One thing you may have noticed in the first part of this extended review is the repeated mention of abridgment. Much has been cut from the tale up to this point (Barrels out of Bond), with very limited additions or tampering. This is the turning point. To some degree I think the streamlined character of the first act may have had something to do with the original two film split. The second half, by comparison felt sort of bloated. It seemed a bit freer with time spent and liberties taken. The first part was concise and to the point. The second, while still polished and exciting, began to veer into the realm of fan fiction, as I mentioned in my first review.
Why do I say this?
While the changes which spring forth from every conceivable plot point to come have at least some minimal genesis from Tolkien’s work, they show all the hallmarks of the creative mind looking for the next possible progression. Most of the change was a matter of inflation of implied material or the mythologizing of a previously mundane or only superstitious object/plot point. These are the sort of outgrowths which stem from speculative debate, using what ifs to flesh out the tale. Thankfully, the majority of these tweaks are rather thoughtful and rife with applicability. Of course there are a few I did not enjoy, but these tended to be where the twist was taken too far into fabricated territory.
***Beware, Here be Spoilers***
I left off with the dwarves just entering the barrels. Interestingly, the barrels are left open. This allows us to see the dwarves as they escape, and produce further escapades, and so for the film is a smart move. It only works, though, because Bilbo is the one to open the trap door, not the elves in the cellar. His moment of elation is there, as well as his humorous moment of realization that he has not secured his own escape as well. This scene is yet another masterful stroke of comic relief, which incidentally does not rely on demeaning anyone; it is pure physical comedy of the best sort.
The Company is pursued in the river by both elves and orcs. The gate is added as an element somewhat removed from the trapdoor. Though the gate does exist in the book, it is yet another moment of contrived obstruction and tension, with the primary intention of bringing about Kili’s wounding. This feeds into the whole love-triangle business, which I could have done without. Tauriel’s concern for Kili, particularly after discovering the arrow that shot him is poisoned, is what causes her to leave and Legolas to follow.
The battle along the river is extremely protracted, full of ever more outlandish battle sequences. Bombur’s (if I recall correctly) moment is particularly of note, creating a scene of great hilarity (though also utterly silly), which makes me smile even now. The need for this confrontation is created by the established hunter-hunted story-line, which originated in Azog’s quest for revenge. It gives further credence to the need for open barrels, but ultimately rips away a hugely important part of Bilbo’s story arc.
Bilbo has already been degraded by minimizing his part in saving the dwarves from the spiders. He is already seemingly corrupted by the Ring. He is further demeaned by the need for Thorin’s command, not the dwarves’ trust and esteem for Bilbo, to get them into the barrels. Here he is also deprived of his role as caretaker for the dwarves, surviving on his own, and surreptitiously freeing them at Laketown. The dwarves’ gratitude, though always grudging, has been excised. Bilbo as guardian, Bilbo as leader of the Company, Bilbo as ‘parent’ is never seen.
Backing up a bit, Thranduil and Legolas question a single orc captured for interrogation. Thranduil promises the orc freedom in return for answers. The orc’s response is a rather heavy-handed revelation of Sauron’s return and renewed might. Immediately following, Thranduil murders his hostage. I know orcs appear to be complete evil (I’d argue more so in Jackson’s films that Tolkien), but this utter brutality is more than I would expect of even Thanduil, who later would show such mercy towards Gollum.
Eventually, the company comes ashore. As there is no longer any aspect of the raft-men shown (though it remains in the Smaug discourse), here is yet another obstacle to be overcome through innovation. Enter Bard the bowman, or as he appears here: Bard the smuggler. He agrees to take the dwarves into Esgaroth, desperate for the money they offer. Though it is all very much a fabrication, which eliminates the ‘Warm Welcome,’ it does a lot of world building with very little. The people of Lake-Town are very much under the thumb of the Master in the film. It is a very dirty, bedraggled and medieval place. The pain, suffering and want are introduced by Bard’s hunger to provide for his children.
The dealings between Bard and the dwarves are also emblematic of the deep seated lack of trust that pervades The Hobbit films, this one in particular. First, there is little desire on Bard’s part to help through altruism or concern for the wounded Kili. What little honor is left him is his devotion to his family. Then there is the dwarves’ irrational fear of being sunk or betrayed. There is also the Master and Alfrid’s constant mistrust of Bard. Anything wrong, any sign of malcontent is blamed on Bard; somehow instigated by his ‘malice.’ It is probably a product of jealousy, as the Master’s power is rather tenuous, based more on appeasement of the people than devotion.
Even with the marring of Girion, Bard has the heart of the people. His kindness and concern are exemplified by a singular moment: arguing for the preservation of the fish to feed the townspeople and then giving them away. And even this is tainted by the need to keep the dwarves a secret. All of this boils down to a pervading trend of diminishing the honorable and heroic trends of the protagonists, making all small and mean to varying degrees.
