Desolation of Smaug and other thoughts

Yesterday, on her birthday, I took Madeline, one of her friends, and her siblings out to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Here’s my short review: apart from the book, it’s an exciting, well-made film. Smaug is fantastic. Martin Freeman is, once again, wonderful as Bilbo (I think he is, all around, the best cast actor in all the Tolkien films). And, once again, there were too many lengthy, chaotic battle scenes for my taste, but I suppose some people like that sort of thing. I was annoyed with where Jackson ended this film—there are ways the audience could have received a little more, at least partial, closure—but it made sense from a marketing standpoint. All in all, I give this film a positive review.

Here are some lengthier reflections:

I think it was the film reviewer for The Globe and Mail that said “all goodwill Jackson earned with the Lord of the Rings trilogy is lost,” or something to that effect. I think he’s probably right. In terms of what those you might call Tolkien purists, the omissions, changes, and additions to Tolkien’s books in the LotR films were for the most part forgivable and forgiven. The first film in The Hobbit trilogy took some more egregious liberties with Tolkien’s story than the LotR films. This second in the series takes the liberties to the next level, to the point that in its details the film becoming a different story than the book, even if the overall plot is the same. I remember when I first heard that The Hobbit was going to be a two-part film. I thought that was already a bit much, given that the entirety of The Hobbit novel is shorter than The Fellowship of the Rings. Then he changed it to a trilogy! I now know why and how: more orcs, more fighting, inferred elements of the book added, more orcs, more fighting, more stubborn dwarves, more orcs, a new love interest (what would the spawn of an elf and a dwarf look like?), more fighting…

I’m of the opinion that as a rule the book is better than the film, but I also realize that by nature books and films will by necessity tell the same story differently. A literary/film theory about why this is so is beyond my skill. It just seems evident that this is the case: a film essentially has to be different than the book. There’s a good reason Tolkien would never hand over the film rights to his books (and it’s not clear to me how or why his estate, after his son Christopher made his disgust with the LotR films clear, gave up the rights to The Hobbit as well). As I was watching the movie, it occurred to me that a true-to-the-book film version probably wouldn’t have connected with a broad audience. For instance, it’s a children’s story whose plot moves along very quickly. And detailed battle scenes are, as in all of Tolkien’s work, lacking. In addition, in making the LotR films first, Jackson was almost forced into making the connection between them and The Hobbit clearer; in the interest of the film franchise, he could not make a children’s film version of The Hobbit after making LotR.

That’s not to say that I’m happy about the changes to the story. But I try to look at the movies as something other than an adaptation. The problem isn’t with the films so much, or even director Peter Jackson. The problem is with me and everyone other diehard Tolkien fan who has read these books numerous times and for whom the events and characters played out in a certain way in my imagination (augmented by Tolkien artists I knew prior to the films, as well as the 1977 Hobbit animated adaptation). Does Gandalf look like Ian McKellen does in the films? Yes. Does he speak and behave the way Ian McKellen does in character? Not really. Same goes for most of the other characters. (This is why I think Martin Freeman is great, because he gets it all pretty close to my imagination.) The reality is that, with the exception of some of the egregious changes to Tolkien’s stories, there is little Jackson could have done that would have completely pleased fans. The LotR films got fairly close, though I like them less after repeated viewings. With The Hobbit it’s almost as if Jackson came to terms with this and just forged ahead with what he thought would be a great film loosely based on the book.

Is The Hobbit a faithful interpretation of the book? Not really. Is it a good film? Yes.

6 thoughts on “Desolation of Smaug and other thoughts

  1. Jeff

    Finally, a review I can trust! I’ve been seeing VERY mixed reviews, and I think you’ve nailed why.

    Personally, I’m very pleased that it’s not that close to the book: I hate it when the characters in my imagination get influenced by their film dopplegangers, but if the film is significantly different from the book, there’s a chance my imagined characters will live on untouched.

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