The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug is Better than the Book It’s Based On

In the very first printing of The Hobbit, there are a few tiny errors. Inconsistencies in map labels. Misspellings of a few words.

And a little thing Tolkien charmingly referred to as “the issue with Chapter Five.”

What he’s referring to is that, in the first published version of the story, the Riddle Game ends with Gollum giving Bilbo his magic ring as a prize.

Just… gives it to him.

“Here you go, then. Nice job with all those riddles. Last one was a real head-scratcher. Well-played and all that, now off you go to the back door. Good luck and godspeed, you adorable scamp.” *tousles hair*

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Obviously, with the perfect hindsight afforded us by seventy-seven years worth of analysis (academic, obsessive fan, or both), we can see that this version of the story… raises a few questions – most of which begin “But if it’s the One Ring, why would…”

Or, in the words of my daughter (who hasn’t given it quite as much thought), “That would be really dumb.”

Her assessment of the original version of the scene (which I told her about the second time we read through the book together, and without her knowing anything about The Lord of the Rings) went something like this: “Why would Gollum give Bilbo anything like that for winning the contest? The ring is the only thing he has – he’s not going to give it away.”

I like having my daughter around to assess the relevant merit of various parts of The Hobbit because, like the story itself, Kaylee doesn’t know anything about Middle Earth.

Let me reiterate that: The Hobbit doesn’t know anything about Middle Earth.

Now, I’m not saying that the larger backdrop of the setting was completely unknown to Tolkein when he wrote The Hobbit – the first thing that directly tied into the larger story of the Ages of Middle Earth was something the man wrote when he was 22 years old – twenty-three years before Bilbo hosted his first Unexpected Party.

But, the author’s vague notions about First Age history aside, The Hobbit is essentially its own thing – undeniably a Tolkien thing, yes, with inspiration drawn from the Kalevala and Beowulf, but also (owing to his desire to write something that would entertain his children) something far closer to his kids’ copy of The Marvelous Land of the Snergs or The Princess and the Goblins. You don’t have to squint very hard to see those kinds of stories in this one: the adventures and misadventures are largely the same in tone and structure as any fairy story: Grumbling trolls that want to eat whatever they catch. Magic rings won with a riddle contest. Shapechanging, bee-keeping bears. Talking eagles. Sleep-inducing rivers. Talking-yet-fairly-stupid spiders. Fairy dinners at which mundane party-crashers instantly fall asleep. Dragons slain with a single arrow shot by a flat and altogether characterless Hero Guy.

It’s a fairy story… that just happens to be (almost retroactively) set in Middle Earth.

But ultimately even more challenging for the author, it’s set up as the slow-burning point of ignition for the grand conflict of the Third Age, as told in The Lord of the Rings.

Which is why you end up with “the issue in Chapter Five.”

The fact of the matter is, in terms of continuity, there are many more problems introduced within The Hobbit because it doesn’t know about Middle Earth – the riddle game in Chapter Five is only the most obvious – and it isn’t hard to find evidence of the effort Tolkien went to throughout the next seventeen years (and after) to patch the major gaps between it and the latter work well enough to let the whole thing hang together. The Appendices, Unfinished Tales, and various collections of his correspondence are full of snippets and backstory that help Tolkien justify this or that “odd thing” from The Hobbit. In some ways, making that story work as part of the greater whole was some of the hardest stuff he had to do – I have no doubt that if he believed he could have gotten away with it, he’d have written a ‘grown-up’ version of the story that made a great deal more sense in the larger scheme of things, and chalked the original up to Bilbo as Unreliable Narrator.

But he didn’t believe that was an option – stories, once printed, were all but set in stone (funny, considering the malleable epics he studied) – so he forced himself to play around the edges of the thing to make its odd corners and angles fit within the larger puzzle of Middle Earth.

Jackson gets to do what Tolkien believed he couldn’t – retell The Hobbit with the hindsight of what it would mean within the larger history and events of the setting, and get it to match the continuity and tone set in the larger and inarguably greater work that followed.

Which brings us to the latest Hobbit movie. Sort of. Almost.

There’s one more thing retelling the story as a movie lets Jackson do.

Skipping the Boring Parts

There’s a point (several, actually) in The Princess Bride novel (“the greatest love/action/revenge story ever abridged by a modern author”), where the author specifically calls out the fact that he’s “skipping the boring stuff” in the (fictitious) original classic on which his version is supposedly based: boring political history, a full chapter on the Buttercup’s preparations for the wedding, et cetera.

I have, more than once, wished for a “princess bride” treatment of The Hobbit.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the book. I read it and reread it multiple times before the librarian for our elementary school mentioned that there were “other books that happen after this one” up in the High School library (which sent me on a terrifying quest of my own, past trolls and evil giants). I’ve reread it many times since. It’s one of the first ‘chapter’ books I read to my daughter, and the only one to date that I’ve read to her more than once. I will, without a doubt, read it again to Sean when he’s a bit older, then again to Zoe, and I will do so happily, every time.

