‘The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug’: A Researcher’s (Late…) Review

It’s a long time already (mid-December) since this second part of Peter Jackson’s ‘Hobbit’ trilogy has been shown on the big screens, but it took me a while before I could finally get to see it the few times I usually need to really get a valid opinion about a film.

In this specific case, it is on top of it as the Tolkien lover all of you who have long visited this blog know me for, that I must now pronounce my judgement, after I have weighed carefully in my head and even more in my heart, all the pros and cons that I know other fans and better analysts on such great forums as my revered ‘Boards’ of TORn  (The One Ring.net) for example, have abundantly discussed about already.

My own verdict?…

I just love this second ‘Hobbit’ movie.

It’s making it a film that adults too can truly enjoy, while respecting all the key episodes in the book, followed quite respectfully in the right order. Whatever is added, like for the first part, is either from Tolkien’s own other bits of writing about it, inserting the story better in the Big Picture of his ancient and vast Middle-earth, or from great and always very plausible ideas Peter Jackson & Co themselves had, to rescue the story where in the original little book, let’s admit it, it failed to satisfy.

No, I am not a Troll disguised as a fan to proffer blasphemous criticisms aimed at irritating the genuine fans; the story as told in the charming little book is perfect for a children’s book, in which nobody will scrutinize much the consistency of the plot or of the various characters’ reactions as per the description originally given for each of them, plus the changes happening in each due to the unfolding circumstances.

After all, dear JRRT was basically just having fun inventing a good bedtime story for his kids; he couldn’t help it that it turned out to be all happening in a corner of his beloved Middle-earth, and that it had in it some of the characters belonging actually to the larger Story his consciousness had been immersed in since he had begun writing it during 1916 right in the terrible trenches of WWI for France’s long-drawn, bloody Battle of the Somme.

This little side-story called ‘The Hobbit’ wasn’t the same, he wasn’t writing it seriously. Who would ever pay attention anyway to what he was improvising every night about the Adventure of the rather ridiculous creature, he found out afterwards half the size of a Man, who had appeared quite unexpectedly under his pen, out of his hobbit-hole, one day when there had been a blank page among the copies he was correcting, and he had found himself writing on it a few words he didn’t even know himself at all what they meant:

‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’

And yet it was that story, not the really heroic, beautifully written ones from before, that had made his recent fame as a story-teller, it was those few, at first meaningless words, that had become a first sentence now so well-known, so famous, that it would have been a sacrilege to dare change it.

Of course, Tolkien being Tolkien, any story written by him had to be interesting and well written enough to please in himself as well as in his (in this case, young) audience both the imagination and the ear. The style, sometimes poetic, sometimes amusing and witty, the often remarkable language with its sometimes long, funny-sounding words, and the very special names of the characters, definitely make ‘The Hobbit’ all the more something to remember and cherish for the numberless children who read it, often after they have first heard it read aloud to them.

What about me?… Even though I read ‘The Hobbit’ probably too late, when I was not a child any more, and mostly because I considered it a kind of duty to read it too, long after I had read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Silmarillion’, still it did amuse me and I recognized in it, on a small scale, all the deep qualities that had already made me love those larger Tales and their author.

What is in ‘The Hobbit” story as it was written, makes it for the most part a delightful string of terribly dangerous situations presented in a lovely linear fashion and with all the deliberate repetitions from one situation to the other that children love, plus a whole gradually emerging deeper Meaning to it all, that I personally liked very much. No doubt, as a kids story, it is great.

But I must say seeing the films so far, and noticing where there were changes or additions by the filmmakers, made me notice also for the first time not just what is in the story, but also what is missing: the actually obvious gaping holes in the plot and glaring inconsistencies in the reactions of a character or another. I feel even the other fans who love Tolkien as much as I do should have the lucidity and fairness to recognize there are flaws in it, without getting for that a sense of guilt, of remorse for betraying him. But of course it is up to each of us to ponder that matter, I can speak only for myself, and explain my reasons for my own conclusions – which I will do right now, down below, including my comments on the first film and particularly its Extended Edition, on the points valid for both  the first and second films:

– The added constant threat of Azog on their heels, if it is not in Tolkien’s text except through the mere mention, at the beginning, of Azog’s name and ancient unforgivable crime, does provide an otherwise sorely missing sense of urgency to the whole journey, without it a rather boring slow advance on ponies or on foot, for days and weeks, with only from time to time some danger to be faced with, and then saved from every time either by Bilbo or by Gandalf, in a repetitive pattern that would have quickly become unbearable to watch on screen, especially for adult viewers.

– Something else that Tolkien, unbelievably enough, didn’t take any advantage from in his own plot, and seemed to simply forget about completely as the tale plods along, is the absolute deadline that Durin’s Day does constitute for the entire endeavor: if they arrive late, well, try again next year!!! I’m so glad Peter Jackson saw that flaw in the plot, and remedied it by on the contrary keeping the pressure on, reminding both the Company and the audience, again and again, more and more often of course in this second film, that the fateful date is approaching, and cannot be missed. This in itself tightens and unifies the plot immensely.

