The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

January 6, 2014
Martin Freeman in 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' 2013
Martin Freeman in 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' 2013

J.R.R.Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings is reputedly the second bestselling novel of all time – after A Tale of Two Cities! A trilogy of some 1,800 pages, it is the sequel to The Hobbit, the fourth bestseller of all time, which clocks in at a mere 270 pages. Yet both stories have been turned into lengthy three-film epics by Peter Jackson and his collaborators – the first through editing and compression, The Hobbit through expansion.

It’s easy to understand why The Hobbit is being stretched out in this way when one discovers that Part One, An Unexpected Journey (2012), grossed more than US$1 billion at the box office. One wonders if there is also a valid artistic reason for making three movies instead of one?

While the commercial imperative can’t be ignored, these films are also a labour of love. Unlike so many other Hollywood projects in which a big budget is entrusted to a director known for TV soaps or video clips, Peter Jackson has been at the helm of this series from the beginning of the Lord of the Rings in 2001. This has ensured a remarkable continuity in the look and feel of each movie. They have been made by fans, for fans, setting exacting standards.

In the second Hobbit installment, The Desolation of Smaug, we are plunged into the action with almost no preamble. It is taken for granted that viewers have already seen Part One and are familiar with the lead characters. The breathless pace is maintained to the end, as Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the Dwarves wind their way through the forest of Mirkwood; fall foul of the woodland Elves; have a brief but eventful stay in Lake Town; and finally confront the dragon, Smaug, and his horde of purloined treasure.

The bare bones of Tolkein’s story remain the same but the filmmakers have taken a few liberties. The villains in the novel are the Goblins, but the movie sticks with those dependable monsters, the Orcs. The major addition is a beautiful Elf maiden called Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) who is handy with a bow and arrow. More controversially, she conceives an unlikely fascination for Kili (Aidan Turner), one of the younger Dwarves. A hint of inter-species romance is inserted into Tolkein’s world. Perhaps by the third part we’ll find that a couple of the Dwarves are gay.

The glamorous Tauriel adds gender balance to a strongly masculine cast, and an element of sex appeal to a story chiefly notable for swordplay, fights, chases, special effects and mumbo jumbo in various made-up languages. Her presence may irritate purists but the action moves so swiftly one doesn’t have time to sulk. It’s hardly possible to discuss the quality of the acting in a movie so crammed with action sequences and computer-generated menaces. There must be many viewers – myself included – who would watch this film simply to see how Jackson portrayed the giant spiders of Mirkwood, and Smaug, “the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities”, as Bilbo addresses him.

As to the meaning and moral of Bilbo’s adventures, these are much debated topics. There is even a Marxist interpretation that sees Bilbo as a representative of the middle-classes who allies himself with a group of skilled workers (the Dwarves), to combat a capitalistic exploiter (Smaug). One might protest that Tolkein was a medievalist rather than a Marxist, although William Morris showed these two positions were not incompatible. There have also been a range of ecological and religious readings.

At its most fundamental level the story dramatises the age-old confrontation between good and evil, with characters divided between each camp. The Elves, Dwarves and humans for instance, are the good guys, while the Orcs and Goblins are aligned with the forces of darkness. The saving grace of Tolkein’s narrative is that the good guys have many vices and weaknesses. They can be avaricious, untrustworthy, proud and aggressive. The villains, on the other hand, have no redeeming features.

To find resources of kindness or heroism amid one’s vices is properly human. To be completely evil is anathema to the human spirit. To venture off the narrow path, as Bilbo and his friends do in the forest of Mirkwood, is to court disaster.

By inventing new characters such as Tauriel, or adding new dimensions to figures such as Bard (Luke Evans), the most resolute man in Lake Town, the filmmakers are shifting the story away from Tolkein’s moral universe and into territory familiar to audiences of blockbuster movies where characters are more likely to be cardboard cutouts than psychologically complex personalities.

Tolkein himself professed “a heartfelt loathing” for the works of Disney Studios, but no contemporary director could tackle a project such as The Hobbit, let alone Lord of the Rings, without a certain degree of Disneyfication.
One cannot make films for a mass audience and hope to please the diehards. The broader aim is that a new generation of fans will go back to the original novels and discover the subtleties that are lost in these vivid, spectacular adaptations.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
USA/New Zealand, rated M
161 mins
Directed by Peter Jackson; screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro, after the novel by J.R.R.Tolkein; starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, Ken Stott, Aidan Turner

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 4 January, 2014.