14 December 2013

A review of The Desolation of Smaug: Middle-earth no longer feels real

Thursday evening, with some trepidation, I watched The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (in English, with Italian subtitles).  If memory serves, the last movie I saw in the theaters before The Desolation of Smaug was The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Since The Hobbit is my favorite of Tolkien's works, my excitement at the release of An Unexpected Journey was very high, admittedly too high.  Having left An Unexpected Journey both frustrated and angry, I went to see The Desolation of Smaug with one caveat continually running through my mind: This is Jackson's The Hobbit, not Tolkien's.  This remains undoubtedly true for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug; it is Jackon's, not Tolkien's.

The many - and drastic - departures from, and additions to, the story of Tolkien this time did not anger me, in no small part because I had prepared myself and fully expected to become angry (if you love the book, you should do the same); I'm glad I prepared myself so, because I left The Desolation of Smaug feeling somewhere in between disappointment and ambivalence.  I'm not still not sure which it is.

As I ponder my reactions to the film, two thoughts return again and again.  First, it seems to me that Jackson has tried far too hard to directly connect The Hobbit to The Lord of the RingsThe Desolation of Smaug, when not filled with ridiculous fight scenes, is much darker and more menacing the Tolkien's book, and not for the better.  Much of the menace seems forced, in no small part because it is not present in the book.

Second, when you read the book you know that you are reading fantasy but it feels as though it actually happened, that you are reading a bit of history.  Tolkien's style of writing draws you - gently and with great skill - further and deeper into the story and you feel a personal connection with the characters.  The Desolation of Smaug lacks both this feeling of reality and the personal involement with the story, which results in Middle-earth no longer feeling real.


There is no grace or dignity about the elves of Mirkwood.  Though Tolkien described them as "more dangerous and less wise" than their kin, which the movie notes, he also said they "are not a wicked people," but in The Desolation of Smaug Thranduil seems a wicked king.

The innuendo between Fili and Tauriel does nothing whatever to advance the story, except to drag it further away from the text, and is entirely unnecessary.

This loss is achieved in no small way through the battle sequences.  On the one hand, you have Legolas balancing himself on the heads of two dwarves in two barrels moving in the small rapids of a river as orcs shoot arrows at him and throw themselves at him, yet he never loses his balance.  On the other hand, you have Tauriel - who is herself a complete fiction - single-highhandedly going after a army of orcs without receiving so much as a scratch.  It's all too much and, frankly, borders on the unbelievable and reminded me far too much of Hidden Tiger, Crouching Dragon, which I thought immensely stupid.  If the unbelievability weren't enough, the scene with Bombur in the barrel was simply cartoonish and ridiculous, though enjoyed by the Italian audience.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the many changes visible in the various trailers were not as horrible as I expected them to be; however, the unforeseen changers in Lake Town and under the Lonely Mountain are so far removed from anything that Tolkien wrote that as I left the theater I actually wondered: Did even 50% of The Desolation of Smaug come from Tolkien?  I don't think so.

To make matters worse, the immense alterations from the text do not actually increase the suspense of the plot, nor are they necessary for dramatic emphasis, as the writers argued with their changes to the text of The Lord of the Rings, most of which I am able to see their point when it comes to a movie version; however, I cannot understand the changes they have chosen to make here.


So as not to end on a negative note, I have three positive takeaways from the film.  First, the juvenile humor, so present in An Unexpected Journey is mostly gone from The Desolation of Smaug, with the exception of the innuendo between the elf and the dwarf.

Second, the dragon Smaug has been magnificently rendered and is the best dragon I have ever seen in a movie; he is most impressive and is alone worth the cost of a ticket.

Third, once again, Howard Shore has brilliantly composed the soundtrack of the film and will certainly make our ears glad once again with the forthcoming soundtrack to There And Back Again.


  1. Thank you I enjoyed reading your thoughts of this film and will be sure to prepare myself when I go see this next week. However now you have me wanting to see the dragon and how they represented the dragon.

  2. Some thoughts: The changes at Erebor were probably to give the Dwarves a battle against Smaug. I actually like that. In Laketown, Jackson probably felt the need to give Bard a proper introduction as a character, since he actually kills Smaug and leads one of the Five Armies. I thought Thranduil was in keeping with the book, in that he cared mainly for his own realm. As for Tauriel/Kili, that's Hollywood's assumptions talking, both in the need for a strong female character and some sort of romantic subplot.

  3. Oh, and you are also right on the fight scenes, though I suspect they will be among the most popular. Many of the LotR connections, I think, come from Tolkein himself in Unfinished Tales, though I'd have to reread its "Quest for Erebor" section to be sure.

  4. OK, scratch Unfinished Tales, since I'm not watching the commentary track to Hobbit I and they said they had to deliberately avoid that work since the Tolkien estate wouldn't include it in the grant of film rights. But I did learn that Radagast wasn't just meant to be comic relief. They said he was conceived as an anti-Saruman with a different yet possibly equal form of wizardly power - unassuming and close to nature as opposed to strongwilled and anti-nature.