Adventures in Middle Earth

Back in 2012, ptolemaeus and I were studying in Europe over the winter holidays, and were therefore unable to participate in our family tradition of recent years of the four of us and our mother going to the movies on Christmas day. This year, however, we were all back, and there was only ever one possible choice for what movie we would go to: The Desolation of Smaug was in theaters and we were right there.

For this reflection piece, I’m going to follow the format I established with the previous Hobbit film, and the same warnings and disclaimers apply, including that I will thoroughly spoil both the movie and the book (the latter material containing inevitable spoilers for the final film).

Right, that out of the way, let’s see what we thought of the movie.

– We managed to catch this one in 2d, much to my relief, though I’ve heard that Lawrence has said that this is the movie where Jackson learned how to use a 3d camera.

– Movie opens with a flashback to a few months before the quest: a conversation in an inn between Gandalf and Thorin. During this sequence, we learn that in this version, the real goal of the quest is to unite the seven dwarf kingdoms behind the rightful King Under the Mountain. Only to establish said King’s authority, they need the Arkenstone … and to retrieve the Arkenstone from Smaug’s horde, they need a burglar. Clearly, the reason for the quest and Bilbo’s presence on it in the book did not jive with what Peter Jackson was going for with the films, and this alternate reasoning to suit the movie’s storyline is pretty solid.

– Also, bonus points for fitting the Arkenstone into the bigger picture. In film logic, it wouldn’t make sense for Thorin to bring it up spontaneously as he does in the book.

– Also, also, seven dwarf kingdoms, “seven [rings] for the dwarf lords in their halls of stone.” Not sure if that tidbit was Jackson’s invention or Tolkien’s, but its inclusion in the film like this is well judged.

Desolation gives us our first proper introduction to Azog’s son Bolg, the Final Boss of the Battle of Five Armies in the book. Azog himself fades mostly into the background in this film, appearing only as the commander of Sauron’s forces during the necromancer subplot. At this point, I can’t see why Jackson needed a second orc captain in this trilogy—presumably, Azog is destined to fall when the White Council ousts Sauron from Dol Guldur, but I can’t see why we need an orc leader for that sequence.

– One serious deviation (as opposed to expansion) from the book which becomes obvious early on is that Bilbo’s use of the ring is severely toned down. I can only assume this is to play up the ring’s nature as an Artifact of Doom, but it still comes off as incongruous.

– The changes made in this movie are a mixed bag, but one clear success is the way Jackson handles the spiders’ conversation. Having them just be able to use human(oid) speech as they do in the book would again, clash with the tone of the films. So he incorporates Bilbo’s ability to understand the spiders into one of the effects of wearing the ring, which makes sense given what the films have established regarding the ring up to that point.

– Another addition which works really well (despite or perhaps because of the fact that it doesn’t appear to be necessary) and adds a disproportionately large amount of depth is the terrible burns from dragon fire on Thranduil’s face, hidden for all but a brief moment with some sort of illusion.

– The movie blows through the episode with Beorn, the party’s desperate wandering through Mirkwood, the battle with the spiders, and the party’s capture and incarceration by the wood elves pretty quickly. It’s a legitimate move, but it means we miss out on a lot of great scenes involving Beorn and the atmosphere in Mirkwood. The way Tolkien described it in the book, that forest was downright creepy, and even without the spiders and the wood elves, just navigating the damn place was an adventure all to itself, and I would’ve liked to see how that whole sequence could play out on the big screen.

– We get a lot of foreshadowing in this installment, and it’s to Jackson and company’s credit that they are able to find creative ways to set up important plot points for the future, including the Arkenstone, the tendency of the treasure to corrupt its’ owner with greed and Thorin’s susceptibility to corruption, and the vulnerable spot in Smaug’s armor. (While I appreciate giving the origin of the hole in the armor, why did they have to throw in that stuff about “windlance crossbows” and special black arrows which are the only things that can pierce a dragon’s hide? What was wrong with just a really good shot from a normal bow with a lucky arrow?)

– To my everlasting joy, the Seventh Doctor is back as Radagast, Gandalf’s fellow wizard and basically sidekick in this movie. Sure, he contributes nothing to the film other than as foil for Gandalf so that the latter isn’t forced into the undignified position of expositing at the scenery—but he’s still crazy awesome.

– And I love this exchange from when Gandalf is preparing to infiltrate Dol Guldur (paraphrased, obviously):

Gandalf: I sense Saruman.
Radagast: I sense a trap.
Gandalf: Well, duh.
Radagast: Next move?
Gandalf: Spring the trap.