– I found also excellent in the first film the additional motivations emerging in Bilbo that, he explains later on, made him choose to stay with the Dwarves even when he had the option to leave them and go back to the comfort and safety of either his cherished hole, or Rivendell. Even Thorin is touched, and all fall pensively silent, realizing that yes, he does care for them – almost more than they do themselves…

As for Bilbo later on endangering his own life to protect Thorin’s in his mad attempt to face Azog alone, it is an even madder folly than Thorin’s, but the sudden impulse to do it came again from the depths of his good heart. I found both those spontaneous, irresistible acts of madness totally in character each with the one who did it: Thorin, out of hatred; Bilbo, out of love. And that incredible action of total unselfishness from Bilbo, for someone who has been often so harsh to him, does have the effect of properly stunning Thorin out of his hardened shell into his own heart still capable of admiration and gratitude – one occasion at least, and one only before the second one to come on his deathbed, when we can see Thorin’s heart shine through his carapace of bitterness, anger and pride. I found that first true ‘Thorin moment’ very useful to keep in us the audience some admiration and tenderness for him through the rest of the story.

– Regarding the deep enmity between Dwarves and Elves which in his great Tales had become such a huge and entrenched and destructive thing, while in the little book JRRT had strangely neglected to underline it or even mention it at all, and so hadn’t had to take the trouble of explaining it either, in the films it is shown at once, and some ancient cause for this enmity is revealed from the start; and the basic differences in the way of being and characteristic behavior of both Elves and Dwarves are clearly shown as well… leading of course then to a quite logically much briefer and much less harmonious stay of the Dwarves Company at Imladris/Rivendell, in spite of Elrond’s own courtesy and genuineness in extending his hospitality to such undeserving hosts, and his kind help in reading the Moon Runes, to such ungrateful beings.

I found all these changes to the original story most welcome, for at the same time all the wonderful atmosphere and beauty of Rivendell and the qualities of Elrond himself were also shown, just as described in the book, including, even though I don’t think it is anywhere in the book, the lovely scene where we see a smiling Elrond invite his most discrete and truly appreciative guest, the hobbit Bilbo, to consider this place as his home if he ever wants to – as indeed this nice moment must have happened at some point, justifying Bilbo’s confident and trusting permanent return there much later, after his 111th birthday.

The main difference though, in this more realistic version of the Company’s stay there, is that the feelings and reactions of the Dwarves are much more what they must have been in reality: the outrageous behavior from the Dwarves both during dinner and later in the night when noisily taking bath in the beautiful fountains, rang absolutely true for me… and delightfully so, I would say, as it reflected a contrast between the two species that Tolkien himself enjoyed very much, and that here became a source of fun and farcical comic he wouldn’t at all have shunned, as his own sense of humor was quite like that too, of his own admission!… Gandalf’s well-intentioned efforts to present his very un-Elvish companions in their best light, only to see them show on the contrary their worst tendencies as Dwarves, culminated in the dinner scene with Gandalf’s priceless lines, pointing out softly to Elrond in a most solemn and dignified way that ‘Those Dwarves are of the very special lineage of Durin himself…’, while at the same time we can see all the said noble Heirs of Durin acting with complete abandon like petty thieves and loud, unruly rogues intent on making the place their own anyway, to the point of having clear fun together about their hosts… under the astonished and scandalized looks of the other Elves, wondering how long their Lord Elrond will tolerate this deliberate affront!!! Luckily for the Dwarves, Elrond is a truly noble being, who doesn’t get angry so easily, and they will be tolerated as they are while they are there…

All the same, it must have been total fun for all the actors concerned to imperturbably act out in that fabulously outrageous scene such a perfect caricature of their respective characters it has me in splits every time just thinking of it…!

– In the same way, this second film gives us the Dwarves-in-Barrels-on-the-river scene, that has the same marvellously Dwarvish mixture of nonsensical, farcical fun, in the midst this time of this most dangerous situation they are in, descending that wild river caught in their barrels between the cross-shooting of deadly arrows from both their enemies, the Orcs and the Elves, all trying to capture them. I think we as the audience, and Bilbo too, need scenes like this when the inventiveness, dexterity and plain courage of the Dwarves can be enjoyed to the full.

– This is why I enjoyed thoroughly also the second major Dwarvish scene, towards the end of this second movie, a scene many of the other Tolkien fans seem to have disliked very much: the scene after, thanks to Bilbo once again, they have found just in time the key-hole to the secret door in the side of the Lonely Mountain, and after they have nevertheless sent poor Bilbo all alone (only with at least kind-hearted Balin’s blessings…!)  down the long passage to Smaug’s enormous bed of gold coins and precious gems, with the improbable mission to find and retrieve the Arkenstone, and after like in the book Bilbo hardly comes back alive almost entirely roasted from the bad ending of his long and dangerous forced conversation with the awakened huge and clever beast.

