2.26.14 The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Film Comments 27, “Inside Information,” Part 6)
2.26.14 The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Film Comments 27, “Inside Information,” Part 6)
Things I Liked about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Gandalf & Necromancer (Part 3: Smaug and Sauron):
Good Morning, Everybody!
After reviewing each of Chapters 7-12 of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 The Hobbit that Peter Jackson adapted in his 2013 The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, I’m now making some concluding remarks about Chapter 12, “Inside Information,” at the end of which in both versions, the dragon Smaug flies off to destroy Lake-Town for its citizens’ assistance to Thorin & Co.
For all the criticisms lobbed at the film (e.g., Tauriel’s introduction, Legolas appearance, Dol Guldur storyline, & overuse of CGI), most critics agree across the board that Benedict Cumberbatch’s depiction of Smaug was amazingly done; from the dragon’s sinister voice & CGI-enhanced mannerisms (à la Andy Serkis’s expressions & the LotR trilogy), to the dialogue between Smaug and Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), this climactic scene lived up to expectations.
What was said between Bilbo and Smaug was also very interesting, because — besides faithfully including lines from Tolkien’s original text — this adaptation placed the dragon in the Lonely Mountain part of the larger Middle Earth landscape. The references to the Arkenstone, to the darkness gathering in Mirkwood, and to the plight of the dwarves all contributed to much more “Middle-Earth-aware” Smaug than in Tolkien’s book.
I appreciated this approach, the presentation of a truly canny and knowledgable Smaug, because it deepened his character, but (to me) also implied that the dragon’s role in Middle Earth might not be limited to guarding a hoard of treasure. Remember the half-finished sentences from Thranduil when he was discussing the dwarves and dragon in the Wood-elven scenes? The desperation with which Azog the Pale Orc (& his son, Bolg) are pursuing the dwarves & arguably trying to prevent them from reaching Erebor? In introducing these orcish servants of the Necromancer-cum-Sauron, I find that the screenwriters are nicely dovetailing some plot points here in the 2nd film with those raised in the first, and which should become fully realized in this December’s There and Back Again.
Namely, that Smaug’s role as a despoiler of the greatest dwarvish kingdom allowed Sauron to gather strength and armies at Dol Guldur; a citadel which, you’ll recall, is in Mirkwood and which — thanks to the fall of Erebor 171 years before these Hobbit films, an act that removed the dwarves from the equation in helping the Wood-Elves. This plotting takes into account J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Quest of Erebor” (Unfinished Tales), in that Gandalf’s recruitment of Thorin & Co. was made explicitly to rid the East of Smaug. Gandalf’s thought being that if both Dragon & Necromancer were expelled, respectively, from the Lonely Mountain and Mirkwood, Sauron’s rise would be greatly hindered, if the threat not removed altogether.
In the context of both “The Quest of Erebor” and The Hobbit: DoS, of course, the newly returning Dark Lord wouldn’t leave unaccounted the returning dwarves nor an asset like a freakin’ DRAGON in the greatest dwarf kingdom. By tending to this part of the storyline, I think that Jackson might be “out-geeking” everyone in his knowledge and respect for Tolkien lore, because he’s taking the opportunity to give a partial explanation of why — except for Gimli and members of dwarf royalty seen at the Council of Elrond in FotR — we really only see elves and humans in the LotR films.
Think about it, in the LotR Gimli is a wonderful comedic addition to the story, but you don’t really see many dwarves. I think that Tolkien felt he’d told his “dwarf” story in The Hobbit, and the only time he allowed for them to appear in LotR was as dead folk when the Fellowship passes through Moria; as if to (forgive me) put a “nail in the coffin” on the story of the dwarves, he even has a main scene occur around Balin’s tomb.
In this depiction, and in seeing how things ended up for almost half of Thorin & Co.’s thirteen dwarves that die at the Battle of Five Armies in The Hobbit, Tolkien was making it very clear (to mix Middle Earth & Greek myths) that the Arkenstone was the dwarves’ Achilles Heel, as much responsible for the downfall of the dwarves as the Seven Rings were. The dwarves’ story is one of repeated failure to stand fast against their own greed, failures seen in Thrain’s greedy amassing of a treasure hoard that attracted a dragon, Thorin’s refusal to share that hoard with potential allies after Smaug dies (leading to the battle of Five Armies), and, finally good ol’ Balin’s attempt to retake the Mines of Moria and reap mithril, in spite of those caverns domination by a Balrog and orcs and goblins.
