The Desolation of “The Hobbit”

The Desolation of “The Hobbit” June 11, 2013

I’m tempted to post the new trailer for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug for you…

… but, well, I’ve seen it.

And, no.

I’d like to forget the whole thing as soon as possible.

Watching this trailer, I see that all of my worst nightmares about what Peter Jackson and Company would do to that wonderful book have come true.

It shows that everything they screwed up in the first film,  An Unexpected Journey, they’ve done again — and, it appears, worse — the second time around.

It represents a betrayal of the source material.

In my book Through a Screen Darkly, I detailed some of the ways in which Jackson confused and even contradicted Tolkien’s primary themes and convictions in The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and especially The Return of the King. But still, there was enough respect and enthusiasm for the source material for me to find more pros than cons, especially in Fellowship. I also wrote about meeting Jackson face to face, in the company of other disgruntled Tolkien fans and film reviewers, and hearing him try to explain why he changed so much about the conclusion of that epic. His answer clearly revealed that he did not understand what was most important to Tolkien. In fact, his intentions were to convey the opposite.

But The Hobbit movies are, so far, a greater debacle.

An Unexpected Journey and, if this trailer is a fair representation, The Desolation of Smaug deal a severe blow not only to the novel but to the power of Jackson’s own previous films. They do so by constantly copying moments and tactics of those movies and amplifying them, so that future moviegoers who watch the movies in order will find the power of those original moments to be diminished. (How many times did Jackson wink and remind us of our favorite moments from the earlier films? The ring falling onto a finger, Gandalf losing his temper and swelling up in a shadowy aura, the Moth who comes to the rescue, wargs attacking, etc.)

That’s to say nothing of how quickly Jackson moved to revise scenes so there could be as many violent clashes and showdowns as possible, how many important moments he abbreviated or skipped in order to make room for brand new battle scenes that upset the arc of Tolkien’s story.

In other words, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit is turning out to be, for many of us who love the book, a failure of Phantom Menace proportions.

Here’s a simple test: Look at this painting by J.R.R. Tolkien himself, an image beloved by his readers for decades.

When you look at this image, do you find yourself wishing there were more violence in it?

“There’s not enough fighting in this picture. It would be so much better if, while Bilbo and the dwarves were floating down the river, they were attacked!” Is that what you’re thinking?

If so, then you’re going to love The Desolation of Smaug.

The rest of us, meanwhile, will hope — probably in vain — for someone to make a movie of… you know… that book by J.R.R. Tolkien.

In fact… I can’t believe I’m saying this… but this version of The Hobbit may end up being the one that best represents Tolkien’s story.

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11 responses to “The Desolation of “The Hobbit””

  1. Hi, I’d like to hear what you didn’t like about the first Hobbit film? The discrepancies I noticed was that in the book there wasn’t a butterfly that came to Gandalf in the tree and that Thorin doesn’t fight the Orc and Bilbo doesn’t help out in that fight – again i’d be interested. I liked the film.

    • Did you read my two reviews of the first Hobbit film? I provided a link in this post. And you can also find it by going to “Film” and looking up “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” That will give you all kinds of reasons I was disappointed in the first film.

  2. I once heard Mary Karr talk about a proposed script for her book The Liar’s Club. Someone asked her if she was nervous that screenwriters and actors and producers would stay true to her work.

    She said something like, “Film is a different creative medium than books. I would no sooner worry about a film adaptation of my book than I would a sculptural adaptation.”

    • I’d be interested to see what Mary Karr would think if, say, somebody made a movie based on her book but told her story as if mere willpower had helped her overcome addiction, removing all mention of how her conversion to Catholicism was the real salvation. I suspect she would be a little concerned.

      Film is definitely a different medium. Sometimes, the best way for a film to honor its source material is to do something different. Sometimes a film dishonors its source material by striving too hard for fidelity to the text and becoming a tedious film. What Jackson is doing with The Hobbit is this: He’s taking the stuff he likes from Tolkien and using it to tell a story of his own, a story that looks somewhat similar, but is really about other things altogether. And the way he’s telling the story directly opposes some of the things Tolkien cared about most.

      And most moviegoers will shrug and say “Who cares? It’s awesome.”

      • I wouldn’t say, “Who cares?” but I would say that it is Jackson’s prerogative to change things. That is what ekphrastic art does.

        He is reimagining the Hobbit as an adventure story–which implies certain tropes of peril. Star Trek did the same thing. I don’t particularly like these moments of instant peril resolved in the next instant either, but they seem to be the state of Hollywood these days.

        • The original “Hobbit” is an adventure story, but it’s also a story with a moral center and lots to think about.

      • While I completely agree with you, I tend to value the printed word so much more than film as to dismiss the corruptions and simplifications and just chock it up to (forgive the smug cynicism) a semi-literate public who hasn’t the time or capacity to read the novels. I recently reread Tolkien’s Rings Trilogy and was reminded of the dramatic difference in tone and intent. Despite Peter Jackson’s poor renditions of those classic novels in film form, I still wept at that moment in Return of the King, for example, when Eowyn resolves to go out in a blaze of glory rather than grow old and alone. How Merry looks at her and recognizes her despair. So different from Jackson’s interpretation, and far more heart-wrenching as a result. There are several such examples of moving moments in the book that when converted into film utterly lost their evocative power.

      • Just saw the second installment today, and I agree with you absolutely. It’s not Tolkien’s book, not even loosely. It’s a Peter Jackson film using Tolkien’s characters that he made for twelve year old boys who like lots of boom, boom, boom in their video games. What a disappointing bore it was.

  3. I’m surprised more critics didn’t bring up the fact that the first Hobbit film is structurally identical to Fellowship of the Ring. It starts with a lovely and funny dinner in the Shire, the team takes to the woods and encounters a few obstacles, there’s some extraneous stuff with wizards and then the characters all go into a mountain where they fight a monster and then are pursued into the woods by orcs, where they fight the film’s big bad and then are taken away to safety. There’s even a dwarf I’ve taken to calling Aragorn Dwarf! I know most of the big beats are probably in the book, but I can’t imagine the structure was this identical — it’s like Jackson couldn’t figure out how to make the story work (or, more likely, find a way to pad it out to three 3-hour films), so he had to graft the story onto what had succeeded in the past.

    Also Jeff, is your Before Midnight review posting soon? Dying to hear your thoughts.

  4. Oh man, I feel your pain! I really don’t know if I can face this monstrosity. It’s almost like he’s trying to punish Christopher Tolkien for their legal stoush by royally screwing up his father’s legacy.
    The worst thing he did in that first movie (you know, the one adapted from the first book of the Hobbit!?) was to take an adequately dramatic and suspenseful moment and try and amp it up.
    I was horrified to see a quick flash of the Dwarves and Bilbo fending off a ravenous Bjorn. I love the implied menace of this shadowy character in the book. Having him attack them in bear form just kills it!!!
    You’d think a horror director like Jackson would know that what you DON’T see is always scarier.

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