– Gandalf tells Radagast to go back for help, and not under any circumstances to follow after him, in a scene strongly reminiscent of similar conversations the latter had with Ace back in the 80s. We get no signs in this movie that Ace’s behavior has rubbed off on her dear Professor, but I’m hoping the third one will have him busting into the fortress and blasting Gandalf out of the cage he’s stuck in at the end of Desolation—preferably with C4. All right, so that’s probably not going to happen, especially the part about the C4, but hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?

– On the subject of Gandalf and Radagast Investigates, ptolemaeus and KorraWP were wisely sitting away from me in the theater—they don’t like how much I talk during movies—so I know less about what they were up to during the viewing, but I can tell you they were rocking out during the exploration of the tomb of the Nazghul. Another scene which probably could have been summarized in a line of dialogue, but was just too cool to ditch.

– I only heard about this afterward, but apparently, when Sauron first manifests himself to Gandalf, Korra exclaimed: “Surprise, bitch! Bet you thought you’d seen the last of me.” Which is the most appropriate comment on that scene I can think of.

– Also afterward, ptolemaeus revealed that when Sauron is attacking Gandalf with his shadow-tentacles and the latter is defending himself with an expanding and contracting sphere of white light—all she could think of while watching that scene was Dragonball Z.

– Switching back to the main party, in the scene where Tauriel talks to Kili while he’s in the wood elves’ lockup, he says that any non-dwarf who touches his lucky stone will be forever cursed (though implies he might be kidding)—foreshadowing or just relationship development?

– When I first saw the trailer for Desolation, I had Tauriel marked down as a dead elf walking. In the theater, I dubbed that initial scene between her and Kili the beginning of a romance between “the two deadest characters in this film.” But looking back, my biggest reason for writing off Tauriel’s chances for survival in the first place was that the trailer really played up the romantic angle between her and Legolas, and since there’s no mention of Legolas having a redheaded girlfriend in the LotR trilogy, the most obvious explanation is that she died in the meantime.

– Thing is, Tauriel’s story in this movie is not a romance with Legolas; it isn’t even—as some people on the internet have inexplicably suggested—a Love Triangle with Legolas and Kili. There’s a bit of unrequited romantic affection on Legolas’ part which motivates him to help her out even when it means risking his dad’s ire, and massive quantities of fully requited romantic attraction between Tauriel and Kili.

– Yes, the major romantic interest in this trilogy is between a dwarf and an elf. I’m sure Tolkien diehards are up in arms, but seriously guys, grow up already. Tolkien’s material is great, but it’s not sacrosanct, and the Tauriel/Kili romance is incredibly cute. (Indeed, it’s now the thing ptolemaeus cares about most in the trilogy, and about the only thing Korra cares about.) I think the important thing to look at is not how well this subplot jives with Tolkien’s somewhat crotchety sensibilities, but at how it works in this particular retelling—and from that angle, I think it’s clear Jackson and company have done a terrific job.

– Although I do have to wonder: what does he see in her anyway? It’s easy to see what she finds physically appealing in Kili—a.k.a. “the hot dwarf”—but while Tauriel is plenty good looking by elf or human standards, I have to question how desirable she looks from a dwarf perspective. Especially considering we’ve already had a joke about bearded dwarf women a bare ten minutes earlier.

– As for the character of Tauriel herself, she is, in a word, awesome. The amounts of orc and spider ass she kicks in this film have to be seen to be believed, and among the elf characters, she’s the one to express the most sympathy with the dwarfs and the Hobbit, to the point of running off to heal Kili when she realizes he’s been poisoned.

– Okay, so first she saves Kili from one of the spiders. Then she shoots down an orc that was attacking him on the bridge during the Barrel Escape sequence (“That’s two you owe me, kid.”) And finally, she visits him in Lake-town and heals him from the poison on an orc arrow. She saves his life three times over in this movie. Not. Bad.

– She also saves Legolas’ life in easily the greatest shot of the entire film, by shooting an orc arrow out of the air with her own arrow.

– As for Legolas, ptolemaeus pointed out afterward that his role in Desolation is the traditionally female sidekick part to Tauriel’s stereotypically male action hero. All he does in this movie is trail around after her being helpful and basically doing what he’s told. (Okay, so he also pines away for her a little bit, and has a few arguments with his dad, neither of which really undermine my point.) Oh and he’s a prince while she’s a commoner, so there’s that, too.

– Legolas also has the biggest single Idiot Ball moment of the entire movie towards the end. He’s fighting the orc raiding party in Lake-town, spots Bolg twenty yards in front of him, and forgetting he has his bow right there on his back strides forward to engage the boss orc in melee combat.

– I’m not even sure what the point of the fight between Legolas and Bolg was, anyway. If it had any sort of plot or character significance, it was lost on me.

