Film & TV hobbitdesolationposter

Published on February 1st, 2014 | by Ithika

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – a Tolkien-fanatic’s review

I tried to keep this review short, I really did. But keeping it under 2000 words seems significantly outside my abilities. Continue with caution.

If this is to end in fire, then let us all burn together!

badassthorin

Thorin remains surly.

My review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug has been a long time coming.  Like Ari and Muse, I was incredibly lucky to see Desolation at the WA premiere, courtesy of Capey.  However, unlike Ari, I failed to produce a timely review!  I got a little bit carried away with my Tolkien Nerdery, you see. First thing’s first: You don’t have a lot of time left to see Desolation at the cinema, preferably in HFR 3D on an IMAX screen, and if you haven’t done so already, I really recommend that you get thee hence as soon as possible.  Perhaps more so than Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug is a relentless visual spectacle – and the dragon himself deserves to be seen on as large a scale as possible! Much like The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers before it, The Desolation of Smaug is a larger departure from (it’s corresponding portion of) the book that inspired it.  However, after seeing the film twice, I find that I am entirely able to accept the changes made as fair and reasonable.  I will briefly discuss a few of the changes made, so the review below the jump contains major spoilers for this film, the next one, and, obviously, the book.

The first change I wanted to discuss was the brief moment we spend with Beorn the Skin-changer, a favourite character from the book for many readers.  Beorn’s presence in the movie adaptation is greatly changed to how he appears on the page, which may disappoint some.  However, it really does seem inevitable that Beorn be modified or removed, and I enjoyed having him in the tale.  This said, considering that The Hobbit has been extended into three films, it is a shame that a beloved book character needed to be modified with such a heavy hand.  Gone is the slow and careful introduction of the party to Beorn by Gandalf, although this was something I grudgingly expected.

Tolkien tended to introduce powerful characters to us be hinting at and suggesting their danger and other-worldliness – we are wary of Beorn because Gandalf is acting with such intense caution.  This “show don’t tell” mode of storytelling has been taken to an extreme in the film, where Beorn appears first as the great bear and second as a man-ish being.  While this loss of subtlety is disappointing, it is to me, ultimately preferable to not having Beorn in the film.

Tauriel – the Captain of Thranduil’s Guard.

One of the largest, and arguably most necessary, deviations from the book appears in this film in the addition of Tauriel, the Captain of Thranduil’s Guard.  This Silvan she-elf was the topic of much discussion and debate in the lead-up to this film, and I enjoyed her addition to the story.  Nobody can argue the dearth of notable women in The Hobbit as it was written – a token of the times, to be sure, rather than a particularly glaring failure on Tolkien’s part.  However, in 2013 there is no excuse for a tale with no women in it.

Galadriel makes a cameo in An Unexpected Journey, an addition which I enjoyed, as it reminded the viewer of her power, influence, and mystery – all but Saruman, who is arrogant and soon-to-be-corrupted besides, defer to her.  As is proper : Galadriel, daughter of Finwë, sister to Fëanor and Fingolfin, is the most powerful elf remaining on Middle-Earth during the Third Age.  Tolkien himself described Galadriel as “…the greatest of the Noldor, except Fëanor maybe, though she was wiser than he, and her wisdom increased with the long years…” so there is really no overstating her importance or significance.

The only gripe that I have with Tauriel’s appearance in the story is that she has been shoe-horned into an awkward love-triangle between herself, Legolas and Kíli.  From the first moments that I heard of her inclusion in the films, I dreaded her being made into Legolas’ love interest, and this is almost as bad.  If you try really hard, you can pretend to yourself that she is not romantically interested in Kíli – that her fascination with him is a childlike one, born of her sheltered existence thus far.  She is only 600 years old – ponderously young for an Elf in Tolkien’s legendarium, barely more than a child.  I’ve used this tidbit to rationalise her interest in Kíli as I mentioned above, but if I’m honest it’s very clear that Jackson intend to use her to wrench our heartstrings in the cinema finale next year.

My theory is that Tauriel will ‘choose’ Kíli, and will possibly die in the Battle of Five Armies as he does.  This will bring Legolas back to his venomous and hereditary hatred of Durin’s folk in time for Fellowship of the Ring.

While I enjoyed Tauriel as an exciting and dangerous wood-elf, I can’t help but wonder why Dís was overlooked when thinking of female characters to add to the story.  Dís is Thorin’s sister, the mother of Fíli and Kíli, and the only female dwarf that Tolkien ever named.  She could have been an excellent addition to the tale, although it would have necessitated quite drastic changing of the story and a little of the ways of dwarves to fit her in the telling.  Where Tauriel is constrained to Mirkwood, more or less unable to influence the most central deeds of the films, Dís could have been right in the thick of it.  A Dwarf-woman of royal lineage – who is to say what she might have been capable of?  And in terms of tugging the heart-strings of cinemagoers, what could be more heart-wrenching than a mother losing her two sons, and a sister losing her brother?  Cynicism tells me that Dís did not make the cut because a bearded, well-muscled dwarf woman will not put butts in seats as much as graceful-as-they-are-deadly She-elves, but probably messing with established lore so significantly was also a major factor.

To bring us back to Mirkwood, the halls of the Woodland King are, as most things in this series of films, beautifully realised.  This unique Elven kingdom has all the beauty of Rivendell or Lothlorien, translated into gigantic caverns – although, again typical to the films, they are perhaps a little too enthusiastic with their depiction of bottomless delvings.  Thranduil gets more screen-time than he did book-time, revealing him to be proud, and not nearly so wise as Elrond or Galadriel, which, as a Sindarin Elf, is fitting.  He is altogether more frightening than any of the other Elf-Lords we have encountered in the cinema so far, but he is not evil – a point which I hope is not lost on moviegoers who haven’t read the books.

thranduilswine

Cellar-dwarves: A common blight in the woodland realm?