Returning to the matter of Girion and the coming of Smaug, we are treated to another contrived element. The Black Arrow has become the Black Arrows, used in a dwarven windlass specifically as a weapon designed to pierce a dragon’s hide. In an utter departure from all Tolkien’s work, gone are the soft underbellies of dragons. Smaug the Magnificent is no longer so magnificent, deprived of his gold and jewel encrusted waistcoat. Girion is now a figure held in scorn for having failed to kill Smaug, rather than an honored king, reminiscent of better times. Even the ancestors cannot escape this pervading degradation of character!
The dwarves are finally discovered when they decide to steal the weapons they want, after disgracefully scorning the weapons Bard has been able to offer. The accusations of the Elven-king are made true. They are quickly caught, and the scene segues into a rather corrupted version of the ‘Warm Welcome.’ Bard, by this point, has discovered who Thorin is, and works strenuously to prevent their going to the Mountain. The tide begins to shift against the dwarves, as fear takes hold, when Thorin begins declaring some of the most uncharacteristic phrases ever to pass his lips: he offers great reward of gold to the town in return for their help! What in the film makes this at all plausible? Even in the book, where the dragon-sickness is not so prevalent, such an open ended statement would never pass his lips. Remember the long, exquisite contract given to Bilbo? Every contingency was covered. An open ended promise of remuneration contradicts everything we know about him. In the best of situations, Tolkien tells us “dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money…they are decent enough people…if you don’t expect too much” (TH 247). This is expecting too much.
Aid is given, and the company is soon sped on its way, with the noted exception of Kili, Oin, Fili, and Bofur, who are left behind. That any dwarf would stay behind when faced with the opportunity to regain both their home and treasure is incomprehensible. Kili, minimally, may be understood due to his highly debilitated state, but the others are a bit of a stretch.
At this juncture, in Lake Town, things head in a completely implausible direction. Kili takes a turn for the worse, and somehow the dwarves know of athelas. This was face-palm number one; where I quite audibly exclaimed, “Really?!” in the theater. Athelas is a plant brought by the Numenoreans, and used by them. By the time of LotR, its qualities were forgotten except by old-wives tales and the Dunedain. To claim the dwarves would even have a clue of its existence is hugely improbable, and demonstrates a shameless replication of the LotR films with no regard for authenticity any longer.
And the face-palm fest continues.
Tauriel arrives just as the orcs begin their attack. She and Legolas rid Bard’s house of orcs, and she remains to heal Kili, whereupon she becomes Arwen’s clone. Here we are treated to the same chanting and suffusion of light which marked Arwen and Elrond’s healing of Frodo. It is an inelegant homage to the first film trilogy; and to a terribly contrived moment to begin with. To my mind, this episode wins the prize as the most abhorrent of innovations to enter the film, though it has stiff competition as we near the end.
The Company approaches the Mountain, in search of the hidden door. They find rather obvious hidden stair, which though not immediately recognizable as such, is found with little trouble. Instead, the struggle is left for the doorstep. Here, it is Thorin’s turn to look the idiot. He very clearly restates the moon letter’s clue, while holding up the key, before setting the dwarves on the door. They hammer away, they tap, they push to no avail. They’ve had the solution grandly stated to them. What intelligent being starts banging on a door, when they have a key, and should instead be looking for the keyhole? Apparently Peter Jackson enjoys making everyone a fool.
It was another supremely frustrating face-palm moment; another invented obstacle. There is absolutely no need for this. The first problem lies in the fact that the precise date of Durin’s Day is actually known. The second lies in the statement of the solution prior to the failed attempts. In the book, it is a matter of lapsed memory, which is only revealed when hope is lost and Bilbo is left alone to hear the thrush knock. As it stands, the film eliminates the workings of Providence or Luck in these events, a loss which pervades, but is most keenly felt here.
Bilbo remains on the doorstep as all the dwarves’ leave. He, at least, heard and actually understood the restated clue, and waits for the last light on Durin’s Day. The last light in the film turns out to be moonlight. It is an interesting choice, mirroring the light of the moon needed to reveal the runes in the first place. Even so, it still has the feel of that last ‘tension builder’ which really serves no more purpose than proof of cleverness.
Bilbo calls for the dwarves, and frantically searches for the key, only to almost kick it over the cliff edge; yet another instance of superfluous problems. Thorin, of course, catches it just in time, and opens the door.
Thorin sends Bilbo down the tunnel not just to rob Smaug and get the treasure for them, but to get the Arkenstone for him. This singular stone has become the focus of the entire mission. It isn’t really about revenge or reclaiming the Mountain. It is about claiming the Arkenstone in order to unite the Dwarves, and then reclaim the Mountain. It adds in a whole layer of complexity which is rather unnecessary.
One scene I sorely missed, though it would have been difficult to translate into film, was Bilbo’s internal battle in the tunnel, prior to making the final descent. The fear of that moment is absent, and the heroic nature of Bilbo’s journey is ignored. In some ways this is further proof that The Hobbit is not really about the hobbit any more.
