There are two obvious ways a director can go wrong in adapting a work with a large and ardent pre-existing fan base. He (or she) can feel so constrained by expectations that he makes his adaptation too literal, a book-on-film. Or he can get carried away riffing on the original story, pulling in references from related works and assuming that fans’ appetites for additional material are, for all intents and purposes, insatiable.
As a general rule, I think the former temptation, over-fidelity, is the greater hazard. But Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is proof that when you go the other way—really, really far the other way—the result can be genuinely egregious.
Last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first installment of Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy—the very phrase hits me like a wave of depression—took Tolkien’s slender children’s novel and reimagined it as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings. Characters from the latter work (Galadriel, Saruman, Radagast) were imported for cameos, and the entire production was juiced up—over-written, over-orchestrated, over-CGI’d, over-everything’ed—to be more epic and grownup.
This time out, Jackson goes further still, producing a film that plays less like LoTR prequel than LoTR remake. The film opens in the town of Bree, where a small-statured traveller stopping at the inn of the Prancing Pony finds himself under watchful, unfriendly gazes until a mysterious figure comes to his aid. (Get it?) This time out, the traveller is Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and the mystery man is Gandalf (Ian McKellen). But the sense of déjà vu, however deliberate, is suffocating.
And yes, before we go further, I’m well aware that this meeting is cited in The Hobbit, and that many of Jackson’s other additions and digressions are part of the larger Middle Earth canon. But despite the fact the Tolkien went back to amend The Hobbit more than once, he never chose to cram in all this supplemental material, because the book was not intended as a sweeping, multifaceted epic, but rather as a more personal, hobbit’s-eye-view adventure story.
Not so, alas, in the hands of Jackson, who is so titillated by his various subplots and foreshadowings that he even loses track of his protagonist, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), for considerable stretches. Orcs—which played no role at all in Tolkien’s novel—play an even larger role in this installment than in the previous one, the better to supply the many impalements and beheadings Jackson feels compelled to display. Forget cameos by LoTR veterans: In this film, Legolas (likewise never mentioned in the book) reappears as a principal character. (It’s hard to shake the suspicion that Orlando Bloom’s asking price must have come down considerably from its inflated, post-LoTR high.) And the identity of the mysterious necromancer who has begun forming his armies of darkness, fiercely implied in the first movie, is made all too painfully explicit by the midpoint of this one.
A brand-new character is thrown into the mix in the form of a woodland elf named Tauriel (played by Evangeline Lilly, or “Kate from Lost”), who quickly becomes the crux of an interspecies love triangle. And Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) has been semi-demoted to Bard the Bargeman (the movie spends a lot of time in Laketown), though there’s little doubt that he’ll be given the chance to earn his loftier nickname using a newfangled Dwarvish anti-aircraft crossbow in the trilogy’s next installment.
Yes, next installment. Though Bilbo and the dwarves do make it at last to the Lonely Mountain to encounter the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), the great worm will have to wait until the final movie to intersect with his arrow of destiny. Instead, he spends the latter part of this film contending with a borderline MacGyveresque plot by the dwarves to bring about his destruction deep in the halls of Erebor. (I hope I’m beyond the point where I need to note that this, too, is a Jackson invention.)
What can be said on the movie’s behalf? Well, because it starts in the middle of the story and ends somewhat later in the middle, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is less encumbered by exposition than its predecessor, and is therefore free to devote itself fully to action set-piece after action set-piece (most of them, again, involving orcs). Smaug himself is an impressive accomplishment of CGI, though one who never quite succeeds—unlike, for instance, Gollum—in shedding his CGI skin. And at least this time around we’re spared Radagast’s bunny-powered sleigh.
But be forewarned: Whether through ego, avarice, or unchecked enthusiasm, Jackson has entered deep into the realm of fan fiction. Indeed, having granted himself boundless license to reimagine, he seems to have begun reimagining even his own reimaginings. The hideous orc leader relentlessly pursuing our heroes whom Jackson introduced in the previous film, Azog the Defiler, is in this movie replaced by a different hideous orc leader relentlessly pursuing our heroes. (This, in turn, frees Azog up to lend his hand to some pre-LoTR backstory embellishment.)
At some point this level of constant reinvention threatens to become not only self-reinforcing, but self-consuming. Where does Jackson go after he completes his expansive re-telling of The Hobbit? Will he reissue The Lord of the Rings trilogy with new material added to reflect the canonical changes he’s made here? (The real reason that Legolas dislikes dwarves is…) Will he adapt The Silmarillion? Or will he retreat from view to tinker with his High Frame Rate toys? Whatever his decision, Jackson has by now laid to rest any lingering doubt that he is, indeed, the new George Lucas. Congratulations.