Temptation of the hero-hobbit: The Ring begins to work its evil on Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
[M]ost people [forget] that the very oldest stories are, sooner or later, about blood. Later on they took the blood out to make the stories acceptable to children, or at least to the people who had to read them to children rather than the children themselves (who, on the whole, are quite keen on blood provided it’s shed by the deserving*)…
*That is to say, those who deserve to shed blood. Or possibly not. You never quite know with some kids.
----from Hogfather by Terry Pratchett.
One of my most disappointing reading experiences occurred the Christmas Santa left me a copy of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Smith of Wootton Major & Farmer Giles of Ham .
This was when I was in seventh grade. My youngest sibling, Laura Mannion as was, is nine years younger than me so Santa came to our house until my senior year of high school.
I was thrilled when I saw that book under the tree. That was the year I’d read The Lord of the Rings, all three books in three days, and I couldn’t wait to get back into Middle-earth. I took it with me to Church and started reading as soon as we got into the car after Mass to go to my grandparents’ for Christmas dinner. I’m pretty sure I had the manners and the sense not to keep reading during dinner---if I forgot my manners, Nana Mannion, who, love me as she did, I don’t believe ever thought I had much sense, would have reminded me, sharply.---but I read continually enough to have finished both novellas before we got home. That in itself was disappointing, that they were quick and easy reads. I thought that as a reader of “grown-up” books now, it should take me a good while to get through a book. That was supposed to be one of the rewards of having outgrown the Hardy Boys. More time spent happily lost inside a good story. But I went to bed sort of ticked at Santa and wishing he’d thought to bring me a new Allistair MacLean or Agatha Christie instead for two other reasons.
The first disappointment was they struck me as stories for children. I didn’t know Tolkien intended them as jokes for adults. The Lord of the Rings certainly wasn't a children’s story. But neither was The Hobbit. Not in the way fretful adults think of children’s stories. The Hobbit was written for children but to be read by grownups who believe children need to be and want to be protected from life’s harsher realities.
The narrator’s jolly, confiding, chummy tone is meant to fool adults listening to themselves as they read out loud at bedtime that the story they’re telling won’t give the kids nightmares. They hear The Hobbit as a merry little fairy tale about a funny character with pointed ears, furry feet, and a pot-belly who goes on a treasure hunt and has some comical adventures along the way before coming home, safe and sound and rich, to live happily ever after in his snug little house in the ground in that cheerful and protected place with the comfortingly bucolic name the Shire and name that insists this is a place where nothing scary ever happens.
Children listening aren’t fooled. They know better.
The Hobbit is about what Terry Pratchett says all the old stories are about, sooner or later.
It’s about blood.
Things were looking pretty bad again, when suddenly Bilbo reappeared and charged into the astonished spiders unexpectedly from the side.
“Go on! Go on!” he shouted. “I will do the stinging.”
And he did. He darted backwards and forwards, slashing at spider-threads, hacking at legs, and stabbing at their fat bodies if they came too near. The spiders swelled with rage, and spluttered and frothed, and hissed out horrible curses; but they had become mortally afraid of Sting, and dared not come very near, now that it had come back. So curse as they would, their prey moved slowly but steadily away. It was a most terrible business, and seemed to take hours. But at last, just as when Bilbo felt that he could not lift his hand for a single stroke more, the spiders suddenly gave it up, and followed them no more, but went back disappointed to their dark colony.
There’s nothing like the battle with Shelob’s children in either Farmer Giles or Smith of Wootton Major. There’s nothing dark or threatening or scary. No danger. Nothing to be afraid of and so nothing to not be afraid of, which means no reason to feel brave which is what most children want to feel. Brave. Because they know. The world is a scary and dangerous place. There's no hiding from it by staying snug and warm and apparently safe in you Hobbit hole. The world will show up on your doorstep, force its way in, and drag you out and carry you off to face trolls and goblins and dragons.
In the real world, the eagles never come and the dragons never sleep.
There are no goblins in those novellas. No trolls. There’s a dragon in Farmer Giles of Ham but compared to Smaug he might as well be Puff. There are no orcs, no Wildmen, no white wizards who turn against humans and their wizard friends, no heroes who can be corrupted by their desire to be greater heroes, no hobbits who can have their hearts turned and their minds unhinged by just the barest contact with power. No blood. No evil.
And that, I felt, was wrapped up in the second reason for my disappointment.
Neither story is set in Middle-Earth.
