Last year, I wrote that the Hobbit trilogy ought to be judged as movies, not on how pure it is relation to the book. In fact, we should look at these films a bit more like we look at fan fiction. There will be creative embellishments, for sure, and our evaluation shouldn’t be “oh the book didn’t have it like that!” but rather “these changes and additions kept to the spirit of the original work.”
That said, here are my thoughts.
Bilbo and the Ring
Obviously, the One Ring is a major plot device in the Lord of the Rings. We know its evil corrupting power, and why it must be destroyed. This is a major theme in Lord of the Rings. That’s Lord of the Rings, not The Hobbit.
The ring was insidious because of how perfectly innocuous it appeared in the Hobbit. In the Hobbit, the ring is nothing more than a lucky find that turns Biblo invisible, which is a subtle nod to the kind of life that Hobbits want. However, in this adaptation Biblo doesn’t use the ring we would really expect him to: Such as keeping it on when he’s fighting the spiders. Or keeping it on when he’s having a chat with Smaug. There were too many scenes where Biblo was supposed to hide but didn’t in this film. I am actually afraid that he’s going to suit up to join the battle of the five armies.
Speaking of Smaug, in the film Smaug senses the ring’s presence when Bilbo is around. He mentions that knows Bilbo has it, but of course he can’t quite tell what it is. Now think carefully about this: what would a treasure obsessed maniac think if he knew that one other person had the one unique piece of treasure that he doesn’t have? Smaug’s mention of the ring not only overly foreshadows it, but actually betrays his character when he doesn’t try to possess it.
Action Adventure on the Barrels
The barrel scene, in the book, is a subtly comical. The overly proud dwarves are obviously hapless. They’d have been eaten by spiders, trolls, and worse were it not for the burgler they hired. In the movie, the barrel escape scene served the same purpose as the Goblin King scene in the first movie. That is, an fun little advert for the upcoming video game.
Now I hated the goblin escape scene in the first movie, but enjoyed the barrel ride in this movie. Why? For two simple reasons: a dwarf -Kili iirc- was severally wounded and there was unexpected closed gate on their way out. These simple little additions turned an annoying, lucasesque, CGI fest into a fun to watch scene where I cared about the outcome of what was happening. The orcs too were a nice addition here. Their conflict with the wood elves foreshadowed a threat that we expect to come in the Lord of the Rings, without compromising the spirit of the book.
Additionally, I also enjoyed the negotiation preceding the barrel run. At one point, the king of the wood elves offers Thorin a deal. Thorin throws the deal back in his face because he can’t trust elves. He can’t trust elves, because he still remembers their broken promise. This is a beautiful character flaw that made me like Thorin more.
Pre-revolutionary Lake Town
After the the romp through the barrels, Biblo and company arrive at the Lake Town. There, they meet Jean Valjean, Monsieur Defrange, Robertspierre… wait what?
When it comes to themes of Tolkien’s work, we have to remember that we’re reading pre-modern fantasy literature. It was, after all, meant to be on par with the epic tales of Beowulf and similar ballads and legends. So why do we encounter a lake town like this? Why are dealing with thematic questions of economic oppression and talk of elections? It is not that these themes aren’t themes worth exploring, but its that these themes belong to a different era. This embellishment was so thematically jarring that it became hard for me to take this seriously. It got worse when they added a “everyone is being watched” feel to lake town. What, so we’re adding a theme that usually only found in sci-fi and dystopias?
Lake town is not supposed to be Paris, France circa 1785. Yet, that is what this entire subplot, complete with a despot revealing in his own vain opulence, made me think of. They even threw in a few shots of “sort of like slaves, but totally not” Africans in for further sympathy. Everything about Lake Town was wrong. Themes about elections, economic oppression, and leaders spying on you do not work in Tolkein’s literary world, because these themes and questions belong in other genres.
Thorin Confronts Smaug
If there is one thing that Jackson did that maybe Tolkien never showed us it was: well what does Thorin think about Smaug? Well let’s see it.
There were two especially poignant scenes here. The first, was when Thorin and the Dwarves first enter their home through the secret entrance. It was clear as Thorin and company walked, and lovingly touched the walls, that this quest is about a lot more than gold for them. Yes, the dwarves are greedy, but their also deeply wounded. Furthermore, when they fled the dragon they found a cave full of the charred bodies of the last dwarves who tried to escape. Here, we’re allowed to experience a little bit more of Thorin’s world, and how terrible Smaug really is.
Sadly, I felt that these scenes were eclipsed by the action adventure aspect of the film. Thorin too quickly returns to stoic, composed leader (which we’ve already seen), so that we can have a romp around the ruins, climaxing in an elaborate trap that the dungeon master set up. Why did we not see a greater emotional reaction from Thorin here? Honestly, after leaving a room full of charred bodies, I would’ve expected Thorin to either become raging mad or have some other serious emotional breakdown. It’s strange when that scene affects the audience more than the characters in the film. I might be the only one who feels that way.
The transition to the final scene turned into a somewhat interesting, overtly symbolic, testing of Smaug’s invincibility. Yeah, whatever.
Did it all work
Was this a bad movie? No it was not a bad movie. However, I can’t honestly say I enjoyed this film. The embellishments kept yanking me out of Tolkien’s world and into something Peter Jackson probably thought would be good mass appeal.
So, by all means, go watch this movie. But you know what else you should do? Watch the 1970s animated version on Netflix too. After that, get yourself a nice leather bound copy of the original work, curl up by a fire, and read it out loud to your kids.