Thursday, January 16, 2014

REVIEWS: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Anyone who knows me well is aware that I’ve been a Lord of the Rings (LoTR) fan since the 1970s when I first discovered the series while in junior high school. I still periodically read the Hobbit and the full trilogy every few years. So, as one can imagine, Peter Jackson’s film LoTR adaptations have been a dream come true.

I’ve never been a purist, so I understand the need for a work to change if it is going to be translated to another medium like film. Nevertheless, LoTR is an adaptation as faithful as one could expect to the spirit and themes of author J.R.R. Tolkien’s work.

While some raised eyebrows at Jackson’s decision to turn the Hobbit — which was written as a children’s book with a much different tone than LoTR—into another trilogy franchise, I’ve noted that Jackson was only able to do this because he had done LoTR first, which already established the tone and environment for Middle Earth in people’s minds; more importantly, by making this prequel after LoTR, Jackson was able to include events and scenes that, while not included in the original Hobbit novel, are nevertheless part of canon, as told in Tolkien’s LoTR appendices and his “bible” of Middle Earth, the Silmarillion. Had Jackson filmed the Hobbit first, these scenes would have made little sense, but having already filmed LoTR, he could now include in the Hobbit other parts of the history that served to enrich the later trilogy.

Of all Jackson’s films based on Tolkien’s work, this latest installment, the Hobbit: The Desolation of Smog, represents the most significant departure from the source material. Already well known is the addition of Tauriel, a warrior she-elf, but of particular surprise to me was the extended role of elf prince Legolas, a popular character in LoTR played by Orlando Bloom. Legolas does not appear in the Hobbit novel, but in the LoTR books, Tolkien explicitly identifies him as the son of the elf king Thranduil, who plays an important role in the story. So what I thought was perhaps only a cameo is actually a pretty full role, in which Legolas seems more active and engaged in brutal fighting than in the earlier trilogy.

Other scenes represent a major departure from the book, partly rooted in Jackson’s desire to create emotional resonance or a great action set piece for audiences. In Tolkien’s original novel, for instance, the characters of the Master and the Bard, both normal humans in Lake Town, are barely fleshed out and primarily plot devices. Here, Jackson has expanded their roles significantly. In a nice touch to humanize the story, Jackson also creates an emotional (romantic?) connection between Tauriel and one of the band of dwarves, Kili, echoing to some degree the great friendship that Legolas would later have with Gimli in LoTR. The barrel-ride escape from the book is turned from what is a somewhat humorous jaunt in the book into a major action/fight sequence in the film. Bilbo and the dwarves’ confrontation with Smaug is also significantly different than in the book; and, of course, the parallel story involving Gandalf and the Necromancer, which is probably mentioned in passing in only a few lines in the Hobbit (though told more fully elsewhere) fleshes out and foreshadows what will come in LoTR. On the flip side, as long as the movie is, I was surprised at how quickly it moved through the Beorn man-bear and Mirkwood Forest sequences—in fact, the Mirkwood Forest feels like it takes up a lot more space in the book. But, of course, Jackson is in a rush to get to the meat of the story, involving Smaug the dragon.

For the original LoTR trilogy, I’ve much preferred the extended editions over the theatrical release. I have to admit, however, that the theatrical versions of the Hobbit already feel like an extended version; by the end of the film, I felt fairly fatigued by all the action. It could have been my mood, but whereas the LoTR film trilogy was the adaptation of a lengthy, complex work, the Hobbit is the adaptation of a single, medium length novel with a very simple storyline. And, unlike the complex trilogy, which offered natural places for each film to break, this installment simply stops, with Smaug the dragon awakened and on his way to exact his revenge on Lake Town: To be continued….

Being familiar with the story, I look forward to seeing how Jackson wraps up this second trilogy this December.

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