To End in Fire: “The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug” Review

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CAUTION: There are spoilers ahead, although honestly, there shouldn’t be much that will ruin things for you seeing as the book is 75 years old or so.

So, I saw “The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug” last week, although the length of time between seeing it and writing its review has nothing to do with the movie – only with my time management and personal discipline. But now, here I am in Pret a Manger with a pulled pork wrap and a coffee the size of my head, so let’s get this DONE. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Or rather, the epic, the acceptable, and the tentatively questionable.

First of all, let’s get one thing perfectly straight: this shit is long. The movie, that is. It is LONG, it is a whole bunch of long, and if you sneak in Starbucks like I did, gods help you and your poor bladder. I’ll have you know, I sat through all 2 hours and 41 minutes (an even three by the time the weirdly inappropriate previews were over) without getting up once. I will say this about Peter Jackson and his extravagant running times, I don’t get bored. Now, with Christopher Nolan, I might get bored partway through and just want things to pick up so I can get interested again, but in the case of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, I am never bored. The pacing of the sequel was much improved from the first even then, and when I wasn’t actively perched on the edge of my seat, I was settled comfortably back and enjoying the ride. In order for the length to be what it is, of course the book’s storyline (which is very linear, and even a bit thin in places) has been padded. It just isn’t as much as you’d think, or even as much as people seem keen on griping about. At least, I didn’t have a problem with it. As in the first movie, certain events in the book that were written a bit hastily or only occupy a few pages at most were given their full deserved attention. The spider scene in “DoS” is a notable example. Performed very closely to what appears in the book, it is thoroughly enjoyable to see on screen, when we can linger in every bone-chilling moment. The spiders themselves are uniquely creepy, and clearly modeled to be an identifiable variety, making them unnervingly familiar. What struck me most about this scene, however, is that SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER whereas in the book, Bilbo can understand the spiders speaking whether he is wearing the Ring or not, in the film, he can only understand their speech when he has the Ring on his finger. This dovetails beautifully with a moment in the book Return of the King when Sam Gamgee can suddenly understand the Orcs language when he is wearing the Ring. Although this quality of the Ring was only barely noted in the “Lord of the Rings” films, it’s a pleasant surprise to see it used so well hear.

In general, that wound up being a lot of my feeling about the things in the movie that were added or expanded. Peter Jackson and Co. had obviously done their homework. In the book, I recall being perplexed and annoyed when Gandalf swanned off for a huge chunk of the story, doing goodness-knew-what and barely said a word about it when he returned. In the film/s, that is shown and explained to great effect. The changes made in the case of Gandalf and the Necromancer are a help, not a hindrance. They are there for clarification. Frankly, I feel that if The Hobbit, as a novel, were adapted more straight-forwardly, it would be lacking. After all, it is essentially a children’s novel. Going from the world and tone established in the Lord of the Rings films to the kind of thing that The Hobbit might naturally want to be would be like watching the Harry Potter series backwards, starting with David Yates and ending with Chris Columbus. It would be an anti-climax, and appealing to an audience it didn’t begin with. Providing only the bulk, action, characterization, and expansion of world than The Hobbit asks for would do the film, as a separate entity, a disservice.

Speaking of characterization, let’s talk about that for a minute. I am going to say two things that may lose me readers at this point in the post. 1: Tolkien is not a strong character writer. 2: The character addition of Tauriel is not the end of the world.

If I still have you here, let me explain myself. First of all, in The Hobbit, or even The Lord of the Rings, the presence of legitimate character arcs are all but invisible. Bilbo gets some decent character development, Frodo does as well, along with Sam, Merry, and Pippin. Gimli and Legolas have some minor horizontal development as well, and no, that is not a gay joke. Basically the hobbits are the only people who change with any significance throughout any of the books, and they all have the same arc – provincial, simple folk who go out into the big wide world and find that it is greater and lovelier and scarier and worse than they ever dreamed. Tolkien was not a traditional novelist; his focus was milieu, not character. The sacrifice of character development is a natural consequence of a cast of thousands. For what he was doing, this is fine. But this does not – DOES NOT – work on film. Film is a different medium from literature. In order to keep going, keep watching, we need more from the characters we are watching. Namely, we need to want to watch them. In The Hobbit the Dwarves, with the tentative exception of Thorin, are a faceless rabble possessing the bare minimum required to be a legitimate character: names, vague appearances, and occasional bits of dialogue indistinguishable from one another’s. In the film, they have personalities, because they have to. They walk differently, fight differently, speak differently, and this individual identification makes us care about them. This is one thing the films do better than the books. By DoS, each of the Dwarves is distinguishable from one another. The audience watches, knows who they’re watching, and therefore cares about them. Every bit of added dialogue or action that was not in the book but contributes toward that end is valuable and necessary.

