Film 2019: The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug


Middle films are always a bugger. They start in the middle and finish in the middle: pitched directly into the action without any suitable scene-setter and lacking any wholly-satisfying conclusion. Not every extended trilogy has a Battle of Helm’s Deep to provide the perfect pseudo-climax. The Hobbit does its best in ‘The Desolation of Smaug’, with the terrifically constructed battle between the Dwarves an the Dragon inside Erebor, but it still has to depend upon a cliffhanger on which to halt. I found it a disappointment first time round and it’s still the same now, when the final film’s another Sunday away, not another December.

That said, Part 2 is a decided uplift on Part 1. It has an awkward double-start, first a very clever flashback, like the Smeagol-Deagol scene that opens ‘The Return of the King’, to Bree in the rain, Thorin Oakenshield in the Prancing Pony and a ‘chance’ meeting with Gandalf the Grey. This is taken from one of those scenes that Tolkien couldn’t fit into the book and which turns up in the Appendices, and at greater length in Unfinished Tales.

Straightway from that, we go to the Dwarf party on the run again from Azog and his pursuing Orcs and rapidly holing up with Beorn. It feels awkward because it has no independence and it’s dealt with too quickly and back-ended with a bit of comedy, reflecting the original children’s book that’s really out of place this far along.

Still, that’s the last of that. There are still comic scenes to come, mostly surrounding the Master of Lake-Town and his obnoxious, servile assistant Alfred (Alfred? Alfred? Beorn, Bard, Smaug, Bilbo, Alfred… Alfred? een if it is spelt Alfrid). This requires a double-act between Stephen Fry and Ryan Gage, one of whom I thoroughly do not like and the other who’s just too good in his role to be comfortable watching. Their humour is based on throwing in cheap rude words, like bollocks and cock, but it isa dimension away from the chilish slapstick Jackson has tried to take from the book.

After the scene at Beorn’s, Jackson stops trying to marry up any of ‘The Hobbit’s tone to the fillm and things are better for it. The Desolation of Smaug can then concentrate on its own tone, fast, dynamic and serious, letting the comedy arise from what’s on the screen, such as the brilliant barrel-escape down the elvish river, fighting off Orcs and Elves with unstinting glee and vigour.

Much of what Jackson et al. invents in this film is simply an expansion on what Tolkien has written that was treated perfunctorily. Bilbo frees the Dwarves, they escape in barrels, full stop. Another, incredibly effective scene is created out of even thinner justification: Cate Blanchett makes a tiny cameo as Galadriel to send Gandalf north as a revised justification for his leaving the Dwarves at Mirkwood, not for an off-screen White Counsel (unmentioned in advance) raid on Dol Guldur, but rather to urgently check the barely accessible and utterly creepy tombs of nine evil Kings. These are all empty: Nazgul…

And Gandalf’s investigation of Dol Guldur, his discovery of the half-mad Thrain, his encounter with the Necromancer and realisation it is Sauron, his capture, all these are drawn into this film where, in strict Tolkien mythology, they date from further back, but they are still all crucial elements of the overarching story that includes The Lord of the Rings, just placed onscreen rather than confined to deep background.

Where Jackson is on truly unjustified ground is in the creation of Tauriel, the elf-warrior-maiden and her ‘relationship’with the youngest and most normal-looking Dwarf, Kili (Aiden Turner). I’m dubious about the ‘love affair’ but as Tauriel is played by Evangeline Lilley, I can’t argue with the decision. Lilley is in her element, especially in the fighting scenes, where she’s as fluid and fearsome as Legolas (Orlando Bloom, another returnee). Jackson’s on firmer ground with having Legolas along: neither he nor Thranduil, his father, are named in ‘The Hobbit’ but it’s obvious in retrospect that they must have been there.