Bilbo enters the cavernous vault of Erebor, and my first thought was, “Where’s all this light coming from?” Again, as in Goblintown and Gollum’s cave, the all-encompassing Dark is banished; this time for some mysterious light which doesn’t have any discernible source. Darkness plays such a powerful role in Tolkien’s books, in some cases feeling like a character itself. I realize darkness cannot truly be filmed, some light is necessary. How simple it would have been to let the light emanate from Smaug, as it does when he’s about to blow fire? Or to let to light shine from his eyes as described? At least some level of gloominess should have been preserved; and some plausible source of light.
Smaug’s reveal was truly glorious. He is massive and very impressive. My only problems are the aforementioned thick hide and the fact that he is not really a dragon, but more of a wyvern. The design was debated, and apparently assumptions correct, when some noticed changes to the prologue in AUJ’s extended edition. Smaug does not have four legs. Instead he uses his claw tipped wings to help him walk. Granted the way he moves and is rendered feels natural, and quite sinister. I’m on the fence with this change.
‘Inside Information’ is the main event. It was amazing. Benedict Cumberbatch does a great job capturing the sinister craftiness of the great wyrm. The scene is captivating, and would be perfect but for two elements. Firstly, Bilbo removes the ring and reveals himself. I understand the Ring-world motif doesn’t lend itself to the big reveal of the movie, but couldn’t he at least have remained hidden? It seemed rather absurd that Smaug would not just eat him or roast him on the spot.
My second issue lies in Smaug’s apparently exhaustive knowledge of things he really should know nothing about. He knows exactly which dwarves have come, specifically Thorin Oakenshield. This appellation Thorin earns after the fall of Erebor at the battle of Azanulzibar, and it seems unlikely this would ever reach Smaug. He also knows of Thorin’s desire of the Arkenstone.
Smaug does not impress me as the sort to concern himself with the culture, superstitions and history of others. His primary interest is pure materialistic greed. Treasuring the Arkenstone above all else would be plausible, but having such an understanding of its importance is not. It begs the tongue-in-cheek question: who’s feeding Smaug his lines? The last and most bizarre revelation is Smaug’s sense of the Ring. The film has established this is the Ring of LotR not the ring of The Hobbit. Therefore to some degree it makes sense that Smaug would sense its power, but it still felt profoundly out of place.
‘Inside Information’ ends with Smaug determined to roast Bilbo and the dwarves suddenly running in. Here’s where we descend into crazy-town. The final scenes in Erebor are among the most preposterous, confusing and daft to ever grace the silver screen.
The dwarves run, and manage to sneak to what was once a guard chamber and secondary exit point. It is blocked. So far events are still sane, but not for long. Thorin devises a plan to light the forges. How fire or heat might be construed as a plausible weapon against a creature that is essentially a forge incarnate, I’ll never know. The company initiates a mad-cap chase scene, wherein Thorin even ends up on Smaug’s nose: will the nonsense never cease?
In a groaner of a conversation, when confronted by cold furnaces and the impossibility of lighting them, they determine Smaug’s flames are just what they need. At least the plan at this point becomes marginally clearer; they are going to melt some gold: a plan as clear as mud!
Thorin leads Smaug to the Gallery of Kings.
Here I must stop and congratulate the artistic department, for here, finally, I saw something akin to what Erebor should be. The Gallery of Kings, while still cavernous, beautifully rendered the feel of the great palaces carved in the Mountain. The Mountain is not some hollow cavern, rather, it is a series of chambers and tunnels. To my mind this is the first authentic view of Erebor we have been given. Though the events which bookend Bilbo and Smaug’s brief encounter in the space are atrocious, this singular moment was stunning. I am glad the tom-foolery led them there.
And now we reach the crowning moment of absurdity, where Thorin’s plan is finally revealed entire. A mold has been filled with molten gold. They release the mold, thereby engulfing Smaug. The sheer stupidity of this scheme is mind-blowing. If there were a wall to knock my head against in the theater, I would have been. This plan demonstrates Thorin and Company’s apparently complete lack of common sense. Smaug is a fire-breathing dragon. His is huge. Fire won’t harm him. Heat definitely won’t. He sleeps under mounds of treasure, so gold won’t bury or restrain him. What on earth do they hope to achieve?!
The whole thing is so imbecilic; I can’t even find words to express it.
You may have noticed by now that Gandalf’s story-line has been absent through all of this. His plot is completely outside of the main events, and is only forcibly interwoven (not that this is necessarily a bad thing). He leaves the company on the eaves of Mirkwood to investigate the tombs at the High Fells. These tombs are all empty and apparently belong to the Ringwraiths. What I feared in AUJ turns out to be true. Oddly, after a year knowing this was likely, it did not bother me overmuch.
Gandalf and Radagast go on to Dul Guldor, where Gandalf enters alone seeking the Necromancer. In an obvious reference to Isengard, he battles the Necromancer, discovering his true nature. I thought it interesting how before becoming the Eye we all know and love, Sauron appears as what looked like a fiery Annatar. The battle on a whole largely felt gratuitous and self-serving, with little purpose beyond the demeaning of Gandalf. Also, it is interesting how Gandalf is now constantly displaying power against the enemy, when that was never the purpose of the Istari.
And here concludes my initial reactions to seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug for the first time. I am curious in the weeks ahead if future viewings will change any of these perceptions or simply reinforce them.