Hollywood transforms “The Hobbit” into The Desolation of Tolkien

Summary:  Today we have another guest post by film critic Locke Peterseim, a review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. He shows how Hollywood transforms Tolkien’s small story into The Fast and Furious visits Middle Earth, draining away its character and meaning (much as they did in the last two of the three Lord of the Rings films). Post your comments about the film — and this review!

The Hobbit

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Tolkien

By Locke Peterseim

Posted at the film blog of Open Letters Monthly

14 December 2013

Reposted here with his generous permission

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Well, it’s better — at least more entertaining – than last winter’s first Hobbit film. So there’s that.

But, like Gandalf and his fellow wizards and elf lords catching vague feelings of growing darkness in the wind, for us long-time Tolkien fans (and us fans of Peter Jackson’s decade-old Lord of the Rings film trilogy) there’s a creeping sense that exactly what makes Desolation of Smaug work more effectively as popcorn entertainment is an on-screen death knoll for everything that made Tolkien’s works so special.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is an action film, pure and simple; constantly jumping, spinning, and grabbing at our YouTube-ravaged attention spans.

Sure, the battle with the Mirkwood spiders was Tolkien’s idea, but everything else comes from Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens turning relatively low-key moments like the barrel escape from the wood elves and Bilbo’s initial parlay with Smaug into full-blown action set-pieces.

As in An Unexpected Journey, the first half of Smaug is driven by a pack of hunting orcs on warg-back, whipping the narrative along at every turn. (And once again, Jackson et al insert yet another new orc big baddie into the story to act as a more visceral antagonist. You know, because A Giant Fricking Dragon wasn’t enough.)

Nothing is ever allowed anymore to just happen in the Hobbit films — everything has to be ratcheted up, drawn out, enhanced and turbo-charged. Even Bard the Bowman’s fateful Black Arrow is no longer a simple, lucky shaft, but part of a giant Super Weapon. (The character of Bard — played with Aragorn-like stoicism by Luke Evans — is equally inflated, complete with a family of adorable moppets for that extra “threat to the family” juice.)

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The Hobbit: Gandolf

Yes, the action is often nicely CGI choreographed, especially the river-barrel scene as it weaves between slapstick and ballet.  But every movement from point A to point B becomes a chase-fight-chase scene. (“Barrels out of Bond” becomes “Barrels! The Death-defying Log Flume Ride!”)

Take away the over-saturated New Zealand landscape and the leather leggings, and these Hobbit films are starting to feel less like Tolkien and more like The Fast and the Furious. (No orc make-up necessary for Vin Diesel.)

And it’s not just the big action set pieces — every little gesture has to be re-jiggered into artificial busyness in an attempt to constantly manufacture excitement and suspense. No one can simply pick up a fork anymore in The Hobbit. They reach for the fork, it tumbles out of their reach, and dangles precariously on the edge of the table. Then a band of howling orcs crashes through the dining room window and sets everything on fire.

The Hobbit: Tauriel

The Desolation of Smaug rarely slows down enough to rely on actors talking or selling quiet moments before it’s on to the next big CGI thrill-ride spectacular. And when the film does get off the amusement ride for a few minutes, it’s usually for newly-created bits of obvious padding.

There are added-in noble, flirtatious teasings between the new she-elf character of Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Kili the Dwarf (Aidan Turner). (Because what the franchise really needed was a scene in which an elf waxes rhapsodic about starlight while getting twitchy ears for a dwarf.)

And once Thorin’s Company reaches Laketown, we’re treated to long stretches examining the village’s contentious economic and management structure at the hands of its “Master” (the always delightfully redoubtable Stephen Fry). That’s right — come for the Giant Dragon, stay for the Laketown political mechanisms. (Did Jackson let George Lucas take a pass at the script?)

What worse is that these plot threads with Tauriel and Kili and the Laketown Master are not just side bits, but — in the ongoing effort to stretch Tolkien’s slim novel out over eight hours and three films — both storylines are given far too much screen time. At one particularly egregious, head-slapping point, Jackson literally crosscuts between an epic battle with a fire-breathing dragon and a bit of ginned-up Laketown business involving a dwarf looking for a particular weed to help heal a leg wound.

