When the rumblings began that The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien’s prelude to his larger work, The Lord of The Rings, was coming to the big screen, I had reservations, but wasn’t put off entirely. After all, Peter Jackson was on board and I was generally impressed by his cinematic treatment of the trilogy, so optimism seemed warranted. Further credence seemed to come when it circulated that Guillermo Del Toro, a director with a clear eye for the mythological and fantastic who is noted for his love of practical, rather than computer-generated, effects, would collaborate with Jackson in realizing the more fairy-tale tone of the first foray into Middle Earth. But as MGM’s financial fiasco took its toll and stalled the project and Del Toro’s involvement evaporated—followed by the news that The Hobbit would be not one, but two films—worry crept in.
The Hobbit is, by all accounts, a smaller story than the epic Lord of the Rings. Jackson managed to make his Lord of the Rings a trilogy, with each book as one cinematic installment, at a time when the Weinstein brothers were interested in truncating the series into two movies. How was it, then, that one book of about 300 pages needed two movies, when a trilogy of more than 1,000 pages could manage in three? Then the news came out—not just two movies, but a new trilogy. The Hobbit was now a smaller thing, packaged big. It seemed that Tolkien was being treated to the new Hollywood truism of never telling a good—and financially lucrative—story too quickly.
I am not a purist; I am not opposed in principle to books being changed when adapted to the screen. Books are books and movies are movies. A little added here and a little removed there is going to be part of the polishing process as the story is imported from one medium to the other. But the new Hobbit film, The Desolation of Smaug, continues to demonstrate just how far south too much changing can go. When making any change in adapting a book to film, it should always be asked if the change harms the theme, intention, or characters of the original story. It also should be asked if the change helps the story work better within the limitations of a movie’s runtime.
The main problem with many of the changes and additions in The Desolation of Smaug is that they throw off the rhythm, allowing little or no time to develop either the invented plot elements or the original story. Am I opposed, in principle, to the addition of a burgeoning interracial romance between an invented elf warrior (Evangeline Lilly) and Kili the Dwarf? (If you were wondering why there was an oddly, ruggedly handsome man among the dwarves in the first film, this is the reason.) Perhaps not—if it is dramatically plausible and doesn’t stick out as contrived.
One of the big problems with the changes—some included to better connect with the LOTR films and some to stretch the Hobbit’s story to fill three films—is that they are creating waves of distortions in the overall storyline. It gets to the point where even the main character, Bilbo Baggins, no longer seems to be the focus of the movie, but instead is just another bit player who appears with a magic ring whenever the plot needs to be pushed along. But the story is about Bilbo. It’s quite a shame, as Martin Freeman is a good actor and was a great choice for the Bilbo role.
Meanwhile, the pace of the film is too quick, while the pace of the original, overarching story—taken from the novel—is too drawn out. Compared with the apparent care and meticulous crafting of Jackson’s original trilogy, this second Hobbit film, like the first, comes across as phoned in.
There is another problem. Now that we are well into the era of the live action-animation hybrid inaugurated by George Lucas with his Star Wars prequels and continued in James Cameron’s Avatar, we’re seeing more computer-generated characters. But the orcs of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies were, by and large, actors in makeup: flesh and blood beings with a corporeal presence that lent realistic texture to an otherwise fantastic realm. One of the biggest mistakes with the orcs in the Hobbit films was the decision to create them with CGI. This may seem like a quibble, but the increase in digital characters throws off the kinetics of what transpires on screen. A computerized being can jump higher, run faster, and move more smoothly than an actual being. What results is a jumbled cartoon in which the flesh-and-blood characters now play by the rules of their animated counterparts. This amounts to a decreased sense of peril for our heroes as they bounce around impossibly and emerge unscathed, foisted from one CGI encounter to the next. When harm does befall them, it seems arbitrary.
There are some good things. Smaug, the gargantuan dragon, is voiced well by Benedict Cumberbatch and is visually impressive. He plays off Martin Freeman’s Bilbo effectively, although the encounter suffers from some of the previously mentioned pacing issues. Performances from all the actors are generally solid and the consistent action keeps the film from ever being dull.
One of the great themes of Tolkien’s work is the unanticipated value found in small things. This is seen especially in the fortitude and resilience of the hobbits, as well as the power and world-changing significance of a tiny ring. These themes, along with the wonder of setting forth into a new and larger world, were captured by Peter Jackson and company in The Lord of the Rings movies. But this newer trilogy is allowing those essential themes to get lost in the dizzying maze of structural flaws. We will see how the third and final installment of The Hobbit pans out, and if Jackson is able to bring together the seemingly extraneous elements to a satisfying conclusion.