'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' Review: 'Pirates of the Caribbean' with Orcs
The novel The Hobbit is 95,000 words long. The average American adult reads at approximately 250 words per minute. Which means that they can read The Hobbit in a bit more than six hours, which is significantly shorter than the nine hour projected run time of Jackson’s trilogy. Hell, the unabridged audiobook, which meanders along at a sedate 150 words per minute comes in at only eleven hours, which will undoubtedly be shorter than the super extended edition director’s cut that comes out sometime in 2016. Breaking a 300 page novel into a trilogy means that each individual movie is only covering a hundred pages of prose, shorter than most screenplays are in the first place.
What this should mean is that Peter Jackson should have more than enough run time to include absolutely everything from the novel in glorious detail. Instead it has meant that Jackson has systematically cut out large portions of the novel, and inexplicably back-filled it with amateurish crap on par with what fantasy fans scrawl in notebooks when they’re bored in junior high study halls.
When The Fellowship of the Ring came out, there was much trepidation among fans of Tolkien’s novels. We had that weird cartoon musical adaptation twenty years earlier that still scarred our psyches, and so the idea that the guy who had done The Frighteners was being given hundreds of millions of dollars to produce a big budget Hollywood version was not exactly comforting news. And then the movie was fantastic. There were changes to be sure, but there are always going to be compromises moving a several hundred page novel to the screen. The mediums are different, and the key is in whether there is loyalty to the intent of the story. Fellowship was exactly that.
And then Jackson was told how awesome he was and went off the rails entirely in the second and third films. He cut swathes of events in order to make room for additions of his own devising. He turned a two page mostly off-screen battle in The Two Towers into two-thirds of a film. He systematically cut as much hobbit screen time as possible in order to ensure that the adventures of Aragorn were not only lovingly rendered, but expanded in leaps and bounds from the novels.
And in doing so, he entirely missed the heart of those stories. Critics have complained that all of the characters in Tolkien’s novels with the exception of the various hobbits, are terrible characters, simple archetypes that don’t have evolution or story arcs. Jackson himself insisted that he needed to change that, and defends his edits to the story on that basis. But that betrays the simple fact that those characters don’t develop because they aren’t the protagonists of the novels. The great heroes are static, parts of the background, and these are tales of how the courage of the common man, with no great powers or heritage, can bend the events of the world through simple courage.
Tolkien was a man who was deeply personally scarred by the world wars, and while his novels are not anything so pedantic as allegory, that world view of the miracle of democracies and their common men tearing down the great edifices of tyranny is embedded in every word of his stories.
The single most symbolic event in the failure of Jackson’s films to understand what the point of the story is, is the excising of The Scouring of the Shire. Citing budgets (on these billion dollar films) and time constraints (with extended editions several weeks long) is smokescreen for the reality that Jackson simply doesn’t know what the hell the point of that final chapter is. It drives home the decisions to invent hours of battle scenes at the expense of what was actually on the page.
Now, one can of course correctly argue that all stories are open to interpretation, and that my interpretation simply differs from Jackson’s. That’s fine, but I don’t argue that Jackson can’t have his own interpretation, can’t have an emotional response that resonates with different parts of the plot than me, or that it is necessary to interpret something precisely as the author intended. But what I will argue is that Jackson’s interpretation of the meaning of the story is trite, superficial, and altogether boring. I will argue that if the only thing that resonates with you in The Lord of the Rings is super-cool-fantasy-battle-kill-ALL-the-orcs, then maybe you have the emotional makeup of an eleven year-old World of Warcraft addict, and somebody else should be in charge of adapting this story.
Jackson’s insistence on changing what is on the page is the most infuriating film experience I have ever had, and it gets worse with every passing film. He does not change for the sake of adaptation. His systematic changes to the story methodically reduce clever (and yes, cinematic) events on the page into dull abbreviations for the sake of adding interminable chase sequences.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the apex of his annihilation of the source material. Recall how the party wanders for weeks in the darkness of the forest, in nights so dark that they can’t even see their hands in front of their faces, slowly starving to death as their rations run out, of slowly going insane in the darkness before the spiders descend upon them in the blackness. That’s terrifying.
Naw, let’s just have them get lost after walking for an hour, and then we can have a fight scene. And then the super cool elves can show up and shoot stuff. Legolas, fuck yeah! Then we can get to the important business of creating a love triangle between Legolas, Evangeline Lilly, and one of the dwarves.
Remember how all the dwarves are imprisoned for weeks by the elves, and Bilbo is hiding invisibly the entire time, descending into depression and desperation, stealing food and searching for a way out before engineering their escape down river? Fuck it, have it happen the same night they get there. Why should we spend any time having tension build, or the main character actually having any agency in the movie named after him, when we can skip to having a half-hour long scene of the dwarves fighting orcs as they plummet down an endless series of rapids? And Legolas can show up again and shoot a bunch of stuff! Fuck yeah!
Congratulations, you’ve made Pirates of the Caribbean with orcs.
I’d compare such sequences to video games, but that’s an insult to video games. In a video game, physics have to follow logic of some sort, because otherwise you would have no ability to control your character. Jackson has no such limitations and so things jump, bounce, and ramble around with no discernible connection to any physical reality other than what he thinks would look cool in a given frame.
Or remember the glorious description of how Smaug’s belly is impenetrably armored because of the gold and jewels that have become embedded in it? And how Bilbo goads Smaug into showing off his belly, thus discovering the chink in the armor above his heart? And how his finding this is communicated to Bard who kills the dragon with the final arrow in his quiver?
Fuck that. No gold and jewels, just a missing scale where Bard’s father had damaged the dragon a generation before. A fact that Bard already knows. Thus taking away yet another reason for Bilbo to even be in the story. It’s far more important that a tall brooding hero get all the credit for everything, which is something Tolkien clearly just had no understanding of.
Oh, and don’t worry, Bard’s not just a man who kills Smaug with the last arrow of his long bow, the weapon of the English freeman. No, Jackson’s changed that so that he’s an underground revolutionary and has a super tower-mounted crossbow artillery thing, and the “black arrow” is a mythicly magic macguffin forged by dwarves explicitly for the killing of dragons. Fuck yeah! Because that’s way more dramatic and cinematic than a lone man slaying a dragon with the last arrow in his quiver.
And the last forty minutes of this installment are the dwarves running around trying to use traps and trickery to kill Smaug as he rampages through the inside of the mountain. Fuck yeah! None of it makes the slightest bit of sense, but several dramatic speeches are given, none by Bilbo of course, and a lot of running and exploding and such takes place. Good thing they cut everything Bilbo does so that they could use the run time for Jackson to jerk off his special effects team at length.
Look, this film is terrible. Peter Jackson systematically cuts everything from the book that is cinematic and interesting and layers on his own story instead, a story that is amateurish crap. One gets the impression that if the title of the book wasn’t “The Hobbit” that Jackson would cut Bilbo out entirely.
I double checked the book, and there is only 70 pages of it left for the third movie. So I assume the first hour will be the two pages when Smaug attacks Laketown, the last hour and a half will be the five pages dedicated to the final battle, and the balance will be chase scenes. I’d be surprised at this point if the titular hobbit even has any lines in the film.
It’s clear in retrospect that Jackson’s basic response to Tolkien’s works is that they would be great if it weren’t for all those scenes with hobbits in them. Adaptations always involve changes, and the retelling of stories tends to reinterpret old stories with each passing generation, but there is a staggering level of hubris involved with a director whose default assumption is that he will simply cut everything and write from scratch when adapting the best-selling novel of the twentieth century. That’s not a new interpretation of the source material, it’s contempt for it.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.