– In terms of Legolas and Tauriel—it would have been so great if, during the Barrel Escape action sequence, they’d played the “comparing our kills” game from The Two Towers. Though, as I believe ptolemaeus pointed, out, that could’ve been tragic if Tauriel does die after all in the final film.

– Speaking of the Barrel Escape, that turned out to be the best action scene of the film, what with the ridiculous levels of stunts the dwarfs pull while traveling down the river, juxtaposed with the elves fighting the orcs along the river bank. Kili’s big scene of pulling the lever to open the gates and allow the dwarfs and Bilbo to escape despite his leg injury was an inspired addition.

– Next we get Lake-town, a very well-realized location. It’s a new kind of setting for Jackson and co., and they do a great job.

– In the book, the Master of Lake-town was a short-sighted and small-minded man, looking out only for his own interest, and needless to say, he and Bard did not see eye-to-eye (to the extent they interacted at all, which was hardly). In the movie, however, the Master has been upgraded to a full-blown plutocrat, plundering the public coffers and practically cackling as he counts his ill-gotten wealth, and fearful that Bard—heir to the ruler of Dale—could become the leader of a popular uprising against his rule.

– Now, in principle, I’m all for exploring class struggle in fictional settings, including Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. But one of the last things I ever would have expected to see in a Hobbit movie is an honest-to-Iluvatar Occupy Wall Street analogy, and it fits into the setting about as well as a hippo in a gymnastics competition.

– Though Jackson, at least—unlike Christopher Nolan—had the grace to make his OWS stand-ins the good guys.

– The Master, incidentally, is played by Stephen Fry in scraggly light brown hair and a cartoonish pair of mustaches—just right for twirling—and a goatee. In that get-up, I must confess that Noria figured out who he was before I did.

– Fry, you may recall, played Mycroft Holmes in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. And the trilogy already has Freeman and Cumberbatch on board—now Jackson just needs to bring in whoever played Moriarty on Elementary for the third film to get the modern Holmes trifecta. Bonus points for working in Hugh Laurie somewhere, too.

– A major piece of dramatic irony during the Lake-town sequence is Thorin’s vow to the people to restore the riches of Dale to them. Insert joke about campaign promises here.

– Amazingly, Bard the Bowman not only bears an uncanny resemblance to Will Turner, but manages to look even more like him than Legolas. (And now I’m imagining Legolas receiving second prize in a Will Turner lookalike competition and going, “Wait, that can’t be right, I never lose.”)

– In my opinion, the inclusion of Tauriel doesn’t quite make up for the gender stereotyped helplessness of Bard’s daughters when the orcs attack, especially when son Bain gets a more proactive (if minor) role in the drama.

– ptolemaues is of the opinion that they should have made Bard and his family black. Given Bard’s characterization, I worried this might end up stereotyping him as an Angry Black Man—to which she sensibly replied that the solution is to cast more characters as black people. Can’t argue with that logic.

– Korra also remarked that she’d really like to see more stories set in a world exactly like Tolkien’s, just more racially diverse.

– I know that in Jackson’s version of Middle-earth, Bard talking to a thrush would feel disconcertingly out of place, so I can see why he changed it to have the family already know about the hole in Smaug’s armor, rather than having a little bird tell him. But still, this revision cuts out Bilbo’s role in identifying the hole to then be communicated to Bard via the thrush, and I think that’s a shame.

– After getting teased for it in the first movie, we finally see Smaug in all his glory for this one. And on the whole, the dragon’s special effects are great, though ptolemaeus thought his face was weird—a bit too humanoid.

– Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice work is also terrific, like a mix between Megatron and the Smaug from the animated Hobbit film.

– As a matter of fact, they managed to make Smaug so compelling that Noria admitted she’s going to be sad when the heroes kill him in the next movie.

– The big climactic chase sequence, with Bilbo and the dwarfs playing tag with Smaug all through the mountain, before driving him off with a buttload of molten lava, is exciting and all, but it takes too bloody long. It doesn’t further the plot or characters or themes at all, it’s just there to be flashy—it succeeds at that, but it’s massively self-indulgent. I was fine with the pacing of the rest of the film—and I’m sure many people weren’t—but that sequence really bogged down.

– As with the rest of the film, the discovery of the secret entrance into the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo’s conversation with Smaug, the dwarves’ role in the Lonely Mountain heist, and the whole chase sequence at the end, have been changed significantly from how they went down in the book. And again, while the changes aren’t actively bad on the whole, I don’t see that most of them were necessary, or made the movie particularly better.

