Monday, December 30, 2013


I realize that I am squarely in the center of the target audience for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." I grew up on Tolkien, and credit the book The Hobbit with sparking a lifelong love of reading. I love fantasy, love adventure, love Tolkien, love magic and elves and gorgeous vistas and battle scenes and lore. I'm the kind of person who grows baffled when people complain about how long the Hobbit movies are - who would not want to spend more time in Middle-earth? In the words of Ice T, I don't understand why Peter Jackson made these movies three hours long when they could easily have been nine hours each.

I missed out on the midnight screening of The Hobbit this year, but compensated with a pretty nice back-to-back marathon instead: the extended edition of An Unexpected Journey (thanks to an awesome Christmas present from my brother), followed by a trip to the theater to see The Desolation of Smaug (once again in 3D HFR).

MINI SPOILERS for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Extended Edition)

The extended scenes in AUJ feel less significant than those in the LotR trilogy, but were still really nice additions. For the most part they add more humor and song back into the story; in particular, the stay in Rivendell lasts quite a bit longer, with more sight-seeing, more dialogue, and some fun singing and comedy. It also restores another song that the Goblin King sings in Goblin Town.

The other additions are more minor, and seem to primarily flesh out the lore a bit more: some of these add connections to or foreshadowings of the main plot in LotR, others given some more background, particularly on the feud between dwarves and elves.


I'd deliberately avoided all reviews and articles about The Desolation of Smaug, so I went into the movie with no expectations other than those set by the book and the previous movie. And, unsurprisingly, I loved it. The story turns even more serious than the already-somewhat-dark first section, seeming to lose all of the singing and much of the comedy. But it's also more focused, with the quest in full swing, despite a division in the plot (reminiscent of the trifurcation of plot threads after the breaking of the Fellowship in LotR). The story itself is exciting, and at the same time it's sowing some seeds that will pay off explosively in the third movie.

I don't think I can do justice to the beauty of these films. They're absolutely stunning. Even when re-watching AUJ at home, my breath was taken away by the gorgeous sunset lighting that fills the frames at Rivendell and at the climax. Similar beauty surrounds the action in TDoS as the party travels through Mirkwood en route to Erebor. Individual locations are deliberately ugly - Mirkwood has a sinister sheen, and Laketown feels desperately insular - but even these are intricately designed, and help establish the contrast with the heart-wrenchingly exquisite landscapes we see adjacent to them.

While I'm not a musical person, I've steeped myself in these movies enough to have an autonomic response to the major themes written by Howard Shore. I love how he can incredibly subtly drop in a sly reference to the Ring Theme in the scenes where Bilbo is using his ring - it isn't as fully developed here as it will be in the future after its power is revealed, but the insinuations send shivers up my spine. Other old friends return as well, like the sweet Hobbit theme that crops up whenever Gandalf marvels at the courage and resilience of these tiny Englishmen. And, of course, tons of new music has been composed for the new films as well. The Lonely Mountain theme remains my favorite of the new crop, but there are also some cool new pieces set around Dol Goldur and Thranduil's Court.

MINI SPOILERS for The Desolation of Smaug

In no particular order, here are some opinions!

Tauriel is a terrific character. I'm not a huge fan of Evangeline Lilly, but I loved her portrayal of this character, and was really impressed in general by the addition. I should probably note that I have a fairly catholic approach towards Tolkien fandom: the books are my first love, and I'm generally happiest when they're adhered to, but I really enjoy other artists' interpretations of the stories; I tend to tolerate differences from the source material so long as they don't make things actively worse than the original (as in the re-interpretation of Faramir's character). I think that Tauriel is a case study in the right way to adapt a work: she serves a particular purpose, and while she isn't present in the initial lore, she doesn't contradict the rest of the lore.

