Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug (2013)

As of the time of this writing, it is Lent, 2014 - the perfect time to finally weigh in on Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, for watching this movie was truly and sadly a penitential experience. The 2012 original, Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, was alright, but not exceptional; we offered three reviews of it, and it got an average ranking of 2. In short, though I though the original had some serious shortcomings, I found it enjoyable, and I have continued to enjoy it upon subsequent viewings. Desolation of Smaug, however, was a completely different story. This movie was a train wreck.

Where to begin?

A major problem with this film - and with modern book adaptations in general - is that the director allows for no down time; everything has to be non-stop action. The peaceful interludes of the book are omitted, and even the action that does occur in the book is intensified to an insane degree. For example, in the book, the ride out of the elven kingdom in the barrels takes place quietly at night, and the dwarves are not pursued. It is an uneventful - albeit unpleasant - journey. But in the film, dwarves riding in barrels is not exciting enough. It has to happen in broad daylight in the midst of a huge battle. First, the elves attack them as they are leaving, then the elven city is inexplicably attacked by orcs and a crazy river battle ensues with the dwarves fighting orcs from the barrels. Was the original story not interesting enough? Did the very understandable hardship the dwarves had to endure being cramped in barrels in a chilly river really need to be replaced by a totally unbelievable computer-animated river battle that was so outlandish as to completely destroy the audience's capability of empathizing with it?

And...Radagast still had poop on his face.

This always comes back to the CGI problem; it simply destroys believability when it is depended upon too heavily. When I saw Fellowship of the Ring, I had never seen anything like it. I remember being blown away. CGI was used in Fellowship for things like a few backgrounds, the cave troll, etc. But most everything was real - real costumes, real sets. There is simply too much CGI in the Hobbit movies, and paradoxically it makes things less engaging, not more. I think I have mentioned this before, but remember that scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy is getting dragged behind the truck? Remember his feet dragging in the dirt, the clouds of dust coming up? That simple stunt is infinitely more interesting, more engaging, more entertaining than the CGI overload video-game sequences we see in the Hobbit movies. Because it's real.

Another problem is the strategic removal of everything peaceful and serene. The original book had lots of peaceful scenes...walking, talking, singing, camping. These are what make the book so engaging. They help us identify with these dwarves and, in a sense, go on the journey with them. In the Hobbit movies, these scenes are just unpleasant obligations Peter Jackson has to hurry up and get past in order to move on to the next CGI battle sequence. It ruins the flow of the story and insults the audience. It's as if Jackson was too sensitive to critiques that the LOTR trilogy featured too many shots of Sam and Frodo walking and was trying hard to make these films more action packed. Too bad it was precisely the many non-action scenes in LOTR that really got us invested in the characters and their adventure. A simple scene of Frodo stumbling along a path with cracked lips does more for the illusion than a CGI sequence of dwarves fighting orcs in barrels going down a river. It was a real deficit that these sorts of "plain traveling" scenes were omitted from the movie. Did I mention Radagast had poop on his face?

Speaking of things omitted, where is all the singing? There was tons of song and poetry in the book. The first movie started off on the right track with the That's What Bilbo Baggins Hates song as well as the epic Over the Misty Mountains lay. Those are some of the most memorable moments of the first film - both in a single scene, nonetheless! But apparently in the cluster of confusion that was film two, the director thought there was no more time for singing. How wonderful it would have been to show the scenes with the wood elves singing and making merry in the glades of the forest by night, only to be thrice interrupted by the desperate dwarves! Forget about it. No elves singing; in fact those scenes are completely absent.

And the elves! You see, Jackson's elves can only be melancholy. There certainly is a melancholy aspect to Tolkien's elves, but also a very joyful, hopeful aspect as well. But you would never know it from Jackson's LOTR and Hobbit films. Can we imagine Jackson's elves processing by starlight singing joyfully the beautiful songs of Gilthoniel and Elbereth as they do in the Fellowship book? Of course not. Nor can we imagine a serene gathering of wood elves by night making merry and singing by torchlight. Jackson has created an elven stereotype of brooding effeminacy that must be adhered to. Many complained that LOTR did damage to Tolkien's vision of the elf; I agree to a certain point, but I think this accusation has much more validity when it comes to the Hobbit films. In LOTR they are somewhat effeminate; in Hobbit, they are downright homosexual. Thranduil, father of Legolas and king of the wood elves, is the gayest character I have ever seen in the five Peter Jackson movies. His facial expressions, gestures, body language, voice - everything makes him out to be homosexual. It is such a far cry from the noble, glorious characters Tolkien envisioned the elves to be.

