Like many of you, I’ve been thoroughly entertained by the bombastic spectacle of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug this weekend. As a regular listener of the Tolkien Professor’s “Riddles in the Dark” podcast, I’ve also enjoyed seeing how Peter Jackson’s writing team has tackled the unique challenge of adapting The Hobbit to the screen by incorporating material from The Lord of the Rings appendices and their own imaginations. The first reviewer of the film at TheOneRing.net predicts that some of the choices made in this adaptation will drive the final wedge between book and movie fans, but I came out of the theater still happily counting myself in both camps. Please enjoy my initial reactions below, along with some custom cards that I made (some serious, some silly) to portray Jackson’s take on the tale! Of course, there will be spoilers, so come back after watching the movie first if you’d like to avoid those.
I loved the opening prologue taking us back to The Prancing Pony in Bree and the “chance meeting” of Gandalf and Thorin from “The Quest of Erebor” in The Lord of the Rings appendices. Jackson and company have raised the bar on the significance of the Arkenstone, going so far as to make it the goal of the entire quest. While in the book, it was simply the most precious of all the jewels in the hoard, in the film, the Arkenstone signifies the “divine right to rule”. Thorin’s plan, then, is much better conceived. Rather than expecting Bilbo to burgle out all of the treasure (as they did in the book, getting precisely one gold cup into the process before unleashing “dragon fire and ruin”), Gandalf tells Thorin to steal the Arkenstone (using Bilbo) and then wield it to muster Durin’s folk into a army fit to retake the Lonely Mountain. By the end of the film, the Arkenstone plotline is perfectly set up so that the “heart of the Mountain” can serve as the heart of the drama between Thorin and Bilbo in the last film. My custom card gives the king’s ability (from Dain Ironfoot) to any dwarf who would carry this treasure.
In my opinion, Beorn gets way too little screen time and I’m afraid that our favorite ursine blogger is going to be disappointed. That said, I thought that the characterization was nicely done (though Gandalf’s description of him sounded a bit too much like The Hulk for my taste) and I look forward to seeing much more of him (including his “torture scene“) on the Extended Edition. In a nice nod to book fans, we did get a couple shots of the bees which live near Beorn’s house. My card is a just a joke, but probably still more playable than the version created by Brandon from Cardboard of the Rings. 😉
After leaving Beorn’s house, we get to the main thrust of Jackson’s interpretation, which is to establish The Hobbit story as a proper prequel to The Lord of the Rings. That requires beefing up Gandalf’s expedition to Dol Guldur and his confrontation with the Necromancer. When writing The Hobbit, Tolkien simply intended Gandalf’s “pressing business away south” as a plot device to separate Thorin and company from the wizard so they could have adventures without him saving them all the time. While writing The Lord of the Rings, however, he re-envisioned the Necromancer as Sauron and made that “business” the White Council’s attack on Dol Guldur after which Sauron retreated to build up his strength in Mordor. I am most interested in how this plot line is developing and eagerly anticipate seeing the White Council in action next year. Given Christopher Lee’s age, I’m curious whether Jackson will include Saruman in the battle, but seeing Galadriel in action should be quite a treat.
The “rise of Sauron” plotline is launched in this film with Galadriel’s telepathic message to Gandalf to check out Dol Guldur rather than accompanying the dwarves into Mirkwood. It’s quite interesting how Jackson’s team has developed the relationship between Gandalf and Galadriel, and while Ian McKellen was only joking about Gandalf “having an affair with Galadriel” in his Daily Show interview, his mind-meld with her followed by hand-holding and hair-stroking in the first film certainly pushed their connection in that direction. It wouldn’t be the first union of a Maia and an Elf (that’s Melian and Thingol in The Silmarillion), but usually in Tolkien’s work it’s the men who have the “lesser” pedigree in interracial relationships, not the other way around.
At any rate, Gandalf spends most of this movie as the hero of his own quest. He travels first to investigate the “tombs of the Nazgûl” which are supposedly located in “the High Fells of Rhudaur”, a location so well named that I assumed it was taken from Tolkien’s lore until consulting the map and finding it nowhere. In Tolkien’s story, when the Witch-King is defeated at Fornost in 1975 T.A. (over 1000 years before the War of the Ring) he is not buried or sealed in a tomb. Instead, he “comes to Mordor and there gathers the Nazgûl” before conquering Minas Ithil, remaking it as Minas Morgul, and slaying Ëarnur, the last king of Gondor before the Stewards, after challenging him to single combat.
This Nazgûl storyline is the Jackson adaption that I’m least fond of, and I’d rather see him collapse the timeline (as he’s done with the sickening of Greenwood and the White Council’s realization that the Necromancer is Sauron) and portray the Battle of Fornost with an army from Gondor, and Círdan the Shipwright from Lindon, and Glorfindel from Rivendell overthrowing the Witch-King and making the famous prophcey: “Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of man will he fall.” How awesome would that be?
Instead, we’re treated to Gandalf climbing around a precarious cliff side in these “High Fells” to discover that the Nine have indeed broken out of their tombs. Somehow Radagast meets him there, apparently having improbably crossed the Misty Mountains for a third time in two films with only his bunny sled. They then ride the bunny sled back to Dol Guldur (somehow crossing the Misty Mountains again!) where Gandalf wanders into Dol Guldur all by himself after telling Radagast to leave because it is “undoubtedly a trap”. Not surprisingly, he is captured in a showdown with the Necromancer who first appears as a wispy version of the smoke monster from Lost and then as a particularly psychedelic vision of the eye of Sauron. Alas, even for a generally positive and open-minded fan like myself, I guess I can’t be satisfied with everything. But as I said before, at least the stage is set for an epic rescue mission led by Galadriel and possibly Elrond, Saruman, Radagast or even Beorn and his bees in the third film.
Leaving behind Gandalf and Beorn’s escort to the Wood Elf Path, the company plunges into Mirkwood in a wonderfully phantasmagoric scene that establishes the enchantment of the forest without the black stream, white deer, or magically disappearing Elven campfires of Tolkien’s book. I do wonder, however, if the actors had some of Radagast’s mushrooms before filming that scene!
The spider attack was creepy fun and I especially enjoyed Bilbo’s “fool of a Took” moment plucking at the webs in Dolby surround sound. Jackson’s portrayal of Bilbo and the Ring in these scenes stays true both to the invisibility trick of the original Hobbit novel but also develops the arc towards The Lord of the Rings in a fascinating way. I don’t think there’s any other sequence in both Hobbit films that has managed to balance thematic narrative development and edge-of-your-set cinematic thrill as well as this one. Nicely done!
Unlike the novel, however, wherein Bilbo single-handedly saves the dwarves from the spiders, Jackson uses the action sequence as a chance to introduce the Wood-elves of Mirkwood, led by Legolas who makes no appearance in The Hobbit book, though presumably he would have been there given he is the son of the king of Mirkwood. It’s fun to see Legolas in action again, swinging down spider thread, executing cool pop-up slides in the woods, and inventing new and ever more creative ways to decapitate orcs and shoot his arrows.