 What follows is indeed very different from the book: instead of staying all fearfully inside the tunnel until they are shut in by the dragon’s sudden attack from outside, which forces them to venture finally inside while the dragon is gone, on the contrary the Dwarves, under the astute command of Thorin, all spring into action even while the dragon is still very much there and doing its best to catch them. They dare to enter these vast Halls and other places Thorin and Balin know very well from before, and can guide them into, every wall or pillar, nook or corner becoming a hiding-place or a protection from Smaug’s deadly fire.

And what’s the action about? Yes, to try and kill Smaug, against all odds! Not through the normal weapons they all know have no effect on the dragon, but first through explosives Dwarves knew about; then with water, tons of it being thrown at once upon its body; and finally through huge amounts of gold molten and poured from the furnaces lit again after so many years by the dragon itself, breathing its hottest fire in its rage against the mockeries a taunting Thorin keeps cleverly aiming at him; for one moment the dragon disappears, entirely submerged in a deep pool of molten gold, and doesn’t move anymore; Thorin’s eyes  and face brighten with hope… Alas, the dragon soon emerges again in all its power, not harmed at all, only made even more impressive by being now entirely gilded from snout to tail, an incredibly beautiful sight as it flies out and up into the night sky, roaring and rotating wildly to shake the gold off its body, and then start like Death itself towards Lake-town, to punish these puny Men who have dared help those stupid Dwrves.

Sure, all this was only a long string of desperate attempts, and in the end it all failed entirely.

But at least the Dwarves fought. Thorin, the great Thorin Oakenshield, instead of cowering miserably, faced bravely his long-detested foe, and did everything he could think of to destroy it, all of their lives, including that of Bilbo, full heartedly thrown into the bargain.

To me that’s at least courage and determination, even if it didn’t succeed. I couldn’t help but having no consideration whatsoever left for the book’s Dwarves, all behaving so cowardly in their tunnel and not making the slightest move to do something against their enemy now that they are there.

Not only I didn’t like it, but I found such a behavior as described in the book totally out of character for those Dwarves who after all are tough warriors, and normally portrayed as having a rather fierce sense of honor.

So to me the attempt by Thorin and the other Dwarves, and even Bilbo, to kill Smaug, makes perfect sense, and is much more satisfactory than the version presented by Tolkien in the book.

– Of the added characters, Legolas and Tauriel, found under the command of Elf-king Thranduil, I will say only that the presence of Legolas was actually a must, one way or the other, when we come to the kingdom of his very father; and that the presence of at least one ‘she-elf’, as the orcs say, was only the minimum that could be expected as well, when several others, among whom particularly Thranduil’s queen, Legolas’ mother, would have made even more sense to me, be they only seen as figures in the background.

Of the specific plot that unfolds then, totally invented by Peter Jackson and team, between Legolas, Tauriel and Kili, I do not feel I can yet say if in my eyes it is truly useful for the story or not, before I see how it keeps unfolding perhaps already in the Extended Edition of this second movie, and definitely also in the third and last film… and its Extended Edition too.

I feel rather good about what is happening so far, as it is plausible, and certainly adds to the plot in a way potentially beneficial if it doesn’t distract too much later on from the very important events still to be seen in the last part of the story.

The acting is remarkably great from all as usual, the cast is just perfect all over, also for the excellent scenes in Lake-town.

As for the music, I can only once again thank musical genius Howard Shore for the score he has gifted us with in these first two films… And the extra song at the beginning of the Credits has irresistibly grown on me with a hauntingly moving quality that I regret didn’t obtain even a Nomination for the Oscars, having captured so well the whole highly dramatic atmosphere at the ending of this second movie:

I fully agree with Daniel Wood of ‘Hobbit Forming’ at Yahoo.com when he writes, the night before the Oscars, the following comments I have extracted from his full article and am now ending this Review with… accompanied of course lastly by a video showing the lyrics of the song, while it is beautifully sung by Ed Sheeran:

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug is up for three Oscars, however it’s missed out on several categories, such as costume, make-up and set design. However perhaps one of the strangest nomination snubs regarding the Hobbit at this year’s particular Oscars is the absence of a nomination for Best Original Song.

‘Desolation of Smaug’s entry into the category was its closing credit and main theme song written by British starlet Ed Sheeran. Sheeran’s song entitled ‘I See Fire’ was the first single he had written and performed in two years and truly captured the spirit of the film with lyrics tailored specifically to the world of Middle-Earth and the events in the movie.

However the Oscars selectors didn’t deem Sheeran’s song worthy of a nomination (…). It really does seem like Ed Sheeran’s exclusion from the list is an oversight.

This is especially the case when you look at the latest figures from Spotify that show that whilst ‘I See Fire’ may not have been popular with those at the Oscars, it certainly seems to be the popular choice for the general public as it was the most streamed movie soundtrack of the last 12 months.

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