I have just returned from The Desolation of Smaug and I bring both good and bad news based on what Peter Jackson has done with John Ronald Ruel Tolkien’s beloved adventure, The Hobbit.
The bad news it that Peter Jackson thinks that I and the other audience members are idiots, addicted to pointless violence, special effects, and incapable of subtlety or quietness in stories. This means that a mostly gentle travel quest has become an endless wilderness battle that alternates between sweeping chase scenes and sudden ninja fights. There are forest ninja fights, dwarf ninja fights, orc ninja fights, city ninja fights, every kind of ninja fight one could imagine. Anyone who has seen the previews knows that we have to have the dwarfs’ heads stick out of the barrels because we are too foolish to remember that the dwarfs are in the barrels just because we watched them go into them one scene before, never mind that anyone who has tried to keep afloat in a barrel knows that barrels float on their side, a sure way to drown in an open container in the water.
The good news is that when Peter Jackson treats us like idiots we are in good company. He has “fixed” so many things about Tolkien’s novel that the plot can only be recognized by the title sequence and the order that bad guys appear (barring constant orc-based ninja fights, none of which occurred in the original story which had three open fights if you count the spiders). Tolkien’s story was deeply rooted in Anglo-Saxon and Norse lore, neither of which survive onto the screen outside of set design. The rules of the fairytale are set aside, so instead of losing the path because they disobey (rule number one in fairy stories) they just get lost because they are not able to follow the path.
The rules of hospitality run deep in Tolkien’s mythological sources, but Jackson either doesn’t understand them or discarded them completely, which takes all sense and reality out of the encounter with Beorn and the woodland elves. In the original story when the dwarfs observed the rules of hospitality and guest-right they prospered in Rivendell, with Beorn, and at Laketown. When they disregarded it with the wood elves they suffered. Take that away and the situations make heroes seem insane or villainous
Tolkien’s story had lessons and morals that Jackson completely misses. They’re either completely abandoned or replaced by Jackson’s own telling atheist semi-socialist worldviews. Laketown in the book is a humble but solid Anglo-Saxon community under a leader who claims no special noble title. Tolkien had no real problem with the gentry. In his letters to his son Christopher he pointed out that having a aristocrat over you might not be the best thing for the aristocrat but it was a pretty good thing for our own spiritual well-being. I think he meant humility and service as Christian virtues. In Jackson’s hands Laketown is a squalid slum where a tyrannical and useless leader deliberately oppresses his people. They have Nazi-style gate passes, for crying out loud, in a town with no trade, no nearby human colony, and Tolkien and every other historian worth beans would tell you it was irrelevant because such communities had everyone knowing everyone, and everyone else’s business. Bard of lake town cannot be a humble and loyal guardsman, part of the political system who remembers the old ways. He has to be a revolutionary advocate for change (they even get ‘hope and change’ woven into the dialogue in one of the more disgusting political cheap shots inserted into the film), a lawbreaker and single parent, basically everything Tolkien thought was lesser instead of greater. A pathetic parody of Wormwood shows up in Laketown as well. Forget the trial in front of the town’s Master with peaceful wood-elves (there are no peaceful elves in this film, only contentious, haughty, violent, and amorous elves).
Then, take every heroic action that Bilbo does, every critical moment of his, and make it inevitable or put it in the hands of someone else. Who finds Smaug’s weakness? It’s common knowledge in Bard’s family. Who fights off the spiders? Long gone is “Flee, we are no match for Sting” from the spiders’ mouths as Bilbo becomes a hero. Bilbo has already become a hero in the (totally made up) fight at the end of the last novel so we do away with everything clever or heroic from him for the entire film. You know, the trilogy based on The Hobbit? Everyone gets to be a hero but the actual hobbit. The dwarfs, elves, and orcs are ninja who never get sick, bounce back from every injury, and perform combat feats that make Cirque do Soleil performers look like clod-hopping farm children. The hobbit is there to observe and get lucky from time to time. Now that the big secret of the film is in the mouths of junior high background characters, Bilbo can fail all Jackson wants.
Then there is faith and tradition, two things that atheist Jackson cannot comprehend. Bard’s upcoming heroism isn’t based on his communion with nature, but because of old military technology from the dwarfs. The dwarfs aren’t just lucky, they get another completely made-up action sequence half an hour long that comes off as a medieval reinterpretation of MacGuyver’s first season.
Peter Jackson should be tarred and feathered for what he has done in this film, not because the film in itself is bad for an action flick. The action is entertaining. The visuals are great. The acting is as good as one can get with bit of Tolkien’s genius threaded through a sausage grinder of Hollywood cliches. A forbidden love affair? Really? Wounded dwarfs abandoned by their party?
But, if you are illiterate, have never read The Hobbit, or have a superhuman ability to ignore the fact that this film claims to be part of the most revered bit of fantasy ever written, you will have lots of fun. There are pretty ninja fights, an animated dragon, and dwarf ninja MacGuyvers. If you like me know and love Tolkien, the enjoyment might be lessened by the recurring desire to put your foot through the screen or throw things in the theater.
For example… do you remember the only person who can use athelas to heal? WRONG! But what is one of two key prophecies of the future king when we need a mechanism for a totally invented artificial stock Hollywood romance?!
Jackson should be ashamed. I am furious.
But even more so I am saddened because I think most of the uneducated and uninformed will enjoy this and never know what they’re really missing.