I was shut out of the place I wanted to get back to. And I didn’t just want to go back to re-visit favorite tourist stops and historical landmarks. I wanted to explore new territories, meet new characters, fight new battles, and encounter and brave new dangers.
All these years later and I still feel that disappointment even just thinking about Smith’s and Farmer Giles’ stories, and I now get the jokes.
Which, by the way, aren’t funny.
So you can see why it wouldn’t bother me in principle that Peter Jackson hasn’t made an absolutely faithful adaptation of The Hobbit.
He’s using The Hobbit to do what I’d hoped to do with Smith of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham and what I have done in many subsequent re-readings of The Hobbit and my favorite parts of The Lord of the Rings, make his own way on another long explore of Middle-earth.
Of course, in doing so he’s showing that The Hobbit isn’t a children’s story in that way. He’s letting the blood show. He couldn’t help that. Do away with the narration and audiences can’t pretend they don’t see what children who aren’t fooled by the narrator’s diversions hear. Everything dark, violent, evil, scary, and strange that connects The Hobbit to The Lord of The Rings---and that’s what Jackson’s trying to do with these movies, make the connection---is there in the book. That’s a given. The real critical questions are where does he take us in Middle-earth and what does what he finds there have to do with making The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug a good movie?
Tolkien created a world and then lost control of it. He couldn’t comprehend the whole of it himself and his son Christopher, working feverishly in his wake, just kept expanding it. It was as if he’d imagined his way through to another universe and left the door open behind him. Or, to borrow an image from his friend C.S. Lewis, his books are the wardrobe that has let millions find their way to Middle-Earth which is endlessly open to exploration and adventure. Narnia is much more circumscribed. Its precincts come into being only when Lewis needs something to happen there as opposed to here. And nothing happens in Discworld Terry Pratchett hasn’t put there. But Middle-earth’s boundaries can be expanded, its population added to, its geography reconfigured and remapped, its history extended forwards and backwards and sideways in time, revised and rewritten by the imaginations of anyone and everyone who visits.
Given all that Jackson could have added, it’s worth noting how little he actually has invented. A lot of what some persnickety fans of the book and irritable film critics with too much on their plates because it’s December and the studios are releasing all their award season hopefuls in a rush dismiss as “padding” to fill out what they think should have been one two-hour movie instead of three nearly three-hour ones is the inevitable result of Jackson the filmmaker having to put into explicit images what Tolkien the writer could get away with implying and even leaving entirely to his readers’ imaginations. More movies should leave more to the imagination, but there’s a limit to that. The camera has to show something.
A picture is worth a thousand words if the words are the work of a mediocre writer and the picture is very good and stands still long enough for us to give it a good look. When the writing is good, one word is worth a thousand pictures.
Jackson may not have needed a thousand pictures for every one of Tolkien’s words, but Tolkien’s words conjure up pictures that don’t stand still and that take time to present on screen. Then there’s the problem of turning into dialog conversations Tolkien was content to summarize.
So the issue isn’t whether Jackson’s added scenes, characters, and dialog. You can’t make a movie out of a book without doing that.
And it’s not whether what he’s added is true to Tolkien if not to the published version of The Hobbit.
It’s whether what he’s added actually adds to the story he’s telling, which isn’t The Hobbit. No one was going to give Peter Jackson millions of dollars to adapt The Hobbit. It’s The Lord of the Rings as told for the screen by Peter Jackson. This Hobbit trilogy isn’t a prequel to The Lord of the Rings. It’s the first three chapters of what will be an eighteen hour movie that until last year was only half finished.
And when you think of it that way, then the orcs are there, Legolas is there, Radagast and his birds and rabbits are there, and the White Council does meet because something terrible is brewing at Dol Goldur. Jackson isn’t inventing. He’s showing what’s implied by what’s already been filmed.
But it doesn’t matter that Legolas is in there because, well, he would be, wouldn’t he? Mirkwood is his home. The wood-elf king is his father. As prince, wouldn’t he have taken part in the Battle of Five Armies? It makes storytelling sense, then, to get him on the scene ahead of time and not have him show up just to be glimpsed leading a charge of elves against the orcs.
What matters is that he appears to have something more to do than make a connection to The Lord of the Rings. Considering the wood elf king’s---Legolas’ father’s---antipathy to the dwarfs, his deciding to take part in the Battle of Five Armies has always seemed like a nakedly thematic choice on Tolkien’s part. Self-interest often wins out over prejudice in real life and in the book the Battle of Five Armies is not meant to be taken as glorious or heroic. It’s a clash of tribal egos and ambitions and greed. But something else is going on if it’s Legolas’ doing that the elves join in.