Which brings us to Tauriel, and by extension, Legolas. Tauriel the elf was not in the book. In fact, there is not a single solitary female presence in the book, excepting perhaps a troll. I don’t agree with everything Tauriel was involved in, am minorly ambivalent about Legolas’ presence, and may or may not have some serious problems with SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER the Legolas/Tauriel/Kili love triangle. I have not decided yet and will let you know. However, I understand why they did it. The Lord of the Rings series as a whole is a Bechdel test nightmare, and adding a single female character does not fix that, but as a female, I’m not sure how I would feel about watching 9 hours of Middle Earth knowing that apparently people like me (i.e. people with vaginas) do not have a place there. For younger women and girls, I’m sure there would be similar feeling and with bigger effect. It’s a sappy cop-out of an excuse, but it’s true. Seeing at least ONE woman, and a pretty cool one at that, present in that world was a comfort. The addition of Legolas, also not in the book, should not surprise anybody. We know he’s a fan favorite, we know he’s from Mirkwood, and we know Mirkwood plays a role in the journey. Obviously there is going to be some Legolas action in there. What WAS a bit of a surprise was his characterization as…well, kind of a dick. Kind of a lot. It takes some balls to take one of the most popular characters and most successful performers of the original trilogy, put him in the new one, and make him a blatant asshole. Anyway, back to my original point (I always get there eventually), Legolas and Tauriel do not take away from the story. Do they necessarily add anything? No, not really, except some fancy Elven arrow-slinging. Do I mind it? Personally, no. They were entertaining and intriguing, and even though the love triangle business was a little eyeroll worthy, they did add something. It’s a reminder, I feel, that in everything that happens in Middle Earth, the Elves are there, trying and failing miserably to keep themselves apart from the rest of Middle Earth’s incessant drama. Peter Jackson knew exactly what he was doing adding them in. Is any fantasy fan going to sit there and go, “No, no more Elves fighting and running and being aloof and cool, no more of that, take them away,”? Book purists might. Book purists have. Once again, though, film. Different medium, different requirements. I guarantee that if you were to watch the movie with only the book-relavent Elf bits in, you would start to miss them.

I reserve judgement for the love triangle for now. Just know that it’s there, and I feel weird about it. I mean, on one hand, Legolas is a douchebag with a douchebaggier dad (seriously, Thranduil is a jerk), and Kili is the most charming Dwarf you have ever seen in your goddamn life, and you sort of want poor underdog Tauriel to fall for him… On the other hand, Elves and Dwarves are mortal enemies, so there’s that. It’s sort of cute, sort of perplexing, and sort of unnecessary but also sort of not. Without it, the Elves wouldn’t go to Laketown at all. Tauriel only goes because Kili is adorable and she wants to help him continue living so he can keep being adorable, and Legolas only goes because he has a hard-on for Tauriel. Without Kili flirting with the pretty Elf-lady, that entire plotline falls to bits. Weird, questionable, but ultimately able to be dealt with if you’re a reasonable sort of person. Tolkien probably wouldn’t have liked it, I will say that.

The single thing I took away from DoS was this. If you see it for no other reason, see it for this: three hours of sheer production design porn. Honestly, I thought Thor 2 was going to take the cake for me design-wise this year, but I was so freaking MISTAKEN. Maybe I’m just a nerd and notice this kind of thing, but one thing I loved about this particular installment in the Middle Earth films was the closer look at the everyday lives of the Elves and Dwarves, otherwise the most inscrutable races. We see a bit of the living quarters in Rivendell, but really, that’s it. The only people’s houses we see are the Hobbits’, and only one of them. Mirkwood, besides being a work of Art Nouveau-inspired orgasmically lovely art, also offers a glimpse into, say, how Elves get in and out of town. What Elves’ wine cellars look like. What Elves look like when they’re passed out drunk. The little things, you know. Erebor is likewise a fabulous set design, and the Rube-Goldbergesque setup of their mining shafts is nothing short of brilliant. Seeing so much of the Dwarven city, imagining it as a once-bustling hub of Dwarven activity, makes seeing SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER the chamber of cruelly starved and mummified Dwarf corpses all the more striking. You see those bodies after seeing their home, and it makes them that much more real as a people. Mirkwood, both the actual woods part and the Elven twisty-tree habitrail, looked in felt like real environments. The Elven bits of Mirkwood were a stunning combination of previous Lothlorien and Rivendell designs with some unique qualities, but altogether somehow darker, more mysterious. By the time the company reaches Laketown, I was already sold on the production quality, but then they went a full step further. It is like nothing I had ever seen, like a twisted, depressing combination of Venice and a medieval English hamlet. The level of detail in the dressing was astounding. I wanted to watch the Laketown scenes over and over, just so I could see everything.

In all, I enjoyed the movie. There wasn’t really a single moment that stuck out to me in which I thought, “Wow, that was pretty lame.” It was not lame. It was epic in its best moments, and only mildly tedious at its very worst. Overall I didn’t mind the length, because I did not feel I was being cheated with an hour of senseless padding. I was consistently entertained, and that’s hard to do for that long. I watch a lot of TV, okay? I am a child of the new Millenium, my attention span is not that long. That it held me in so fixed a place of entertainment, amusement, and anxiety is a feat in itself.

You may have noticed I have not said a single, solitary word about Smaug. I mean, the movie is “The Desolation of Smaug”, I should bring him up at some point, right?

I’ll say this, and this only: He. Was. AWESOME. I’m choosing deliberately to say nothing more. Seriously, go see it yourself. He will blow you away.

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