the same level as in AUJ (mostly Thorin, Balin, and Bofur). Alack, poor Bombur has no lines (but a nice shining moment or two) and Bifur doesn’t even give us any ancient Khuzdul. Drat….. I really like what William Kircher has been doing.
I was already comfortable with the addition of new female elf Tauriel (a winning Evangeline Lilly) but I didn’t expect the story to go where it did. Her confidence is different than Legolas’ bravery, and her willingness to listen to someone from a different walk of life seems to be the key to understanding her raison d’etre. Spoilers will be discussed after a break — but I expect an eye-opening conversation/ argument will rage within the ranks of Tolkien fandom after this film’s release. If you can relax and enjoy the ride — you’ll be fine. The filmmakers confidently take us into uncharted territory, yet still within Middle-earth. How far are you willing to go on this unexpected detour?
DOS is the litmus test that will separate Book Fans from Movie Fans more distinctly than anything before it, or I’ll eat my knickers. Casual movie fans will embrace this film rigorously. It’s a slam dunk for them. Those Ringers longing for a properly buttoned-up faithful adaptation of ‘The Hobbit,’ one that resembles the printed page, may have a different response. I quite enjoyed everything I saw (up to a point) and then admittedly found myself distracted by the story changes — which I suppose couldn’t be helped considering my deep involvement with Tolkien since I was young. I had to stop reacting to it like “What a perversion of the story!” so that my thoughts could be more “The Dude abides, and so does Smaug.”
If it sounds like I am of two minds about ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ I probably am. The Smeagol side of me was delighted over and over again while munching popcorn and spilling drinks on myself when action scenes caught me off gaurd (Gakk! Spiders! Aghhh!). But the Gollum side of me came out during the final 20 minutes because of so many deviations. I found myself wondering where the heck we will end up in the final film: ‘There and Back Again.’ Anything… and I mean *anything*… is possible. Peter Jackson and Co. have shown chutzpah by swerving so far around the bend and being so unafraid to take liberties with the text. But your level of pleasure with what you get may be directly determined by your ability to be flexible.
An interesting time to be a Ringer, that’s for sure!
Much too hasty,
Clifford Broadway, contributor and Senior Staff to TheOneRing.net, co-hosts the weekly live webcast TORn TUESDAY, featuring live chat with stars, special guests, and fellow Ringer fans. Follow Quickbeam on Twitter @quickbeam2000
This ends the spoiler-free section of the review. Scroll down for more.
STOP READING NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS.
*Last chance!* Do you want to enjoy the movie fresh on its own terms or not? ……. LAST WARNING BEFORE SPOILER CITY
Okay here we go. This is where I can really talk about some of the specific glories (and problems) that a Tolkien fan will encounter while watching ‘The Desolation of Smaug.’
This might sound a bit stream-of-consciousness but bear with me.
The opening prologue features Thorin Oakenshield arriving in Bree and getting a fire lit under his arse by Gandalf. It’s purely from Appendix A: Part III, DURIN’S FOLK, pp. 358-359 in the Houghton Mifflin “Red Leather” single-volume edition. This scene surprised me because of all the cool prologues we have seen in P.J’s films, this one was dialogue-heavy and quiet. No climactic flashback of a falling Balrog. Then it cuts to the exact spot where we left our characters at the end of AUJ with a title card: “12 months later.” This was a really nice bit. There’s the same cute black cat in The Prancing Pony as you saw in FOTR but Barliman Butterbur is certainly not there (nor would he be at that time).
The arrival of Beorn in gigantic angry bear shape is quickly escalated to a mini-chase scene: Thorin & Company are quite dangerous over short distances, as any fan knows, they are natural sprinters. They run right into Beorn’s house and bolt themselves in for safety. So here is the first of many deviations from the book; wherein you’d get a chuckle at the slow two-by-two introductions of the dwarves as engineered by Gandalf. We see Beorn-as-bear protecting the house all night as the bloodthirsty Azog and his pack watch intently from nearby trees. We get to meet him in human form the next morning – and the brevity of his transformation back to human seems, well, too brief for my taste. I was hoping for something less subtle. He is a really cool character and I wanted to see more of him. I had no fear of “the mullet” that we were warned about many weeks ago, he looks like a towering man with a crazy mane of hair/fur down his back. The over-sized bumblebees are wonderful too.
