The Desecration of Smaug (but, not really)
I was recently reminded about the inescapable subjectivity that exists in movie-going. Two people can sit in the same crowded theatre and watch the same movie and come out with two completely different opinions/interpretations/feelings about that movie (which are, in turn, also uniquely different from the experience of each of the other movie goers who shared the same space for the same spell of time).
The case in point was my recent viewing of The Desolation of Smaug, the second part in a trilogy of movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic children’s book The Hobbit. I experienced the movie as a dizzy, but entertaining spectacle which… well… “barreled” towards the audience at full speed and never quite let up. And yet, others who saw it with me felt that it dragged and was monumentally slow.
**Be warned… what follows will potentially provide both outright and inferred spoilers for: the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books as well Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. If you wish to read watch these things on your own and haven’t done so yet (first of all, where have you been? And second…) you may wish to pick another blog to read.**
Those who have been fairly warned and still wish to proceed, please keep all hands and feet inside the vehicle, and away we go…
After a prologue based on a short story Tolkien wrote called The Quest for Erebor, The Desolation of Smaug picks up shortly after the events of An Unexpected Journey. Gandalf, Bilbo, Thorin and company have (somehow) found their way down from the Carrock and are being pursued by Azog. They encounter Beorn, a skin-changer who can take the form of a great bear when it suits him. Following this ursine-y encounter, Bilbo and the dwarves head into the old Greenwood forest (now being called Mirkwood by the surrounding villagers because there seems to be a growing evil coming from it) while Gandalf heads off to investigate the mysterious Necromancer at Dol Guldur.
From there, the adventure really picks up as we battle with spiders, are locked up in the palace of the Wood Elves, go for a harrowing white water rapid ride, clash with some of the folk of Laketown and eventually our dwarves make it to the Lonely Mountain and must attend with the fearsome dragon, Smaug. We end on a cliffhanger and the dragon breaks free from the Mountain and flies towards the innocent Laketown to inflict his wrath – leaving a staggered Bilbo to wonder aloud, “What have we done?”
That is the plot in a nutshell, now let me talk a little about the main criticism I am hearing about the movie…
“The joy and wonder of The Hobbit is missing. In its place, we simply have a Peter Jackson-ized version that is trying to capture the same tone as the much darker Lord of the Rings movies”
To that, I say… yes, The Hobbit was written as a children’s book. However, at some point (and somewhat at the prodding of a publisher keen on seeing a sequel) Professor Tolkien realized that this world he created had many more stories to tell. In Tolkien’s mind, Middle Earth matured. The whimsical Middle Earth of the original Hobbit gave way to a world with much more meaning, depth, danger, and substance.
This is a phenomenon that I am familiar with. I am going through a similar situation with a silly story I started to write some 13 years ago. It was, in essence, my attempt to write a love letter to my then fiancé (now, wife) in a creative way. I created a world and transported myself to it, with the idea of questing to get back to our world so I could once again be with Jennifer. Over the years, the story has evolved substantially in plot, but even more so in tone. I created a world in which I discovered there was just more “there” that was there. I was late to the party when it comes to Tolkien and wasn’t actually introduced to him until the first Lord of the Rings movie came out in 2001. As I’ve read more about the genesis of Tolkien’s creations (just as interesting as the works themselves!) I immediately identified with the evolution of Middle Earth between The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings.
A similar transformation has happened in this century with another popular work – J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. To say that The Sorcerer’s Stone is far from the tone and feel of The Deathly Hallows would be an understatement. The first Harry Potter book is basically Rowling’s The Hobbit. With subsequent novels (especially beginning with the 4th and on through the 7th) the Wizarding World followed the path of Middle Earth towards a darker but more substantive existence.
All that was preface to say that Tolkien faced some issues when trying to write his sequel to the Hobbit. Middle Earth and the characters in it had changed drastically. Professor Tolkien even had to go back and revise several key portions of The Hobbit (originally published in 1937) to fit in with coming The Lord of the Rings (originally published from 1954 to 1955). His revised edition is what we all know as The Hobbit and it was published in 1951. His revised edition is actually what we all know as The Hobbit and it was published in 1951. The most substantive change had to do with the Bilbo and Gollum scene with the Ring. In the original, Gollum was much more whimsical and actually freely gave the Ring to Bilbo after he won the riddle game. Since the ring in the Hobbit became the One Ring, that entire scene was rewritten to be closer to the tone of “the new Middle Earth” that Tolkien was creating.
In 1960, after The Lord of the Rings had been published with great success, Tolkien even attempted to revise The Hobbit even further with what was going to be a “Page One Re-Write”. His intention was to bring the tone of his earlier work into line with what follows. But, a darker, more serious Hobbit just wouldn’t work as a novel.
However, in my humble opinion, it does work for a film. And so, I think that’s what Peter Jackson et al are attempting to do with The Hobbit movies. They are doing that “Page One Re-Write” that Tolkien never finished. The drastic changes being made to the feel (and to a somewhat lesser extent, the plot) of The Hobbit between book and film seem to me to be in service of truly placing the story of The Hobbit in the same universe as Tolkien’s later written Middle Earth excursions (The Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion).
I have found that the key to appreciating Jackson’s Hobbit movies (if one is already versed in the written world of Tolkien’s Middle Earth) is one particular line of dialogue from the opening Frame Story of An Unexpected Journey. An older Bilbo (speaking just before the events of The Lord of the Rings movies) offers the following as narration: “My dear Frodo, you asked me once if I had told you everything there was to know about my adventures. And while I can honestly say I’ve told you the truth, I may not have told you all of it. I am old, Frodo. I am not the same hobbit as I once was. It is time for you to know what really happened.”
That single slice of narration provides (for me, anyway) the basis for understanding and interpreting everything that follows. Bearing in mind that, as written, The Hobbit novel just does not jive very well with the Lord of the Rings novels, the Hobbit movies seem to be re-imagining the Hobbit story to actually fit with the existing Lord of the Rings movies.
That, no doubt, angers and frustrates many Tolkien fans, but not me.
The Hobbit movies so far are far from perfect. But I have still enjoyed birth of them immensely. I am looking forward to the final installment to see if Peter Jackson can pull everything together.
In the meantime, I will also continue enjoying the first two Hobbit movies as well as both Star Trek: Into Darkness and Man of Steel.
I suppose that makes me the Anti-Fan Boy or something. 🙂