It’s come to my attention that this blog is too frivolous. It’s time to tackle some meaty, important issues. So, here’s one: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is an abomination.
(I know this is old news, but I had to see it again before launching an attack to make sure I was totally justified. And, because we weren’t willing to spend more than a dollar on it, I had to wait until it hit Redbox.)
First, you have to understand something about Mr. and Mrs. Tom Nysetvold: we really love Tolkien. In fact, Tom and I decided we were interested in each other based on a conversation in which we discovered that I had read more Tolkien than he had. The books are important. Neither of us care for Peter Jackson or a lot of the things he’s done to the LotR trilogy. Despite this, we went to see the second installment of The Hobbit on a cold December night, just after it came out.
My first reaction after the movie was over: “You took me away from studying for this?” (We’d gone on a reading day, and I was being somewhat facetious.)
Tom’s first reaction: “I am so, so sorry.”
It was cringe-inducing. It was so painfully obvious that Peter Jackson had dug himself into this hole with this three movies business and this weird orc subplot and was just trying to throw stuff together in a way that would maximize his money-made to time-spent-reading-the-book ratio. It was fanfiction–really bad fanfiction. Worse, since Howard Shore’s score work was way below his usual excellent standard, I can honestly say the movie did not have one redeeming quality.
If Peter Jackson is greedy enough to turn a 95,000-word children’s book into three movies, then I can be lazy enough to break my analysis into
three parts: 1) Things that were terrible because they deviated from the book; 2) Things that were terrible because they could never conceivably happen in Middle-earth; and 3) Things that were terrible because they could never conceivably happen anywhere that obeys the laws of logic and/or physics. We’ll tackle number 1 today.
(Edit: I get the feeling that people are as tired of reading about this stuff as I am of writing about it. In addition, I discovered some major problems with the main argument I was using for part 3, so let’s put this on hold.)
Deviations From the Book: Worst Offenders
Now, I know I have friends who prefer to consider movie adaptations as separate entities from their novels, evaluating the movie on its own merits. That’s perfectly reasonable, and those people are welcome to throw everything I’m about to say out the window. I, however, think differently. I see the original medium as the “soul” of the story, and every subsequent adaptation as just an accurate or inaccurate representation. The only person allowed to make acceptable changes, no questions asked, is the original creator. Even if Desolation of Smaug was a brilliant piece of film (it’s not), I couldn’t appreciate it because it was a poor representation of a great book. (Additionally–and I may lose friends over this–this is the reason I just can’t appreciate the musical Wicked: the book is distasteful, and all the catchy music in the world can’t make up for that).
With that in mind, I’ll only target the most offensive moments in this blog post.
Everything about the way Beorn was handled was disappointing. He is portrayed as this surly dwarf-hating PETA-enthusiast who completely loses his mind and goes on killing rampages, werewolf style, when he turns into this savage bear-beast. Gandalf and crew are on the run from the orcs and have no provisions and nowhere else to go, so they force their way into Beorn’s house and barricade themselves inside, hoping he’ll decide to help the intruders out. Sure enough, Beorn finds his second least favorite type of people sleeping in his house and decides to roll with it. After they’ve explained their story, Beorn criticizes the dwarves for not caring about mice and flies enough, but decides to aid them because he hates orcs more; the enemy of my enemy is my friend, right?
In the book, Beorn is more of a general introvert–antisocial, even. He just doesn’t want people in his house. He doesn’t make a habit of inviting friends over, and he certainly doesn’t indulge beggars (like Thorin and Co.). It’s true that he isn’t a huge dwarf fan; however, the reason is never specified, and he seems to recognize that some dwarves are more respectable than others (he even recognizes Thorin’s name and family).
Gandalf knows Beorn can be reasonable when coaxed into a good mood, so he comes up with a very clever plan to get on bear-man’s good side. He approaches Beorn with Bilbo and tells the dwarves to come in pairs, five minutes apart (“Bombur is fattest and will do for two, he had better come alone and last.” You’ve got to love Tolkien). Meanwhile, Gandalf is telling the story of their goblin adventure in the Misty Mountains. He gradually increases the implied number of their party at roughly the same rate at which the dwarves arrive at the house, and with each new arrival Beorn is increasingly intrigued by the story, so he impatiently welcomes the newcomers and urges Gandalf to continue. In the end, Beorn feeds them and puts them up not because he trusts them completely or he’s feeling particularly compassionate, but because Gandalf’s story was so entertaining.
Later, of course, Beorn does some investigating and verifies his guests’ claims, and is all the more willing to help them when he learns they killed the Great Goblin, admitting that his opinion of dwarves has greatly improved. Beorn gives them food and advice, and loans them ponies to get to the Mirkwood.
