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.
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.
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