Legolas takes the dwarves back to the cavern palace of his father Thranduil, a setting Tolkien likely intended to allude to Menegroth of the First Age as he was finding the original story being “drawn into” his earlier mythology. The Elvenking’s halls are gorgeously realized by Jackson’s creative team and Thranduil is played appropriately haughty, perfectly portraying the essential difference between his people and those of Elrond. As described by Tolkien, “[Wood-elves] are not wicked folk. If they have a fault it is distrust of strangers. Though their magic was strong, even in those days they were wary. They differed from the High Elves of the West, and were more dangerous and less wise.” By the way, Thranduil also got the most extreme eyebrow closeup I’ve ever witnessed in IMAX 3D. In my custom card, I tried to not only incorporate Thranduil’s isolationist tendencies, but also indicate the cause for them implied by the Extended Edition of An Unexpected Journey in which Thror has a box containing a bejeweled necklace slammed in his face during the tribute scene in the prologue. I couldn’t think of an ability related to his eyebrows.It is during the dwarves’ imprisonment in Thranduil’s halls that we get a fuller introduction to the much hyped and unnecessarily controversial character Tauriel, who Peter Jackson and his writers created to inject some feminine energy into the proceedings. Indeed, the only female mentioned in Tolkien’s entire novel is a brief aside in the first chapter which names Belladona Took as the mother of Bilbo Baggins, a decidedly less compelling character to bring into the action. At some point, I hope to write an entire article about the female characters created by FFG and analyze the role of women in Tolkien’s work. For now, let me say that I found Tauriel’s inclusion most welcome and her character arc to be quite Tolkienesque. Not only does she exemplify the “more dangerous” part of Tolkien’s description of Wood-elves, but she foreshadows the relationships in the Fellowship of the Ring by showing compassion not bounded by her race and displaying loyalty not limited to her king.
Of course, this “love triangle” between Legolas, Tauriel, and Kili is the dastardly abomination that may turn off many Tolkien purists and certainly Kili’s crude invitation for Tauriel to “search his trousers” is exactly the kind of line that would incite well deserved disdain from Christopher Tolkien. But after that initial irreverence, I thought the relationship was understated and tastefully done, more like a friendly curiosity than a romance. The creation of Tauriel gives the writers a chance to employ a few common Tolkien tropes that would have been otherwise absent — interracial friendship, the dream-like quality of adoring an Elf (from Kili), unrequited love (from Legolas), and the healing power of the Eldar. We’ll see where it goes in the next film before I make a final judgment, but for now, besides the big three of Gandalf, Thorin, and Bilbo, Tauriel’s story is the only one that has earned some emotional investment from me.
In particular, I found her discussion with Kili about the “Feast of Starlight” to be one of the best dialogue scenes in the film. While the holiday is also a Jackson creation, it seems perfectly suitable that a race named the Eldar or “People of the Stars” should have such a celebration. It not only gives a nod to the vanishing woodland feasts of the novel, but also hearkens back to the first memory of the Elves, awakening under the stars beside Lake Cuiviénen before the Sun and the Moon. I must also mention that I appreciated Kili’s mention of his mother in this scene. She is Thorin’s sister, Dís, and is actually the only dwarf woman named in all of Tolkien’s work.
The feast also gave explanation for why Galion, the only wood-elf named in The Hobbit book, was drunk and therefore able to let Bilbo get the slip. I tried to capture both the joy of the celebration and the exhaustion of the subsequent hangover in my custom card. As Tolkien writes in The Hobbit, “It must have been potent wine to make a wood-elf drowsy; but this wine, it would seem, was the heady vintage of the great gardens of Dorwinion, not meant for his soldiers or his servants, but for the king’s feasts only, and for smaller bowls not for the butler’s great flagons.” I guess that’s explains why Legolas is able to drink without even getting tipsy in The Two Towers Extended Edition, but poor Galion and the chief guard (bizarrely named Elros by Jackson) were passed out on the table!
In a bit of clever physical comedy, Bilbo evacuates the Dwarves from their dungeon cells and into the River Running in shipping barrels. What was a merry sing-along in Tolkien’s novel with a chorus of “Heave ho! Splash plump!” as sealed barrels are floated uneventfully down the river becomes, in Peter Jackson’s hands, the most ludicrously fun action sequence of the series. The orc pack temporarily waylaid by Beorn is back in hot pursuit, and the Elves are battling the orcs over river and dell in the best choreographed fight scene/theme park experience you’ll have in theaters this year. Originally intended to be the climax of the first film (when there were only two films), it has all the hallmarks of Peter Jackson excess and yet, somehow, seems more plausible than the Goblintown chase of An Unexpected Journey. Like it or hate it, you’ll be grinning ear-to-ear, especially if you’re in an IMAX 3D HFR theater. Also, Bombur does something ridiculous.
