I’ve been a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien for many, many years, ever since I first saw the animated version of The Hobbit as a kid (I was not nearly as enthralled with Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, though the animated Return of the King wasn’t bad). I’ve read (several times) The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. I studied Tolkien under Dr. Verlyn Flieger, an expert on him and his works, and I saw and loved the LOTR live-action movies.
So you might think I would be ecstatic about the recent Hobbit movies: An Unexpected Journey and the just-released Desolation of Smaug. I’ve seen both and I wish I could say I love them as much as the LOTR films from the early 2000’s. But with two movies down and one to go, I can’t say that. Something has gone awry—no, scratch that. Many things have gone awry, and it took me a while to realize the full extent.
Come along and I’ll tell you, but, of course, there will be spoilers.
The tone is wrong. I understand that Peter Jackson wanted to connect his movies, and using the same actors (when possible) and the same “look-and-feel” to the settings works beautifully. But as it was written, The Hobbit was a children’s tale: a lighthearted adventure with hints of great darkness at its periphery. It was not and should not be an epic: “Face-Overwhelming-Evil-At-Impossible-Odds-As-The-Fate-Of-The-World-Hangs-In-The-Balance” was LOTR. Yet that’s exactly what we’re getting.
Some of my favorite parts of the book are gone or neutered. Gandalf disguising his voice to keep the trolls arguing until dawn. The goblins chanting, “Down, down to Goblin Town!” as they seize the dwarves (to be fair, it’s in the Extended Version), and then singing about “15 birds in 5 fir trees” as they set fire to where the dwarves have taken refuge. Gandalf slyly introducing the dwarves two by two to Beorn as he tells them of their adventures and predicaments.
Perhaps the worst offense in the movie is when Smaug discovers that Bilbo is in his lair. For me, it’s the best scene of the novel: Smaug can smell and hear Bilbo but can’t see him (invisible thanks to the Ring). He’s also intrigued because he can’t determine what Bilbo is, having never smelled hobbits before. Bilbo wisely won’t directly answer Smaug’s questions, toying with the dragon’s inquisitiveness to keep himself alive. It’s a cat-and-mouse game where the “mouse” nevertheless gets the better of the “cat.”
Though the dialogue in the movie version of the scene is much the same (if not identical; it’s been a while since I last re-read The Hobbit), it plays out vastly different. Bilbo foolishly takes the ring off a minute or so into his encounter with Smaug, then tries unsuccessfully to snatch the Arkenstone while the dragon monologues and inexplicably doesn’t kill him. FAIL.
The added material is hit-or-miss…mostly “miss.” Instead of doing one 3-hour movie (which would nicely cover the book without skimping on detail), the filmmakers have opted for three 2 ½-hour movies (Can’t $$$ think $$$ why $$$ they’d $$$ do $$$ such $$$ a $$$ thing). So the screenwriters have padded the original story with a lot of extra material. A LOT. Some of which is good, most of which is not.
Hit: Gandalf’s mission against the Necromancer (taken from The Silmarillion)—explains why Gandalf keeps disappearing from the story, and more firmly links The Hobbit to LOTR.
Misses: Legolas and Tauriel—why do we need these characters? Azog and the orcs hunting the dwarves—turns the first two movies into an overly-long chase. Dwarves vs. Smaug inside the Lonely Mountain—at this point, you’re watching a Godzilla flick, as the dragon (previously portrayed as intelligent) becomes a Big Dumb Fire-Breathing Monster who slowly and stupidly waddles into ineffectual traps set up by his puny adversaries. I wanted to tell Peter Jackson, “We know that Smaug is going to leave and attack Laketown; stop dicking around and get to that, already.”
More misses: The extensive and physics-defying scenes of dwarves running from the Great Goblin and his minions as bridges collapse as if they were made of balsa wood. Oh, yay: more chasing, because we haven’t had enough of that with Azog & Friends. Beorn (as a bear) trying to kill the dwarves as they run (another chase!) for his house. Bilbo momentarily losing the Ring (and his mind) and savagely killing the spider that stood between him and it. Bard vs. the Master of Laketown—do we really need all this skullduggery, culminating in Bard’s arrest? Orcs attacking dwarves and Bard’s family in Laketown, only to be rescued in the nick of time (of course) by the Wonder Twins, Legolas and Tauriel.
I own the Extended Versions of the LOTR films, and even after repeated viewings, I’m not bored for a single minute of those. The added bit in Two Towers where Aragorn is wounded and falls into the river, eventually rejoining his comrades at Helm’s Deep, is unnecessary but not egregious. But I actually checked my watch several times during Desolation, and I rolled my eyes when the dwarves tried to scald/drown Smaug in molten gold: how convenient that Erebor included a giant dwarf-king mold (WTF?) opened merely by pulling really hard on some (again, conveniently) non-rusted chains .
If a Tolkien-phile like me is bored, I can only imagine what non-fanboys must think….
We’ve seen some of this before. Rainy night in Bree, with sketchy patrons of The Prancing Pony, as depicted in Fellowship of the Ring and Desolation; apparently, it’s always monsoon season in Bree, and The Prancing Pony is Middle-Earth’s Mos Eisley cantina. Skulking evil advisor to the ineffective human ruler: Grima Wormtongue of The Two Towers, meet Alfrid of Desolation. Sure-to-be-fatal Morgul knife wound to small person, healed by elven maiden: Frodo and Arwen in Fellowship, Kili and Tauriel in DoS. Super-Awesome-Ninja Elves kill hundreds of orcs without breaking a sweat or ever running out of arrows: Legolas in the LOTR films (where it was pretty cool), Legolas + Tauriel in Desolation (where it’s just tiresome).
Moldering dwarf corpses piled up at a dead-end: mines of Moria in Fellowship, blocked-off exit in DoS. Orcs marching to war from the evil overlord’s citadel: Isengard in Fellowship, Minas Morgul in Return of the King, Dol Guldur in Desolation. Gandalf defeated in magical duel by said evil overlord and imprisoned: vs. Saruman in Fellowship, vs. Sauron in Desolation (no, that does not happen in the original story, so that’s another added part that’s a “miss”).
The “funny” parts aren’t funny. Dwarven brothers greet each other with headbutts? Radagast as a stoner with bird poop on his head? A sled pulled by giant rabbits—the hell? The slain Great Goblin falling from a great height on the dwarves (and seriously injuring or killing none of them)? While The Hobbit movies should be more light-hearted than LOTR, “light-hearted” ≠ “stupid.”
Sense of time is out of whack. In the book, Bibo and the dwarves stumble around lost in Mirkwood for days, and are trapped in the elven dungeons for weeks. In the film, it looks like they spend a day in the forest, and perhaps another day held captive.
Also in the movie, the elves’ feast—where the guards get hammered, allowing Bilbo to steal the keys and free the dwarves—happens during the middle of the day. At least, that’s what it looks like, judging by the sunlight in the immediately-following river-rapids scene (the one where orcs—again!—chase the barrel-riding dwarves while the Wonder Twins Legolas and Tauriel kill scores of bad guys without much effort).
The visuals are off. I don’t know if it’s because Jackson filmed The Hobbit movies at 48 frames per second instead of the industry-standard 24, but lots and lots of it just looks fake. This was not a problem in LOTR: I was absolutely sold on the special effects—it all looked real, so real that I immersed myself in watching. I didn’t disbelieve any of what I saw: settings, monsters, characters, battles—you name it, I bought into it.
Not so much for these past two movies. Fangorn and Isengard in LOTR looked authentic: Mirkwood and Dol Guldor in Hobbit don’t. I’ve kvetched before about the dwarves: when they’re not in scenes with Gandalf or humans or elves, they just look like Renn Faire refugees.
And Smaug….well, maybe it’s just me, but he didn’t impress.
The Hobbit films have a tough act to follow, but they have been much better than the Star Wars prequels—yes, that is damning with faint praise. Maybe Jackson & Company will pull it together and wow me with the last movie, There and Back Again. But to borrow a phrase from the other franchise, “I have a bad feeling about this.”