The Hobbit: Smaug

All this begs the question, if we must have three Hobbit films (and clearly the undying, Smaug-like greed of Warner Brothers says we must) then why do they each have to be over two and a half hours long? Smaug, like Journey before it, would probably have made a delightful 105-minute movie.

Ironically, all of this leaves little room for the gentle charm and — at least for the first half — the title character of Tolkien’s small, rustic novel. Martin Freeman is noticeably better this time out as Bilbo — settling into the character, he’s less archly theatrical while still letting his fine comic timing show through. But amid all the chasing and fighting and orcs and dwarfs and love-struck elves (including a sullen and somewhat fleshier Orlando Bloom back as Legolas), until the film reaches The Lonely Mountain and Smaug, it’s easy to forget there’s a Hobbit in The Hobbit.

Tolkien’s novel is about unexpected adventures and experiences; the wider wonders (and terrors) that come with setting out into the unknown. But of course The Hobbit films rarely dare offer up the unknown to audiences. They’re packed with callbacks to and reminders of the Lord of the Rings movies: not just the parts from Tolkien, like Gandalf and the Ring, but also Legolas (complete with a bit of blatant fan service involving Gimli’s dad), glimpses of Sauron, dark and rainy nights at the Prancing Pony in Bree (in an opening flashback), Tauriel as a more active version of Arwen, and a clear attempt to fashion Laketown’s Master and his sniveling, conniving assistant into lightweight versions of Théoden/Denethor and Wormtongue.

The Hobbit: Thranduil

Yes, Smaug the dragon is “new” to those who only know The Lord of the Rings, but while the massive CGI creature is suitably impressive (as deeply voiced by Freeman’s Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch) there’s nothing much surprising about Smaug’s visual presentation.

Like all Jackson’s CGI creations, he has heft and presence, but Smaug looks almost prosaically “amazing” — didn’t we know he’d have to? — and as with everything else in the overlong film, the dragon is plucked from his perfectly turned, understated role in the book and hauled into an increasingly tedious string of action beats.

With every jacked-up bit of Rube-Goldbergian business he’s put through, Smaug the Magnificent loses a little more of his menacing mystery and majesty as the franchise, desperate for a “big finale” to its middle section, turns him into just another Clash of the Titans-style CGI monster to be battled by puny CGI heroes. It’s only at the film’s very finish, as Smaug soars off roaring, “I am fire! I am death!” that the mighty firedrake regains some of his dark-epic grandeur.

(One nitpicky geek bit: How would Smaug know to refer to Thorin as “Oakenshield” when the dwarf prince earned that name after the dwarfs were forced into exile from the Lonely Mountain? Does Smaug have The Daily Middle-Earth Gazette delivered to his front stoop?

The Hobbit

(Okay, a second nitpicky bit: Why would the dwarfs try to kill a dragon with fire? Isn’t that like trying to drown a fish? Or overexpose a Kardashian? I know dwarfs aren’t the sharpest sticks in the land, but come on…)

The Hobbit films still work best when dealing with the larger gravitas of Middle Earth — the rise of “The Enemy” and the Elves’ waning interest and influence in what is increasingly becoming the humans’ world.

The most welcome padded-out additions here are the expansion of Gandalf and the White Council’s dealings with the ominous “Necromancer” at Dol Guldur. For as much as Smaug is a “physical” CGI spectacle, our glimpses of Sauron (also voiced, albeit in the Black Speech of Mordor, by Cumberbatch) are less technically dazzling but, in giving dark and fiery shape to a formless evil, more visually and emotionally effective.

And there are always times when Jackson’s obvious love for his New Zealand vistas shines through, even in something as melancholy as fog rolling through the mountains. But for the most part, as with the first Hobbit film, it doesn’t seem Jackson’s heart is fully in Middle Earth anymore. As the film rambles along feeling somewhat cobbled together in its endless padding, its lurching style and tone never quite in balance, you can’t help but think Jackson’s overcompensating for that lack of passion by piling on the busy-busy.

The Hobbit: Mirkwood

What us Tolkien fans must accept is that while Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films felt like he, Walsh, and Boyens were doing their best to put the books on the screen, these Hobbit films are merely using the slim book as an excuse to make big, lucrative movies.

One of the few glimpses of Tolkien’s pastoral humanism that remains in the film version is Bilbo’s climb above the Mirkwood tree canopy where he’s greeted by a fleeting moment in the sun, surrounded by small, fragile butterflies.

