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.