First, the purpose: clearly the reason Tauriel exists is to add a female protagonist to The Hobbit. That is, frankly, something that's rather sorely needed: if AUJ hadn't had a scene with the White Council including Galadriel (which was also an addition from the book), it would have had absolutely no speaking female roles at all, which is a particular kind of Bechdel hell. Why doesn't The Hobbit have any female characters? Well, one very likely reason is that Tolkien had his three sons in mind when he was writing it: he would tell them stories, and if you're telling a story to a young boy, you'll probably have a young boy as a protagonist. His daughter Priscilla was only three years old when he finished work on The Hobbit. Years later, when working on The Lord of the Rings, Priscilla was a teenager and complained about how the boys had all the fun in the book; so Tolkien, the good father and good writer, created the character of Eowyn, an intelligent and brave young woman who rules wisely and slays the Witch-King of Angmar, greatest of the nine Nazgul. If The Hobbit had been written a decade later, would we have gotten more female characters? I like to think that we would have. (And maybe finally gotten a straight answer as to the identity of dwarven women.)

Anyways: all that to say, I think there are great reasons to add female characters to the movie. It makes the story more interesting, provides a more-relatable role model, and hopefully will make the movie more attractive to potential female fans. Importantly, the idea of a strong female warrior is consonant with other writings in Tolkien's legendarium. Besides Eowyn, Haleth was a famous amazonian warrior chieftess who led one of the tribes of men back in the First Age. In other writings specifically about elves, Tolkien noted that:
In all such things, not concerned with the bringing forth of children, the neri and nissi (that is, the men and women) of the Eldar are equal... There are, however, no matters which among the Eldar only a ner can think or do, or others with which only a nis is concerned.
This isn't to say that it would be wrong to create an awesome female warrior elf if Tolkien didn't have a precedent, but I think it smooths the way considerably.

As you can probably tell just by the number of words I'm writing, this is the sort of thing that creates big controversy among Tolkien fans. Many devotees cringe at any deviation from the canonical text, and tampering with Tolkien's work is often seen as disrespect for the man's great work. So, I think it was not only good, but smart, of the writers to pay so much attention to the lore in crafting the dialogue of her scenes. There are just a couple of sentences exchanged between her and Thranduil, briefly referencing the distinction between the sindarin and the silvan elves; it isn't particularly important for the story, and will certainly fly right over the heads of people who aren't steeped in the lore, but for those of us who have devoured the Silmarillion and pored over pages of charts of geneologies, it's an immediate, soothing reminder that the creators of this movie are also fans, and also know the lore, and are crafting a component that will slip into place, not carelessly ripping apart the story for their own whims.

While book fans appear divided on the issue, it looks like Tauriel is striking a chord among movie and fantasy fans, judging from the excellent fan art and cosplay I've seen. She might end up becoming one of the best legacies of these movies.

Similarly, I was fine with the addition of Legolas. It's well-established that Legolas is the son of Thranduil, and he would almost certainly have been in Mirkwood at the time of The Hobbit. He isn't named in the book, but almost no elves apart from Thranduil are, so it's totally reasonable to imagine that he was present. (The best counter-argument is probably that he would have mentioned in TLotR if he was; but I can certainly imagine why a proud sindar lord would not want to notify his noldor hosts that he failed to prevent the escape of a company of dwarves.)

Legolas's action scenes were as ridiculous as always. It no longer irritates me. By now I'm just willing to accept that that's what he does.

Speaking of which, though, the choreography for the fights in TDoU were incredible. That escape from Thranduil's Court was particularly exciting: almost entirely invented, of course (the barrels leave uneventfully in the books), but it was a really fresh twist on the chase scene trope, and also included some of the most comical sequences in the movie.

Not everything was reinvented, though. For example, the Beorn section played out pretty much exactly like it did in the book. They also did a really good job at developing certain themes, such as the tension between elves and dwarves; while not using the exact same techniques as the books, I feel like they landed in the exact right emotional spot in conveying the mutual bad blood between the two groups, the dwarves driven by greed, the elves by pride, and both by stubbornness. Scenes like the confrontation between Thorin and Thranduil were really well done: you can see how each of them, believes that they are right and just, and neither has sufficient empathy to consider the others' desires. (I hate to keep riding this hobby horse, but it's stuff like this that makes me baffled whenever people describe Tolkien's universe as morally black-and-white. Granted, Eru is perfectly good, and Morgoth is perfectly evil, but everyone else is drawn in varying shades of gray, from the greatest of elves to the lowliest of men.)