Something else again if they join despite him.
What also matters is that Legolas appears to be different from how he is in The Lord of the Rings. He’s more vain, more arrogant, crueler, and much more a hero in his own right than the hero’s perfect lieutenant which is his role as part of the Fellowship. The question is what softened him and when did it happen?
I suppose I could be misremembering what Legolas was like in The Lord of the Rings. It could be that Jackson or Orlando Bloom or both misremembered. It could be that Bloom, with ten years’ more experience as an actor in his quiver, didn’t want to repeat himself and figured out how to avoid it. But I hope more than that’s going on and we’re going to see him learn lessons in wisdom and humility in the next movie and I have a sinking feeling I know how he learns those lessons. Jackson is going to give us a reason somebody isn’t in The Lord of the Rings besides the fact Tolkien didn’t put that somebody in there.
Similarly, it doesn’t matter that Jackson has found things and characters in Middle-earth Tolkien didn’t put there or didn’t know were there himself.
It doesn’t matter that Jackson has concocted the character of the female warrior elf Tauriel all on his own and given her a torch to carry for Legolas and then burdened her with a compensatory crush on Fili, the handsomest, swashbucklingest of the dwarfs after Thorin. That seemed forced to me but I still kind of liked it because it prefigures the romantic triangle of Aragorn, Eowyn, and Faramir in The Two Towers and The Return of the King.
What matters is whether Tauriel more than an avatar for girls playing the video game spinoffs. She isn’t as interesting a character as Eowyn who is more than her unrequitable love for Aragorn and her ability to fight like a boy. But that’s so far. She has potential but we’ll have to wait until The Hobbit: There and Back Again to find out where Jackson’s taking her.
It doesn’t matter where Jackson got all the backstory he’s piled on Bard the Bowman. All of it could have come straight from The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales and it wouldn’t matter if it didn’t make Bard interesting and give us a rooting interest in him. It’s always bothered me that in the book Bard isn’t much more than an attitude and there isn’t any reason to care he’s the one who’ll fire the black arrow except that somebody has to do it.
Judging how well all of this, invented outright or mined from other Tolkien sources, works depends on how Jackson follows up in next year’s next installment, which means that at least a third of The Desolation of Smaug is setup for There and Back Again.
I’m not saying that The Desolation of Smaug is just a bridge between An Unexpected Journey and There and Back Again or that it isn’t at all faithful to the book (or books). It’s very much a continuation of the story and it is faithful to the book, much more faithful than it and An Unexpected Journey have been given credit for, particularly in the three set-pieces at the center of the part of the book The Desolation of Smaug is taken from: the battle with Shelob’s children, the barrel escape from Mirkwood---I mean from the point when Bilbo hatches his plan to when he finds himself in the river without a barrel of his own. The orcs chasing the barrels and the elves chasing the orcs chasing the barrels is another question. But the moment when Bilbo realizes he’s forgotten to arrange his own escape is a gem---and Bilbo’s confrontation with Smaug.
But these scenes aren’t good simply because they’re faithful to Tolkien. In fact, if all they were was faithful they’d be dramatically flat. What I liked best about them is what Jackson does with Bilbo and to him with them.
And not just to Bilbo.
I should say to our understanding of Frodo.
As I said last Hobbit season in my review of An Unexpected Journey, one of the things I'm enjoying most about Jackson's adaptation is how, with considerable help from Martin Freeman, he's establishing that Bilbo is a hero. The hobbit hero. And Jackson and Freeman are doing it in a way that I think will carry over into all future viewings of The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo isn't Ian Holm anymore. Holm is Freeman's shadow.
For all his protesting at the beginning of An Unexpected Jouney that he's a Baggins of Bag End and therefore very much a stay at home sort of Hobbit, Gandalf has Bilbo’s number. There is a strong strain of adventuresome Took in him and it's coming out in The Desolation of Smaug.
Bilbo is getting to like adventuring. He's coming to like being in danger because, like children reading the book, he likes feeling brave. He's enjoying his role as the Burglar because to pull it off he has to solve problems---riddles---think for others, make decisions on their behalf, come to their rescue, and, when you get right down to it, take over from Thorin as the leader of the company.
In other words, he's getting a kick out of being a hero.
This is a good development in its own dramatic right for this set of movies. But it's good for Jackson's whole project because it calls attention to what he did with Frodo in The Lord of the Rings.
