The joy and pain of plot differences in Desolation of Smaug

(This is a preview of my review article for Theonering.net. It contains spoilers below the “spoiler space.”)

By WeeTanya (Tanya Rezak) of TORn

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey made my eyes well up with tears the second Ian Holm began to speak. I have a deep and abiding love for Lord of the Rings (obviously!) in book form and movie form, so seeing all of the familiar faces from the movies I loved gave this new series a necessary blessing. When Peter Jackson had us retrace our steps with Bilbo (even revealing the shards of Narsil in the Extended Edition of the DVD), it felt like a sweet and sad paeon to the previous work. I adored and ate up every bit of it, because it was meant for those of us who still have fond memories of that first crazy filmmaking adventure years ago.

Even the set pieces from that movie were so stuck in my head that I found them almost hallowed, smiling at the three Trolls frozen into the very position they were in when Sam leaned over sick Frodo to say, “Look! Bilbo’s trolls!” And of course meeting Gollum in Riddles in the Dark, and … and … Okay, the reason why I’m talking about the first movie before talking about the second is because The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is NO LONGER a step back in time to Lord of the Rings.

Desolation of Smaug is its own movie, completely surprising because it makes many departures — both from the paths of the adventurers, and from the book itself. I cannot say that I don’t miss the beauty and melancholy of seeing the places we’d grown to love in Lord of the Rings, or seeing the movie unfold along the same path as the book in the first movie. However, I will say that putting all of my “But this is different~” thoughts aside, it showed me new things, new relationships, new parts of Middle-Earth, and new and relevant problems in a way that made me forget about the differences and enjoy it for what it is.

And what is it? It’s a story with a heart, with perhaps many hearts. First, it’s a rip-roaring action movie from start to finish, pausing only to tease out hints of plot between moments of torrential (I pun) motion. It has driving and urgent narrative arcs; where the first movie failed to provide much urgency with its elegiac tone, the second makes up for it in spades. I forgot to bring water to the 2 hour 40 minute viewing, and then I forgot that I forgot. In fact, I’m not even sure I breathed.

Was the movie different from the book in important ways? Yes, very much so, but in ways that breathed life into some characters that were previously nothing but stock (Bard, for instance), and breathed life into the heart of Erebor itself. For those who want my short summary of what a “Tolkien purist” has to say about the movie before I hit the spoilers, I say: It’s a wonderful second act to The Hobbit that does a perfect job of adding a bit of 21st century to something that would have been jarringly anachronistic if we left it alone. (And yes, by that I mean adding women and people of color and a little courtly romance and deeper character arcs.)

Did I miss the book? Yes, a little. I missed the feeling of comfort that I got from the first movie. If that one was like sliding into my most comfortable patchwork bathrobe, this one was like putting on a mithril shirt: no less fine, but definitely less comfortable, and absolutely unexpected.

Anything else that I will say includes spoilers, so I am going to say them below a lot of “This has spoilers” space.

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Let’s talk about a few important differences between the book and the movies. I will not belabor this review by talking about all the stuff that other reviewers already wrote, because my intent is to discuss some of the most jarringly different elements of the film.

While pondering Desolation of Smaug, I remembered wise words that Philippa said to me at a interview before Return of the King. “This isn’t just a movie made for fans — it’s a movie made for the fans, by the fans. This is a fan movie.” These words always impressed me because they were true; Philippa, Fran, and Peter know Tolkien’s works inside and out (almost as well as you and I do), and people who might doubt their decision-making process during the act of creating movies should probably remember Philippa’s words. Fans also made The Hobbit. This is clear from watching the Production Diaries, the DVD extras, and listening to every word that the actors speak. I went into Desolation of Smaug trusting in the writers, and I came out thinking that yes, it was a very fine fan adaptation of a book that is NOT a 21st century book.

In Lord of the Rings, I reminded myself, Tolkien’s Aragorn has no ambivalence at all about whether he will become a king or remain Strider. He was always noble, born of noble blood, and his character was always set in stone. Returning to Viggo’s performance in the movie, however, is rewarding because of that invented movie character arc. Movies need that kind of thing because they are not books, and watching Viggo’s small mournful sigh right before donning the crown of king is entirely worth the difference. These two Aragorns exist simultaneously in my mind now, one because he’s Tolkien’s, and the other because he’s ours — he speaks to our time, and our interpretation, and our world.

