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24 Dec 2013

Review: The Desolation of Smaug – Last Friday we went to see the second Hobbit film, subtitled The Desolation of Smaug. Since we’ve now got two of these films, some abbreviations seem to be in order. When necessary, I will refer to the first film as H:UJ and the second film as H:DS (The Hobbit will refer to the book version). Unlike the last time around, when I ended up writing a total of three entries (one before the film, a non-spoiler review after the first viewing, and a spoilerific review after the second viewing), I will only be writing one review this time, as I’m not sure I will have time to see the film again while it is still in the cinema. Since I will only be writing one review, it is going to be a spoilerific one—if you haven’t seen the film yet and are loath to have it spoiled, stop reading now.

“If I am to take my own advice, I will need to learn to appreciate the films as works separate from the original book.”

OK, if you’re still here, I can assume that either you have already seen the film or you do not mind having it spoiled for you, so let’s dive in. It took me a while to figure out how to structure this entry—in fact, I wrote nearly three thousand words before I realized there are three main things that I want to talk about: the treatment of the ring, the character of Tauriel, and the dwarves under the mountain. So I have decided to structure this entry thematically, dealing with each of these things completely and in turn before moving on to the next. There are other little things I want to mention, of course, but I will save those for a catch-all section at the end. The bottom line is that this will not be a play-by-play account of the film. That is more or less what I did with the first film, and that entry ended up taking me ten days to write. Sticking with just a few big issues, this one only took me four days to cobble together.

One ring to rule them all

The ring in The Hobbit became problematic as soon as the LOTR books were written. Before that, it was just a magic ring, one that simply made the wearer invisible. With the advent of LOTR, though, the ring became something else entirely. Tolkien did go back and change the scene with Gollum under the Misty Mountains, but there are other scenes that are problematic, namely the part in the book where Bilbo is depicted as wearing the ring for more than two weeks straight. We don’t get too much of the ring in the first film, just the bit where he escapes from Gollum and later when he finally escapes the goblin caves. I knew we were going to be seeing a lot more of the ring in the second film, though, and I was very curious to see how Jackson & Co. would deal with it.

We see very early on that the ring has much the same effect on Bilbo as it has on every other individual who possesses it (besides Sauron, of course). He frets and worries over it, constantly checking to make sure that it is still there. We even get a quick flash of the Eye of Sauron at one point—a thematic bridge between this film and the LOTR films. But Bilbo doesn’t put the ring on until they get to Mirkwood and the dwarves are captured and strung up by the spiders. Interestingly enough, the ring allows him to understand the speech of the spiders, which before was just incessant clicking. In the book, of course, Bilbo can understand the spiders naturally, but I thought this was rather clever and in keeping with the nature of the ring (in that it allows the wearer to perceive things they might otherwise not be able to).

Even more interestingly, though, is the fact that Bilbo only wears the ring for a brief time, taking it off again right before stabbing a spider in the face. Maybe it’s just me, but I would probably take the ring off after stabbing the spider in the face. It does make it more dramatic, of course, and that is important. I don’t remember Bilbo putting the ring on again, though—I’m pretty sure he is out in the open as he runs around slashing and stabbing the spiders with the newly-named Sting. This serves multiple functions, of course: not only is it more dramatic, but it also makes Bilbo more heroic. After all, it is easy enough to go around stabbing things when you’re invisible. Or, at least, I assume it would be.

There is something else that I realized while I was watching this scene, though: While the “ring world” is different from what we see in the LOTR films, in that it is sepia-toned instead of black-and-white and not nearly as frenetic, it is still not a pleasant place to be. And I don’t mean just for the person wearing the ring, I mean for the audience as well. The world is still monochromatic and distorted, so from a cinematic perspective it makes sense to limit the amount of time the audience has to observe the world through this filter. I must admit that I hadn’t thought of this before, but it makes perfect sense to me now.

