Two film reviews: The Desolation of Smaug and The Desolation of Smaug

I’m just back from seeing The Desolation of Smaug with the family and I’m really not sure what to think. I enjoyed lots of things about it, but still left feeling very dissatisfied. I liked the Tolkien material very much; and I liked the comic barrels-and-dragons action-adventure lots, too. But I can’t for the life of me figure out what they’re doing in the same film.

The entrance to Laketown

The entrance to Laketown

As usual, and contrary to popular belief, Jackson is a sensitive interpreter of Tolkien. Of the “new” material added to the film that wasn’t in the book of The Hobbit, some substantial chunks, including the prologue of Gandalf’s meeting with Thorin in Bree, were taken straight from Tolkien’s writings — either the LotR Appendices or the Silmarillion. Other sections, such as Gandalf’s investigations in Dol Goldur, were at least based on Tolkien’s background writings, though elaborated rather freely.

On the other hand — and much to my surprise given that this was a two-hour-forty-minute adaptation of the middle third of a 400-page book — quite a lot of material from the book was cut out. We lost all the business with the dwarves being introduced in small groups to Beorn. We lost the crossing of the river in Mirkwood, and Bombur’s falling in, and everyone else having to drag his fat butt around. We lost Bilbo’s taunting of the spiders, in favour of more action sequences. We lost the dwarf party’s attempts to join the elven feasts off the Mirkwood path. Actually, we lost a whole lot of Mirkwood, so that what’s always felt to me like the central part of the book seemed like it was over almost as soon as it started.

Isn’t that strange? When you have eight hours to adapt a 400-page book, you’d usually want to use most of the material from that book. I can only assume the discarded material was considered a bad fit for the kind of adventure-movie Jackson wanted to make, that it would have resulted in too much of a kids’-book film. I think that’s sad. I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Orlando Bloom:

I’m sure Tolkien might have probably turned in his grave, but it was in keeping with the vision that Pete had for Legolas and stuff which, you know, was very important.

It would be one thing if Jackson had a specific vision for characters in his own story. But it seems to me that when he’s adapting someone else’s he has some degree of responsibility to adhere to the author’s vision — not only of individual characters, but of what kind of story it is. Whereas this Hobbit movie is rather like an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in which Lizzy Bennett turns out to be government agent and Caroline Bingley is spying for Napoleon’s army, and they end up resolving their differences in a ninja battle.

The ruins of Dale

The ruins of Dale

That said, just as the Tolkien parts of the film were good, so were the action-adventure parts. You just have to make yourself forget that they’re supposed to be part of The Hobbit. If you wanted to see an action sequence of heroes evading and killing their pursuers while riding down a river in barrels that inexplicably ignore the laws of gravity and buoyancy, then I doubt you will ever see that done better than in The Desolation of Smaug. I am quite certain that people who want to see an extended sequence of dwarfs trying unsuccessfully to entomb a giant dragon in molten gold will find that desire fully satisfied by the latter parts of Desolation; and really, it could hardly have been done better, always assuming it was the kind of thing you wanted to see done in the first place.

I hope I’m not being too snarky here. I am quite serious that these sequences were done superbly. Had I been going to watch a generic D&D-setting fantasy adventure, I would have been captivated by them, and I’m sure a lot of people enjoyed it enormously on that basis. Bizarrely, the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw, who has a history of completely missing the point of Tolkien, claimed in his Desolation review that:

For the first time, I “got” the JRR Tolkien/Peter Jackson experience. I tuned into the frequency. I tasted the fusion cuisine.

Unfortunately, it turns out on reading the rest of the review that he didn’t get any such thing. He just got Jackson’s phantasy phun phest, and once more completely missed the actual Tolkien.

And maybe we shouldn’t blame him too harshly for that. Because the problem with smashing Tolkien’s charming book together with these sound-and-fury sequences is that all the noise necessarily drives out the thoughtfulness, the insight, and indeed the charm that made us love the book in the first place. These aspects of Tolkien’s writing are not dispensable luxuries; they are crucial. They are what give weight and substance to the adventure. The reason the dangerous quest to Erebor is worth undertaking is because there is a more pastoral and introspective world to return to at the end. Poor Martin Freeman does his best to preserve some of that — and to be fair, he does a fine job, as he did in the first film; but his deftly understated and believable Bilbo is fighting against every other element in the films and can’t possibly win. He’s like that one guy in a big argument who’s quietly making a good and important and persuasive point, but who no-one hears because they’re all too busy shouting at each other. Indeed Bilbo is almost lost in the last third of the film.