Radagast had POOP on his face!

But I'm just nipping around the edges here. Let's get to the center of this crap storm. The reason Desolation of Smaug is so bad is because it deviates from the book in such a major way that subsequently leads to serious plot problems. I am not a purist who decries every deviation from the book; I understand that in film making, sometimes it is necessary to omit things or change little details. But it is one thing to change a few details; it is quite another thing to invent a whole new plot line with new characters that fundamentally changes the development of the story. That's right. I'm talking about Tauriel. If we plotted the problems in the second film on a graph, we would see a strong correlation between the arrival of Tauriel and the proliferation of stupidity.

The problem with introducing new characters and concepts is similar to what happens when you tell a lie; in order to perpetuate the new subplots you are introducing, you need to create even more deviations to accommodate them. Thus we have the absurdity of of the orc fight at the river so that Kili can get wounded so that there can be an excuse to leave him and the other dwarves behind in Lake Town so there can be an excuse for Tauriel to come rescue him so there can be an excuse to further develop this weird dwarf-elf quasi romantic relationship that Jackson is toying with. You see how much nonsense needs to be introduced into the movie in order to give something for this new character to do? 

Another interesting thing I noticed: in the book, Smaug is ultimately killed by an ordinary arrow fired by Bard. In the film, Peter Jackson had to invent a special "Black Arrow" that alone was capable of killing the dragon; this is some kind of very large arrow fired from a kind of stationary crossbow. For a time I wondered why Jackson thought this innovation was necessary, but I eventually figured it out. For film two, Jackson created such hype around the character of Smaug - made him so huge, so enormous, so larger than life - that by the time the animators had worked their magic on him, it seemed totally unbelievable that he could be killed by a regular old crummy arrow. Thus the innovation about the Black Arrows. Another example of how smaller problems lead to more innovations.

One thing that mystifies me is the sequence with the dwarves in the caves. Why did this happen? In the book, the dwarves never go into the cave until Smaug is dead. There is certainly no fight with the dragon, let alone that weird part with the gold statue that had no foundation in the book, no internal logic, and no point. Again, Jackson thought he knew better than Tolkien. It would not have been palatable for a modern audience to get all attached to these protagonists and then find out they do not even fight the dragon, so a fictional fight between Thorin and Smaug had to be invented; furthermore, going back to the hypothesis that too much importance is attached to "action", it would not have been a fitting climax to the movie had we stayed with Bilbo and Thorin all this way only to be rewarded with the tit-for-tat conversation between Bilbo and Smaug that actually occurs in the book. Some sort of battle or action was needed to create a climactic moment, and hence the corny dwarf-dragon battle. This was one problem of breaking a single book into multiple movies - each movie needs to have a plot arc, with its own build up, climax, resolution, etc. This leads to all sorts of difficulties, since it necessitates creating these climaxes that did not exist in the book, obviously.

In short, there's all sorts of problems with this film. Some are bound up with the nature of the project itself: choosing to it as a prequel rather than a stand alone story: breaking one narrative up into three, something that was not an issue in LOTR since each movie was in fact a separate book. Some problems have to do with modern assumptions about good film making (the prejudice in favor of constant action, of having to create villains where none existed in the books). Some have to do with positive errors on the part of Jackson - adding Tauriel, relying too heavily on CGI, etc). And let's not forget the biggest sin - the part where Bombur falls in the river and falls asleep is omitted. My kids and I were so looking forward to that! Oh, and Radagast still had poop on his face. So there's a ton of things wrong, but it all adds up to make Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug a hurricane of crap. I give it one tiara.