At the end of the spider battle, when the elves drop in to save the day and then take the dwarves prisoner, we get a scene that I believe was there to show us how much the ring was affecting Bilbo. He drops the rings, but before he can pick it up what I can only assume is a baby spider clambers up out of a hole in the ground. The baby spider knocks the ring around a bit and Bilbo goes ballistic, hacking and slashing at the spider before finally driving his blade straight down into its head. Like I said above, I believe the purpose of the scene was to show us how much of a ring junkie Bilbo already was, but I didn’t find it all that effective. I understood what my reaction was supposed to be, but I didn’t have that reaction, mainly because that baby spider was horrifying. I might have felt differently had it been a cute and cuddly spider, but if I had seen that thing come scrambling up out of the ground at me I think I would have attacked it with just as much gusto as Bilbo did. And probably a lot more screaming.

But the biggest ring scene in the book in terms of how long Bilbo wears the ring is when he is sneaking around the halls of the elvenking. Part of the problem is solved in the film by taking what was two weeks in the book and truncating it to less than two days (if I remember correctly, the dwarves only spend one night in Thranduil’s dungeons). The rest of the problem is solved by having Bilbo once again take off the ring as soon as possible. Unlike in the book, their escape in the barrels does not go unnoticed, and the dwarves never actually get sealed inside the barrels, so Bilbo never puts his ring back on. It isn’t until we get to the Lonely Mountain and Bilbo sneaks into Smaug’s lair that he puts the ring on again.

Like just about everything else in the film, the scenes of Bilbo entering Smaug’s lair are truncated into a single scene in which all of the dialogue between them takes place. To my surprise, Bilbo once again takes off the ring as soon as he can, despite the fact that Smaug can see him. He puts it on in rare moments to get away from the dragon, but during most of the scene he is visible—and vulnerable. In the book, Smaug’s curiosity overwhelms his killer instinct because he has never encountered a hobbit before. We do get that line here in the film, but I think it could have been emphasized more, especially considering the fact that Smaug can now see Bilbo. I wasn’t really convinced that Bilbo could survive out in the open like that without being torched.

Ultimately, there is no way around the fact that it is just not possible for Bilbo to use the ring as much in the films as he did in the book. I suppose I have to applaud Jackson & Co. for making a choice and then being faithful to that in the way they wrote the story. Although I would have loved to have seen a slower-paced battle of wits between Bilbo and Smaug, like we had in the book, the truth is that it would not have fit with the rest of the film. I think the filmmakers did what they had to do.

New girl on the block

Apparently there was a huge disturbance in the force (wait, sorry, wrong universe) when the character of Tauriel was first announced, with a lot of acid and bile being spewed about how she was going to “ruin Tolkien.” I was not aware of this, as I do not hang out in the corners of the internet where such conversations take place (thank goodness), but a friend of mine informed me of the controversy. This friend also told me that she was hoping Tauriel would be a strong female character in what is otherwise—let’s face it—a sausage fest. Having seen the film, I can say that I do not believe Tauriel “ruined Tolkien” (I’m not sure how she would do that anyway), but I also didn’t see her as a particularly strong female character.

This is something I was talking about with Kevin on Friday night at the Thai restaurant we went to, and I brought up the Bechdel Test (the name of which I couldn’t remember, but which Kevin supplied without even a glance at his smartphone). If you haven’t heard of this test before, it essentially requires that a work has two female characters talking to each other about something other than a man. H:DS fails this test right off the bat because Tauriel is the only main female character in the film other than Galadriel, who appears only briefly in one of those psychic Skype sessions the White Council has. So Tauriel doesn’t really have any other female characters to talk to.