The tension is further ratcheted up in the barrel escape when the “portcullis at the water-gate” which is hauled up by ropes in Tolkien’s novel, must be opened with a lever in Jackson’s film, requiring Kili to risk his life and get shot in the leg by a Morgul arrow. This subplot introduces some character drama between the Dwarves, as they split up in Lake-town so that Kili doesn’t slow them down on the way to the Lonely Mountain . While I applaud the effort here, the weakness of The Hobbit films in general is that an ensemble cast of 13 dwarves simply can’t rival the diverse company of The Fellowship of the Ring in terms of connecting with the audience. In some ways, this adaptation challenge has hamstrung Jackson’s effort from the outset. Perhaps fans would have rebelled if some of the Dwarf characters had been cut, but honestly, the screenplay probably would have worked a lot better with only five Dwarves and Bilbo — maybe Thorin, Balin, Bofur, Bombur, and Kili. Given the quest has been changed to a mission to burgle the Arkenstone, a small company would be even more plausible and given the writers more latitude to flesh out characters. I don’t know, maybe that wouldn’t have worked either, but the number of Dwarves is definitely something which works better in the book than the film and I’m not sure what else could have been done to work around that. I wish I cared more about each of the Dwarves like I did for the members of the Fellowship, but I don’t. Alas.
Speaking of the orc pack that is shooting Morgul arrows and chasing Thorin’s company, we’ve now come to the new big baddie in the trilogy — Bolg. Bolg is the general of the Goblins in the Battle of Five Armies in Tolkien’s Hobbit as Gandalf warns the Free Peoples, “Dread has come upon you all! Alas! it has come more swiftly than I guessed. The Goblins are upon you! Bolg of the North is coming, O Dain! whose father you slew in Moria. Behold! the bats are above his army like a sea of locusts. They ride upon wolves and Wargs are in their train!” We are told in the footnote that Bolg is the “son of Azog” who killed Thror “in the mines of Moria”. In the appendices to The Lord of the Rings, we learn that Azog’s murder of Thror was the fuse that set off the War of the Dwarves and Orcs which ended in the Battle of Azanûlbizar in front of the East Gate of Moria in 2799 (142 years before The Hobbit). Dain is just a young dwarf in this battle and he earns his name “Ironfoot” by stepping on the iron collar around Azog’s neck as he decapitates him to avenge Thror’s death and win the battle.
Of course, in the films this is changed so that Azog is merely dismembered (by Thorin, not by Dain) and comes back hunting the Dwarves with that weird garden cultivator poking out of his left arm. Azog was a late addition to An Unexpected Journey and all the early production photos and even an action figure seemed to indicate that Bolg was going to the big baddie in the first film. But for some reason at the eleventh hour, Peter Jackson thought the character wasn’t working and so he scrapped him for cartoon Azog. Bolg was never heard of again. He was not in any of the production blogs, articles, and spoilers leading up to The Desolation of Smaug. Bolg had vanished.
Instead, an image of Azog jumping up onto some parapets in Mirkwood was in nearly every trailer, indicating that he was likely to continue his pursuit while Bolg remained forever on the cutting room floor. I was shocked then to see the movie and discover that this time it was Azog that was apparently scuffled from The Desolation of Smaug at the last minute, recalled to Dol Guldur, and replaced by a freshly minted cartoon Bolg as the chief antagonist! That trailer shot was nowhere to be seen and instead, it was Bolg in hot pursuit of the Dwarves. He seemed like an orc general in the film, dispatching his bodyguards to do his dirty work first (just as in the novel and FFG’s Battle of Five Armies scenario), especially in the hand-to-hand combat with Legolas in Lake-town. At any rate, I like Bolg’s design better than Azog’s, but I still miss the “real” Lurtz and Gothmog from The Lord of the Rings and would have liked to see the “real” Bolg that was spoiled before the first movie. What happened to him? Only time and Extended Edition commentaries will tell!