It’s a sadly apt metaphor for the film itself — a brief respite of quiet, still beauty amid a forest of unnecessary clamor and confusion.

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(2) About the author

Locke Peterseim writes the Hammer and Thump film blog at Open Letters Monthly, an online arts and literature magazine. A film critic whose work has appeared on Redbox, WGN Radio, and in the Magill’s Cinema Annual, he also serves on the board of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

These days he still enjoys films on their artistic and entertainment merits, but also finds himself as much if not more interested in them as cultural mirrors; artifacts of how we want to see ourselves–and how mainstream studios want to sell those desires back to us.

Some of his other reviews:

  1. Ender’s Game: Playing at Shock and Awe
  2. The Hunger Games: How a Real Film Emerged from the Deadly Arena of Young-Adult Movie Franchises
  3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – You Say You Want a Revolution?
  4. Transformers 4 is the Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America
  5. 300: Rise of an Empire: The Half-Truths and Bloody Fog of Cartoon War
  6. The Wolf of Wall Street: What’s So Funny About Greed, Ludes, and Unchecked Capitalism?

(3)  For More Information

(a)  See all posts about:

  1. Book and film reviews
  2. Art, myth, and literature

(b)  Posts about films:

  1. Does the Tea Party movement remind you of the movie “Meet John Doe”? , 27 January 2010
  2. About the movie “Fight Club”, 28 March 2010
  3. Robocop is not a good role model for the youth of Detroit, 12 March 2011
  4. We want heroes, not leaders. When that changes it will become possible to reform America., 11 January 2013
  5. Loki helps us to see our true selves, 15 May 2013
  6. My movie recommendation for 2010: Vitual JFK (the book is also great), 30 June 2013
  7. Hollywood’s dream machine gives us the Leader we yearn for, 30 June 2013
  8. Rollerball shows us one aspect of America, and a possible future, 13 August 2013
  9. In “Network”, Howard Beale asks us to get mad and do something. He’s still waiting., 19 October 2013
  10. Are our film heroes leading us to the future, or signaling despair?, 28 October 2013
  11. “Ender’s Game” is a horror movie, showing us our dark side. No worries; we’ll forget faster than we eat the popcorn., 2 November 2013
  12. We love “Transformers: Age of Extinction” because it shows us what we don’t want to see (Spoilers!), 5 July 2014
  13. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” asks if you want a Revolution, 27 July 2014
  14. Transformers 4: the Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America, 3 August 2014
  15. 300: Rise of an Empire – The Half-Truths and Bloody Fog of Cartoon War, 10 August 2014
  16. Ender’s Game: Playing at Shock and Awe, 17 August 2014
  17. “Edge of Tomorrow”: Cruise, Again and Again, 24 August 2014
  18. Shut the Robo-whining: The Robocop Remake Has Something on its Mind, 31 August 2014
  19. A new Man of Steel for 21st century America: a warrior superman, 7 September 2014
  20. Elysium Shouts Big, Loud Messages About Health Care & Immigration Reform. Gun Control, Not so Much, 21 September 2014
  21. “The Lone Ranger” shows Hollywood’s new paradigm, since films were too deep for us, 28 September 2014

 

(4)  The Trailer

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(5) Another perspective on The Desolation of Smaug

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13 thoughts on “Hollywood transforms “The Hobbit” into The Desolation of Tolkien

  1. You know what shut up reviewer. The movie was amazing. Stop nitpicking, if ppl want the book go read the dam book. Wow

  2. Just another complainer trying to get some attention. If you want the book then go read it. Peter has done a fantastic job throughout LoTR and The Hobbit, anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool. So either shut up and enjoy it or f*** off.

  3. These Hobbit films are amazing and how can you say they are terrible. The first one was amazing and the second one was even better I got emotional during both. This has just been motivated by idiots who aren’t happy that it’s three films and not one film and so are being complainers and just moaning about anything for the sake of it. These complainers like you should not watch the next one if all your going to do is complain. Get a grip

  4. I have enjoyed all of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies and Lord of the Rings trilogy. The funny thing is this: everything the reviewer says is true, but that’s just how movies are made today (if these movies were made in the 80s they would suffer glistening hair gel and campy puppet cloth). There is absolutely nothing you can do and there’s no getting away from it; even Harry Potter and Narnia suffer from hyperbole and bombast!
    If I want 70s Led Zeppelin The Hobbit, well then I have the books and the Rankin Bass cartoons.