The middle film scores by speeding things up considerably, to remove the stodginess, kicking out the songs and (most of) the slapstick and showing a great deal more confidence in its decision to go for the tone of The Lord of the Rings overall. It’s still a middle film in Middle-Earth, with no real event to conclude it, but I still enjoy it thoroughly.

10 thoughts on “Film 2019: The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug

  1. While the ‘bloat factor’ is certainly a problem with the Hobbit trilogy….I still think it’s a good set of films. Comparing it to the LOTR trilogy is unfair since that’s my favorite trilogy. Martin Freeman is great. The action is great. And ‘Desolation of Smaug’ keeps up a real sense of momentum all the way through.

    1. I’m still waiting for someone who thinks The Hobbit should have been more like rthe book to suggest how to do it in a manner compatible to LOTR. Better not hold my breath.

      1. I think the Desolation of Smaug, with its endless string of thrilling action set pieces, really sums up the fun adventurous spirit that I associate with Tolkien better than any of the other Middle Earth Saga films besides Fellowship. And of course the Sherlock reunion is just incredible. Even the Hobbit skeptics admit that Jackson nailed Smaug and the Riddles in the Dark scene.

        And we all know, of course, that Tolkien himself significantly altered The Hobbit to better fit with Lord of the Rings. While he might not’ve liked the films (we have no way of knowing)…he agreed with those who claim that the Hobbit and LOTR are dissonant when read back to back.

  2. The big problem with TDOS is its cliff-hanger ending and the effect it has on BOTFA. And I love BOTFA.

    I knew about the amendments to the Hobbit to make the riddle-scene consistent – I have even read a first edition version – but book to book there is a massive dissonance that’s ineradicable. The film version had to be ame nded to fit the existing tone of its sequel. And I strongly suspect JRR would not have liked the films.

    1. Yeah, you’re right about that. He probably would have hated it. The thing is though, film adaptations almost always ‘dumb down’ their texts, so to speak. As you wrote in the Fellowship write-up, it’s one of the fundamental changes that has to be made from book to screen, so as to not bog the film down with hours of exposition.

      1. The whole Hobbit trilogy still remains highly criticised. Unlike LOTR I have not watched any of the additional discs yet, and I’ve recently learned that these contain comments about the overall production that indicate it was a much less happy set-up overall. I must make time to see these. I still haven’t seen anyone, not one person, suggest a way of adapting The Hobbit whilst making it sit comfortably with the LOTR trilogy, but I’m open to any suggestions as to how to have done a better job than the one Jackson did.

      2. I read somewhere that the films’ production company lobbied to alter New Zealand’s labor laws.

        I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t a happy set, considering Jackson made them out of obligation. Even so, I think there’s a lot of merit to them as films taken on their own outside of the ethics of the production company’s behavior. If I were to improve them, I’d cut out the dwarf-elf love story, slash the fat off of the first half of An Unexpected Journey, and shorten the Battle of the Five Armies to make two tight films.

  3. Yes, I’d picked up on that first comment. Of your three suggestions, I’d say yes to number two, but no to number three (BOTFA shots by like a rocket once you get rid of Smaug – and bloody Stephen Fry: actually yes, replace Fry in both films and cut out bloody Alfryd entirely). As for your first suggestion, speaking clinically you’re right. Speaking as one who positively drools over Evangeline Lilley, no, a thousand times NO!

    1. I forgot Stephen Fry was even in them!

      I absolutely adore the story of Beren and Luthien. I assume this was Jackson’s way of trying to capture that magic? Or something?

      Re: Battle of the Five Armies. I haven’t seen it in a long time, but I remember thinking it was a bit too thin to try and stretch 2 hours and 20 minutes out of it. I didn’t mind the cartoonish action, though. That kind of fits the tone of The Hobbit, one could argue.

      1. Stephen Fry is regarded over here as a national treasure. I concur: he shiuld be burired, to be dug up by a later generation.

        Battle of the Five Armies might not be the best film ever, but it’s the only one where I’d have paid to watch it again privided they agreed to start it immediately.

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