Why is Beorn’s portrayal a problem? Besides creating obvious inconsistencies–if Bear!Beorn is so unpredictable and dangerous, how does he have the presence of mind to follow them, only attacking if they try to take the ponies into Mirkwood?–Jackson discards a strategic, carefully-considered, diplomatic solution in favor of one in which our heroes push their way into a stranger’s house and presume upon his hospitality. The message Jackson is sending is that any problem that can be solved with a little bit of tact and cleverness is better off solved by brute force and an entitlement attitude. I don’t know about you, but that’s the exact opposite of the message I want my children to take from The Hobbit.
2. Encounter with the spiders
Like Beorn, the spider business was badly handled in the transition from book to movie, and for similar reasons; however, the problems here are greater, because Jackson’s alterations actually detract from Bilbo’s character development–and heaven knows there’s little enough of that in this movie, already. Seriously, the section of the book covered by this movie is supposed to be about Bilbo finally getting his act together and earning the dwarves’ respect through his quick thinking and unconventional skill set (not to mention a certain magic ring). But the movie focuses very little attention on Bilbo, and (to its detriment) gives Martin Freeman hardly any screen time at all.
In the book, after Bilbo kills the spider tying him up, names his sword, slips on the Ring, and discovers more spiders salivating over his friends, he comes up with a clever and manageable rescue plan. Using a combination of expert rock-throwing and insulting songs made up on the spot, Bilbo (wisely INVISIBLE) enrages and draws off the spiders. He frees the dwarves, tells them to fight their way to safety, continues distracting the spiders, and drives them off himself with Sting.
The dwarves don’t only develop respect for Bilbo–they start looking to him for guidance and direction, in lieu of instruction from their missing leaders (Gandalf is off doing his thing, and Thorin has already been captured by the Elves at this point). Bilbo has gained authority by saving his friends and launching a successful attack on creatures much larger and more deadly than he is. Not a bad day’s work for a little hobbit.
Some of these elements are present in the movie (no mention of the word “attercop,” however), but it all starts to go downhill when Bilbo drops the Ring. The rest of the scene centers around Bilbo frantically trying to get the Ring back while his friends struggle outnumbered against the spiders, fighting with this freaky crab thing, and slowly coming out of this Ring-possession-induced haze.
Hold on a minute. The Ring is dormant at this point. The word “ring” is never even capitalized in this book, because it’s only important to the plot as a tool to help Bilbo accomplish his tasks. I’m not even sure Tolkien had conceptualized its nefarious past when he first wrote The Hobbit. I realize Jackson is trying to tie the two trilogies together, but Bilbo’s bizarre reluctance to keep the Ring on is nonsensical.
And then, just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, there are Elves.
Sure, let’s sacrifice Bilbo’s character development in favor of letting Orlando Bloom save the day and bring in the fangirls. Bad form, Peter Jackson. Bad form.
Note to random comment-er on IMDB: Don’t try to tell me this is Thranduil’s fëa influencing his body. I know Peter Jackson has no idea what a fëa is.
I was almost too intimidated by the sheer amount of wrong in the Lake-town sequence, but Tom requested a section on it. The best way to sum up what’s wrong with the sequence is that none of its content comes from the book; as a result, it’s disjointed, surreal, and agonizingly slow in the movie.
Tolkien spends very little time describing the most boring part of the story. In my copy, Thorin and Co. are in and out in less than six pages. They make their grand entrance, have a brief tense encounter with some Wood-elves (“Hey! These were our prisoners!” “So what? We’re not talking to you.”), get the people excited, party a bit, collect Lake-town swag, and leave. Bard (the Bowman!) is not mentioned, because he isn’t important at this point–he becomes important later, because of his status as the captain of the town archers and his impressive lineage, but none of that is relevant yet.
At this point, the movie had me simply asking, “Why?!”
Why is all this political garbage necessary? Why make Bard out to be this malcontent rabble-rouser? Why has he been demoted to “Bard the Bargeman”?
What could be a legitimate, plot-driven purpose for leaving four dwarves behind? Don’t you need all the manpower (dwarfpower) you can get against a fire-breathing dragon? Sure, leave the injured guy with the healer, but don’t you care more about your cause than to abandon your company because Thorin made a very reasonable decision? (And don’t get me started on Kili’s “Morgul-blade” injury. That’s a major subject of the next post.)
Why does Lake-town need to be attacked by orcs? Isn’t it going to be attacked by a dragon in just a few hours? Give the poor town a break!
Why are Legolas and Tauriel here? What legitimate, plot-driven purpose could they possibly serve (beyond muddling things up when the dragon finally appears)? (More on my dissatisfaction with Tauriel in the next post.)
I don’t have the answers to these questions. I don’t think Peter Jackson has the answers to these questions.
Well, I think this post is quite long enough. In summary, the alterations Peter Jackson made were not only unnecessary, but simply bad. But worry not, Tolkien purists: more faithful adaptations of the professor’s works exist. In particular, I highly recommend Fellowship! The Musical (the soundtrack can be found on Amazon or on Spotify, if you’re into that) (also, who thinks “Dwarf, Elf, Mithrandir–everyone is welcome here!” would be a great tagline for this blog?). Tune in next time for Part 2.