THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
The way that Peter Jackson acted during the pre-production of The Hobbit his underhand union busting activities, his falsifications and half-truths on the matter and manipulation of New Zealand peoples pride about the films gave me cause to switch off him as a person in a major way. (See above-listed link for An Unexpected Journey for details). Even though Jacksons dishonesty is something that strikes close to home for me, I went in determined not to allow this to affect the viewing of The Desolation of Smaug. After all, as I recently argued on the issue of Orson Scott Card and Enders Game (2013), dislike of an author/filmmakers politics and personal views should not stand in the way of critically evaluating their works.
All of that said, I went into The Desolation of Smaug hopeful but came out heavily disappointed. Indeed, I would argue that The Desolation of Smaug is the weakest work that Peter Jackson has delivered under the Tolkien banner to date. More and more, The Hobbit trilogy is starting to feel like Peter Jacksons equivalent of the Star Wars prequels. Where George Lucas took nearly two decades to go from creating a trilogy of fan favourites to returning with a second trilogy where everything the fans had loved was drowned out by visual effects and the Lucasfilm empires obsession with marketing, Peter Jackson has done the same in under a decade. Jackson doesnt quite fail in the same way that Lucas did. Lucass failing was simply a misunderstanding of his fanbase, of thinking that the effects and toys were all that people wanted and somehow neglecting any of the warm character interplay, the sense of wonder and mythological arcs that drove his original trilogy. Jackson understands his fanbase only too well and has made a good deal of effort to give them more of exactly what they want more of Tolkiens world, more epic adventure, more visual effects wow, more endearingly likeable characters, the return of familiar characters and everything driven by a massively scaled plot where the destinies of a world and its different races play out against forces of ultimate evil.
The problem for Jackson is that all of this worked fine when it came to The Lord of the Rings where he was condensing a story that was originally published in three volumes. He and his co-writers were able to pare the text away to find the adventure at the core of the story and all of this worked perfectly well when delivered up as three films. The Hobbit, originally published by J.R.R. Tolkien as a childrens tale, is a single work that is four-and-a-half times smaller in size than the three Lord of the Rings books. However, this far slimmer work is being expanded out to fill three films each of around three hours running time in other words, it is being stretched out to fill as much material apiece as each of the The Lord of the Rings films. Jackson and his co-writers have padded the story out by ransacking some of J.R.R. Tolkiens other story fragments for filler. That and throwing in lots of fanservice where we see pieces from the original trilogy connecting up reappearances of characters like Legolas, Galadriel and Saruman, meeting Gimlis father, seeing the origins of Sauron. Even so, The Hobbit films are starting to feel over-extruded.
This feels particularly the problem when it comes to The Desolation of Smaug. For Tolkien, much of the book was essentially a picaresque where Bilbo and the party of dwarves have encounters with various peoples and creatures on their way to the Lonely Mountain. An Unexpected Journey spun a three hour movie out of the first six chapters of The Hobbit and likewise The Desolation of Smaug covers chapters 7-12 of the book. More so than any other section of the book, these six chapters are filled with brief picaresque adventures the meeting with Beorn, the journey through Mirkwood Forest and battle with the spiders, the encounter with the silvan elves and escape by barrel, the arrival in Lake Town. In the film, all of these are extruded out into major pieces of drama. The relatively brief encounter with the wood elves now includes an entire new character, Evangeline Lillys Tauriel, who becomes actively involved with the rest of the plot, even the suggestion of a romance with one of the dwarves (Aidan Turner), as well as the reappearance of Legolas (a much crosser and angrier Orlando Bloom). The most extruded section is the arrival at Lake Town, which in one of the films most imaginative touches has been designed as built on piles in the midst of the lake. In the book, this section simply involves the dwarves turning up and announcing their presence to the townspeople, while in the film there is much subterfuge sneaking around the town where their presence seems in defiance of the rule of the towns Master. The character of Bard is rewritten from what was simply a guardsman in the book to now become a bargeman and smuggler. The rest of the films story is padded out by Gandalf journey to encounter the Necromancer (scenes that only occur offstage in the book), who we learn is to become Sauron and has freed the Nazgûl.
The other problem is that none of these picaresque set-pieces seem terribly interesting. There is the constant feel that the story is having to inflate them into more than they otherwise are. The encounter with Beorn is rather flat we see him transform from bear into man and then nothing much happens, about all he does is outfit the party and give some advice; the encounter with the spiders is a re-run with the journey into Shelobs lair in The Return of the King but is surprisingly uneventful. Similarly too, the lurking around Lake Town seems filled with potential for revolt against the Master but never amounts to anything. The B plot with Gandalf off to visit the Necromancer is all build-up and much cryptic mumbling about what it means with very little actually happening. The other Lord of the Rings films were filled with set-pieces that made you go wow Gandalfs encounter with the Balrog in The Fellowship of the Rings, The Battle of Helms Deep in The Two Towers, even the rescue by the eagles in An Unexpected Journey. Here there is little that ever achieves that. We have to wait the better part of an hour before Peter Jackson gets his act into gear and finally provides an enjoyably fast-paced knockabout scene where the dwarves escape by barrel down the river in the midst of an orc attack. Here, you at last feel the film is finding some of the old Jackson magic.
There is, of course, the encounter with Smaug at the climax. The dragon is magnificently brought to life, especially the image of it emerging covered in molten gold. Jackson also draws out the encounter between it and Martin Freeman, lets it take up the better part of twenty minutes whereas it was a much briefer affair and happened slightly differently in the book. The film arrives at the damp squib of a cliffhanger with Martin Freeman going Oh no, what have we unleashed? as the dragon flies off to attack Lake Town. By contrast to other dragon films like Siegfried (1924), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Sleeping Beauty (1959), Dragonslayer (1981) and Fire & Ice (2008), it only feels as though it is drawing the expected climax of a film out ie. spreading it over two entire films into something far longer than it needs to be.
Peter Jacksons other films include:- the zero-budget splatter film Bad Taste (1988); the hilariously adult take on the Muppets Meet the Feebles (1990); the gore-drenched zombie comedy Braindead/Deadalive (1992); Heavenly Creatures (1994), based on a sensational true-life murder in 1950s New Zealand; the flop ghost comedy The Frighteners (1996); the highly successful The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003); his remake of King Kong (2005); and the afterlife film The Lovely Bones (2009). Jackson has also produced District 9 (2009) and The Adventures of Tintin (2011).