Before I begin this review, I want to give a short blurb and let you all know from what perspective it comes from. I am an artist of sorts, so I definitely touch upon some of the visuals used in the films. I am also one of the younger members of TORn’s staff and did not pick up Tolkien’s books until after I saw the “really cool trailer” of ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ on TV back in my preteens. But despite Jackson’s films introducing me to Middle-earth, I have ultimately become a Tolkien fan with a good amount of appreciation for what the cast and crew behind Jackson’s Middle-earth adaptations have done for both the film industry and for the Tolkien legendarium, despite the many changes.
While it has been a week since ‘The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug’ was (mostly) released worldwide, and I warrant most reading this have already seen it at least once, perhaps one more opinion amongst millions all around the world can be added to the collection.
But for those who are reading and have yet to see it: if you were not a fan of any changes Jackson and his writers unleashed in his previous four films (including the original trilogy), I am afraid to say that this film probably has the most alterations, expansions, and creative interpretations. Some changes I would have done differently or not at all, but they did not overly bother me. Some I actually enjoyed. Some I really disliked. But it is important to note that, as others have noted, that this ‘Hobbit’ film most certainly follows the tone of a blockbuster with some connections to LOTR as opposed to a stand-alone book written for children.
Now to the juicy bits of the film itself. Spoilers abound from here on until the quotation near the bottom of the page.
The Prancing Pony: Accompanied by cameos from Jackson (and, if I saw correctly, his daughter as the barmaid), this introduction came as a much-welcome surprise for me. I remember reading it in Unfinished Tales a long time ago and did not realize until recently that this tale was referred to also in Appendix A– which probably means it is due time to reread LOTR. As it is, I thought this was a great set up; every film thus far starts in a place other than what is the ‘present’ in the rest of the film, and it is a formula that I think works for telling these stories on the big screen.
Beorn: I was surprised there was so little of him; I was expecting more of him, but I suppose, considering his nature, we are perhaps lucky that he was not cut out at all. While his hair color was changed (not unusual for Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkien’s characters) his overall presence, at least as a Man, rings true of the Beorn I recall in the books. I am not as sure about the bear; I think I would have appreciated a more comical entrance with what came to be almost exhaustive action sequence after action sequence in the coming hours, at least at my first viewing. The second viewing allowed a lot more room to breathe.
Mirkwood: I do like how it was different from other forests we’ve seen in Middle-earth so far, and how the wonderful set team really constructed a path that gave it a name worthy of ‘Elf-path’ with the run down, broken Elvish statues and the ancient stone path that once went clearly through the forest in years past. After several days and two viewings of sitting on it, however, I am still not sold on how the Dwarves lost the path. I think I would have preferred them being run off by spiders in the night and losing it from there. The almost drug-like state they went into just made me cringe.
I did, like many viewers, love the scene in the tree top with the butterflies. I was mostly happy with the spider scene, especially how we got to see them talk a little when Bilbo wore the Ring (though in my second viewing I think I caught a couple words outside of the Ring-world). I think the drug-induced Dwarves would have been more appropriate here after their spider stings, making their discovery and capture by the Elves even more of both a blessing and a curse.
The Elves: I have never been a huge fan of Jackson’s interpretation of most Elves, and my opinion has not changed much here. Thranduil was not bad, but his scenes did not interest me as much as others, with exception to his scene with Thorin. Other than that strange melting-face moment (I disliked it even more with the second viewing), I enjoyed it a lot. Thranduil even showed some really stirring emotion, which was really excellent and made him seem more real as a character. I was very happy to see the jailor Elf get drunk; that was one of my favorite scenes from the book.
