16 Dec 2013

'The Desolation of Smaug' Review

The good professor is bound to be turning in his grave. We went to watch the second installment of Peter Jackson's film adaptation of The Hobbit last night, which was the earliest possible opportunity we have had since it opened. I was actually down with the flu, but we went anyway, as this was the film we had both been waiting to see all year. Sadly, I regret to say that it is quite possibly the most disappointing film that either of us has ever seen.

My wife, who grew up with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, was thoroughly displeased with the sheer contempt with which Peter Jackson appears to have cast aside the original text, and gone on to produce his very own version of The Fantastic Adventures of Bilbo Baggins. I, on the other hand, am one of those who have always argued that a film producer should be entitled to provide his or her own interpretation of an older story. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that a good producer should feel obliged to provide a new interpretation, especially if he or she is translating material from a different medium of expression.

As I have argued previously, just as Sophocles and Euripides used source material from epic to create new interpretations in the form of tragedy, it should similarly be acceptable for a film producer to provide a new interpretation of a book or a play. When done successfully, such new interpretations do often provide further insight into the original source material itself. Which reader, for example, could ever return to the Iliad after watching a passionate performance of The Trojan Women, and not experience it more richly?

But this should not, of course, mean that any reinterpretation of older material should automatically be hailed as a worthy endeavour. There is nothing more unintelligent than the argument that, since a new interpretation is one particular person's take on older material, it is therefore a valid viewpoint and must be accepted as worthwhile. Artistic license cuts both ways, and while a film producer is, in my opinion, entitled to provide his or her own interpretation, any such producer should also be willing to accept criticism, even if it is withering, if his efforts fall short and the end product should lack wit.

And this, in a nutshell, is what I did not like about The Desolation of Smaug. As Thorin says to the dragon, it is witless.

Successful reinterpretations require both thoughtful consideration of the source material, as well as a creative reworking of the original story. Neither of these factors, however, appears to have come into play in the creation of Part Two of The Fantastic Adventures of Bilbo Baggins.

The most disappointing aspect of this film is the constant reuse of motifs from the old Lord of the Rings trilogy. What, the viewer is prompted to ask, is the point of this persistently nauseating repetition? Why is it, for example, that when the dwarf Kili is injured by an arrow it has to be a morgul arrowhead that causes the injury? And what is the point of rehashing the same conversation that Sam Gamgee has with Aragorn in The Fellowship of the Ring, about athelas being a weed? Reusing motifs and inserting lines from an older film can work very well when there is no immediate connection with the new production. It can be very funny, for example, to come across a line from Jerry Maguire while you are sat down watching Chicken Little.

But when the connection between the older film and the new one is blatantly obvious, it becomes nothing more than just lazy screenwriting. The thoughtful viewer is immediately prompted to ask whether or not exactly the same dramatic effect could have been achieved without the need for a morgul arrowhead. Why could Kili not have been left behind simply because he had suffered a serious wound from an ordinary arrow? This dramatic device of making the arrow a morgul weapon, and necessitating the use of athelas, is tedious and contributes absolutely nothing to the overall flow of the on-screen action. Put simply, it is witless.

Alfrid stands by his Master

But more witless still, and even more unnecessary, is the introduction of additional characters that do not make any real contribution to the flow of the story. What, for example, is the point of the lackey Alfrid (played by Ryan Gage), who serves the Master of Laketown, other than to draw a parallel with Grima Wormtongue in The Two Towers? There is no such character in The Hobbit, and this one does not actually serve any purpose in this story other than as an additional foil for Bard the Bowman.

It is one thing to introduce a secondary villain who can serve as an additional enemy for the protagonist of an adventure (as Guy of Gisborne serves as a second to the Sherrif of Nottingham - or vice versa depending on which film version of Robin Hood you might be watching). But here we have a secondary foil (the main one being the Master) for a tertiary protagonist and the overall result is just clumsy. Our proto-Grima has no characterisation other than a vague sense that he must be some sort of 'baddie'. It is just stunning that the same director who dropped an important character like Glorfindel from The Fellowship of the Ring on the grounds that there were too many characters in that film should have gone on to include a two-dimensional character such as this.

For sheer pointlessness, however, it is difficult to beat the most ridiculous character in this film - the ninja 'she-elf' known as Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lilly. Tauriel is more like a female elf character out of World of Warcraft than anything else. She can leap through the air, drawing her bow in mid-jump as though she were a level 80 Hunter with a +34 Longbow. But the worst thing about her is the fact that she also has the personality of a level 80 female elf Hunter out of World of Warcraft that has been created by a fourteen year old boy.
Obviously never drawn a bow for real...

Tauriel's characterisation only extends to her having some romantic feelings for Legolas at first, but also developing an attraction to one of the dwarves later in the film. Other than that, all that we know of her is that she is the captain of Thranduil's guard. And for some strange reason, she also has healing abilities that equal those of Elrond.

Why Peter Jackson should have given a character with the personality of a crayon so much air time, while relegating a fascinating character like Beorn to a four-minute cameo, is an interesting question. My own theory is that PJ probably does have a level 80 Hunter named Tauriel on World of Warcraft and he was just dying to bring his favourite avatar to life on screen.