This might be a little unfair; just because the film as a whole fails the Bechdel Test does not mean that Tauriel cannot be a strong female character. And one might say, as the friend I mentioned above did, that having one female character is better than having none. I would tend to agree. Tolkien’s works are notoriously thin on believable female characters, probably because Tolkien himself lived in a very male-oriented world. But in the LOTR films we at least have Galadriel, Arwen, and Eowyn—in The Hobbit there are no female characters at all other than “extras.” So you would think that adding a female character to the film would help tip that balance at least slightly away from the sausages, and indeed it does. Tauriel is a good fighter—she’s captain of the guard, for crying out loud—and fun to watch on the big screen. But being physically strong does not necessarily make for a strong character, and I think Tauriel fails at the latter.

You see, Tauriel is little more than the third point in a love triangle involving Legolas and Kili. The very idea of this love triangle is absurd, and the film’s attempts to establish a connection between Tauriel and Kili are laughable. The two first meet when Kili is taken prisoner, and Tauriel eyes him appreciatively, saying that he is “tall... for a dwarf.” And then they somehow form a connection, despite the fact that their respective races are, if not enemies, not on the friendliest of terms, and these two characters have gone through nothing together that might change that. The friendship that grew between Legolas and Gimli in LOTR was powerful and moving because we got to see how it developed over time (both in the books and in the films), but here we are expected to accept that an elf and a dwarf have fallen in love at first sight simply because one is Evangeline Lilly and the other is Aidan Turner. Give me a break.

It gets worse, though. Legolas forms the final point in this love triangle when we are informed by his father Thranduil that his son has long had his eye on the captain of the guard. To be honest, though, I didn’t know this until it was spelled out for me, because Legolas doesn’t really show Tauriel any warmth whatsoever. If anything, he sees her as a possession that is rightfully his, but even this I was only able to infer after hearing Thranduil’s speech. So we end up with a love triangle in which none of the relationships are believable.

Being the lone female in this elf-dwarf-elf love triangle is bad enough, but unfortunately for her character everything she does revolves around this love triangle. During the barrel scene (which is this film’s “running battle scene,” analogous to the goblin mines battle in H:UJ), Legolas, Tauriel, and some other elves pursue, taking down some orcs along the way, but they stop when they reach the border of their lands. They return home, where Thranduil orders them to let the orcs go, but Tauriel disobeys this order and heads off on her own in pursuit. Legolas follows her, and the two of them track the orcs to Laketown. To add tension (and insult to injury, in my opinion), Kili is wounded in the flight from the orcs when he is shot by a poisoned arrow. He stays behind with Oin, Fili, and Bofur (the last not by choice but simply because he woke up late after partying all night) while Thorin and the rest of the Company head to the Lonely Mountain. That night, as Kili lies in Bard’s house, slowly dying from the poison, the orcs attack, but Legolas and Tauriel show up just in time. Tauriel saves the day and then uses her “elvish medicine” to save Kili. Delirious, Kili believes it is just a dream and asks what he believes to be a figment of his imagination whether Tauriel ever could have loved him. I nearly laughed aloud at this point, but I managed to restrain myself.

To play devil’s advocate for a moment, Tauriel does give a speech to Legolas justifying her disobedience when she sets out in pursuit of the orcs. Thranduil is only interested in protecting his borders, and his son Legolas is inclined to heed his words, but Tauriel argues that the wood elves are just as much a part of the world as any other race, and they owe it to Middle Earth to fight evil whenever and wherever they can. So her motivation here seems to be pure and noble, transcending any interest she might have in Kili. There are two problems with this, though. Firstly, the argument is one we already heard in the LOTR films, particularly in the Ent scenes. I suppose a positive way to look at it would be to see it as a thematic bridge with the earlier trilogy, but to me it just felt like a tired retread. I knew exactly what Tauriel was going to say, and why she was going to say it, so it all fell very flat. The second problem is that, even if Tauriel truly meant everything she said, what we ultimately see her do is save her dwarf boyfriend. That’s the last we see of her in the film: looking at Kili as he asks if she could ever love him, moved as anyone would be in that situation.