We move quickly on to Mirkwood which is also splendidly realized. As Gandalf takes his leave of the Company, I expected a lot more angry blowback from the Dwarves, but strangely they don’t seem to protest at all. As Gandalf finds the Elf-path and carefully inspects the surroundings, he also finds the Eye of Sauron graffiti from Orcs that have recently desecrated the Elvish sculptures nearby — a very tantalizing foreshadowing. We don’t get the bit where Bombur falls into the Enchanted Stream and falls asleep — although I have been told by certain unnamed persons that that was indeed shot — eventually to be cut for the theatrical release. Everything about how Mirkwood and the spiders were handled was a thrilling joy. Especially noteworthy is how Bilbo’s use of the Ring imparts upon him a sudden understanding of the spiders’ speech.
When Bilbo drops the Ring and then has to fight his way to the forest floor to retrieve it, something alarming happens. A giant centipede-looking thing comes out from under the tree to attack, and then Bilbo goes sort of berzerk. He attacks with blinding ferocity, staring at the downed creature, retrieving his Ring and saying but one word: “Mine” with a desperation that’s palpable. Seeing where they are going with this early influence of the Ring is cool.
Enter Lee Pace and his drop-dead gorgeous eyebrows. Actually more interesting is the how the art department came up with a feeling of breathable, hospitable, and artful surroundings in a subterranean area that has been molded by centuries of Elven craftsmanship married to the natural lay of the land. This ain’t your typical Dwarven underground hideout, that’s for sure. A strange thing happens to Thranduil’s face as he leans in close to interrogate / toy with Thorin — he describes his own familiarity with dragons as half of his face “seems to dissolve” showing a horrifying wound, as if half of his face were completely scarred and gaping, yet he seems to possess some kind of “glamour spell” that makes him look untouched.
Tauriel shows up and we get explicit dialogue letting us know that Legolas wants to get all gooey and sugary with her, but Daddy won’t allow it. Reminds me of how a young J.R.R. Tolkien was forbidden by his Catholic priest foster father to start a courtship with Edith, who was Protestant. As Tauriel gets a little closer to Kili (ably played by Aiden Turner) things get radical. The fact is that nothing has ever existed in Tolkien’s works suggesting a romance across the races of Dwarves and Elves. We do see very clearly two cross-racial romances between Beren and Luthien to be echoed later by Aragorn and Arwen. But being in this particular zone of strangeness might make some purists cry foul. The two characters get a lot of dialogue while Kili is in his prison cell and she comes to him for extended visits, perhaps all this screen time puts them in danger of upstaging Aragorn and Arwen! It eventually becomes the big romance/friendship (hard to tell exactly) of the whole movie. Legolas is seen eavesdropping on their budding romance, which sets his jaw on edge.
On the other side of Mirkwood, we get into a really interesting bit where Gandalf intrepidly investigates the ruins of Dol Guldur. We see him casting spells in a way never before seen, and learn that Azog gives orders to his son Bolg like any other soldier. There’s extraordinary art design and execution of visual effects here, as our Grey Wizard accidentally bumps into the Necromancer. His physical form doesn’t seem to be corporeal or humanoid at all, rather like a flying, attacking wisp of black nothingness. Then suddenly he is morphed into his real persona, the Lidless Eye, wreathed in flame, with a distinct Sauron shape appearing in the pupil. Super coolness galore in how they reveal him! It begs the question, however, that a face-to-face encounter with another Maiar spirit like Sauron would not result in Gandalf’s death (just the destruction of his staff) but instead he is left hanging in a cage to watch the newest armies of the Enemy marching away. Of course, Gandalf’s still left alive for someone to rescue him in film 3.
The Barrels Out of Bond sequence is just the BEST THING. What a standout action sequence! Guaranteed gasps and laughs before it’s over. Go #TeamBombur! I notice how several “gentle and quiet” moments from the book have been transformed into heightened chase scenes with the Action Volume cranked way up. So many Orcs get killed / decapitated in such funny and innovative ways. The excitement is only somewhat curbed by the fact none of our heroes die. Again a difference between LOTR and these Hobbit films is the lack of any single character facing mortality.