But it is in no way a perfect book. It’s not as slow a start as The Lord of the Rings, granted, but it has its moments, and those moments (already weak in the book itself) do not translate well to film, nor should they. Some of it is a matter of pacing: the dwarves are imprisoned in Thranduil’s halls for a month and a half – it takes Bilbo almost two weeks just to figure out where Thorin is being kept; the company spends roughly a month between getting to Laketown and opening the door into the Mountain, and spend a week of that time just sitting on the doorstep, twiddling their thumbs and waiting for the Sun/Moon to get to the right position. Some of it is emphasis in the book on elements of the story that make perfect sense in terms of what The Hobbit was (a fairy story for kids) and what it became (a prelude to Big Events and Epic History): as cool as the scene with the spiders is, for example, in terms of the big picture it’s quite unimportant.

So, we have two problems with The Hobbit – it doesn’t mesh well or easily with the rest of the “stuff” of Middle Earth, and there are points (more than a few) that just aren’t very good storytelling, especially in terms of pacing – Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings seventeen years later – it’s entirely to fair to say he became a better storyteller over the years, and certainly fair to say he grew into his own voice over time. (Who among us wouldn’t like to go back to a story we ‘finished’ years ago and give it a fix-up pass, if we could?)

So how did Jackson do in The Desolation of Smaug?

Tying it into the Larger Story

I don’t think there’s a misstep of any kind with regards to tying this section of The Hobbit into the larger Middle Earth story. In terms of both plotting and tone, we’re getting a much more unified and ‘whole’ retelling.

Gandalf Wanders Off and Leaves Us: The Dol Guldor stuff does a great job of setting up the Big Wizard Showdown coming in the third movie (and told in a fair amount of detail in various Tolkien appendices), and the whole “orc leader” side plot serves a necessary evil: the bad guys in movies need a face to play well with audiences, and Sauron doesn’t have one.

The Ring: The problem with the Ring as it appears in The Hobbit is that it’s entirely safe. All of the danger of corruption and evil falls within the scope of The Lord of the Rings and, with our perfect hindsight, we can see that it doesn’t make any sense. Using the ring is really never safe, least of all now, with Sauron stirring and making his first attempt at gathering forces together. It’s especially dangerous to put to use when you’re wandering through the same zip code as the guy ceaselessly searching for it (Bilbo’s not much further away from Dol Guldor when he traverses Mirkwood than Frodo is from Barad-dur when he and Sam pass Minas Morgul). Jackson handles this in most places by shortening the amount of time Bilbo wears the thing (thankfully, our poor hobbit doesn’t have to spend six weeks in Thranduil’s Hall wearing a homing beacon for the Dark Lord) and upping the danger of spiritual corruption associated with its use.

A great example/foreshadowing of this is with the spiders: as short as that scene is, Jackson managed to make it exponentially more significant to the “ring” story than it is in the original text – lots of people have mentioned the bit of ‘ring greed berserk’ that Bilbo displays here, and that’s good, but the bit where he slips on the ring and only then understands the spiders’ speech? Pure gold.

This section also reintroduces a theme from Lord of the Rings that is very useful later in the movie: the greater the evil that’s close at hand, the more dangerous the ring is to use. The few times Bilbo uses the ring in the first movie, he’s basically by himself. Then he uses it with the spiders and scary things happen to his personality. We get to the scenes with the dragon, and I was exactly where I needed to be with regards to the ring: torn. Of course he needs to use it, but how can he use it while standing right next to Smaug, Chiefest and Greatest Calamity of Our Age? Frodo found out the hard way that being around the Nazgul with the Ring was a hard row to hoe, but what are Nazgul? Corrupted men. Kings, maybe sorcerers, quite old, certainly, but… just men.

Smaug is a dragon. His voice alone is powerful magic (well done, Cumberbatch) – he is ancient and his kin have literally eaten more rings of power than still exist in the mortal realm in the Third Age. You can’t ‘activate’ something like that right under his nose and not expect problems.

And it’s not like being invisible helps that much against the dragon anyway, even in the book (eleven thousand clinking gold-plated aluminum movie coins aside).

Cutting Out the Boring Stuff

Under which I’ll also add “Cutting Out the Fairy Story Stuff that Doesn’t Entirely Fit in Middle Earth.”

Top marks for this, as two-month incarcerations are squeezed down into a day, fairy parties in spider-infested woods are removed entirely, and all thumb-twiddlings on the Doorstep go the way of ancient rooks. These sections of the story are better, by virtue of being better paced and more interesting, and the same can be said for most everything that happens with the dwarves in Laketown.

Adding in Stuff Tolkien Never Included

Under this, I include Tauriel and some but not all of the stuff with the two named orcs, since they actually both tie back into Appendices lore quite well enough, but take up a bit too much camera time chasing dwarves who I feel they’d assume would probably be eaten by a dragon anyway. Azog starts to feel like an obsessive Captain Hook searching for his Thorin crocodile.

Jackson scores major points for including a female character in the story. Tolkien wrote in a different time, and wrote this for his kids (of which three(?) were boys), so I’ll forgive him the gender bias, but I was glad to see some feminine presence on screen.

