Adaptation is simultaneously The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’s greatest strength and most glaring weakness.
Desolation is the second of three films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s children’s book and Lord of the Rings prequel The Hobbit, following An Unexpected Journey and preceding next year’s There and Back Again.
When it was announced that The Hobbit would be divided into a full trilogy of movies many fans found themselves questioning exactly how a book shorter than any one individual volume of Lord of the Rings was going to be stretched out into the cinematic length of the entire combined Rings saga.
With An Unexpected Journey there were hints of answers; lengthy action set pieces and the extremely expanded role of antagonist Azog the Pale Orc. And of course, lots and lots of walking. But Desolation answers the question loud and clear. For better or worse, director Peter Jackson and company are just going to make stuff up.
There are three primary narrative threads weaving through The Desolation of Smaug; Bilbo Baggins’ journey with his frat of dwarf buddies, Gandalf wizarding and wandering about and the internal plight of the Mirkwood Elves. The first is interpreted from the source material, the second takes massive liberties expanding on implications from the text and the third is very, very expensive fan fiction.
But that isn’t to say that the new material Peter Jackson and his cowriters have devised for The Hobbit films is all nonsense. As I said before, it’s both a strength and a weakness.
One might be thrown off to see Legolas shooting and swinging and flipping about a young Bilbo and friends considering he has no place in The Hobbit. One might be additionally thrown off by his companion Tauriel, who has no place in any of Tolkien’s works.
No amount of finagling or squinting is going to make Legolas and Tauriel’s place in The Hobbit any more canonical. You either have to get over that or hate large portions of the movie. Which, I would argue, is the purists’ loss.
I was initially quite skeptical of Legolas appearing in The Hobbit for no reason other than I’ve read the book and knew he wasn’t in it. As such I decided to write it off as desecration, as is my want to do as someone who claims to like something.
But then Legolas showed up and did a fancy bow and arrow trick and I immediately remembered my old shield-skateboarding buddy from The Two Towers. And make no mistake, Legolas doesn’t skateboard down a flight of stairs on a shield while slaying orcs like a boss in the books.
No Legolas isn’t in The Hobbit. But he’s a fun character and his presence in The Desolation of Smaug feels more like an interesting “what if” scenario than a shoehorned gimmick.
Of course accepting Tauriel, Legolas’ maybe girlfriend/crush/girl-bro and the head of the Mirkwood Guard, played by Evangeline Lilly, was going to be significantly harder for me.
I’m familiar with Evangeline Lilly through her work on the television show Lost as the worst. I never warmed up to her character and as the only other performance of hers that I’d seen previously was Jeremy Renner’s maybe girlfriend/crush/girl-bro-baby-mama in, like, two minutes of Hurt Locker, I hadn’t quite warmed up to her as an actress either.
Tauriel is awesome and Evangeline Lilly is a badass. There should be more movies about a lady with a bow and arrow that goes around shooting people. Like, a whole trilogy worth. And maybe some books.
Lilly brings a much-needed feminine element to the overly-abundant masculinity in The Hobbit and her political and philosophical struggle with Legolas’ creepy dad-king is one of the film’s more endearing subplots. Though many have touted Thorin Oakenshield as the natural replacement for Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn in The Hobbit movies, I would argue Tauriel is a much closer fit. She’s an extremely capable underdog trying her best to fight the good fight.
Make no mistake, Legolas and Tauriel don’t make cameos in Desolation. Their characters are significant players in the film’s story and are poised to be major players in next year’s sequel as well. Feel free to hate, but when I got my head out of my ass and stopped whining about the two elves not being in the source material I ended up welcoming their presence in the movie.
Would that I could say the same for Gandalf.
In The Hobbit it’s understood that, for a time, Gandalf takes his leave of the dwarf expedition to deal with some wacky necromancer business. He’s gone for a bit and then he’s back, with some subtle implications of the Lord of the Rings trilogy to come. What exactly is Gandalf up to when he leaves Bilbo and company? Who knows?
I do. I know. Or at least I know what happens in The Desolation of Smaug.
I am steadfast in my opinion that Ian McKellen’s portrayal of Gandalf is one of the greatest roles of the 21st Century. And it’s been thirteen years, so, yeah. But after his plotline splits from the main story thread I found myself increasingly reluctant to return to it every time it came up.
Without getting into specifics, what is presented in the books as a mystery, a terrible nagging fear Gandalf spends decades confirming, is here essentially written out on a white board and presented to the Grey wizard with HD 4K clarity. Add to that ham-fisted misstep the fact that the climax of Gandalf’s arc in Desolation looks like it was ripped from a SyFy channel original movie and there are some pretty intense groans to be had.
If you’ve read anything else about The Desolation of Smaug you know that the titular dragon’s appearance in the third act of the movie is incredible. We’re talking comparable (not better than or even on par with, mind you, but comparable) to the T-Rex in Jurassic Park.
Which is a big deal.
There’s nothing I can say about Smaug that hasn’t been said already, so I’ll just extend my agreement that Smaug is a cinematic achievement in and of itself. At the end of the movie, love it or hate it, you’re going to have been impressed by Smaug and when the credits roll you’re not going to be thinking about elves or wizards. You’re going to be thinking about the dragon.
But dragon or no, Gandalf still spends most of Desolation tripping over shoddy story threads.
And Tauriel is still awesome.