Jackson’s depiction of a hyper-aware Smaug also gives a nod to more Middle Earth history (1) that after Sauron tricked the elves into helping him making the Rings of Power, he gave “…Seven to the Dwarf-Lords in their halls of stone…,” (and Smaug isn’t about to let any dwarf re-claim Erebor if he can help it) and, more importantly, (2) the dialogue and attributes of Smaug are very much in line with how Tolkien presents other dragons in his tales of Middle Earth.
That is, when I was watching Smaug on-screen and seeing him interact with Bilbo and the dwarves, I kept thinking about Glaurung, the dragon that served Sauron’s master, Melkor/Morgoth, in the Wars of the First Age. The references aren’t many, but I always loved the idea of a dragon as a “general” (in fact, I used it in my own Codex Lacrimae novel with the dragon, Fafnir). This idea goes back into The Silmarillion and other of Tolkien’s works, but Jackson’s depiction of the dragon Smaug really made him more than the two-chapter villain of The Hobbit novel. I felt that this Smaug was part of a larger Middle Earth, and Cumberbatch’s acting gave a depth to him that worked very well for me.
On a larger scale, looking at this part of Middle Earth in relation to Sauron’s plotting, as with “Men” and “Elves,” none of the peoples of Middle Earth were going to be left out of the Dark Lord’s reckoning; except, of course, the hobbits!. SO, whether it’s Azog or Bolg, the interception of the would-be dwarf king, Thorin, or both Gandalf and Sauron wanting to remove/use Smaug in their calculations, all of these elements make sense to anyone who’s ever read The Silmarillion and knows Sauron’s backstory from his time as a servant of Melkor (Morgoth), and his fall to Gil-gilad and Elendil at the end of the Second Age. The Dark Lord is in it for the “long game” and going to remove as many pieces from the board as possible before his attempted conquest of Middle Earth. We know that he’ll ultimately fail in There and Back Again, but I think that this adaptation of The Hobbit works very well in revealing bits of that backstory for those who loved how the story ends in The Lord of the Rings.
That rationale is what keeps me amazed at the protests from the so-called “Tolkien purists.” I thought that they would be pleased both by the careful attention to Middle Earth history that Jackson/Walsh/Boyens & del Toro have given to this storyline, and also simply getting to see the Necromancer/Sauron receive more screen-time than even the author himself had allowed in The Hobbit! (Tolkien started to re-write The Hobbit in the 1960s to redress this problem, but retreated from the attempt because he wanted to keep it purely a children’s book.) The emphases on Gandalf, on the elves (Legolas & Tauriel), the Azog/Bolg chases, and the Necromancer subplots aren’t (as some critics suggest) matters of trying to freakin’ given Ian McKellen some more screen time, or Orlando Bloom a job, or add tension with orcs and Sauron…they’re all included to give credit to an already existing Tolkien mythology that accounted for everything we’re seeing on the screen. The great thing is that we don’t have to sit through an adaptation of The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, etc. to get the gist of Tolkien’s myth. So quit throwing popcorn at Jackson while watching his movies & enjoy seeing some highlights of the Middle Earth tales that he’s deftly weaving into a stand-alone story!
As to the merits of the storyline unfolding in these first two Hobbit films, again, have been criticized for going all over the place in trying to keep all-action, all the time, but I believe that they’re keeping to a quality narrative line that has its own internal consistency.While different in presentation, all of these scenes do align with the source material! The original Hobbit’s claim that there’s a “darkness” rising in Mirkwood? Check.(we saw Radagast confronting dying animals & giant spiders in AUJ). A strange wizard called the Necromancer causing problems in the forest? Check. (We saw both the return of the Witch-King of Angmar and the Necromancer in AUJ, with Ring-Wraith/Nazgûl & Sauron reveals in DOS.) Wood-Elves on their heels from loss of dwarf- and human allies caused by living in the “desolation of Smaug?” Check. (Jackson covered the wood-elves pretty thoroughly, & even had Thranduil’s son, Legolas, appear, and finally added a kick-ass female elf to Tolkien lore with the invention of Tauriel.) Respecting the dragon, Smaug, and Bilbo’s bravery in confronting & eluding him? Check. (We got plenty of breath-taking views of this scene, as well the addition of the dwarves participating in the eviction of Smaug from the Lonely Mountain…). So for all the apparent “failings” that some see in this film adaptation, I still think Jackson’s nailing so many marks in respecting Tolkien’s work that I think the big problem most people have is that these films aren’t line-by-line explications of one of their favorite fantasy books.
Next time: Final Thoughts on The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug