Stories of dragons are as old as the written word and probably a lot older. To keep things inside the J.R.R. Tolkien realm, “Beowulf”, one of the oldest written stories of Europe features not only the monstrous Grendel but his serpentine Mother. Ancient biblical writings allude to the great serpent or dragon while global mythology has oversized lizard creatures popping up so consistently that some have suggested there must be some common shared memory or primitive survival instinct built into humanity to cause us to tell our tribal stories about such a monstrosity.
Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” follows in that grand tradition, as does much of his grander cosmology. While some of the creatures in his bestiary are original, such as the fire-and-shadow balrogs, the great worm Smaug and his Middle-earth cousins are certainly not new.
And yet, Tolkien’s works and his world building, and the importance of his influence on both fantasy literature and fantasy in popular culture, mean that Smaug gets a prominent chapter in the “Who’s Who of Dragons.” Smaug, even for those who haven’t read “The Hobbit”, is familiar. Some of his principal characteristics worked so effectively in making him a memorable character that they were used often by not only by other authors, but by others using dragons in every medium. The intelligent, haughty treasure hoarder isn’t going to strike anybody in this age as a blindingly original concept, even if Smaug is the grandfather of that modern interpratation.
Special effects tools of the last few decades have taken a creature difficult to create with size and scale on film and made it not a fantastic creature, but another option as a character. Eragon (and my goodness how that name rings a bell in the Middle-earth chapel) is the story of a boy and his dragon that was a publishing phenomenon and became a big-budget film that didn’t achieve financial, critical or artistic success but did reaffirm the “reality” of a talking, flying dragon in the minds of the movie going public.
Sean Connery voiced a dragon of his own and the abysmal Dungeons & Dragons movie featured a fleet of the beasts in combat. Dragons, often the rarest and among the most magical of creatures in a given mythology, have become so common as to be, well . . . common. Harry Potter and his ilk keep them in chains, own their eggs and use them for schoolboy trials of manhood. Smaug certainly wouldn’t have allowed that, even at the hands of the mighty Noldor Elves. Demigods including Gandalf himself would have been hard pressed to place even a single leash on such a creature for even a moment. Indeed Smaug was virtually immortal with his longevity and near invulnerability and was so great and terrible that even the sight of him, even the thought of the sight of him, caused brave souls everywhere to blanche.
Dragons, through overuse in popular and even underground geek culture have taken a place just behind unicorns and rainbows as the most hackneyed subjects of fantasy art.
What this means for 2008 is that “The Hobbit” production has a dragon problem. It has been well argued on TheOneRing.net’s own message boards that Bilbo’s conversation with Smaug is at least an emotional highlight of “The Hobbit,” if not the climax.
I have not the expertise and have not done the scholarship to try to contend that Tolkien’s dragon was the original modern dragon prototype. But I can say that the shadow Smaug casts in modern fantasy is large and dark and since Smaug or dragons similar to him have now populated popular culture like rabbits in a vegetable garden, Guillermo del Toro and Richard Taylor and his WETA team bear the burden of the dragon problem.
Smaug will need to be a fully realized character (much more than a monster) that feels as genuine as any of the flesh actors that appear in the film. WETA, with Gollum under its belt, has achieved that before but not with a gigantic non-humanoid. The “Fellowship” cave troll also did some fine acting thanks to the digital team. This creature will not have humanoid features but will need to emote as well as a human and connect with or repel the audience with complex emotions such as pride and greed. At the same time Smaug needs to be terrifying. We need to empathize with Bilbo that Smaug is both polite and terrible, proud and horrific, conversational but deadly. This alone would be a tall order and asks WETA to take things a step beyond its prior accomplishments but given the dedication and innovation, I have faith in the special effects team to get that done.
But then the dragon also needs to step out of the mishmash of dragons that have popped up everywhere in film and in books. Smaug must be Smaug The Magnificent, not Smaug The Third Dragon I’ve Seen This Year. And besides his conversation with Bilbo, he needs to swoop down on an entire town of hardy humans and incinerate their town built on a lake. Here again, he must be fearsome and ruthless and intelligent and not feel like the same creature that was in “Beowulf” and must feel as real as anything in life.
But if I have any measure of Richard Taylor and his team at WETA workshop, this type of challenge is one of the things that drives them to work in the special effects industry. They created a fight-and-chance sequence in the Mines of Moria with a troll, a gaggle of orcs and the mighty balrog that is about as perfect a 20-minute segment of special-effects storytelling that has been put on celluloid. In King Kong they followed that up with Kong fighting three T-Rex where the dumb lizards and the ferocious, protective ape weren’t just monsters but were fleshed out characters with nuances and emotions fighting tooth and nail not because they were monsters but because they had needs and motives and opposed each others’ goals.
So I am not despairing about the challenge laid before del Toro and WETA but I think Smaug requires even more. I was heartened to read that del Toro says in anticipation of Smaug, and the Mirkwood spiders, “I have to think they are two of the greatest experiences of my life.”
The voice is an important factor, and the choice of this actor is one of the most anticipated of the film. I have been appealing to deity, since first contemplating who might fill our ears with roars and threats, that no actor previously used mythical beasts in film be used again. I am horrified to think of an actors voice that causes the audience to say, “Ohhhh! That is Actor X!”
Yes, the best actors can manage to create a whole different character and voice and take viewers beyond easy recognition, but some voices are just too distinct. Doubly dangerous are voices that have already voiced dragons or lions or other obvious mythical beasts already. Some such voices have already been suggested on the TORn forums, which gives me the shivers. I just don’t want to say to myself while watching the much-anticipated film, “Who knew Smaug sounds like Darth Vader / Scar / Aslan?” This isn’t the place to advocate any casting decisions (and beyond the fun of fan casting, no place is) but fun speculation about that was expressed a few months back here.
So looking at the first of the two films planned for production, this Smaug challenge looks to me to be both the most difficult and the most rewarding of projects. I can hardly wait to see how the dragon problem gets solved. And that is the fun of hotly anticipating movies based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.