Legolas and his stunts, while not as bad as with the Oliphaunt in ROTK, just don’t do much for me; after all, I’ve seen it before. Time to move on. Tauriel, when it comes to invented characters, was not bad; I am glad that she is not head-over-heels for Legolas. I am not as thrilled with Kili’s strange infatuation with her, but those who have seen the extended edition of ‘An Unexpected Journey’ will realize that Jackson has been building him up along this route; the comical scene in Rivendell seems to parallel this scene a bit. As it is, Tauriel rebellion, so to speak, of the king’s order to remain out of affairs is a good tie in to get Elves into the action in time for the Battle of the Five Armies. I only hope that Thranduil is not so heartless that he has to be convinced by Tauriel to help his neighbors at Lake-town come the third film. It remains to be seen.
The Barrel Scene: Creative license definitely was employed here. Again, I do not mind the orc chase, but I think it could have easily been cut a few minutes and used less ‘cool Elf stunts’, though Bombur’s crowning moment of glory had me laughing throughout the whole sequence in both viewings. My biggest issue here was actually the digital effects. I do not know if it was only in 2D theatres, or if it is a side effect of having the film in so many different formats, but a lot of the sequences especially in this fight and in a couple other places in the film did not look as polished as I would expect it to look. One of my co-workers, also a digital animator on the side, noticed similar issues with the scene. With my second viewing, I unfortunately still noticed it and hopefully with the DVD and Blu-ray releases these scenes will be polished a little more beforehand. I imagine that the majority of the focus in the digital department was on Smaug, Azog, and other important characters rather than smaller shots of the Dwarves and orc extras. Understandable– I’ve done enough digital animation to know how laborious it is– but still a bit disappointing.
Bard: While I love Tolkien and his works very much, he was still just human and I do not think they are flawless. His very sudden introduction of Bard is, in my opinion, the weakest part of the ‘Hobbit’. Like Beorn was introduced earlier on before he appears later in the story (I will not mention more for those who haven’t read the book– though if you have not, go read it!), I think the same should have happened with Bard, and I often wished him introduced when the Dwarves went to Lake-town. Jackson seems to have concurred with this belief, and Bard ends up saving the Dwarves after their roll in the barrels and sneaking them into Lake-town.
His building up into a hero by preparing ‘the last black arrow’ (which Jackson turned into a type of arrow specifically built for sniping down large beasts, I suppose), and building up as a character by introducing a family (his canonical son, Bain, and two movie-only characters, two sisters) was done wonderfully. I really fell in love with him and his whole family and I think it really gave a real human connection to Lake-town. His establishment as the heir of Girion will be a good stepping stone for the final film.
Plots in Lake-town: I loved some things about the plots in Lake-town, and I disliked a few things about them. As mentioned, I enjoyed Bard’s role, and I enjoyed his part as a ‘rebel’ to the Master of Lake-town and his sniveling servant (the servant being another invention for the film). It built a whole side plot to the town with the Master that was alluded to by Tolkien but not expanded upon by him– for three films, this was a good place to expand.
I did not, however, like the scene with a morgul wound and the athelas healing. I thought Tauriel was just some simple Silvan Elf; if that is the case, then why does she have power in healing on Elrond’s level? And did we not see it FOTR already? Indeed, it was about this scene that I realized why I was not loving the film nearly as much as I loved the original trilogy: a lot of these scenes we’ve seen done before, and the first time they were usually better. While common themes throughout the two trilogies is understandable and appreciated, the same scene with a twist can only be done so many times. It has happened through the ‘Hobbit’ trilogy too many times. By including such similar scenes, it decreases the importance and uniqueness of the scenes in LOTR. Besides, athelas did not even grow in Lake-town. It only grew where Dúnedain lived. Lore nitpicks aside…
Gandalf: Gandalf (and for a short time, Radagast) and his adventures cuts back and forth from Mirkwood and onward, interspersed fairly well, but because his pieces have so much action and the Dwarves’ scenes have so much action, there is very little room to breathe between all the tense or action-packed scenes. This feeling, I will admit, decreased significantly with the second viewing, but it is still something to consider.
As it is, Gandalf has this interesting section first in the Witch-king of Angmar’s tomb, where all nine Ringwraiths were buried, that was completely made up by Jackson, though it was not done poorly. A complete change from Tolkien’s canon, yes, but at this point in the review that is no surprise. After the tombs of the Nine in the mountains he goes to Dol Guldur, which is an event that Tolkien did not expand upon much at all, giving Jackson’s team plenty of creative license. They use it.
