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Monday, December 30th, 2013 10:40 pm
Wow. That was something. I can imagine that for folks who don't know the book well, it was probably a pretty entertaining movie. But, well, is it a bad sign for a serious epic fantasy story that I spent a fair bit of the film laughing?

My chief impression after watching "The Desolation of Smaug" for the first time today was puzzled surprise: given that Peter Jackson has taken a single short book (far shorter than any volume of The Lord of the Rings) and expanded it to fill three very long movies, how (and why) did he manage to condense or omit so much of Tolkien's story?

Gone is Gandalf's gradual strategy for getting Beorn comfortable hosting a large group of Dwarves. (Movie-Beorn seems quite happy to welcome a crowd of strangers who barged through his door uninvited and locked him out of his own house.) Gone is the enchanted stream in Mirkwood and Bombur's sleep. Gone is the Dwarves' near-starvation in the forest. Gone are the Wood-elves' feasts. Gone are Bilbo's multiple ventures into the Dragon's den. And gone is the Dwarves' nervous hiding on and in the slopes of Erebor while Smaug hunted them on the doorstep.

Most of all, though, gone is any sense of distance and travel time in Middle-earth. That was already evident in Jackson's Lord of the Rings, which routinely condensed travel sequences in favor of action. But in this film it seems they weren't merely condensed, they were explicitly absent. I won't swear to it, but I think there were specific references to the time until Durin's Day that implied that the entire journey through Mirkwood and imprisonment by the Wood-Elves took just a day, and the journey from the Long Lake to Erebor and up to the secret door just one more. As a person who often describes the world of Middle-earth itself as one of the most important and best developed "characters" in Tolkien's books, I'm quite disappointed by this.

The earlier movies lost some of the scope from my mental vision but still managed to capture the sense of place for many locations in Middle-earth. Thus far, nothing (new) in the Hobbit movies has made my Arda-loving soul sing the way that the original movies did. Much of Jackson's Moria felt right, where most of his goblin caves felt wrong. His Anduin river and the great statues of the Argonath could have been pulled straight from my imagination, but his Mirkwood was an entirely different place. His Minas Tirith was even more real than mine had been, but his Kingdom Under the Mountain leaves me unmoved (and the titular Desolation of Smaug itself is unremarkable, and in any case hardly seen long enough to form any sort of impression). I can't shake the feeling that much of the reason for that, in each case, is that Jackson chose to completely alter Tolkien's story of how the characters interacted with their surroundings.

Now, in some cases I can't really blame Jackson for making changes. There are aspects of The Hobbit that are an uneasy fit for the world of The Lord of the Rings. (Tolkien wouldn't have argued that point, as anyone who's read his very incomplete draft of a post-LotR rewrite of the earlier book can tell you.) Maybe Gandalf's "Dwarves enter two by two" story for Beorn would have been entirely too goofy for this film (and in any case too long). Maybe a sleep-enchanted stream would have felt out of place: more "fairy tale" than "epic quest".

But those aren't most of his changes. Again and again, Jackson cut passages that Tolkien wrote to build gradual tension and replaced them with pure action. Dwarves trying to gradually win welcome from a dangerous host? Nah, have them get chased by a bear. Dwarves falling into despair and desperation after an endless journey in near darkness under the trees? Nah, just have 'em take a wrong turn and stumble straight into a battle with giant spiders. Dwarves increasingly nervous on the mountainside wondering when and whether the Dragon would come for his revenge? Nah, go for a flashy, complicated chase scene

None of all that really addresses why I spent so much time laughing, now that I look at it: my big issues focused on the parts of Tolkien's story that weren't in the film. I have substantially less to say about the many, many additions and replacements to Tolkien's story, but they did make me laugh. Not really in a good way, alas. In Jackson's LotR, I already felt that Legolas-as-superhero went from "Pretty cool" in the first film to "Really?" as he skated through Helm's Deep in the second and descended to "Oh, come on" at the Pelennor Fields in the third. Naturally, he's fully at that last level from the moment he appears on screen in this one, and adding a second elf-superhero to the mix just meant that the screen time for their antics was doubled. (One real, legitimate laugh, possibly unintended by the filmmaker: Legolas's shocked reaction to getting a bloody nose. "What... what IS this? How could this have happened? To me?")

