A Bad Case of Prequelitis “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro

Directed by Peter Jackson

New Zealand, United Kingdom, and USA, 2013

When I sat down to watch The Desolation of Smaug I couldn’t get the words I had written about the last installment out of my head. “While there is plenty to debate about the quality of the film as a whole, the more interesting debate is how the spirit of the movie poses a larger problem to its quality than any other individual element.” I hoped desperately that The Desolation of Smaug would be a better film than An Unexpected Journey, as Josh Spiegel wrote in his review. However, where the first film had a tonal conflict between being a prequel or an adaptation, this film demonstrates why the prequel content of this series lessens their quality.

There are three ways that Desolation offers a prequel to the Lord of the Rings rather than just an adaptation of The Hobbit. The first is in the little things. Small references to the following films are ubiquitous in Desolation: re-quoting, “Kingsfoil? It’s a weed,” the presence of the Prancing Pony Inn, Legolas’ presence, Gloin showing Legolas a picture of young Gimli, and the naming of Sting. These are small parts of the film but they are reminiscent of another prequel trilogy and its issues in relation to the original films.

In the Star Wars prequel trilogy, George Lucas did everything he could to make connections to every little smidgen of detail in the original trilogy. There were small things like the funeral by fire and images of the Death Star, but then there were appearances of C3P0, Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, Bail Organa, Boba Fett, and the Clone army. C3P0’s is the worst of these because there is no reason for his inclusion as an invention of Anakin’s. Like a twisted and reversed Chekov’s Gun, everything that appears in the original trilogy has to appear in the prequels: it is lazy foreshadowing to reward the fans of the series for being able to spot the glaringly obvious references.

c3p0

Lazy foreshadowing is a good description of the problems here and goes to the more egregious symptoms of prequelitis. Tolkien had a masterful handle on foreshadowing. Despite not having the full story of The Lord of the Rings while writing The Hobbit, there are moments where he hints at the other troubles in Middle Earth. The ring, the business Gandalf has to do halfway through the book; these are unobtrusive moments of foreshadowing to Sauron and the eventual plot of Lord of the Rings.

What Jackson does in The Hobbit is take all of that subtlety and make it explicit. The tale of the Necromancer is more than just a passing reference as it is in the novel. It is explicit foreshadowing to the future films that Gandalf at one point sees the famous image of the physical Sauron (from the opening scene of the Lord of the Rings) develop into the Eye of Sauron. And in case that wasn’t clear enough, he then (very dramatically) says Sauron’s name. It’s lazy because it moves from the terrain of foreshadowing into direct self-reference, hitting the audience over the head with the message.

The final problem with Desolation is best described by Christopher Orr in his review for The Atlantic, “The Hobbit 2 is bad fan fiction.” The worst fan fictions out there are the stories that are more than just referential to the source material. The biggest sin is that rather than writing new stories, authors essentially adapt the archetype of the source and just place their story over it. The novels didn’t do this, but the film is filled with these kinds of alterations and allusions, in particular to Fellowship of the Ring. When the dwarves escape from the orcs in barrels down a river, it is entirely reminiscent of the end of Fellowship when Orcs are chasing the fellowship down the river. At one point, to escape their chasers, the group takes a barge through the mist, bringing to mind the huckleberry ferry, also from Fellowship. The owner of that barge, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), is eerily similar in both tone and look to Aragorn. Finally, while in the Lonely Mountain running from Smaug, Bilbo and the dwarves come across a room filled with dead dwarves just as the fellowship did in Moria. While additions of the likes of Legolas and his elf friend Tauriel seem frivolous, it is in their similarity to the Aragorn/Arwen relationship that cause groans from the audience.

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Rather than sticking to a strict adaptation of the novel, Peter Jackson has added his boyish fan fiction to the series, stretching the length with content that does nothing but lessen the quality of a great story. This prequel trilogy should be held to the same standard as the Star Wars prequels. While they aren’t horrid films, they are lacking the spirit of their sources while trying to emulate their sources. And that conflict in tone and spirit, makes for movies that just don’t feel right.