In this, Jackson does seem to have succeeded, because the action scenes in this film look more like something out of an online MMORPG than live action. Legolas and Tauriel leap through the air, cutting and slashing their way through hordes of orcs who fall away like level 1 monsters. And yet, the viewer is expected to believe that these orcish hordes, who cannot even put up a decent fight against a fat dwarf who is temporarily stuck in a barrel, are somehow supposed to be threatening. Our two level 80 elf Hunters, on the other hand, carry out moves that no living human being could possibly manage. Legolas even seems to be capable of drawing his bow as he finishes - not after completing, but as he finishes - a somersault.

Action sequences are, of course, a necessary part of any film adaptation of Tolkien, but surely, it would not have been that difficult to produce a properly choreographed fight sequence that looks realistic. One of my favourite fight scenes is the one in The Last of the Mohicans, in which Hawkeye and Chingachgook save the Munro sisters from the Huron war-party. The way that Daniel Day-Lewis moves, for example, is so fluidly choreographed that it is actually believable. This kind of fighting style would have suited the wood elves and, more importantly, looked a lot better on screen. Instead, Jackson gives us action scenes that look like an Xbox game, with the elves leaping up and down and standing on the heads of the dwarves (who are in barrels) while they fight the orcs.


The real tragedy of this film is that it did have a great deal of potential. The set for Laketown, for example, is beautifully done. The scenes there had the same richness that I have previously admired in Jackson's work, with the wonderful little touches of people all around going about their daily lives. It is unfortunate that this richness was not also paired with some depth of characterisation.

This could have created a real sense of Laketown being an actual place inhabited by real people, and of course a central part of the next film will be the attack against Laketown by the dragon Smaug. It would have been interesting to have had a number of well-developed characters in Laketown, all of whose lives will be threatened in the coming attack. Instead, we only ever see one family, Bard and his three children, for any length of time, and Smaug's coming attack on Laketown is more likely to feel like an attack against the Daily Planet building in Metropolis (we worry that Lois Lane might be hurt, but really don't give a shit about all those random extras) than like the attack against the Twin Towers in New York.

To summarise, it is probably not worth your while to watch The Desolation of Smaug in the cinema. Save your money and your time, and wait for the DVD to be released in a few months. Or better still, wait for your brother-in-law to buy it and then borrow it for a few days.


  1. Great !!
    I really enjoy your style and the level of your critical sense !
    I've decided to "save my money" some times ago because I didn't like the first movie.
    What's the more interesting here is your parallel point of view of a Tolkien's fan and a "simple" movies lover.
    Like I've read in a french forum "the LoTR trilogy could have been worth, when we see the Hobbit trilogy".
    P.J. is definitively not a good film maker, he's just a money-maker like he cynically admits himself !
    Thanks ! I don't feel alone....

  2. Thanks for your review !
    It's actually really hard to find good review on this "film" (is it??) due to the Warner propaganda...
    I'm french too and negatives critics starts to point out.
    This mean the desolation of Smaug is really bad ;)

    PS : For the barrels sequence, not a lot of people even remember that Orcs are not supose to stay into the daylight because of the stupid action scene ^^

    1. Yes there is a lot of propaganda from Warner Brothers on this film. For my part, I do not take any review that talks about the ending being a 'cliffhanger' seriously.

      However, you can find a lot of interesting reviews on the Tolkien fan websites. I would recommend one called the Barrow-Downs, lots of interesting opinions there.

    2. Ok ! Thank you I didn't know that one ;)

  3. Why is it that Poms cant handle the jandle when it comes to colonists doing a better job with their national IP than they can... maybe its just that they spend too much time moaning their tits off to do anything constructive beyond Coro and that tard hack time travelling Dr of theirs.

    1. I agree: it's annoying when somebody turns up at a blog just to have a whinge. >;)

  4. I came here via your link at the FoD. Nice review! Just the kind of bumbling 'akshun' and missteps I expected from PJ, given what he did in LotR on King Kong. Personally I think he's had all this success and fame by proxy: sandwiched as he is between classic stories and great concept and effects artists. I'd like to see how far the wunderkind topples from his throne if he goes back to producing his own stories. (Braindead and The Frighteners... yawn)

    I'm particularly not surprised to hear that 'token chick' and Legolas turned out just as I though they might.

    1. Thank you for commenting! (I'm guessing that you are Vermis from the FoD?)

      My wife and I have been re-watching 'An Unexpected Journey' on DVD and I think you really have a good point about his 'success by proxy'. The best parts seem to be when Peter Jackson has the characters speaking lines straight from the book (perhaps with minor modifications), as in the scene with Gandalf and Bilbo outside Bag End at the beginning of the movie.

  5. Tauriel is wasted potential. The concept of the character isn't bad: a military captain who sees the world differently from her king. But the filmmakers executed it so poorly, and added a completely ridiculous and unbelievable romance. What's frustrating is that with some changes, she could've been a great character, but now she is nothing more than a pretty killing machine.