Peter Jackson’s new Middle-Earth movie — The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug — is here. And not even an army of the most influential film critics could prevent it from becoming a box office sensation.
But, as you can see, most film critics are actually cheering for the film. And why not, if what you want is a immersive, overwhelming, action-packed big-screen experience?
Me, I didn’t attend the press screening. I initially accepted the invitation, hoping that this chapter would be more like Jackson’s first Middle-Earth movie — The Fellowship of the Ring — which was surprisingly faithful to the spirit of Tolkien’s work.
But then I learned a few things that changed my mind.
But first, here are six important bits from a Desolation of Smaug review by my favorite movie reviewer…
- “… it seems Jackson and company have only one abiding goal: to keep one-upping themselves with ever more preposterous action sequences, nastier violence and more inappropriate humor.”
- “In place of all they omit, what do the filmmakers give us? Lots of orcs, to begin with. Orcs lurking around Beorn’s house, orcs on the Running River, orcs in Laketown. Orcs by night, orcs by day — even though in The Lord of the Rings it was a new thing when the Uruk-hai started traveling by day. Can I say I’m heartily sick of orcs?”
- “It’s astonishing, given the brevity of Tolkien’s story and the hours of screen time expended, how many of the novel’s memorable incidents are nevertheless omitted, abbreviated or conflated. The story flies as quickly as possible past Beorn and the horrors of Mirkwood, presumably on the theory that the sooner Bloom and Lily are onscreen the better.”
- “Yet as decapitated orc heads fly right into the camera in 3-D … I found myself longing for the comparative restraint of the Rings trilogy, where the roughest violence was at least deferred to the extended editions.”
- “Between overtly leering innuendo and the introduction of the limp love triangle of Kili, Tauriel and Legolas, the transformation of Jackson’s Middle Earth into alt-Tolkien fan fiction is complete.”
- “I am racking my brains for a single emotionally resonant scene in The Desolation of Smaug.”
Okay, now, where were we? Ah, yes… three reasons why I couldn’t bring myself to attend the press screening for this movie…
- I don’t ask for strict fidelity to plot points and characters in my film adaptations. But I do ask that the filmmakers respect the source material and uphold the core convictions of the artist… especially if they’re going to say with a straight face that their work is “based on” that artist’s work. And I’m not in any hurry to give any more money or attention to betrayals of Tolkien’s ideals, ideals that I share.
- I’m tired of overblown, steroidal action scenes — especially when they’re taking up valuable time that could have been used for the important storytelling the filmmakers chose to leave out. Action scenes can be fun to watch, but they’re a far lesser thing than meaningful storytelling. Jackson decided there wasn’t enough time for Gollum to complete his best riddle in the first Hobbit film. He didn’t have time for the dwarves to complete their beautiful song. But he found plenty of time for action-related embellishment. And here, in the second film, we apparently have plenty of time for stupid love-triangle subplots and the transformation of one of the book’s iconic moments — the dwarves’ escape by barrel — into a frenzied battle with orcs.
- It makes me sad to watch what new moviegoing generations will call The Hobbit when so many have found such joy — and more, meaning — by imagining their way with Tolkien through such a whimsical and meaningful tale about the dangers of greed and unthinking violence (two things celebrated by Jackson’s films). Jackson hasn’t brought Tolkien’s story to a new audience — he’s stolen it from them.
As my friend David Dark has pointed out, Sesame Street’s new Lord of the Rings “parody” is actually more faithful to Tolkien’s convictions. In it, we see the dark side of Cookie Monster, representing the potential in all of us to lose all restraint in the service of instant gratification. How perfectly relevant.
All of this reminds me of how, when I was a kid, my parents would buy me the annual J.R.R. Tolkien calendar. Often, those calendars featured artwork by a variety of artists. All of the pictures were interesting for various reasons. But some of the artists, you could plainly see, loved Tolkien and took the honor of this opportunity to humbly and imaginatively interpret his work in a way that showed both respect and vision. Some of them, though, showed that they hadn’t even read the stories — they were exploiting Tolkien’s imagination as an excuse to do something unrelated to him, to celebrate something incongruous with the spirit of his work. I never liked those pictures, and never gave them any space on my wall. They seemed to me to be the work of Adaptation Terrorists.
And thus I’m heavy-hearted to see how, when it comes to Tolkien on the big screen, the terrorists have won.