The casting for the movie seemed really solid. Martin Freeman continues to impress me, and further solidifies his position as the best hobbit, ever. Beorn looks a bit different from how I imagined, but his character's affect was perfect, all suppressed menace. Evangeline Lilly disappeared inside her role and let the fantastic character shine through. Thranduil's role from the first part was greatly fleshed out, and is arguably even a deeper portrayal than the character shown in the book: he isn't just a capricious meany, but a dedicated isolationist (and one we can sympathize with, too, as he's one of the few creatures alive to know first-hand the terrible tolls of war).

Things get really fun in Laketown, which is the first part in the movie where we've had a large cast of Men (as opposed to males). I haven't seen the guy who plays Bard in anything else, and at first I thought it was Kit Harrington (Jon Snow in Game of Thrones). I had heard about Stephen Fry playing the Master of Laketown, and loved him in that role. He's an interesting character, kind of an affably, menially corrupt charlatan. Even the minor characters in Laketown were a lot of fun; the gatekeeper reminded me a lot of Tony Robinson, and the Master's stooge recalled Blackadder in a particularly sniveling role. (Also a nice bit about Laketown: we finally see some people of color! Yet another thing that's been pretty lacking in the films, and that also meshes nicely with the lore. Laketown has active river trade with the Rhun area, and therefore more traffic with the Easterlings, in contrast with the more isolated northerners west of the Misty Mountains.)

Oh, but Smaug... wow! Everyone's been waiting to see him, and it's about five hours into the series before we get our first look at him. He's fantastic. Great and terrible, indeed. I'd been particularly excited to see him ever since I heard that Guillermo del Toro did the creature design for him, since del Toro is almost certainly the best monster-maker of the last two decades. I'd been curious if he would come up with a particularly crazy concept, but it turned out to be an extremely well-conceived take on the traditional idea of a dragon. You've got your serpentine neck, your wings, your talons, your fire, your scales. But... the look of it is awe-inspiring, and grows impossibly more overwhelming as you see more of him in action. They did an incredible job at conveying the scale of the beast, which is incredibly hard: how can you make a mind grasp how much bigger this beast is than the hobbit?

Of course, the voice is responsible for much of the effect, and the terrific Benedict Cumberbatch brings his A-Game; the voice is digitally manipulated to be even deeper than usual, but his precise diction and haughtiness still radiate out from every syllable. I haven't re-read The Hobbit lately, but I'm pretty sure that much of Smaug's dialogue with Bilbo is lifted wholesale from the book, and their exchange really captures all the fraught contradictions of the scene: Smaug is so much more powerful than Bilbo that it isn't even funny, but his vanity and pride urge him to put on a show for his victim. Bilbo's in constant danger, frantically drawing on all his reserves of courage, flattery, guile, and magic in order to survive.

Also on the topic of Benedict Comberbatch: he also did the voice for the Necromancer / Sauron. The scene that showed Gandalf's confrontation with Sauron was fascinating. Sauron has no physical form at this point in history, and is merely a disembodied evil spirit. How does one portray that? Well, the way the movie does is darn impressive, offering a pretty convincing idea of what "darkness incarnate" might look like. Likewise, kudos for being able to portray a struggle against evil, when there is nothing physical to struggle against.


My biggest complaint with the movie is that - get ready! - it isn't long enough. Or, more specifically, I'm a bit curious why they cut it at the point they did. Assuming that the movies continue to follow the main plot of the book, an excellent climax would have come up in the next couple of scenes. As it is, I'm wondering how the pacing of the third movie is going to feel. I can already imagine how all the critics who complained that the first movie took too long to get going will soon be complaining about how the third movie has too much action.

Be that is it may, middle entries in trilogies are notoriously difficult to manage, and I did enjoy the set piece that the film ends on, even if it ends in a shockingly bald cliffhanger. I'm just not entirely sure why they felt the need to have one. Do they seriously think that we won't be back next year for the third?

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