That’s a lot of gold.

It’s a shame, because Freeman is by some distance the most convincing actor in Desolation. Richard Armitage’s Thorin is much too human to convince as the dwarven king: while I always see Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal now when I think of Aragorn, I will never see Armitage’s when I think of Thorin. And he sounds so very like Sean Bean’s Boromir. Luke Evans’s Bard is too generic to leave any impression in the memory. More disturbingly, five movies as Gandalf may be one too many for Ian McKellan: he’s still good, but no longer utterly convincing as he was in the LotR films. It’s as though he’s lost interest in the character and is now going through the motions and recycling mannerisms.

If all of this sounds relentlessly negative, that’s unfair. There’s lots to love in Desolation, and I laughed out loud several times — not laughing at jokes, but for sheer joy. There’s a fine Tolkien adaptation in there, and a fine action-adventure. But the combination of the two isn’t just less than the sum of the parts, it’s less than either of them.

The reason I care about this is because Tolkien matters. And it’s clear that Jackson gets this. In the LotR films, even in their more preposterous moments, that comes through. The  battle of Pelennor Fields isn’t just about whether orcs will break into Minas Tirith, it’s about desperate courage even when all hope is lost. Aragon and Arwen’s romance isn’t just about whether they’ll end up together, it’s about the fleeting nature of all mortal joy and the inevitability of the Long Defeat. Whereas The Desolation of Smaug is just about riding barrels down rivers and pouring molten gold on dragons. In the end, that stuff’s not important. And any Tolkien adaptation has to matter.

I’ll watch it again, for the sheer fun of it — probably many times. But I’ll never love it like I do the LotR films. It’s not art. It’s not even trying to be.

[See also: Some thoughts on The Hobbit, part 1: An Unexpected Journey]

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6 responses to “Two film reviews: The Desolation of Smaug and The Desolation of Smaug

  1. Well said re: Martin Freeman as Bilbo.

    What did you think of Evangeline Lily’s character and her romance with Fili/Kili? (I can’t remember any of their names)

  2. Leaving aside the fact that I’d have preferred an adaptation of The Hobbit to something made up out of Peter Jackson’s head, I didn’t hate the part of Tauriel. At least she was given an authentically Tolkienean name.

    I could buy her being in love with Legolas, and I very much believed in Thranduil’s offhand treatment of her. I couldn’t accept that she’d fall in love with a dwarf, something totally unprecedented in Middle-earth. And — maybe more fundamentally — I’m uneasy with the whole concept of elf-maiden as warrior. I don’t see that in The Hobbit, LotR or The Silmarillion, and it sits uneasily on the original text, looking like the obvious concession to demographic correctness that it is.

    On top of that Evangeline Lily’s performance didn’t convince me. While Liv Tyler’s Arwen and Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel seem like ancient numinous figures from another civilisation, Lily’s Tauriel seems much more like a modern American girl-hero parachuted into Middle-earth. I don’t know how much of that is down to the writing — probably most of it — but the acting can’t be let off without some criticism, too.

    So all in all, not a fan.

  3. Galadriel was described a mighty Elf warrior in the “Unfinished Tales”, so Tauriel isn’t the first. I thought Tauriel’s romance with Kili was fun, and adds a gentler element, albeit not strictly Tolkien

  4. Good spot regarding Galadriel. I feel a bit better about Tauriel with that in the background. The romance still rings completely false, though.

  5. Just skimmed back through “Galadriel and Celeborn” in Unfinished Tales, and can’t find explicit reference to Galadriel picking up a weapon. However she was 6’4″, a renowned athlete, and she “fought fiercely against Feanor in defence of her mother’s kin” and grew to become the most powerful Noldor elf in Middle Earth.

    I may have a slight crush … ;)

  6. I mocked Jackson last year predicting a Hobbit 1,2,3, … but apparently he’s going for it and turning this into three long films. The only good character in this mish mash was Smaug. Let’s hope he barbecue’s Jackson posterior in the next Hobbit in a well deserved Hitchcockian cameo.

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