Originally published in “A Word from Urbana Theological Seminary” on January 16, 2012
Written by Dr. Melody Green
“Truly,” said Bilbo Baggins, his voice shaking, “The songs and tales fall utterly short of your enormity, oh Smaug the stupendous.” Struggling for the right words that just might save his life, Bilbo the hobbit was aware of one thing. Like so many other situations one does not wish to find oneself in, facing a live dragon is a very different thing than hearing or talking about one. This is not only the one event that all of Bilbo’s adventures for the last year have been leading up to, but it is also one of the most visually stunning scenes in any of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of J. R. R. Tolkien’s stories.
And that is what Peter Jackson does best: using the sweeping landscapes of the wilds of New Zealand and an artistic team with an eye for detail, each of Jackson’s recreations of the world Tolkien imagined is visually delightful. In this aspect, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug may outdo the other films, not only in the sheer magnitude of the delightfully frightening dragon, but also in the recreation of small details mentioned in the book. One example of this is when Bilbo climbs a tree to help the lost dwarves find their way out of a deadly forest, and once again feels the fresh air and sees blue butterflies in the light of the setting sun. Another example is at the house of Beorn, where the pitchers from which guests are served are full of milk, where bees are the size of a human thumb, and all creatures of all sizes, from ponies to mice, can find a safe home.
While this aspect of the film can be enjoyed by all audience members, some parts may disappoint those who know the book well. Possibly the biggest is in the development of the main character. In the bookThe Hobbit, Bilbo grows through everything that happens to him. He begins as an incompetent bungler who did not realize that “adventure” was going to mean spending a lot of time being cold, hungry, tired, wet, and scared. His biggest concern at the beginning of his journey was that he had forgotten his pocket handkerchief. In the part of the story covered by this film, however, Bilbo continually learns what it means to put others before himself as he risks his life to save the dwarves time and time again. Each time, the stakes are a little higher; each time, Thorin’s selfishness becomes more starkly contrasted with Bilbo’s selflessness. Thorin, the one who would be king, continually puts his people at risk, while Bilbo continually puts himself at risk for their sake. Ultimately, in many ways it is the gentle hobbit who becomes the real leader of the company, not the almost-mad Thorin whose leadership decisions are based in his own desire. In the film, however, much of this is lost, traded for sheer spectacle as battles continually save the day instead of the courage and quick thinking of one apparently insignificant person.
The frequent and prolonged fights are not the only part of the film that may disappoint those who love the book. A scene in which Gandalf meets up with Thorin at Bree, an orc strangely obsessed with destroying the dwarves, the discovery by Gandalf that Sauron is currently living in Mirkwood, and a romance that can only end tragically have all been added to the story. But even these might not be quite as bad as first appears. Tolkien did, in fact, write about a meeting between Gandalf and Thorin to plan the retaking of Lonely Mountain, Thorin’s home. This just happens to be in a book called The Unfinished Tales, not The Hobbit. The orc known as Azog the Defiler is actually a part of the history of Middle Earth, as well—he just happened to die about a hundred years before Bilbo and the dwarves set out on their adventure. In The Lord of the Rings we are told that the White Council– which included Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel and few others—did indeed discover Sauron living in Mirkwood, and drove him out while the dwarves just happened to be passing through that forest. The growing relationship between Legolas and an elf named Tauriel may be, for many fans, the most difficult part of the film to deal with, on the simple grounds that there were no women in the book at all. But even this reflects more than one of the stories in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, a book full of strange adventures and romances.