Desolation of Smaug speaks to our time too. There really is no “Did you like the book or movie better?” Because it’s an irrelevant question. I’ll always love Tolkien’s words best, but it was absolutely necessary to add at least one woman to the story to make it true to our own time and interpretation. My husband asked me if Tauriel’s presence was cheesy, and I’ll say it was not. Her presence shows a suitable elvenness, and reminds me of something:

Remember when Stephen Colbert asked Peter Jackson whether he was going to distinguish the Nandor from the Sindarin and Noldor, and Peter said “Yes. Now let’s talk about your crappy coffee cups.” — Remember that? Well, the writers did, although it makes me giggle every time the word “silvan” is used instead of “Nandor” or “Moriquendi.” (I add this here because I know those who read this are as die-hard as I am about this stuff, and you’ll appreciate it.) Evangeline Lilly and the writers characterized her moriquendi very carefully. She shows a little less nobility than two Sindarin, Legolas and Thranduil, and a lot more emotion. She’s one of the ferocious heartbeats of the movie, providing a fan glimpse of what an emotional elf might be like. Her interaction with Kili is a beautiful precursor to another lovely elf-dwarf relationship, the very noble one between Galadriel and Gimli. I like that the movie writers felt they could go there, trusting in us to make the imaginative leap with them. If there’s a female elf, why not make her beloved to a dwarf?

The one moment of pure Tolkien emotion that I had during this second, action-filled movie was when Tauriel spoke to Kili of the beauty of starlight. Then I smiled and longed for someone to burst out into the Hymn to Elbereth — ah well, it happened in my head instead.

Putting Tauriel aside for a moment, did anyone notice the people of color in Laketown? I’m of Asian blood, and my husband (who is Palestinian) and I joke that in Lord of the Rings, we are both best represented by the Southrons and Easterlings. I was incredibly happy to see non-white casting in that scene, because Laketown is a port, so OF COURSE people from all over Middle-Earth would’ve come to trade. Thank you for that update to an entirely white world, Peter, Fran, and Philippa! This person of color is grateful to you.

And now we come to the deviations in plot which lead to several dwarves remaining in Laketown. In the context of the book it’s inexplicable, but in the context of the movie, I have to remember more of Peter Jackson’s words: “If one of your main cast isn’t on screen, you lose interest.” I think he was discussing a big epic battle scene, but it works just as well for Laketown too. Would we be as fearful of the dragon swooping in to set fire to Laketown if our two precious young dwarves of Durin’s line weren’t there, about to be roasted? This is the same logic that sent Aragorn over an inexplicable cliff in the middle of Rohan, only to ride into Helm’s Deep and become the center of the story again. These are slightly jarring changes to my imagination that yet work in a movie.

The new places were wonderful. I loved seeing the work of Alan Lee and John Howe given life — in fact, their artwork and the sets based upon it remains some of my favorite bits of the Lord of the Rings movies too. These two live and breathe Tolkien, and if there is no other reason to praise Peter Jackson with great praise, it’s for giving these two guys lots and lots of work. Thranduil’s halls were like seeing a perverted, festering Lothlorien, as if Galadriel had become corrupted instead of remaining pure. Thranduil’s halls add to the outstanding characterization of Thranduil himself, as an elf who has become so conservative and fearful from time that he’s withdrawn from all reality. I have to quit praising actors individually, or I simply won’t stop; all of these actors knew their stuff, every one of them.

Laketown itself is a pure Peter Jackson mess, humanity living in its own corpulence, sitting over a stinking fetid pool where the fish and feces float together. I hope none of the actors fell into that, it looked beyond foul, and by that I mean it was perfect.

What can I say about Erebor? The most beautiful of those unexpected, inexplicable moments of deviation from the book came when Thorin and his company decided to restart the forges of Erebor in a desperate attempt to both escape and fight the dragon by themselves. It was wonderful to see Thorin become majestic and take charge, wonderful to see the hints of gold-lust and the danger that comes from it, and wonderful to see the despair on his face when the dragon simply shook off the fruits of their toil and flew right on out the door. The book is different, but this was epic. The two universes will once again stand side-by-side for me, because the forges of Durin were rekindled, and we got to see the dwarf kingdom alive and breathing and almost living in the way that we never have before. We’ve seen dead dwarf cities and yearned to see them alight with life, and we’ve been teased with one at the beginning of Unexpected Journey, but now we see one almost — nearly — reborn. That moment, of seeing Thorin stand tall and fire up the inner workings of his ancient home, was worth more than a few plot twists for me!

I think this review has gone on long enough, and I’ve said plenty. I hope that everyone carefully weighs their own inner feelings about the movie and takes from it what they can, whether to love it more or less. I only know that I’m looking forward to the next movie, in which our hearts will break because EVERYBODY WE LOVE (spoiler).

Oh, one last thing that I noticed, that I have to mention for the sheer joy of continuity. One of the first people that we see on the screen in Desolation of Smaug is a certain drunkard in Bree who bears a more than passing resemblance to another drunkard in Bree years later. Amazing that the same man has lived unchanged for all those years between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings! Hm, maybe it’s his son…

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