30 January 2014

The Desolation of Smaug (Review)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (a Review)
by Britta Siemen

*MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS*

Having been extremely disappointed last December, I was very reluctant to see the second instalment of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy – so much that I waited more than a month after its release to see it. No matter how hard I tried, I could not keep myself from pre-judging the film based on the changes and additions I knew would exist. I was terrified of the damage that could – and probably would – be done.

But just as with any piece of artwork, music, or video game based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, so, too, should the movies be judged: as an interpretation, and not merely a retelling of the original story. Naturally, there are (and will be) deviations. This is almost always the case when a book gets turned into a movie. Many of these deviations bothered the “purist” in me, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I actually enjoyed the film.

As a movie, “The Desolation of Smaug” is a thrilling experience. Canon or not, Jackson knows how to make a film that’s worth watching. To the eyes and ears, Tolkien’s Middle-earth is well-represented on the big screen. The digital effects are stunning, from Beorn the bear and the Mirkwood spiders to Dol Guldur and Gandalf’s confrontation with the Necromancer. The score is beautiful; it is reminiscent of “The Lord of the Rings” soundtracks, enough to evoke feelings of nostalgia, and yet different enough to avoid sounding like recycled material.

“The Desolation of Smaug” has the advantage of being the second film in the trilogy, so all of the major introductions have already been made, allowing the film to focus more on the fast-paced action sequences which help make the nearly three hour movie a bit easier to sit through. Unfortunately, there are still more introductions to be made, and one of the film’s major downfalls is its over-abundance of heroes and antagonists. Legolas, Tauriel, and Bard take centre stage as the heroes of this film, each one having something to prove, while Bolg, Azog, the Necromancer, and Smaug threaten the Quest of Erebor. I remain steadfast in my belief that many of these characters should not have been added to the films. Legolas I can begrudgingly accept because he does at least fit into the timeline; but I still dislike the inclusion of Azog, who died long before the Quest of Erebor takes place, and Tauriel, whose presence feels very forced, as though she has been thrown in simply to provide some sense of a moral compass and, of course, a love interest – neither of which help to advance the story in any way. (For the record, though, Evangeline Lilly fit the Elven role perfectly.) 

And once again, Jackson’s Bilbo is the one who suffers the most. The poor hobbit comes across as more of a secondary character than one after whom the story is named. Sure, he saves the Dwarves from the Mirkwood spiders a little bit – but Legolas and Tauriel show up and draw the spotlight away from him. Sure, he frees the Dwarves from Mirkwood’s prisons – but the feat is short-lived, and soon Legolas and Tauriel return to save the day. And what of the Burglar whose sharp eye catches the weak spot in Smaug’s armour? Naturally, that, too is attributed to someone else. The mighty dragon put it best when he informed the hobbit that he was simply “a means to an end.” Truly, he seems to serve little other purpose in these films.

My biggest fear, however, was the one thing that did not disappoint. My favourite character from the book, Smaug ultimately ended up being the deciding factor in whether or not I liked the second “Hobbit” film. Thankfully, the dragon was just as impressive – if not more – than I’d imagined he would be. The banter between he and Bilbo was nearly spot-on, though I (of course) prefer Tolkien’s version, wherein Bilbo is equally as susceptible to Smaug’s manipulation as the dragon is to the hobbit’s flattery. Still, Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch are a delight to watch, and at this point, I find it impossible to think of anyone better to portray their respective characters.

As an adaptation, “The Desolation of Smaug” falls short. It diverges greatly from Tolkien’s version, and more often than not feels like a work of fan fiction. The beauty of The Hobbit is its simplicity and straightforwardness: Tolkien has shown us that it is possible for a story to be fun and exciting without the complexities of dramatised back stories, love triangles, and an overwhelming mass of characters. Jackson takes just the opposite approach. While the new characters and subplots may appeal to those who have not read The Hobbit, those who have may find that these changes take away from the story we know and love.

Though these films carry the name of Tolkien’s beloved tale, they are not the story of The Hobbit; rather, they are “The Quest of Erebor” with some bits of The Hobbit tossed in here and there. But despite all of the deviations and unnecessary additions, “The Desolation of Smaug” kept me entertained and managed to exceed the majority of my expectations. It’s not the “Hobbit” story I was hoping to see, but it was not the abomination that I was expecting, either.

What did you think? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below or Tweet me @TolkienBritta!