Wait, I spoke to soon, after we arrive in Lake-town a certain arrow wound that Kili suffers is revealed to be poisonous. He will be the one character who’s story here actually brings him closest to death (even the others fare better against Smaug). In what seems to me a bit of a needless parallel with Frodo being rescued and healed after Weathertop, this subplot eventually brings Tauriel to Lake-town (amid Azog sending his son Bolg to hunt them all down and Legolas fighting them outside) who then heals Kili with the *athelas* plant. We even hear Bofur repeat the same lines that Sam has: “Kingsfoil? Aye, it’s a weed!” She replies as Aragorn did, and uses it to heal Kili with a floating white light around her just like Arwen had. I am convinced that it might not be such a good idea to recreate exact repeats of the same memorable moments from the LOTR Triilogy. Why doesn’t P.J. just keep making new memorable moments that belong solely to ‘The Hobbit?’
There’s also an eye-opening decision that Thorin & Company are split up! Only 9 of the Dwarves leave Lake-town to go north to Erebor. Fili, Oin and Bofur stay behind (mostly to tend to Kili who is so sick, Thorin refuses to let him come any further). I warned you, this adaptation takes some radical departures. I stopped being miffed by these changes by the time the Company found their way up the secret stairs outside the Lonely Mountain. It made me think to myself while watching: “Ok, just roll with it. This is Hobbit Version 2.0 and it will work out fine.”
Well, we do get the best of all possible movie dragons, I have to admit. A great and altogether convincing creature of cinema history, this is a Smaug for the ages. But what made me crazy was the “alternative dragon catching plot” that is somehow concocted by Thorin. Instead of Bilbo learning more useful information and sharing it with the thrush as the dragon flies away, all 9 of the Dwarves elect to go right inside and see what’s up while Smaug and Bilbo are still inside. They engage in several minutes of cat-and-mouse dodging while the great fire-drake tries unsuccessfully to fry them all, and then comes a whole crazy scheme involving the lighting of great forges, hundreds of thousands of gallons of molten gold, quick-flash bombs hastily assembled using Dwarven chemistry sets, Thorin running around with his “heroic wheelbarrow,” and an attempt to make Smaug the Golden a 100% literal statement. Yes, imagine a gilded gold dragon. It’s a large and complicated set piece that left me scratching my head. I mean, nobody saw this coming, I never could have imagined Thorin himself openly speaking to Smaug and taunting him with “slug” and other such insults.
Better check your head at the door, because this last one is the kicker spoiler: Smaug does not die at the end of this film.
DOS is a film that is eager to show how different it is than ‘The Two Towers’ just by the editing at the end. There are no swooping camera shots to go back and visit with all our characters before the closing nor is there a weeping string section and angelic voices. There is no big, teary monologue from Sam or another character giving us gallons of sentiment, shot in slow motion, feeding us a reason to believe in the Goodness of the Cause. Instead this climactic ending is structured like an action-picture cliffhanger, going and going and going right to the very last shot of Smaug flying away — Bilbo looks up at the sky appalled and says: “What have we done?” and then BAM — cut to black. Roll end credits. The audience has just been coaxed to the very edge, only to be forced to wait til next year to see if they even kill the damn thing. A rather frustrating ending for me. I’ll admit that seeing the dragon meet his demise was something I felt the story needed for a really satisfactory ending. That was the experience I wanted and expected but evidently it’s all about defying expectations.
Perhaps it was the shrewdest thing the filmmakers and Warner Bros. could have possibly done. Throughout the whole year of 2013, Smaug was kept super secret seemingly forever right up to the film’s release, until we got such a frightening glimpse in that second trailer. Well, now, for next year it’s clear the studio will have all the images of Smaug they want available for marketing purposes. So that’s why he is alive I guess.
So for TABA next year, I am going to throw all expectations out the window. The filmmakers have boldly declared they don’t mind the risk of alienating Purists or Book Fans by pulling and stretching ‘The Hobbit’ on a taffy machine until it’s almost unrecognizable.
Let’s wait and see what mischief they cook up in December 2014.