While my beloved drunk-elves were wretchedly stolen from me, you get almost a glimpse of them – one of the guards says “The King has excellent taste in wine, come, Elros, try it!” I mention this only because of the use of the name Elros – this is the name of Elrond’s brother, who chose a mortal life and became the first King of Númenor.  Tolkien more or less intended for Elves not to share names, so since this cannot be Elrond’s brother, this is a strange and unnecessary oversight – it is relatively easy to construct names in Sindarin once you know how, and even easier to check that they do not appear in the legendarium somewhere else.

The Barrel Ride from Mirkwood to lake-town has also been changed, becoming more exciting and action packed (And shorter!), which is, as with Beorn, probably necessary.  It involved  many orcs, two additional elves, and one hilarious scene where Bombur got to show his warrior side.  It was a fun scene, although as Ari pointed out – at one point the videography for the scene is just awful.  It looks less horrible in HFR, but it is still jarringly bad.

While the insertion of Legolas and company into the story, and indeed, the increased presence of the wood-elves at all, may gall some of the Tolkien faithful, at least the film team have put him to good use here – Legolas’ fight choreography in The Desolation of Smaug is nothing short of fantastic.  Fluid, deadly and convincing, Orlando Bloom and his CGI doppelgänger manage to make using dwarf heads as footholds look believable and reasonable.

comeonstephenfrygrima

I mean, really?

Next comes Lake Town, which contains some of my least-favourite departures from the original story.  Bard is, quite amusingly, given greater screen time and significance to the moviegoers by removing his status within his community.  In the book, Bard is the captain of the archers of Laketown, and we don’t meet him until Smaug leaves the Lonely Mountain.  In the film, Bard is a lowly bargeman who seems to be liked well enough by the people of the town, but who exists on the outside of the law. You may remember from the books that Thorin and his company do not hide their presence from anyone in Laketown, immediately making themselves known to the Master and sharing their quest with them.  After all, the wealth of the dwarves of Erabor would be well remembered by this downtrodden group of Men – why wouldn’t they want to restore the King Under The Mountain?  In the film, the Dwarves and Bilbo are smuggled in by Bard, and they skulk around until they are eventually discovered by the authorities and brought before the Master.  The Master, portrayed by Stephen Fry, is in the movie an entirely corrupt and greedy man, served by a character so reminiscent of Grima Wormtonge that someone not familiar with the stories could be forgiven for confusing the two.  The original Master of Lake Town is greedy and weak, but he is not wholly detestable, and he does have wisdom and business-savvy – he is the reason that the Wood-Elves trade with the men of lake town.  The Master was also elected from a group of the wise among the people of the town, while the film indicates that he gained his position through some other method than voting.  While in the book, the Master is indeed corrupt and eventually succumbs to his own greed and the dragon-spell, in the film he is twisted into a character devoid of any virtues at all.  He has far too much screen time, and despite Stephen Fry’s typically being a good actor, I found he and his companion – Arthur, or whatever lazy modern-name he was given – added almost nothing to the story at all.

Since I have already spoken far too much, I shall discuss what we all went to the cinema to see and end my ranting.

smaugeye

The Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities.

The matter of the dragon was one of great importance to me.  I imagine that I was not alone in my concern that Smaug, the Mightiest and Chiefest of Calamities be realised in all his fire and glory.  He is not just significant to Tolkien enthusiasts like myself, either – Smaug and his character have informed the manner of many a fantasy dragon in the many years since Tolkien first committed Smaug to paper.  I am overjoyed to report that Smaug is breathtaking.  Benedict Cumberbatch and the post production sound team did a phenomenal job voicing the dragon.  His voice needed to include so many elements that it seemed almost impossible – gigantic, raw power, subtlety, cleverness, intelligence, inhumanity, that rumbling hissing sound that crocodiles make, and dragon-spell.  Amazing as it sounds, Smaug’s voice delivers nearly all of these things.  He is beguiling, subtle, terrifying physically,  but perhaps more fearsome for the pressure of his will.

As with many other major moments in The Hobbit, Smaug has been injected with a fair dose of blockbuster movie action.  While this is in some ways unfortunate, every scene involving the dragon is spectacular.  Why they have decided to give Smaug two legs (he walks using his wings as front legs, in the manner of wyverns… or bats) is beyond me, but overall his design is wonderful.  Every scale looks real, and the HFR really shines here.  After Bilbo speaks with Smaug, we are treated to another heroes-run-through-wondrous-underground-cavern action scene, (yes, complete with dragon) which requires a fair whack of suspension of disbelief at times.

smaugbilbo

Smaug the Immeasurably Wealthy is not vertically challenged, that’s for sure.

Naturally, the film ends with Smaug flying to rain fire and death upon Lake Town, leaving the Dwarves and their burglar in the Mountain.  Clearly, I’m somewhat invested in tales of Arda, and even though the film differs greatly from the book, I will be back to watch the final instalment next year.

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About the Author

Ithika

Ithika is full of enthusiasm about, frankly, a lot of things. She started gaming at the tender age of 6 on a secondhand Atari Lynx, and it was pretty much all over from there. A Nintendo girl at heart but a Playstation girl in reality, Ithika has a strong preference for adventure and swashbuckling over just about anything else. Amazingly, she managed to stay focused for long enough to finish two degrees, and now she's (almost) an architect. Don't mess with her - she keeps a Charizard in her pocket.



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