10 comments:

  1. I did too notice the spotlight pulled many times from Bilbo! And it's sad because Martin Freeman was so brilliant! The scene with Smaug was a true gem, Jackson didn't disappoint. I remain torn about the teeming romance between Kili and Tauriel. Part of me wants to love it, and the other part of me was severely disturbed. I enjoyed your review, thanks for sharing! =)

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    1. Thanks, Emily! It took some getting used to, but I really do enjoy Martin Freeman's portrayal of Bilbo. He does make a pretty good hobbit!

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  2. Britta, I'm very glad to read your comments on DOS. I was extremely disappointed in the film. I am no Tolkien purist, but I felt the film borrowed the name of the book and some of the characters, threw in a few more for good measure, and then wrote a script that, at best, bears a passing resemblance to the original story. I know liberties need to be taken when converting a book to a film, but I felt PJ sold out to pressure to just put in as much action as possible.

    I think the scene that bothered me the most was the giant golden dwarf. Yeah, let's try to incinerate Smaug by firing up firing up the odd furnaces in the middle of a battle, pour hot liquid gold into a giant dwarf mold, and hope the dragon will be incinerated when he checks it out. Come on. I can't give PJ the amount of suspension of disbelief required for that.

    By the end of the film, I was just rolling my eyes and thinking "now what?" It sapped all the enjoyment out of the film for me. I had hoped he'd stick a little closer to the book storyline and not make the film an endless series of action scenes that were only put there for effect, not to advance the storyline.

    In summary, I was very disappointed. I did not enjoy the film at all. I hope PJ has more respect for Tolkien's vision in the third and final installment.

    Kevin

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    1. Kevin, I'm sorry to hear you didn't like it.
      I think the only reason I enjoyed it as much as I did (ie at all) was because I went into it knowing what to expect and seeing it as a film rather than Tolkien's story. Still, I would have liked to see more key elements from the book. There were plenty of things I couldn't stand, but left them out of my review to avoid sounding too nitpicky.

      I'm glad I'm not the only one bothered by that scene! I thought the entire sequence was far too drawn out and unrealistic. Hopefully the next film will be a bit more accurate...

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  3. Good review, Britta. And I don't think you're miles away from my own feelings.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the film. This is not to say that I didn't have a few moments of "What?!" ... but that was almost exclusively due to shock rather than disappointment.

    In fact, I don't know as any particular scene disappointed me. Rather, I found that certain scenes I was anticipating being disappointed in turned out to be far more enjoyable than expected. And that choice of words actually sounds like a back-handed compliment when in fact it's not...it's solid praise.

    For example, in "An Unexpected Journey", when Bilbo saved Thorin from being slain, I thought ... "Well, they've taken Bilbo's moment of personal growth and first "real action" and moved it. Now it's not killing a spider on his own without aid or assistance, it's here...now...saving Thorin. Hmmm...okay."

    I then went into DoS fully expecting Bilbo to be basically useless in the scene with the spiders...and was impressed at how much fighting he actually did!

    Also, whilst I didn't "expect" the dwarves as a whole to face the dragon...I was thoroughly entertained by it, was actually happy to see them get a chance at vengeance, and also I LOVED the nod to "Smaug the Golden".

    Long post cut abruptly short ... good review.

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    1. "An Unexpected Journey" was a horrible experience for me, because nearly everything elicited a "what?! How could they?!" reaction; I couldn't believe how much they'd changed the story around. But I honestly didn't feel that way at all during "The Desolation of Smaug". Tauriel bothered me, but not enough to sour me on the entire film.

      I'm still conflicted about that scene... I thought it was great to allow the Dwarves a chance to face the dragon; but at the same time, it seemed very long and drawn out. And I agree with Kevin on the "let's try to incinerate the dragon!" being a bit too much to take in. But that scene still had me on the edge of my seat, so Jackson still knows what he's doing as a film-maker!

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  4. It's Sophie again. You're right Britta because it took me 40 minutes to finally enjoy it. I was shocked at the amount of characters and everything else but it was enjoyable. Lily does make a good elf so I'm OK with her being there although I still cringe since it was unnecessary.

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    1. I think I would feel much better about Tauriel if she served more of a purpose in the film. I like that she was sort of a foil to the Elvenking, urging him to care about the fates of those outside his walls. I just think they should have left all traces of romance out – or, if it was really necessary, they could have done something reminiscent of Gimli's affection for Galadriel. But I don't think the love should be reciprocated, nor should it turn into a love triangle.

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  5. Nice! It's an interpretation. This is a good definition.

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  6. While Peter Jackson, as the director, has final say on the content of his movies, I would put most of the changes in the stories at the feet of the screenwriters, Walsh and Boyens.

    Peter Jackson is into Spectacle, and he is very good at it.

    Walsh and Boyens want to tell the story they want to tell.

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