At last, we arrive in Lake-town and meet Bard, who appears out of nowhere in Tolkien’s book much later, just as Smaug is attacking. Bard is simply referred to as the “grim-voiced fellow” in his first few lines, as he rallies the Men of Esgaroth to defend against Smaug. It is only later that we learn he is of the line of Girion, the Lord of Dale. In Jackson’s film, his political tension with the Master is established early, as well as his possession of a “black arrow” which is more like a windlance for a ballista than anything that could be shot from a bow. It’s really cool though. While no mention is made of Bard’s family in The Hobbit, we learn in The Lord of the Rings that he had a son named Bain (who would later father the handsome Brand, son of Bain of LOTR LCG infamy). Jackson and his writers flesh out Bard’s family by giving him two daughters as well, Sigrid and Tilda, who are played by the daughters of James Nebitt (Bofur). By also making Bard a single father, his role as a defender of his people is further enhanced, a trait I tried to capture in my custom card.
Finally, the Dwarves make their way to the Lonely Mountain, just minutes before sunset on Durin’s Day. After the overwrought moon runes scene in An Unexpected Journey (complete with special Elven moon rune reading table!), I fully expected a spectacular effects laden beam of light to gleam on the keyhole just as the sun crossed beneath the horizon. Like the Dwarves, I was quite surprised when that didn’t happen, but also surprised how quickly they simply gave up and started going back down the mountain. After all that, you just give up less than a minute after the sun goes down? Come on! Still the little tweak to the interpretation of “last light” from Tolkien’s text made for a more suspenseful entrance to Erebor. Finally, it is time for Smaug!
As Bilbo said in Tolkien’s text, “Truly songs and tales fall utterly short of the reality, O Smaug the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities” and I think that I will leave it at that as well. Allow me to just say that I felt my shirt rippling on my back as Smaug roared and belched dragon-fire. Wow.
By the end of the film, I think that I was suffering from such sensory overload that my final thoughts here may not be as detailed or coherent as the rest. While I don’t think that “gilding the dragon” will join “jumping the shark” or “nuking the fridge” in popular parlance to indicate when a series has finally gone so far over the top that it can never be taken seriously again, I do have to say that Peter Jackson walked pretty close to that line in this sequence. Whereas Tolkien’s dwarves don’t enter Erebor until after Smaug is already out (they run inside to seek shelter), in Jackson’s version, they are taunting Smaug and hatch an elaborate plan to defeat him by heating the forges and melting a giant statue of Thror to burn him in liquid gold. Smaug emerges gilded from the molten gold, raging about revenge before taking off to burn Lake-town.
Prior to this though, there is a chase scene that involves all kind of crazy, including one scene in which Thorin finds himself swinging around on chains and standing on Smaug’s lips. In my opinion, the bombast overwhelmed the important emotional beats throughout the last 30 minutes, especially the discovery of the corpses of Dwarves who could not escape Erebor 170 years earlier when Smaug had come.
Seeing the industrial forges and Thorin’s plan to use his technology to defeat the dragon reminded me of Treebeard’s words about Saruman in The Two Towers saying, “He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things.” In my Tolkien state of mind, I couldn’t find myself rooting for the Dwarves and Bilbo with their industrial solution and of course I wasn’t rooting for the dragon either. By the end though, I do think that it all turned out according to Tolkien’s themes. The “metal and wheels” did not win the day and rather served to further provoke Smaug and send him off towards Lake-town in a rage. Best stick to riddles, birds, and ancient arrows as in the book. Ed Sheeran’s send-off song titled “I See Fire” couldn’t have been more fitting!
Well, believe it or not, I have skipped a few key characters and scenes, but I think that’s enough for now. Overall, I thought the movie was spectacular and while I don’t agree with every adaptation decision, I still have great respect for Peter Jackson’s work and what he is attempting to accomplish with this trilogy. He has delivered a rip-roaring blockbuster adventure, with enough nods to Tolkien fans along the way that I wasn’t offended. And if nothing else, he has moved every piece into place for a thrilling conclusion a year from now! So what did you think of the film? And if you have any custom card ideas to supplement your comments, I’d love to see them. Thanks for reading and happy questing!