The Abomination of “Desolation”: Two Hobbit-Related Lists

The Abomination of “Desolation”: Two Hobbit-Related Lists December 11, 2013


At Tolkien’s graveside in 1992. Back then, he wasn’t turning over in his grave. Not yet.

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.

I’ll explain.

But first, here are six important bits from a Desolation of Smaug review by my favorite movie reviewer…

  1. “… 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.”
  2. “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?”
  3. “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.”
  4. “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.”
  5. “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.”
  6. “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…

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Desolation… indeed.

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.

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7 responses to “The Abomination of “Desolation”: Two Hobbit-Related Lists”

  1. I am saddened by the way they have shown total disregard for Tolkien’s work. The Hobit was the first fantasy novel I read in high school. I have reread all the novels a dozen times sense. It’s sad that young readers now will most likely end up reading the new version and will never feel the emotion that comes from reading the original . they will never get that tear in their eye or feel the excitement . I honestly don’t know if I will see the last movie. most likely I will only because Iv’e waited so many years for someone to make them. When I went to see Desolation I was almost speechless. The whole time I watched , the real story was running through my head and I kept whispering to my wife ( no-no-no ). I now have to convince myself the waiting was for nothing and it’s not going to happen. Jackson obviously thinks there’s no money in telling the story as is. He could have still made three movies and told the story almost word for word. VERY-VERY-SAD

  2. I have always castigated anyone who expressed an opinion on a book they hadn’t read or a movie they hadn’t seen. An opinion can hardly be valid when it is based on rumor and supposition. However, I believe that the ongoing desecration of The Hobbit is a special case. Peter Jackson has already shown such a cavalier disregard for the source material that I heartily endorse the sentiments you’ve expressed here. All of your points ring true and the quotes from Greydanus seal the deal. I can’t, I just…can’t. My greatest sorrow as a moviegoer will be missing out on Martin Freeman’s valiant efforts in a lost cause. Even though it is incomplete and far from perfect, the Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit still stands as the definitive cinematic interpretation.

    • The new movie is every bit as bad as he said. I’m watching the animated version right now and it’s wonderful.

    • Martin Freeman is a genius. I wanted to see his scenes, but like you, I just… can’t.

  3. If one is going to watch crazily overblown action sequences stuffing a movie from beginning to end, there’s no need to wreck Tolkien’s work by mangling it on the big screen – instead, one can simply watch Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow, starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, in theatres next June. (Of course, now someone will report that that film is the gutting of their favorite sci-fi novel, and then my point is irrelevant.)

    • It’s based on a light novel, All You Need is Kill, by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, and chances are it’s going to gut it as you said.

      • Thanks for that, swordcrossrocket – it’s good info to know. World War Z as a film was interesting, per se; it needed to be viewed as an entirely different animal than the book, and in its own world, it “worked,” I think. I liked how the book pieced reports together, which would have been quite unfilmable as it was written.

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