– Mynt Marsellus



By Mynt Marsellus

I’m currently studying at Wilfrid Laurier University in Southwestern Ontario, and my passion for film took a serious turn in 2012 when I started keeping a list of every film I had ever seen. That translated into creating my own film site as well as entering the film studies program at my school. I’ve been trying my hand at screenwriting but my real calling for writing is reviews and analysis and now I write the Stolen Stories column here at Sound on Sight. My favourite films include Apocalypse Now, Sideways, Blade Runner, Lost in Translation, The Departed, Le Bonheur, and Vive L'Amour while my favourite film makers are Sofia Coppola, David Fincher, and Agnes Varda. Check out my site at queermyntcritic.wordpress.com and follow me on twitter @queermyntcritic.

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6 Responses to A Bad Case of Prequelitis “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

  1. Mary December 14, 2013 at 11:08 pm

    Good review – although Tolkien actually did write the meeting of Thorin and Gandalf in Bree (it’s in the appendices). Sting was also named in “The Hobbit”, pretty much exactly the way it happens in the movie. And the dwarves do escape the eleven king’s dungeons in barrels. The thing I could have done without was all the extra fighting and chasing in that scene. I liked Tauriel – I really did! – but the addition of a morgul blade and Athelas were too much. In other words, I do see your point.

    I enjoyed the movie, and even liked many (not all) of Jackson’s additions, but my favorite parts were when he stuck closest to the book.

    Reply
    • Mynt Marsellus December 16, 2013 at 9:18 pm

      It’s true about the meeting of Thorin and Gandalf in Bree (I can’t recall if it was specified that it was in the Prancing Pony and you are right about Sting’s naming so thanks for the correction.

      I didn’t say that the barrel scene didn’t happen in the book though, I only said the way it was done seemed eerily similar to the river scene (particularly with the Orcs chasing them) from Fellowship.

      I’m with you on Tauriel. Evangeline Lily did an excellent job with that character and I kind of wish she had played Arwen in the originals (although I’m not decided on that). But that comparison bothered me. It was an addition that just called back to LOTR instead of adding very much to the story (or leaving the way it was).

      Reply
  2. Dave December 14, 2013 at 10:15 pm

    You’re right on several points – the obvious references to the original trilogy of which I think “Kingsfoil?!” is the most egregious example, the effort to tie everything together, so on.

    That said, I didn’t hear groans from the audience during scenes involving Legolas and Tauriel. Similarities to Aragorn/Arwen aside, the folks in the theater seemed more interested in two elves performing a beautiful dance of death through hordes of orcs.

    And I think Mr. Orr is a bit off. While Jackson could be accused of “sticking with what worked” a bit in some of those scenes, the barrel scene was wonderful and went far beyond the river scene in Fellowship. I see them as quite different.

    Reply
    • Mynt Marsellus December 16, 2013 at 9:13 pm

      Oh I heard groans in my theatre from the Legolas/Tauriel bit, particularly when Legolas’s father tells her it won’t happen. Also, I’ll clarify that the barrel riding scene is different (I would hesitate to say better) than the river scene in Fellowship. But in the context of the film with all the other similarities (another I forgot to mention was Tauriel’s healing scene) I couldn’t overlook how they fel.

      Reply
  3. Dan O. December 14, 2013 at 1:44 pm

    While the dialogue and writing itself is absolutely fine, I felt some scenes dragged on a little too much, giving this movie a longer feel than it needed to have. Even though it did clock in at a near-three hours. Good review Mynt.

    Reply
    • Mynt Marsellus December 14, 2013 at 2:26 pm

      Agreed, I actually kind of liked a lot of the film. It was over long but there was a lot to like. The last half hour in particular was great (and the ending was beautifully poignant).

      Reply

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