  5. Well said. The Hobbit movies seem to not be about Tolkiens world. I had high hopes for the first one but was left so disappointed I never even bothered with the second. The constant need for over the top action is just tiring to me, and I feel it ruins the subtlety of Middle Earth

  6. Wake up and smell the Elve’s Bread, Brah. This ain’t Pride and Prejudice, it’s Good versus Evil! Bilbo fights the Bad Guys! Bigfoot Dwarf against Tyrannosaurus Smaug. If Doorknobs can watch 20 hours of Rocky Balboa, I can watch 50 hours of the Lord Ring Cycle…Standing On My Head! You want to critique something…watch the combined output of Kirk Cameron.

    1. I swear to the Valar, Steven, when I first read your comment, I honestly spent several seconds wondering if “Brah” was some Dwarvish character’s cousin who I’d forgotten about…

      Locke Peterseim

  7. I agree with most of the review.

    Part of the charm of the Lord of the Rings movies was the excellent pacing. The Hobbit films added unnecessary action that got boring very quickly. I found the Mirkwood scenes quite unimaginative in their execution with no mystery or evil, but instead silly hallucinations.

    I have to say that I disagree about the dragon. I found it breathtaking and the voicing was excellent. Even though it wasn’t very unique, it wasn’t supposed to be, being the defining dragon for future novels. I was glad that they took the time to show the conversation of Bilbo with Smaug. The scene where Smaug coated in gold leaps into the air and spins the gold off his scales is one of my favorites.

    I was very disappointed about Sauron. They anthropomorphized him too much for my liking, which took away so much of Sauron’s effectiveness. Being an evil powerful character that one can never understand is much more meaningful than having a villain like every other.

    I have many more comments about the film that would take forever to write down.

  8. Things I learned watching “The Hobbit”:

    1. Middle Earth is not OSHA compliant. Bridges across deep gorges never have safety rails.
    2. This doesn’t matter, since gravity is not too strong. People fall to great depth, screaming all the way, and get up without even a stubbed toe.
    3. This also allows elves to jump around like grasshoppers on crack.
    4. Although goblins and orcs have fearsome reputations, one can easily down a dozen with one stroke, behead, impale, or disembowel them, usually to comic effect. They are merely blood filled balloons.
    5. Even if you’ve never held a sword in your life, you can kill monsters several times your size by being brave.
    6. No one has bathed in 500 years, except the elves, who are always clean.
    7. If Peter Jackson holds a camera still for longer than 5 seconds, his head will explode.
    8. If Cate Blanchett read the phone book, I would listen, and enjoy it.

  9. In that of all the articles FM posts, a movie review attracts Sound and Fury. That people are more invested in getting wound up about entertainment media than they are over real world issues is telling.

  10. I suspect that the reason why the Chronicles of Narnia film franchise appears to have derailed is because of the same egregious and relentless tinkering with the source material which Jackson has done with Tolkien’s works. I freely admit to being a bit of a purist when it comes to film adaptations of books — especially if you’re talking about books that have stood the test of time and have as strong a following as Tolkien’s works and the Narnia stories do, and even more so when the author is deceased and not in a position to protest (or sue). My opinion has always been that if the producers and directors think they can do a much better job than the original author at captivating an audience, why don’t they prove it by writing their own book and film it? That being said, I admit that I do enjoy the Jackson films for the sheer spectacle and I’d rather have people find encouragement to read Tolkien as a result of seeing them than not at all…but I also feel sorry for the people who read the books after seeing the films only to feel disappointed to learn that the scene they loved in the film was never in the book.

    Just as a side note…it’s fairly obvious that the character of Tauriel was inserted because Hollywood seems to believe that a story can’t possibly succeed without a sexual or romantic element to it somewhere. I predict that Tauriel will be killed during the Battle of the Five Armies in order to make Kili’s death even more tragic — in fact, my hunch is that there will be an element of “liebestod” thrown in there somewhere. I also suspect that her death will be used as a plot device to explain why Legolas chooses to fight in the War of the Ring since his father is such an isolationist.

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