I saw Peter Jackson’s second film in the new Middle Earth trilogy, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug last night. Like his previous Tolkien-based movies, Jackson adds his own interpretations and deletes some superfluous material. Both have their benefits and drawbacks.
The biggest benefit of the new material is the addition of even more Elven grace, fluidity and ass-kicking, including Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel and Orlando Bloom reprising his role as Legolas. The biggest drawback is the further addition of Orcs and a subplot that makes absolutely no sense in the Lord of the Rings timeline.
Granted, I was about 13 when I first (and last) read The Hobbit, and I haven’t read most of the History of Middle Earth books, so my memory might be a bit hazy over the ensuing years, but I don’t recall Gandalf discovering ‘The Necromancer’ to be Sauron. As about 70 years pass between the events of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and Gandalf’s main purpose seems to be planning to defeat Sauron, Gandalf should have plenty of time to rally Men, Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits and all the other united races in preparing a stand. Instead, it’s left to the short period detailed in Lord of the Rings. With all of his arcane knowledge, I don’t see Gandalf ‘forgetting’ that Sauron has returned until he suddenly rediscovers the One Ring. Similarly, would no one notice the ever-increasing Orc numbers over this 70 years? If The Necromancer merely remained ‘The Necromancer’, and the world remained ignorant of his true presence, then it makes more sense. Since he doesn’t, however, it makes Gandalf and the whole of Middle Earth seem childish and foolish. Furthermore, by attempting to add in the gravitas of future events, Jackson takes away much of the fun nature that made The Hobbit such a lighthearted adventure.
Ignoring that, there is much to like about the movie. Richard Armitage does an excellent job playing the increasingly conflicted Thorin Oakenshield. He, more than Bilbo Baggins, acts as the fulcrum for the moral conflicts that arise. He refuses to let the lives of one Dwarf or one Hobbit interfere with his mission of reclaiming his ancestral homeland. He becomes so focused on his goal he forgets, or ignores, his duties and present circumstances. He is always looking towards the future, when he will be king, never enjoying the present. It is a portrayal that adds its own dimensions to the film, which alone would have been enough to carry it without the added subplot of Orcs.
However, without that subplot, we would not have been treated to the wonderful cast of Elven characters. Say what you will about the return of Legolas, it is Tauriel who truly shines. She is the full realisation of everything that Eowyn and Arwen weren’t: independent, strong, intelligent, thoughtful and powerful. Yes, the character may be brand-new and written especially for the movie, but it is a great addition. She is not mooning over a lost or unattainable love like Eowyn or Arwen were at times, she acknowledges that she would not be right for Legolas. She shows excellent tactical and military skills in almost her almost single-handed defeat of dozens of Orcs, yet is prescient enough to understand the value of life and the power of the (star)light. She is the perfect feminist character for the 21st century — equal to any man and not dependent on him.
The rest of the film was of course filled with equal amounts of action and humour, but sometimes dragged. I found myself bored on a few occasions, not because there was nothing happening on-screen, but because those sequences took away from the plot of the story. As the book is less than a third of the entire LotR trilogy, I am aware that Jackson has added a lot of filler. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. I don’t want to wait another year to get the final installment, for I’m sure I won’t see the movie again before it is released. But wait I will, wondering how they’re going to fill the next two-plus hour movie from such a small section of the book that’s actually left. I do know, however, that the extended ‘Director’s Cut’ versions that made LotR that much better most likely won’t do the same for this trilogy.