Now of course Bilbo had to change in order to become a hero. But in The Desolation of Smaug we're beginning to see how the change works on itself. Being a hero is changing him. Bilbo has started to look for opportunities to be heroic. He is growing into his role as hero, which means he is growing ambitious.
Frodo is not ambitious, because Frodo is not a hero.
I think a lot of readers who find their way from The Hobbit straight into The Lord of the Rings tend to see Frodo as Bilbo all over again.
Jules Rankin and Arthur Bass understood that. That's why in their cartoon adaptations of The Hobbit and The Return of the King---which are both pretty good, The Hobbit especially, considering the limitations Rankin and Bass had to work within.---they drew Bilbo and Frodo as lookalikes and had Orson Bean provide the voices for both.
Jackson's Frodo is very different from his and Tolkien's Bilbo, and the scene that encapsulates that difference is Arwen's Ride in The Fellowship of the Ring.
In the book, Frodo makes the ride alone. And on his own he turns his pony and draws his sword to face the Nazgul and dares them to come and take the ring. He acts the part of a hero, just as Bilbo would have done in a similar fix.
But in the movie Frodo's in no shape to play the hero. He's close to dying from his wound (Note to myth watchers: a wound that will never truly heal.), barely conscious, and essentially helpless. He needs Arwen to protect and save him. Jackson didn't make this change just to give one of his very few female characters something important to do. It's a motif. Jackson's Frodo is always in need of saving. He needs Arwen and Gandalf and Sam and the other hobbits and the rest of the Fellowship to do the fighting for him. That’s the job of the Fellowship, to protect Frodo. And not simply because the journey's dangerous and there'll be minions of Sauron all along the way trying to take the ring from whoever's carrying it. It's because it's Frodo's job to carry the ring, and it's his job because he's not a hero.
He's a saint.
Carrying the ring is a burden and he's the only one up to taking it on. He's the only one up to enduring the suffering that goes with it and capable of resisting its temptations as well. Bilbo has already failed at that second part. In The Desolation of Smaug we see that failure begin, which means we see Jackson setting up a theme in his Hobbit movies that will tie it tight to his Lord of the Rings.
We know Bilbo kept the ring. What we maybe didn't know or maybe only suspected or knew in our hearts but didn't want to believe is that Bilbo didn't make a mistake because he didn't know better. Jackson is showing us that Bilbo knew and kept the ring anyway.
Right away after he finds it in An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo senses there's something odd and disturbing about the ring. In The Desolation of Smaug it's dawning on him he needs to get rid of it. Since we already know he's not going to, we know that what's ahead in There and Back Again is Bilbo's moral failure.
The hero-hobbit is going to fail to resist the temptation the hero-king Isildur failed to resist, the temptation the hero Boromir will fail to resist, the temptation Aragorn can only resist by letting Frodo continue to suffer on his and everyone else's behalf.
With what he's doing with Bilbo, Jackson's effectively gone back in time to set up the need for the Fellowship and the need for its being Frodo who carries the ring.
This is what really makes The Desolation of Smaug more than a bridge between An Unexpected Journey and There and Back Again. It's the chapter in which the plot of The Lord of the Rings really gets underway.
Oddly, with all this intensified focus on Bilbo, it seemed to me that Jackson kept losing track of him. Even in scenes in which Bilbo ought to have been our main focus, the camera seemed to have a hard time staying with him.
I had a similar feeling the first time I saw An Unexpected Journey. The second time we went and when we watched it on DVD I didn’t notice it. The explanation I came up with then was that Jackson filmed it in 3D but we saw it on the screen in 2D which means Jackson had the camera focused on points that shifted in the translation. The second time we went my eye knew better where to look. That probably happened again this time out. We saw the 2D version. This might explain something else, as well.
There’s no point complaining anymore that Jackson didn’t need to make three movies out of a story that could have been told in one, which, by the way, I’m not so sure is the case. I think he would have had to rush things. Two movies, then. Two three hour movies, for sure. But he didn’t so we have what we have. And what we have so far are two two-hour and forty minute or so movies that I think could have benefited from being edited down to two-hours and thirty minutes or even two-hours and twenty. There seemed to be a lot of repetition within scenes. Images repeated each other. Dialog went on past the point where anything important or interesting was being said. Whole seconds went by at a time (and a second is a long time within a single shot) when nothing appeared to be going on. And I wonder if it was the case again that I just wasn’t seeing what the 3D camera was supposed to show.