It is possible I am being too cynical, but I just did not feel she was a truly strong female character. I will say that I was not one of those people who went into the film dead set on hating her. I would have been pleased as punch had she turned out to be a genuinely strong female character—Il´u;vatar knows the story needed one—but I ended up just being annoyed by her and the changes that were introduced for no other reason than to serve the love triangle subplot. I guess we’ll have to wait and see how things play out in the third film (spoiler: it’s not going to end well for Tauriel and Kili) before I come to any final judgment, but I’m not too optimistic at the moment.

King under the mountain

The end of the film is probably where we see the greatest departure from the book, not just in terms of Bilbo’s encounter with Smaug, but in the role the dwarves play in all of it. We might as well get this out of the way in advance: Tolkien had a really bad habit of cutting away from the action just as things started to get interesting. In the book, when the dwarves finally enter the mountain, Smaug is long gone—in fact, I’m pretty sure he’s already dead at that point, having flown down to Laketown and gotten himself shot by Bard the Bowman. So after all that build up, the dwarves get to the mountain and just sit around for a few days doing absolutely nothing. We find out about Smaug’s demise after the fact, although Tolkien is at least kind enough to not tell the story in a flashback—which is exactly what he does with the climactic Battle of the Five Armies at the end of the book. Bilbo gets knocked on the head early in the battle and only hears about the victory much later on, when he finally wakes up (having gone unnoticed on the battlefield because he had his ring on the whole time). I am a huge Tolkien fan, but the last part of The Hobbit has always been somewhat of a disappointment. I still love the book, of course, but I’m brave enough to say that Tolkien kind of dropped the ball. I understand why he did what he did—for one, having the dwarves center stage takes the focus of Bilbo—but it has always felt very anticlimactic to me.

Instead of having the dwarves reclaim their ancient home without a fight, we get what I think everyone has always wanted to see: What would the dwarves have done if Smaug had not flown down to Laketown? The answer, of course, is a pretty amazing chase sequence and a desperate plan hatched by Thorin. By the way, let me just say a word on Smaug before I go on. I didn’t really think about this too much during the film, which I think is a testament to Smaug’s effectiveness as a character, but the work that was done on him was amazing. Like Gollum in the LOTR films, I found myself believing that Smaug was completely real—except that Smaug was not an emaciated little former hobbit but a massive dragon. I hope we get the chance to see the film again in the cinema because I would really like to play closer attention to Smaug.

Anyway, Thorin’s plan was rather convoluted and required a lot of things to go just right, but I have to admit that it was pretty awesome when the huge golden statue was revealed at the end—and then collapsed into a tsunami of molten gold that momentarily buried Smaug. Was it over the top? Yes, it was, especially the part where Thorin body surfs down a river of molten gold. But it was still a pretty great sequence, I think, and I was just so happy to see the dwarves actually fighting Smaug, however ineffectual their efforts ultimately turned out to be. In story terms, it also makes Thorin a more heroic character. In both the book and the film, he is accused of simply wanting to steal the Arkenstone and thus reclaim his right to the throne, and given that the dwarves never even encounter Smaug in the book, this claim is hard to dispute (in fact, I think this was intentional on Tolkien’s part). In the film, though, he at least makes an effort to defeat Smaug, showing that he was not just a thief in the night.

Of course, as we know, even the best laid plans of dwarves and hobbits often go astray, and Smaug flies up into the sky and heads off to Laketown, shaking off the molten gold as he rises. Bilbo’s very last line in the film is: “What have we done?” The truth, though, is that it is not what “they” had done. As in the book, Smaug flies off to Laketown because Bilbo slips up and calls himself “Barrel Rider.” Smaug, being very intelligent (as all dragons are), figures out the connection and believes (not entirely incorrectly) that Bilbo has come from Laketown. So to be perfectly frank, Bilbo is ultimately responsible for whatever lives are lost in Laketown. On the other hand, in the book he is also responsible for discovering the piece of information that allows Bard to slay the dragon. During one of their conversations, Bilbo tricks Smaug into showing his underbelly, which is protected not by scales but by a thick layer of encrusted gold and gems. When Bilbo relays this information to the dwarves, a thrush overhears and brings the message to Bard.

