In my review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey this time last year, I noted that it’s important to remember that this isn’t Lord of the Rings. That’s not to say that the films shouldn’t be compared to each other, they should, and The Hobbit falls very short, but the stakes, the scale, and the drama just aren’t going to be anywhere near the level of LOTR. Approaching this second instalment in The Hobbit series, it’s again worth keeping that in mind and lowering one’s expectations accordingly. The story ins’t going to become world-altering between instalments.
In that review I also made a prediction that the second film would end at around the book’s conclusion, and that the third film would be made up of mostly new material. As I settled in to watching The Desolation of Smaug, it soon became apparent that this was not going to be the case.
The pace is much faster this time around however, after a brief but welcome flashback opens the film, we cut straight to the action as Bilbo and the band of dwarves continue their quest to the mountain.
The complaint most frequently aimed and Peter Jackson and his trilogy of Hobbit movies is simply that it is that; a trilogy. I’ve barely encountered a single review or commentary on either film so far that hasn’t brought this up as a fault. The common consensus seems to be that there is no justification in taking such a slight children’s fantasy novel and making an eight-plus hour film series from it. Now there’s certainly a case to be made for that, but consider this:
There have been numerous cases of novels being turned into TV series of considerable length. Here are a few recent examples; seasons of HBO’s True Blood are (or at least began), being based on single entries in the book series that inspired it. All the books are pretty short, yet yielded 10 hours’ worth of TV. The same could be said for Dexter’s first season, or Band of Brothers, or the BBC’s Pride & Prejudice, or recently Game of Thrones (though those books are admittedly much longer, only half of one was used for 10 hours of season 3).
No one appears to see reason to complain when a book is expanded into a lengthy TV series, but will eagerly do so when a film series does the exact same thing. Sitting through The Desolation of Smaug, I really couldn’t help but wonder if it would have been much better received had it been on TV. The film itself does indeed possess a notably episodic structure, there’s the bit with the shape-shifter, then the bit with the spiders, the wood elves, the lake town, the mountain, and so on. Chopping it up into weekly 30-40 minute segments would have audiences surely clamouring for the next episode?
I’m not honestly trying to make a case that this series should have been a TV series, just struggling with this endlessly repeated criticism that it was a mistake in principle to make three films. It could have worked perfectly, but sadly Hobbit 2 doesn’t prove to.
Now, none of the sections of The Desolation of Smaug could be called “bad” though, there’s great stuff that happens in all of them, but the film unfortunately does feel like it’s too long. There isn’t any particular moment that stands out as something that should have been cut out, but there are still some parts that could have been removed or shortened without hurting the overall narrative. Personally, I would have opted to lose the bits when Gandalf goes off on his own and meets the guano-garnished Radagast again, as they serve most obviously as precursors to LOTR, and giving everyone blatant reminders of those superior films might not be the best of ideas.
While the structure might lend itself well to television, Jackson’s style is none-more cinematic. As before, his camerawork is often astonishing, and he crafts some tremendous set-pieces. A chase scene as the dwarves escape down the river in barrels while pursued by orcs and elves is comfortably one of the best scenes in any film this year, and accentuated by a long unbroken take that takes all around the river as action surrounds it on all sides.
Jackson also reminds us that he used to be a horror director, with a terrifying early scene involving some giant spiders, not to mention the wonderfully gothic design of the Lake Town, and even gets in a bit of the horror-comedy that made his name with the gleefully numerous orc decapitations.
The film takes us to several locations not before seen in Middle Earth, including the aforementioned Lake Town, the home of the wood elves, and the Lonely Mountain itself, all of which are great to see. He also expands and adds in some new characters, giving a lot of depth to Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and a much needed decent female character in Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). Legolas also shows up, reminding us that Orlando Bloom used to be popular; he does a lot of similar archery antics to LOTR but does clearly look older. Of course then there is Smaug himself (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), while part one only teased images of the great dragon, part two presents him in all his glory, and he is a sight to behold. The sheer size of Smaug feels like nothing we’ve seen before in this series, and he’s surely the best depiction of a dragon on film yet. There is certainly no clear distinction in quality between the elements taken from Tolkien and those Jackson and his co-writers have concocted.
In expanding the story, this middle chapter does also lose some of its focus on Bilbo. It would be fair to say that Oakenshield: The Desolation of Smaug would be a more appropriate title considering the film’s content. Thorin is the lead for most of the film, with Bilbo only really taking over for the final showdown with Smaug, and he’s just not as compelling a character.
The film also suffers badly from ‘middle chapter syndrome’, even after everything we go though in the final act, the film doesn’t ‘end’ in any conclusive sense. When it stops, they might as well have put a big ‘To Be Continued’ card on the screen. As the credits begin to roll, the film can’t help but feel frustratingly unsatisfactory, something that The Two Towers skilfully avoided.
Jackson is undoubtedly an incredible filmmaker, and his heart is really in this. I do not believe that he’s cynically milking Middle Earth for all it’s worth, I think he sincerely loves this world and wants to explore every detail of it he can, seeing as he’s been given the chance. Some artists can just lose it when success results in them having free reign to do whatever they want with no-one questioning it, and he hasn’t done that, but unfortunately, the Hobbit films, and that is what they are, could still do with some editing. Serial TV drama allows you the luxury of taking your time in a way that cinema just doesn’t.
It looks like Jackson’s going to save all of the best stuff for film number three then, and hopefully, that will prove to be satisfying in a way that these first two films haven’t quite managed as standalones. Then maybe a couple of years in the future, I can watch the Hobbit one hour or so a night over the course of a week, and maybe then I’ll find little to complain about at all. It is after all, always a pleasure to be back in Jackson’s Middle Earth.