This is either a reason that you should see The Desolation of Smaug in 3D or more evidence that 3D is a waste of time and gigabytes.
As for the movie as a movie apart from its place in Jackson’s grand scheme of things, it’s generally a rip-roaring good time with as much humor as An Unexpected Journey though with less comedy, if that makes sense.
The video game Jackson made of the barrel escape is fun and exciting because of the addition of the orcs and the elves and because it is integral to the plot. But the video game that ends the film is just a video game, and a routine one in which things appear and disappear just because they’re needed at the moment or they force the characters to continue on to the next level. Worse than that, however, is that coming where it does and going on and on as it does, it erases the effect of the great and key scene before it, Bilbo’s game of wits with Smaug.
And speaking of Smaug…actually, speaking of Smaug speaking, it was terrific news that Jackson had cast Benedict Cumberbatch as the voice (and face and body behind the motion capture) of Smaug. But went and made a huge mistake by not letting Smaug speak with Cumberbatch’s real voice. He’s distorted it so that Smaug roars and growls and snarls his way through his speechs in ways that could have been the work of any actor and that pretty much reduce Smaug to the level of a special effect like the orcs Azog and Bolg rather than a performance like Andy Serkis’ Gollum.
Smaug isn’t any old fire-breathing monster. He’s a highly intelligent dragon and, as these things go, a cultivated one. How much more appropriate and disturbing and frightening would it have been then if he spoke in Sherlock Holmes' plummy, seductive, and very human baritone? Plus, it would have been a treat for Sherlock fans to hear Freeman and Cumberbatch sounding like Watson and Holmes but talking to very different purpose.
So Cumberbatch’s kind of wasted. So is Mikael Persbrandt as Beorn the skin-changer, although in his case it’s because his whole character is wasted. Beorn’s chess set is more interesting than he is. I expect, though, he’ll have more to do in There and Back Again.
But Lee Pace is definitely not wasted as Legolas’ father, Thranduil, the wood-elf king. Pace is marvelously and gorgeously languid and decadent and yet still sinister and menacing as a once upon a time noble warrior corrupted and weakened in spirit and will by fear, hatred, and, it appears, boredom resulting from having lived too long to no special purpose. Pace gives him an extra note of self-loathing that Thranduil nurses by making arbitrary decisions and doing and saying things that disgust him, which gets to back to why Legolas’ presence comes across as necessary. Pace’s Thranduil is another lost father or father-figure like Denethor and Theoden in The Lord of the Rings who needs to be saved from himself by his children, which, by the way, is maybe what Thorin ought to be doing, saving his father, who is wandering Middle-earth mad and lost, instead of pursuing his ambition to take his grandfather’s place as king. (That he’s not, turns out to be on Gandalf who is playing Realpolitik and using Thorin to use Bilbo to use Smaug to unite dwarfs, elves, and men in alliance against you know who.) At any rate, the question raised here that I presume will be answered in There and Back Again is whether Thandruil is redeemable like Theoden or irredeemably lost like Denethor.
Freeman as Bilbo and Richard Armitage as Thorin continue to the good work they started in An Unexpected Journey. Ian McKellen as Gandalf is Ian McKellen as Gandalf. As Radagast the Brown, Barry Humphries has toned down the eccentricity and we can begin to see why Gandalf trusts Radagast.
Evangeline Lilly’s effectiveness as Tauriel will depend on what she does with what Jackson does with her in There and Back Again. As Bard, Luke Evans is suitably grim but his grimness has reason. It the book it’s just his temperament. Here it’s both a mask and a shield. There’s much more to Bard than he dares let on if he wants to protect himself and his family from the political intriguers who run Laketown. Still, like Lilly, most of what he’s doing in The Desolation of Smaug is setting up what he’ll be doing in There and Back Again.
Stephen Fry is having a high old time as the oily, craven, and debauched Master of Laketown, but he seems to have wandered in from another sort of movie. I’ve noticed this is often the case with Stephen Fry. Some of this is the effect of his being so much bigger and broader than the other actors around him. But I think a lot it is that he always seems to be having much more fun than everybody else as well.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug directed by Peter Jackson; screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien . Starring Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Orlando Bloom, Mikael Persbrandt, Sylvester McCoy, Aidan Turner, Dean O’Gorman, Graham McTavish, Adam Brown, Peter Hambleton, John Callen, Mark Hadlow, Jed Brophy, William Kircher, Stephen Hunter, John Bell, and Lawrence Makoare. 161 minutes. Rated PG-13.