Martin Freeman stars as Bilbo and John Callen as Oin in a scene from the movie "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (CNS/courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)
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 evaporatedfollowed by the news
that The Hobbit would be not one, but
two filmsworry 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 outnot 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
goodand financially lucrativestory 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 notif it is dramatically plausible and doesn’t stick out as contrived.
One of the big problems with the changessome included to
better connect with the LOTR films
and some to stretch the Hobbit’s story
to fill three filmsis 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 storytaken from the novelis 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.
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.