At the climax of the last of the many sprawling, outrageous action set pieces in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug — a few with some textual basis in Tolkien, many without — comes a visual conceit so spectacularly gratuitous that it beggars the phrase “gilding the lily.” What is gilded here is so far beyond lilies that, like “jumping the shark” and “nuking the fridge,” it demands to be commemorated as the standard for future excess: in this case, excess in cinematic adaptation.
“Gilding the you-know-what” (or you will know what, if you click the link, so spoiler warning) has become, by now, the stock in trade of Peter Jackson and his collaborators, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. The Lord of the Rings films were already marked by excess, but also by poetry and grace — and the source material was one of the grandest literary epics of all time, giving Jackson and company a great deal to work with. Even when they went bigger than Tolkien, as in the Mines of Moria or at Helm’s Deep, Tolkien was already so big that it wasn’t entirely unfitting.
But then came Jackson’s take on King Kong, a gleefully messy exercise in surfeit, shot through with moments of brilliance, but stuffed with characters no one cared about and such indiscriminate action spectacle and violence that it quickly became numbing instead of thrilling. After that came The Lovely Bones, a troublingly ham-fisted adaptation of Alice Seybold’s paranormal thriller, long on trippy imagery but short on recognizable human emotion.
Now, two installments into the epically epic trilogification of Tolkien’s slender fairy tale for children, 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.
That’s not to say it isn’t still fitfully entertaining, as these things go. A battle of elves, orcs and dwarves — staged, with wanton disregard for Tolkien, amid the dwarves’ barrel ride down the Forest River of Mirkwood — contains such madly choreographed stunts and wuxia-style wire-fu acrobatics that I laughed and laughed, only hating myself a little for it.
Yet as decapitated orc heads fly right into the camera in 3-D — and as Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and redheaded Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), an elvish Arwen/Eowyn/Xena/Buffy stand-in of the filmmakers’ own creation, resort to ever more novel techniques for piling up orc corpses — I found myself longing for the comparative restraint of the Rings trilogy, where the roughest violence was at least deferred to the extended editions.
Then there’s dwarvish heartthrob Kili (Aidan Turner) inviting Tauriel to search him before imprisoning him, lecherously adding, “I could have anything down my trousers.” Parrying like a barmaid with a lustful patron, Tauriel shoots back, “Or nothing,” but pretty clearly she thinks he’s cute. 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.
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.
Gone are the lethal stream and the phantom elf-fires in Mirkwood. Even the squirm-inducing spider attack — perhaps the one action sequence that achieves any sense of urgency or feels as if anything is at stake — is strangely abbreviated. Bilbo’s “Lazy Lob” and “Attercop” taunting of the spiders has been dropped, which is especially disappointing because the film’s one kind of brilliant gloss on Tolkien is an explanation for why the spiders can talk when Shelob apparently didn’t.
Gone is Gandalf’s canny game with Beorn the skin-changer (Swedish actor Mikael Persbrandt), winning his hospitality by spinning a tale while the dwarves trickle in in “unexpected party” fashion. This is a lovely character moment in the book, giving us insight into Gandalf’s methods as well as Beorn’s personality. Perhaps the extended edition (and the third film) will flesh out Beorn’s character; here, he’s dull and irrelevant. Also gone: the heroes’ welcome the dwarves receive at Laketown.
In a word, what’s missing are the manners: anything relating to hospitality and courtesy, either offered or refused. This includes Bilbo’s cheeky taunting of the spiders, for cheek flouts and thus presupposes manners. (Mere ribaldry is not cheek and does not presuppose manners.) Curiously, the cheekiness of Bilbo’s repartee with Smaug has also been lost, even when the dialogue is drawn straight from the book, because of how the sequence has been staged.
Smaug himself, thank goodness, is a sight to behold, as lovingly rendered and fearsomely majestic a computer-generated beastie as ever graced the screen. Not until Bilbo comes face-to-face with the dragon do we get our first good look at him: a shrewd call. Voiced with dignity by a digitally tweaked Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug sounds as he should, too. But there’s an odd catch.
For some reason, Bilbo in this movie is strangely slow to put on the Ring and strangely quick to take it off. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to preserve the menace of the Ring from the Lord of the Rings films. Or perhaps, more crudely, they feel invisibility makes Bilbo seem too invulnerable and drains the tension. Either way, when you are invisible and hiding in an alcove in the lair of an affronted dragon, no hobbit in his right mind would take off his magic ring and begin wandering about in full view of the dragon, hoping against hope to distract him with banter.
After Bilbo’s riddling with Gollum in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, his riddling with Smaug here is a bitter disappointment, without a shadow of the excitement and panache of the scene in the book. At least An Unexpected Journey managed a few resonant scenes here and there: above all, Bilbo’s moment of decision about whether or not to kill Gollum.
I am racking my brain for a single emotionally resonant scene in The Desolation of Smaug. There is some grace in the scene in which the door in the mountain opens and Thorin and Balin catch their first glimpse of their old home. I’m glad the filmmakers didn’t rush past that moment of memory and nostalgia. By itself, though, that’s pretty thin gruel.
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?
Dreadful scenes between Kili and Tauriel, for another. The kindest thing I can say about their dialogue is that it isn’t as awful as Anakin and Padme in the Star Wars prequels, but that’s the lowest of bars. Aragorn and Arwen in the Rings films were bad enough, but at least that had some textual basis in the appendices.
The Desolation of Smaug recapitulates two of the worst lapses in judgment from the extended editions of The Return of the King. (And again, this is only the theatrical edition. They could have anything in store for the extended edition.)
First, like Aragorn lawlessly decapitating the Mouth of Sauron in what was meant to be a parley, a “good” character decapitates an evil one, not an enemy in battle, but a prisoner who, only moments earlier, was promised safety and freedom. Mitigating this, though, the “good” character is significantly more ambiguous than Aragorn, and his ruthlessness here is challenged by a more sympathetic character. Still, it’s another example of the absence of manners.
Second, so help me, they’ve revisited possibly the single most atrocious moment in all The Lord of the Rings films: the destruction of Gandalf’s staff by an evil power. “No staff-shattering sacrileges,” I pleaded in a blog post two years ago, when the first Hobbit trailer was released. Alas, my pleas fell on deaf ears.
Caveat Spectator: Intense fantasy-action violence and battle sequences; scary images and creature menace; fleeting sexual innuendo. Teens and up.