Similarly, all the bits about Dwarven crossbow-thingies mounted in Dale and Esgaroth seemed laughably unnecessary, and doubled as absolutely transparent telegraphing about the specific eventual fate of the Dragon. I'm rather frustrated by that: even if you know that viewers will be confident that Smaug will eventually be killed, I'd think there would still be quite a lot of valuable tension to preserve about how and when it will happen. (I actually like the idea of introducing Bard earlier, mind you, though I note somewhat neutrally that Jackson has thoroughly changed his character.)

I think I see why Jackson changed the role of the Arkenstone so much: it makes the burglary plan actually make some sense, unlike the book. It'll vastly change the implications of Bilbo's choices in the end, mind you; I'm surprisingly uncomfortable with that, but we'll see how it goes. I mostly rolled my eyes at the love story (which I had trouble buying into at all). And pretty much everything to do with Gandalf's decision to go to Dol Guldur had me grumbling silently to myself, since none of it made the slightest bit of sense.

So yeah. Not my favorite adaptation of a beloved book. I'll still see the third one, though. :)

Edit: Oh, right, I meant to comment on the odd "split up the Dwarves" aspect at the end. I have the sense that Jackson is removing any and all references to talking animals in the film. (All the Girion backstory means that Bard doesn't need the thrush to tell him where to aim, for instance, and I even had some impression that Bilbo could only understand the giant spiders with the help of the Ring.) So Thorin & Co. won't have their own remote intelligence network as they do in the book: they'll need someone to come tell them that the humans and elves are sending armies to the Mountain. (Given that any two points in Jackson's Middle-earth are one day's journey apart in these films, they'll be able to carry word quickly enough. Probably they'll just send a Dwarf on a jog to the Iron Hills, too?)

On another note, Smaug is heading straight for Lake Town at the end of this movie, and it's clear that he's going to be killed there by Bard. So it seems that the Dragon will be out of the way within half an hour of the start of the next film. Nice knowing you, Smaug!

[1 edit]
Tuesday, December 31st, 2013 02:12 pm (UTC)
Peter Jackson doesn't understand how to increase narrative tension without putting in Another Action Scene That Drags On Way Longer Than Is Necessary.
Thursday, January 2nd, 2014 09:10 pm (UTC)
Dare I wonder what is it that he changes about Bard?

(I would have assumed 'badly-shaven long-haired generic 1990s Action Hero, if asked to hazard a guess...)
Edited 2014-01-02 09:10 pm (UTC)
Thursday, January 2nd, 2014 09:42 pm (UTC)
Bard, in the film, is a young-ish single father of three adorable kids (I'd say "young", but the oldest kids look like they're in their early teens). He's a barge pilot and a smuggler, and appears to be well-known as a supporter of (mostly non-violent?) populist resistance to the greed of the Master of Lake-town. He still has his great-great-...-grandfather Girion's last unused black iron arrow for the big Dwarvish mechanical crossbow thingy that's still mounted on top of the town's city hall(?). (I can only assume that he regularly sneaks up there to do maintenance and practice.) He's upbeat and helpful for most of the time we see him, but near the end he suddenly gets amazingly paranoid and turns on the Dwarves when he realizes who they are and that they're going to the Mountain and might possibly inspire the dragon to attack Lake-town for some unspecified reason instead of just eating them. (The fact that this is actually what happens doesn't make it less weird that he's so very convinced that it will.)
Friday, January 3rd, 2014 03:14 am (UTC)
The idea of making Bard the Bowman into Bard the Crossbow-Trigger-Puller seems a little... odd, as a change of emphasis.

Perhaps it was felt that the only-one-arrow scenario needed some explanation?