The revelation of the Necromancer is a visual effects extravaganza; depending on who you are, it will either be mouth-dropping or completely overdone. I teetered on the fence for a while, but I think I am in the former camp. It is Sauron, after all, and I cannot help but by really attracted to his force that seems to be something akin to a black hole. He was the Void in this shapeless form. I enjoyed it. And I am glad that Gandalf did not defeat him; it would not have fit what we have seen in LOTR.
The Dwarves: I am glad to see expansion of the Dwarves’ characters still in this film, even if they expanded in a way that I am not entirely happy with (namely Kili and his strange relationship with Tauriel). I was glad that Fili clearly pointed out his blood relationship with Thorin just before most of the Dwarves departed Lake-town, it was wonderful to see the locket from Glóin with his son Gimli in it, and Balin has utterly captured my heart with his thoughtfulness towards Bilbo. Thorin, too, is being built up in such a way that really leads him to the conflict he ends up having with Bilbo come the third film (the film has already hinted at it, but those who have read the book will know what I allude to!)
Smaug: Saving the best for last. Smaug was truly the Magnificent. While there are some directorial decisions that I am a bit confused by (such as Bilbo being visible for most of his first talk with the dragon), overall I was immensely pleased with everything about Smaug: design, the overall digital composition, his voice, and his lines. It is clear that Weta put immense effort into him and it truly paid off; he is by far the best dragon cinema has seen. He perhaps did not burn things as often as he should have for the sake of all the Dwarves surviving, but it was not something that bothered me overmuch.
And unlike some of my fellow fans, I had no problem with the Dwarves’ attempt to kill him. I think that they were desperate enough to try anything that might work, no matter how slim the chance. And while battling fire with fire may seem to us viewers as silly, desperate times call for desperate measures, and it was good to see some sort of attempt by them to conclude the second film; it fit their more proactive behavior already established in the first film.
I also liked how for a brief moment he was literally golden, and the molten metal shone gold, large and bright enough to shine to Lake-town as in the book. In the book, the golden shine was dragon fire, not the molten metal, but it can be argued that realistically the amount of red flames and smoke would not give off such a golden shine at night from such a distance. It is a small detail that can be debated with arguments for both sides, I think. But I certainly found that Smaug the Golden, literal for a couple seconds, was really a magnificent sight.
Despite the length of this piece already, I could go on and on; I have not even covered Azog, Bolg, Bilbo and the Ring, Radagast, and I have several more thoughts on each of the sections I already wrote about. But I will leave this review here with just one last remark.
Around 1951, Tolkien wrote a letter to publisher Milton Waldman concerning mainly why the Silmarillion and the Lord of the Rings must be published together. In this very long letter are these interesting (and infamous) sentiments:
“Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story […] which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country. […] I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.” (Letters, #131)
Now, he did not consider the notion of others drawing from his tales to create other stories absurd, but rather his idea that anyone would ever be interested in doing such a thing absurd. Despite the ‘Hobbit’ being fairly filled in by Tolkien back when he wrote it over seventy-five years ago, and filled further with the development of LOTR later on, it can be argued that Jackson’s interpretation of the ‘Hobbit’ is also a cycle, and that the live-action films we have now will not be the only popular cycles we see of either ‘The Hobbit’ or ‘The Lord of the Rings’. One day, when Tolkien’s works are just as public domain as Dickens, I imagine we’ll be seeing many different interpretations of Middle-earth.
Jackson’s interpretation of the ‘Hobbit’ will be famous for some time to come, despite its very obvious turnings from Tolkien’s work. But in the end, this film interpretation is not the only one out there, and in the future, it will not remain the only one. And in spite of all these many different interpretations lying out in the future, fans of Tolkien and his ‘Hobbit’ will always be able to turn to his book for the most faithful telling of the story, a telling that no adaptation will ever be able to match.