The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug came out in wide release. A Longtime Lord of the Rings nerd stayed all the way up to three AM to bring you this special report:
I always thought one’s approach to Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit should depend on your relationship with the source material. If you hold the source material sacred, then by all means, employ your right to avoid the movies. This was my approach to Harry Potter. The books and the vision I had in my head meant everything to me, and I was incredibly disappointed when it came to the big screen and suddenly became cheesy and childish. After Chamber of Secrets, I refused to see any more of the movie adaptations, and I still haven’t seen them.
Tolkien’s work is less important to me, though, so that’s why I threw myself wholeheartedly into the Lord of the Rings films. The books are full of good stuff, to be sure, but they’re also overlong and full of archaic language and confusing speeches. The Hobbit is different, though. It was an odd little tale I read when I was in sixth grade; by my 11-year-old estimation, it was a little dark and scary and I wasn’t always sure which character was a good guy or a bad guy.
And of course, ambiguity and mystery can’t be sustained in modern American blockbusters; everything has to crash and bang to appeal to ADD-riddled dudes between 18 and 35. This is why we can’t have nice things. I never thought it was possible to make a Hobbit that’s true to the book; and so ultimately, when arguing with fellow nerds I’ve defended Jackson and co.’s choice to sex it up with extra battles and characters. This worked just fine for LOTR, after all. Last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey wasn’t fantastic, but I figured it had the potential to set up something better.
So I came to the midnight opening of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug fully prepared to defend it. And for three hours, it tested my resolve.
The pacing feels wonky right from the get-go. It’s like someone had pressed “pause” after An Unexpected Journey and then hit play. We start with a flashback to Gandalf (Ian McKellen) meeting Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) at the Prancing Pony, and then it’s back to the present quest at hand, with the dwarves and Bilbo meeting the shapeshifter Beorn and battling giant spiders in Mirkwood in quick succession. Gandalf splits to deal with mysterious wizard business, which is only hinted at in the book, but here is expanded into a subplot that sets up the looming threat of Sauron. Since we’ve already seen LOTR, it feels entirely unnecessary. Meanwhile, the dwarves are saved from spiders by the elves of Mirkwood, only to be put in elf prison, and it’s up to Bilbo (Martin Freeman) to put on The Ring and orchestrate a daring escape.
Much has been made over the movie’s addition of elves never named in the book; Legolas (Orlando Bloom), the son of King Thranduil, and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), the warrior lady wholly invented by the filmmakers. I liked Tauriel. She kicks some ass, flirts with Aidan Turner’s Kili and provides some much-needed feminine balance to such a dude-heavy story.
Legolas, however, might as well have been played by the cardboard Orlando Bloom stand-up I still have in my childhood bedroom. All he gets is superfluous CGI fight scenes and some Serious Statements to deliver; he doesn’t have any of the mischievous twinkle that made him so endearing in LOTR. (Excuse me for a moment while my teenage crush dies a sad death.) My favorite elf was Lee Pace’s Thranduil, the preening, high-cheekboned king with a fantastic headdress. Someone, somewhere, is writing a smutty gay fanfiction about Thranduil right now.
Anyway, that covers maybe the first hour of the film. The next two hours devolve into, essentially, a video game: several minutes of action-filled problem-solving, a halt for expository dialogue, and then it’s back to the CGI fights. It’s exhausting, particularly when one is watching the movie significantly past her bedtime. And then, as things are getting real with the dragon, Smaug, the movie ends. The beauty of LOTR was that each movie stood fairly well on its own; but that’s not possible here, where the narrative has been stretched like taffy.
Could the film adaptation of The Hobbit have ever been well done? Perhaps, if much more restraint had been used. And yet, no matter how botched these movies are, I don’t want to give up on Middle Earth. It’s a testament to how great Lord of the Rings was that fans are still turning up at midnight releases for something we all knew in our hearts wasn’t going to be very good. I don’t want to give up on Bilbo or Gandalf or the dwarves. And so I would recommend watching this on DVD at home, where you can walk away to get a drink or Google “Thranduil/Legolas slashfic.” Or you could just skip the whole mess and read a book.