2.13.14 The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Film Comments 14, “Barrels Out of Bond,” Part 3)
Good Evening, Friends!
In comparing how Peter Jackson’s film adaptation, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, stands up to J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary work, The Hobbit, we come now to one of the major problems that “purist” Tolkien aficionados have with the cinematic presentations of the story thus far: too much of an action-driven plot and the overuse of CGI.
One critic’s assessment: “…the story development [of the first two parts of Jackson’s film trilogy] is now carried by constant and utterly meaningless action…” (Emir Pasanovic, “Why the Desolation of Smaug is Peter Jackson’s Phantom Menace,” http://www.bleedingcool.com/2013/12/22/)
Or, another’s view: “…for me all PJ’s bewildering cinematic wizardry cannot really amend for his overwriting of the Tolkien canon.” (Timothy R. Furnish, PhD., “Peter of many colors? Jackson finally leaves the path of wisdom,” http://www.theonering.net/torwp/2014/01/11/).
Or, finally, in one of the more thoughtful “negative” critiques of the film, we have Aidan Moher’s assessment of the adaptation of the “Barrels Out of Bond” chapter in his review, “The Desolation of Tolkien” (http://aidanmoher.com/blog/2013/12/ )
…Consider one of The Hobbit‘s most iconic moments: The barrel-ride escape from the Woodland Realm. The film throws away the novel’s delicately crafted sense of suffocating despair, including Bilbo’s uncertainty whether his plan saved his friends or killed them, and replaces it with bombastic action full orcs, morgul arrows, whirling dwarf-filled barrels of death, and Legolas being, well… think of Legolas in the Lord of the Rings films, clambering up Oliphants or riding shields down stair sets, and crank it up to eleven. There’s nail-biting action aplenty, and Jackson does create a narrative twist from the battle that will have potentially interesting wide-ranging effects through the third film, but Tolkien’s original vision is lost. Quiet cleverness, so integral to the novel, and one of the delights of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, is discarded, and the overwhelming majority of the film’s tension and conflict is externalized, reinforcing within the filmgoer that they are strapped into an amusement park ride, rather than an equal partner in an adventure.
After you return from visiting these reviewer’s links, you’ll probably find yourself in one camp or the other, believing that (1) Tolkien’s original work has been warped beyond recognition by a simply bad film adaptation that overreached in its attempt to stretch a one- or two-film version into three, with an over-reliance on special effects and a misunderstanding of the fact that Tolkien intended this tale to be Bilbo-centric, or (2) like me, your approach to the film was informed by complete satisfaction with the animated 1977 faithful Rankin-Bass adaptation of The Hobbit, and trusting that — as with his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings — Peter Jackson would find a way to convey some essentials of Tolkien’s Middle Earth tales while still making a film of a book whose director’s vision would always depart from an author’s original text.
In contrast to the above reviewers, I actually enjoyed Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkien’s “Chapter IX, Barrels Out of Bond” for the following reasons:
- the moment when Martin Freeman’s Bilbo rescues the dwarves, rolls them out of the dungeon storeroom, but forgets to make an escape for himself
- the well-thought out series of waterways, locks, & rapids that convey the barrels down the river toward Long Lake
- the mutual pursuit of Legolas & Tauriel’s elves and Bolg’s orc troop colliding in a battle above the semi-helpless dwarf escapees
- the elf-orc battle that followed the course of the dwarves bobbing and rolling down the river, both for the action on the shores, and also the moment when Bombur started careening wildly on and off the water while still in a barrel
- the development of Legolas and Tauriel as peerless elf-fighters; just fun to watch!
- the substitution of Bard for the Wood-elves who appear near the end of Tolkien’s chapter; allowed more character development & interaction with Bilbo, Balin, and the dwarves as the company secures a “fishy” ride with Bard to Lake Town
- the generally well-conveyed sense of medieval trade and commerce in the Bard scenes (more on this in assessment of Lake Town in next chapter’s “A Warm Welcome”) — thought that the depiction of Bard and the initial presentation of Lake Town were very, very much in keeping with Tolkien’s vision
Speaking of Tolkien’s vision, I do understand the concern that many critics’ express that the “Bilbo” story runs the risk of getting lost with this new take on “Barrels Out of Bond” — that is, by having an invented battle with orcs and thrilling ride down the rapids, Jackson removed the essence of Tolkien’s original version that featured Bilbo bobbing gently down the river, the many descriptions of the woodlands and natural surroundings, the hobbit’s concern about the dwarves, and his attempts to stay warm when he comes to the huts of the Wood-elves. But, I think it would have been a different, quieter and less exciting movie for it! Most of the sense of “loss” these critics express seems to me a loss at the journey with Bilbo, an introspective, one-person narrative in Tolkien that definitely charts a heroic trajectory for the protagonist, and which still stands the test of time as a heroic, inspiring story.
If I want that feeling, I can always go to Tolkien’s book and lose myself in that eternal depiction of Middle Earth. Part of the appeal of Tolkien is the author’s ability to recreate a medieval world wherein the reader participates by the full immersion that Tolkien achieved by his writing; there is paragraph upon paragraph of nature descriptions in his works, and a sedately paced narrative that I don’t think would be replicated into film in a way to which audiences were accustomed after the game-changing success of LotR. No, if I want to see Bilbo bobbing gently down the river and finally getting to Lake-town with almost no interaction with anyone except himself, that movie’s not yet been made.
What has been produced is an enjoyable action film that’s much better written and crafted than many of its competitors, and a movie where I finally got to see many wonderfully realized moments from one of my favorite books…and come on, wasn’t it almost worth the price of admission to see all the dwarves in barrels and peering out in consternation at Bilbo before getting dropped into the water?
What do you think? Poll time!
Next time: J.R.R. Tolkien’s “A Warm Welcome” & Jackson’s version of Lake Town!