He then loses most of those points for using Tauriel to do little more than kick ass and deal with “love interest” entanglements – either being longed for by Legolas, longed for by Kili, or doing some counter-longing in both directions. I have it on good authority that women do more than participate in romantic feelings of one kind or another – it would have been nice to see that here, rather than a fairly well-trod situation with Legolas and the unaccountably ham-fisted writing of “the thing with the dwarf.” (Something I personally think could have been handled much better by the writing team before it ever reached the actors, echoing Gimli and Galadriel.)

Finally, he earns back a few points for a positively lovely call back to some real Silmarillion-grade ancient lore when Tauriel waxes rhapsodic about starlight. As one of the subset of elves who reached the Greenwood and decided to travel no further west toward Valinor (the Nandor Teleri, if you want to get pedantic), she comes from a people who never knew light other than the distant stars until the Sun and Moon were put into the sky. Her obvious passion for their beauty was something Jackson didn’t need to bring into this story, but which gave Tauriel the weight of a character thoroughly grounded in the oldest parts of Tolkien’s lore, and I liked that very much.

There were also some changes to the story that I think are going to bear fruit in the third movie – things that Tolkien might not have done even on a rewrite, but which I still see as a net good. The company splits up at Laketown in a way that never happened in the book, and I think it’s going to make for some very, very interesting scenes in the third movie. In the book, you have Thorin raging over his walls at “outsiders” and a hobbit he no longer trusts, and now we’re going to see that same thing with not only Bilbo, but a wise older dwarf, well-spoken (and fan favorite) Bofur, and both of Thorin’s heirs (Kili and Fili) on the outside and not at all ill-disposed to the people (elves, via Tauriel, and men, via Bard) who helped them when Thorin left them behind.

The Dark, Cliff-hanger Ending

No one complained at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring which is (in my daughter’s opinion) at least as grim. This ending, ignoring the classic Jackson final action scene, is actually quite close to what’s happening at that point in the book, but with awareness on the part of the dwarves and Bilbo: they’ve woken something up and set it loose, and how they each react to that will speak volumes in the third movie. They can’t claim ignorance and innocence when Laketown burns, and that’s both better and more interesting than the blinkered treasure trove diving they’re doing in the book while Bard saves the day.

I could say more about pretty much any part of the book (Black Arrow as a masterfully forged ballista bolt = great choice, especially when we already have at least three master archers already on screen), but instead I’ll wrap up with this.

The Book and the Big Screen

Those of you paying close attention will notice that I refer to the Hobbit movies as a retelling more than an adaptation or “inspired by” or whatever. There’s a reason.

There are a number of ways you can translate a book to the movie screen.

One of them involves a slavish adherence to the words on the page, cutting only for time considerations but otherwise leaving everything else the same. I’ve yet to encounter a movie produced in this way that was very satisfying. The most obvious example of this, to me, is the Harry Potter series, which are to my mind an absolute mess when watched as a movies in their own right. I can say this with some authority because I’m not a particularly dumb person who specifically didn’t read past the third HP book so that I could ‘test’ the movie series on its own merits, and without the books as reference, the movies are all but impossible to follow – a barely coherent mess of half-finished side plots and incomprehensible ‘dog whistle’ scenes tuned to fans of the books — twenty-four hours of multimedia extras for the avid reader.

Another route is the movie ‘inspired by’ a story – taking what’s there and distilling it in one way or another. You see this a lot with comics, both good (Scott Pilgrim) and bad (Wanted), but it also happens with stuff like The Beasts of the Southern Wild, which is inspired by a stream of consciousness hot mess of a stage play, and vastly improved upon its source material.

Finally, you have retellings. Take the original story, and say “I am going to retell this story, in this other medium,” and you’ve freed yourself from perfect adherence to the text of the book, while staying true to the spirit of the story. Cloud Atlas does this, and tells a story that, if nothing else, delivers a stronger theme and better ending than the book it’s based on (still doesn’t make it good, but it’s better than the book). Jackson did it with The Lord of the Rings, and now he’s doing it with The Hobbit, in this case not so much putting the verbatim text of the book on the screen, but retelling the story of all the events going on within the time frame of the events of the book.

Again, as with LotR, he takes liberties. Pulls in stuff from other sources when needed and outright changes stuff when necessary to serve the medium he’s working with. We notice it more in The Hobbit because he has to do it more – because the source is, in all honesty, not as strong a story in its original form as The Lord of the Rings and needs more of that kind of work.

Is it perfect? Certainly not, but it is good, both as a series of movies in its own right and as a (by my lights) faithful retelling of the story as a part of Middle Earth, with the perspective granted by time, and the ability to make it mesh with what is, in literary terms, the greater of the two pieces of work. I think that is the reason you see so many people talking about how they disapproved of the stuff that was changed or added, but concluding with “I still really liked it, though I don’t know why, and I guess I’ll just have to wait until next Christmas to see if the whole thing pays off.”

My recommendation: Go see it.

Odds are, you’ll like it, even if you don’t know exactly why.

And that’s okay.

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