Sunday, January 26, 2014

Review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Generally speaking, I hate it when stories I love are treated as optional extras in film versions bearing their name.  From a kid who loved Kipling's The Jungle Book and confronted with what Disney had done with it to an adult seeing one of the world's greatest classic stories trashed in Troy, I try my best to avoid such rewritings.  Of course, I accept that these may be great films in their own right for anyone who doesn't know and love the original, but in a way that's the point.  Generations are going to believe these are the actual stories.

In view of that, it's maybe strange that I never had too much problem with the wholesale changes Peter Jackson made to my absolute favourite book ever.  I do have issues with the Lord of the Rings films (I still think the Scouring of the Shire should have been included, for instance) but I tend to think of them not so much as adaptations of the books but a different way of retelling the legends of the War of the Ring.  A film about King Arthur, for instance, might draw heavily on Malory, but would be free to take slightly different routes from A to B.

In general, I felt the same about the first instalment of The Hobbit (reviewed last year) but I have to say that the second stretches my tolerance a good deal further.  I think it's probably fair to say that parts of the fight with the giant spiders, of Thorin's defiance of Thranduil, and of Bilbo's encounter with Smaug are the only bits of the book to make it into this film.

It isn't all bad.  It makes complete sense, for instance, for Legolas to be present in his father's halls, and I suspect that, if Tolkien had ever done a thorough rewrite of The Hobbit in light of Lord of the Rings, he'd have included an appearance.  It also makes sense to give Bard the Bowman more of a story.  I always felt it was a weakness of the book that he pops up from nowhere just in time to save the day, and the narrative backstory given in the book certainly wouldn't work in a film.

Also, as in the first film, it makes sense to use the growing conflict with the power of Dol Guldur as a parallel plotline.  We don't see as much of Radagast this time, but his couple of scenes are enjoyable, and Gandalf's eventual confrontation with the vast, numinous figure of Sauron is stunning.

Similarly, the complexities of Lake-town politics, only hinted at in the book, are presented effectively, if at length, with Stephen Fry excellent as the corrupt Master, and the town itself is wonderfully visualised.  Bard has a role that foreshadows what happens later, although the whole nature and significance of his black arrow has been completely changed.

Beorn and the spiders of Mirkwood, too, are visually arresting, but the film's highlight is, as it should be, the dragon.  Forget the dragons of past films — even the wonderful Draco from Dragonheart — Smaug is everything a dragon should be.  He's visually captivating, and Benedict Cumberbatch (who also supplies Sauron's voice) extracts every nuance of character shown in the book.

Not all of the changes are quite as successful, though.  The film introduces an entirely new character, the elf Tauriel, who has a highly improbable romantic subplot with the dwarf Kili.  I found this not only a very long distraction from the main story but very unconvincing.  Granted that Kili bears very little resemblance to a dwarf (like Thorin, he has the appearance more of a dashing human) it would still be an unthinkable step to take, and somewhat reduces the impact of Legolas and Gimli's later unprecedented friendship.

Another problem is the apparent obsession with turning almost every single scene into action.  This is perhaps most clear in the escape by barrel from Thranduil's halls.  Granted that there's little visual in the original sequence, it seems unnecessary to add an orc-attack and a three-way running battle between dwarves, elves and orcs (not to mention more romance between Kili and Tauriel) to what is already a tense and exciting episode.

Not that the way the escape is presented really makes any sense.  In the book, the dwarves are hidden inside sealed barrels while floating downstream, but here the barrels are open and upright.  Which would be fine if they weren't regularly submerged and tossed around going over waterfalls, without apparently shipping any water at all.

Another somewhat pointless action scene is the battle within Erebor between Smaug and the dwarves, although at least this has the advantage of letting us see more of the dragon.  It's presumably there so that the film can finish in a blaze of action, but it rather undermines Bilbo's role as the party's thief to have the dwarves instantly springing into action.  The sequence is beautifully made and exciting, but I'm not convinced it's good storytelling.

Regardless of the choices about the story, the performances are all excellent.  Evangeline Lilly plays Tauriel well, whether or not the character belongs in the film, and Luke Evans as Bard seems to be somewhat channelling Viggo Mortensen, which is fair enough.  The people carried over from the first film remain strong — Thorin is a commanding presence, and Ian McKellan — well, he's Gandalf, and always will be.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo has less centre stage than in the first film, but he continues to handle the transition from home-loving hobbit to courageous adventurer with total conviction.  His confrontation with Smaug (his Sherlock co-star, of course) is delightful.

The film ends with Smaug flying off to attack Lake-town, and I'm sure we're in for plenty more action in the third film, what with the dragon-slaying, the attack on Dol Guldur and the Battle of the Five Armies.  And, presumably, a lot more of Kili and Tauriel.  I just hope there's a bit more of the book present than in this film.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with everything you've said here, and in fact, I had the same assessment of it. I enjoyed it and thought some of the departures were within the spirit of the original story, but others (the romance mentioned, and the barrel scene etc) were just kind of silly and improbable.

    I do like Martin Freeman's portrayal of Bilbo also.

    Hope the last installment is truer to the story.