– Speaking of the conversation with Smaug and making significant changes from the text:

Smaug: Well, thief! Where are you?
Bilbo: Hang on; Holmes, is that you? But that’s impossible! You’re dead. I saw you die.
Smaug: Watson? What are you doing stealing my treasure?
Bilbo: Your treasure? Holmes, what’s happened to you? Last I saw you, you were getting blood all over the nice London pavement, and now here you are all 70-feet-long, wearing a load of bright-red scales, sleeping on a great big heap of gold, and breathing fire, I think if anyone has explaining to do around here, it’s you. What happened?
Smaug: It’s a long story.
Bilbo: Oh, try again.
Smaug: And what about you, Watson? What are you doing in my mountain, stealing my treasure, reeking of dwarf and unwashed clothes, and why can’t I see you?
Bilbo: *sigh* It’s a long story …

(Okay, okay, I know I really should let it go, but seriously, I want someone to make a video of the scene between Smaug and Bilbo, with lines dubbed in from Sherlock. Because that would be hilarious. Make it so, internet!)

– In one case, at least, the changes do the film a disservice, by making part of Smaug’s characterization incomprehensible. In the book, he failed to catch Bilbo, and couldn’t find the dwarves, so he blasted at them with fire and then flew off to burn down Lake-town. In the film, right in the middle of chasing Bilbo and the dwarves, he up and decides to attack Lake-town on a whim, because that’ll show them. Then he stops when Thorin arrives and waits politely for the latter to dump a shit-ton of molten gold on him. When that completely fails to stop or slow Smaug, he reverts immediately back to the previous plan, forgoing his chance to take out Bilbo, Thorin, and at least some of the other dwarves while they’re standing right there, practically begging to be incinerated. Tip to filmmakers: your villain is less threatening if he has the approximate attention span of a kitten with a laser pointer.

– Speaking of incomprehensible logic, though, what on Middle-Earth made Thorin think that molten gold would be an effective weapon to use against a frickin’ dragon?

– Closing out the movie with Smaug just on the verge of beginning his attack on Lake-town—most gratuitous cliffhanger ending in the series, and remember how some of the previous movies ended.

– Ed Sheehan’s “I See Fire” played over the credits was a bit of a jolt. In the previous four movies, the songs have all sounded appropriate to the world of Middle-Earth, but “I See Fire” struck me as way too modern, especially towards the end.

– Speaking of music, ptolemaeus pointed out the absence of any songs within the movie itself. After a bit of thought, I concluded this is in keeping with the more serious tone of the film overall. Still, it’s kind of baffling, especially since a rewatch of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy soon afterward reminded me how much singing there actually is, even in the more serious second and third installments.

– When you tot them up, there are an awful lot of calls forward to “Lord of the Rings” in this movie. They include: Gandalf’s “You shall not pass” scene with the Necromancer; Tauriel’s rhetorical question to Legolas, “Are we not part of this world?” as justification for venturing out of Mirkwood to fight the evil that’s abroad; Bard’s injunction (in reference to the black arrow) to “keep it secret, keep it safe”; Bain’s response to Bofur’s urgent request for medicine, “King’s foil? Ah, ’tis a weed”; Kili’s fevered assertion (to Tauriel) that his meeting with her “was just a dream”; and of course, Tauriel shooting the arrow with Legolas’ name on it out of the air, hearkening back to Aragorn batting a thrown dagger out of the air in the climax of Fellowship.

– Even more so than the previous film, in Desolation you can see Jackson and co. hard at work shifting plot elements around to bring it more in line with that of “Lord of the Rings.” The efforts to tie the dragon, the orcs, and the necromancer together into a single overarching threat rather than three disparate foes being one of the most obvious examples.

– To be fair, Tolkien prefigured this behavior by re-writing “Riddles in the Dark” to get the characters of Gollum and the ring more in line with what he envisioned for the sequel trilogy. However, I’m not sure how well these drastic exchanges work overall.

– To give you some idea (though in my mind, a slightly exaggerated one) of how drastic those changes were, virtually the first words out of my mother’s mouth once the credits rolled were to remark that she was hard pressed to find the source material in there at all.

And that was The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. As a film, it’s probably better than its predecessor, in no small part because it has so much more of the book’s plot to get through, and additions such as the Tauriel-Kili romance and bizarre OWS subplot deepen the story rather than primarily being filler. The running battle with Smaug in the Lonely Mountain is blatantly filler, but that still puts this one ahead of Unexpected Journey.


Again, though, I am far and away from being in a position to judge either movie fairly on their own merits. I loved both of them to pieces, and I have no doubt I’ll feel anything but the same for the third movie, There and Back Again.*

*Though I do have to question Jackson’s judgment in giving the most exciting title in the trilogy to the middle installment.

To be concluded …


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