Caution: this review contains spoilers (but only if you haven’t read the book).
When critiquing a movie adaptation of a book, what exactly should a critic be evaluating? Should they concentrate on how closely the film follows the book and how honest it is to the source material? Or should the film be judged on its own merits, leaving the book out of the equation? It’s a question that different people will have conflicting opinions on, and I believe that a healthy amount of criticism is needed in both aspects.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug shines when it follows its book counterpart. The action starts almost from the word go and rarely lets up, with new and exciting situations bringing Tolkien’s landscape to life in vivid detail. An Unexpected Journey, last year’s first instalment of the Hobbit trilogy, followed almost exactly in the footsteps of the first Lord of the Rings movie, The Fellowship of the Ring: the company start in the Shire, move to Rivendell and then attempt to cross the Misty Mountains before having to travel under them. However, The Desolation of Smaug immediately sets off into uncharted territory.
The first major set piece is that of Mirkwood, roughly twenty minutes into the two hour and forty minute runtime. It is here, beneath the gloomy boughs of ancient, hallucinogenic trees, that Peter Jackson excels himself. A director whose passion has always been horror, with his first two films breaking boundaries of good (or bad) taste, Jackson knows how to create an atmosphere. The spider sequence is completely terrifying and a scene where Bilbo (Martin Freeman), under the influence of the One Ring, brutally murders an arachnid-type creature is possibly one of the most disturbing sequences to come out of a Tolkien adaptation. Primarily a children’s book, it’s hard to argue a case for such an excess of violence, but the spirit of the chapter ‘Flies and Spiders’ is certainly complete in the rest of it, talking spiders and all.
After the company are captured by the Mirkwood Elves, we are introduced to two new characters: Thranduil, King of the Mirkwood Realm (Lee Pace), and Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), Captain of the Guard. While the first is portrayed by Pace brilliantly – a cold, calculating king who is sly in his words and masterful in his ruling – the latter is a character completely made up for the movie. Tauriel has caused much debate among Tolkien fans since her first announcement, and I regret to inform that she wasn’t pulled off particularly well. I appreciate the need for a strong female presence in a blockbuster, and as an action heroine, she’s fantastic. With no mercy for the spawn of Sauron, she hacks and slashes, somersaults and twirls, and fires hundreds of arrows per second – she’s a force to be reckoned with. However, Tauriel falls in love with the most Elf-like of the Dwarves, Kili (Aiden Turner), while Orlando Bloom’s Legolas looks on in apparent heartbreak. It’s hammy, distracting, unnecessary and most importantly, un-Tolkien. The second time I watched the film, I felt the need to leave the screen at several Tauriel and Kili scenes – they’re written like absolutely awful fan-fiction.
After a delightfully silly river-rapid chase with Dwarves in barrels, we emerge in Esgaroth, or Laketown, where both Stephen Fry as the vile Master and Luke Evans as Bard the Bowman give exceptional performances. Bard in particular is an example of where Jackson and the two other writers (Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) have succeeded in successfully expanding Tolkien’s novel, without butchering the spirit. In the book, Bard is a character who is never explored in detail; in fact, he pretty much turns up just to kill Smaug. This simply does not work on screen for such a major player in the story, as certain requirements must be established, and the writers of The Desolation of Smaug have breathed life into a character who previously had none.
The Gandalf (Ian McKellen) sub-plot taken from the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings is somewhat of a mixed bag. It still comes across as unnecessary, and a confrontation with the Necromancer (Benedict Cumberbatch) actually contradicts Tolkien, who never allowed Gandalf to match Sauron in combat. However, we must take into consideration that this is Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkien’s work, and that the same rules may not apply. Despite this, the actual confrontation is impressive and working the image of Sauron into the fiery, all-seeing eye is a work of design genius. A note should be mentioned on Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) who greatly frustrated me in the first movie. Here, he is relegated to a character of few lines, which is a relief, but the dreaded bunny-sled still makes a brief and unwelcome appearance.
When Smaug (once again, Benedict Cumberbatch) is finally revealed in his full glory, after a ten minute sequence of absolute tension, he does not disappoint. Without a doubt the most impressive computer generated character ever to be born on screen, he steals the show in an instant. What follows is an incredibly long and intricate action sequence completely made up for the film that feels slightly out of place, yet it is so totally enthralling that it doesn’t even matter.
With the controversial decision to split the Hobbit adaptation into three parts, the first in the trilogy felt overlong at times. This is not the case with The Desolation of Smaug. From beginning to end, the pace is fantastic and there is barely a pause for breath (although some would perhaps fault this). However, the film does suffer from a lack of structure. The ‘middle’ chapter of The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, had a definite beginning, middle and end, thanks to it being adapted from an entire book. The Desolation of Smaug, on the other hand, feels ‘all middle’. The climax, while spectacular, doesn’t actually feel like a climax and I think the general public’s opinion on the cliffhanger ending can be perfectly summed up by the exclamation of an eight year old boy sitting next to me – ‘NO!’
The Desolation of Smaug contains moments so utterly brilliant that when the flaws do make an appearance, it makes them ever so much more disappointing. However, when it does work, it’s a fast paced thrill-ride that doesn’t come to a halt – even in the closing credits. It’s thanks to to Peter Jackson that fantasy films like this perform so well at the box-office and this is the creation of a filmmaker at the absolute top of his game. Roll on next December.