The problem in the film, though, is that even though Bilbo sees a single scale missing from Smaug’s underbelly he never relays this information to the dwarves and thus is never overheard by the thrush. So how will Bard get the information? Well, as it turns out, he already knows. I won’t go into the new elements introduced to the film (the “windlance” and the “black arrows”), but we get a scene where Bard’s son tells the dwarves that his ancestor Girion once hit Smaug with a black arrow, knocking off a scale. In other words, it is a legend that has been handed down from generation to generation. When the final battle with Smaug comes (at the beginning of the third film), Bard will presumably use the knowledge from this oral tradition to fell the beast—which means that Bilbo’s ledger is now in the red. He has sent Smaug off to lay waste to Laketown, but he has not made up for that by discovering Smaug’s weakness. At least he saved the dwarves, I guess.

Filling up the corners

There are some other little things that don’t fit too neatly into my three points above, but I still want to mention them for various reasons. Because they are not necessarily related to each other, I will present them in the form of a bulleted list before writing my conclusion.


H:DS is a much more serious film than the first installment. Bombur (the fat dwarf) still plays the role of comic relief at times, most notably during the running battle on the river out of Mirkwood, but there was very little humor otherwise, except for the occasional subdued gag. In this regard it feels very different from the first film.

It also differs from the first film in terms of pace. H:UJ takes its time getting started, but H:DS is out of the gate running and never really lets up. I know this made it very popular with some critics (the consensus seems to be that the second installment is better than the first), but the whole thing felt rather rushed to me. There were so many things that were skipped or truncated because we simply didn’t have the time to stop and smell the roses, and the whole affair felt like a frantic scavenger hunt, with the film checking off crucial scenes before bolting off to the next one. I guess I am in the minority, but I actually liked the slow start of the first film.

Then there is the matter of the ring (and, by extension, Sauron). As I mentioned above, I think the filmmakers have done a pretty good job handling the ring, but I wonder if there is not too much focus on the ring. In the book, it’s “just” a magic ring that Bilbo uses when necessary, but in the film it seems to take center stage quite a bit. And then there is Sauron, who is only mentioned once as “the Necromancer” in the book, but in the film plays a much larger part. All of this takes away from the “Hobbity” feel of the film, in my opinion. We are not watching a small, unimportant hobbit find his courage and become a great figure. What we are watching is essentially a junkie in the first stages of an addiction that will nearly consume him. I understand that much of this is inevitable given the circumstances, but I still find it lamentable. If I am to take my own advice, though, I will need to learn to appreciate the films as works separate from the original book. Perhaps that will come with time, but now, after my first viewing, and in spite of everything I enjoyed about the film, I can’t help feeling a little disappointed.

Oh, and one more thing: We did not make the mistake of watching the film in 3D this time. We saw it in 2D on a regular-sized screen, and it was just fine. Gone was the motion sickness I remember from our first viewing of H:UJ. Or perhaps Jackson & Co. dialed back the “swoopy cam” a bit?

Anyway, my final analysis is that I enjoyed much of the film yet was somehow left with an overall feeling of mild disappointment. I think this can be largely attributed to the pace and the focus. Nonetheless, I am very much looking forward to the third film, and to the eventual release of the expanded editions, which I hope will slow things down a bit and give us more time to savor the story.

Oh, and since it is now Christmas Eve, let me take a moment to wish you a Merry Christmas. I’m going to throw a “Happy New Year” in there as well, because I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t get the chance to write any more before 2013 bites the dust. So, once again, I find myself ending the year musing on Bilbo and his adventures. There are worse ways to finish up a year, I suppose.

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