These words are breathed in the dying moments of the second installation of The Hobbit adaptation, The Desolation of Smaug. Inevitably, this is the question that true Tolkien fans expect Peter Jackson’s adaptation team to be asking of themselves right now. I would encourage true Tolkien fans to get angry with me in the comments below. The truth is, I quite liked this film. As a fantasy adventure that took some imaginative risks, it was a cinematic treat.
Still, given the ominous quote in the title, I thought it would be appropriate in my review to ask what Jackson has really done.
With the exception of the hint in title, I will not be providing any spoilers here. Indeed, I wish I were. Some of the greatest parts of the film are in the trailers that leaked out through 2013. This, I think, demonstrates the lack of elegance in The Hobbit trilogy of films. There seems to be less discretion with how far the adapters should go than there was with The Lord of the Rings.
It comes down to the fundamental problem I identified in my review of the first film, An Unexpected Journey. With The Lord of the Rings, Jackson was adapting an epic book for an epic film. With The Hobbit, he is translating a fairy tale to an epic film. It is a much different task. And while I enjoy these films as they are, people expecting a faithful adaptation are always going to be disappointed. Adaptation is not enough. It requires translation.
I will give two examples that are, I think, linked.
The first place where something is lost in translation is in the mythic foundation for the story. Do your remember Galadrial’s voice echoing in the darkness of the theatre when The Fellowship of the Ring was released? An elvish voice:
The world is changed.
I feel it in the water.
I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air.
Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.
It began with…
Instead, in An Unexpected Journey, we begin with a stock “old man setting the record straight” scene. It is a very bad one minute of film before it launches into a brilliant vision of Erebor. But notice the transition: Bilbo says, “It began long ago, in a land far away….” It is a fairy tale beginning. Yet we know the film series cannot end, “and they lived happily ever after.” It is an epic. It will end with victory in the midst of great loss. It has to.
This is where Peter Jackson falls between the stools of fairy tale and epic. While the structure of both LOTR and The Hobbit are fairy tales—there and back again tales—neither of the movie trilogies are. As The Fellowship of the Ring begins epically with a mythic voice, a Creation and Fall narrative, that is the voice that is needed in An Unexpected Journey.
Instead, Jackson tries to backfill the mythic elements in the first two Hobbit films, adding small montages that echo legend and history. But “Genesis” is at the beginning of the Bible for a reason: all epic tales need an epic beginning, and usually a Creation myth that requires a messianic redeemer. In The Lord of the Rings, the messianic tale is a struggle against great evil that threatens to crush all that is beautiful. In The Hobbit trilogy, it is revenge against a monster. Jackson fails in the mythic elements.
Which leads to the second translation problem in the new films, that of motivation. Perhaps it was meant to be a show of restraint, but behind the motivation of “revenge” against Smaug the Destroyer is really a story or Exile and Return. Or at least it could be. Slowly, the dwarfish heartache for the Lonely Mountain builds to its first misty vision four hours after the tale begins. Smaug is a pretender, a tyrant. Smaug is Babylon.
I think the “Exile and Return” story is a real missed opportunity for Jackson in these new films. The biblical story comes down to these moments: Creation, Fall, Covenant, Exile and Return, and Redemption. This is the biblical story because it is the human story. In The Lord of the Rings we have the Creation, Fall, and Redemption elements; The Hobbit in translation to screen could be an Exile and Return story based upon a prophetic Covenant narrative. Does Peter Jackson fail here because he misunderstands mythmaking, or because he cannot understand J.R.R. Tolkien’s worldview? I’m just not sure.
I am getting back to the mythic problems in Jackson’s Hobbit. But I am also looking toward the question of motivation. In translating from fairy tale to epic there has to be a shift in motivation. In a fairy tale, it is good enough that dwarves want gold or revenge or homecoming. It is good enough that good guys fight bad guys even when the good guys are at war with one another. It is a different kind of a tale.
But in an epic we need deep reasons, motivations rooted in the myths that structure the tale. I feel these motivations are lacking here in the new films.
Some examples. Thorin is a puzzle to me. I don’t see the conversion in his motivation from homecoming—return from Exile—to this arkenstone-lust and tribal hatred that dominates The Desolation of Smaug. More interaction with Balin and Bilbo was needed for us to see these shifts in Thorin. This is a concern I had in the beginning: how can Jackson show the gold lust well?
One of the ways he does this is by paralleling the luring of the arkenstone with the luring of the One Ring. I think this is a mistake for three reasons. First, the arkenstone will bring reconciliation, while the ring only brings dispersion. Second, it means that the ring has to begin its luring of Bilbo so much earlier than is anticipated in The Lord of the Rings films. It creates a discontinuity within the world Jackson has created.
And finally, it results in the confusion of Bilbo’s own motivation. There are some good moments, where Bilbo acts based on motivations of duty and personal morality and friendship (and a hobbitish kind of courage). But when Bilbo meets the arkenstone, many things are confused. He risks life and limb to do his duty, but it is not clear why, in the end, he does not. Is it the lure of the arkenstone? Is it the lure of the ring? Is it the concern that Bilbo has for faltering Thorin? I’m just not sure.
And there is more confusion on the motivation front. Why is Saruman faltering? Is Galadriel a rebel? All of a sudden Thorin is on the run from Sauron’s hitmen and Gandalf has a crisis of conscience over his meddling in Middle Earth. Why is Bard helping? Why is Bard not helping? Why is Bard in jail? Why is Bard running through town with a black arrow when there is no threat just yet? Why does Smaug leave the battle when he does? Most of all, there are times that the inner motivations of the good characters look much the same as the motivation of Azog the Defiler.
You may be wondering how I could say that I liked this film. It is true that I think that The Hobbit films fail as epic films, and fail as a translation of Tolkien’s fairy tale.
However, The Desolation of Smaug is a great fantasy adventure. It is filled with bright humour, beautiful scenery, characters that catch my attention, and a distinct goal that has me peaking around the corners as the camera pans. Sure, there are some costume seams running up the backs of monsters. The dimensions of time and space are paced awkwardly in the series. And Thranduil, the Elf King of Mirkwood is like David Bowie’s long lost elf-child from Labrynth.
But, despite these problems, it really is great fun.
In particular, I love the battle scenes. Elves are incredible fighters, better than a faerie version of Bruce Lee. The imaginative risks in choreography take a Disneyland barrel-river scene and turns it into the highlight of the film. And despite my puzzlement, I really do like Tauriel the elf-lady. She helps create tension when it is tempting to forget the role that elves play in the tale.
And I do like Smaug. After the Eragon adaptation, I thought I could never bear another dragon on film. But Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice with a visually stunning worm of misery is a great combination.
So, what has Peter Jackson done here? He has certainly not created an adaptation that will satisfy many Tolkien Society members. No doubt they are calling this film “The Desolation of Tolkien.” And I don’t think he has done a great job of translating The Hobbit into an epic film, despite what I think is a superb performance by Martin Freeman.
What he has done, despite all flaws and hesitations, is create what is a very good fantasy adventure series inspired by The Hobbit. And he has improved. The Desolation of Smaug is undoubtedly superior to An Unexpected Journey. I will watch it a second time to really know for sure, but I am quite excited about the last film, There and Back Again.