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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, directed by Peter Jackson
Martin Freeman is so good with his hands. When he wants to show that Bilbo Baggins is frustrated, or nervous, or has just realised he’s made an idiotic mistake, he has a whole language of finger-twiddles and clutchy spasmodic gestures to call on. There’s a moment in The Hobbit – the book, though a version of it also turns up in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation, which makes it a fairly unusual and lucky moment – where Bilbo is in the process of rescuing his dwarf companions from the dungeons of Thranduil, king of the elves of Mirkwood. He has them all hidden in barrels, which the elves are rolling through a trapdoor into the forest river, to float downstream to their trading partners in Laketown. The elves are singing – as Tolkien’s people so often do – and the barrels are vanishing into darkness, one by one.
“It was just at this moment that Bilbo suddenly discovered the weak point in his plan. Most likely you saw it some time ago and have been laughing at him; but I don’t suppose you would have done half as well yourselves in his place. Of course he was not in a barrel himself, nor was there anyone to pack him in, even if there had been a chance! It looked as if he would certainly lose his friends this time…”
Once upon a time the big problem with adapting this book would have been the bestiary: trolls (“We’ll use guys in suits”), goblins (“Guys in make-up”), giant spiders (“Get me Jim Henson’s people”), a dragon (“Well, he mostly just sits there and talks, right?”). That problem has been solved. (“Get me a large number of clever people, put them in a room with a lots of big-ass computers, supply less money than they’d ideally need, and tell them there’s major time pressure”). The problem which no amount of technology can solve is one of tone. This is a children’s book, written to be read aloud, and it is also an adult’s book, taking its diminutive hero to a very dark place, a moral as well as a literal wasteland, for which purpose Tolkien allows his voice to deepen and grow solemn. So on the one hand you have, “It looked as if he would certainly lose his friends this time…”, and on the other, “They were come to the desolation of the dragon, and they were come in the waning of the year”.
In his first Hobbit film, Jackson seemed to take this tonal range as license to do any damn thing he liked. Pompous Saruman-Gandalf conclaves, video game fight sequences complete with 80s Schwarzenegger-style cheesy one-liners, sweet little hedgehogs struck down by evil magic, cod-poetic dialogue straining haplessly for mythic resonance while troll snot dribbled down the back of the screen… An Unexpected Journey was not just all over the show, it seemed like evidence that Jackson’s show was all over. I was, shall we say, not a fan.
This time the sense of being in the hands of a bored and cynical film-maker has vanished. Jackson and his co-writers – Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, as on The Lord of the Rings, plus Guillermo del Toro, whose presence I can detect hardly anywhere in either story or dialogue – have put together a tight, disciplined film, with a lot of momentum, humour that’s actually funny, ingenious action sequences, and, crucially, a tonal range which respects that of the source material. They still have a fundamental problem at the more solemn moments, in that they trip over their feet when they try to write dialogue in Tolkien’s high archaic mode, and seem blissfully unaware of doing so. (At one point, someone comes out with the line, “Dwarves are blind to the lives of those they deem lesser than their own”. Has no one ever sat Jackson et al down and told them “archaic” does not mean “grammar optional”? Perhaps they’re simply not interested in the opinions of those they deem lesser than their own).
But the silliness – the dull, sugar-overdose, let’s-have-a-chase-scene-with-rabbits silliness – was what really poisoned An Unexpected Journey, and in place of that, we now have a whole range of clever ideas for representing the fuzzier, kiddy-pleasing aspects of Tolkien’s voice on the screen. When Bilbo encounters Mirkwood’s giant spiders, the book has him overhearing their conversation about how soon to eat the captured Dwarves. You’d think this would be sinister, but in fact it dilutes the horror of the moment substantially, because it quickly becomes apparent that the spiders are none too bright, and no match for Bilbo’s wits. In the world of this film, as established by the Rings trilogy, we don’t have talking animals. But it turns out that Bilbo’s ring allows him to hear things outside his normal perceptions, so while he has it on, yes, the spiders do talk: and because we’re in the wavering, dream-like visual world Jackson uses as a cue to our point-of-view character’s invisibility, it’s very clear that allowing its wearer to hear the speech of evil things is an aspect of the ring’s corrupting power. The scene respects the book, but it doesn’t feel light.
And then, when real lightness is called for, we have Martin Freeman’s hands. When Bilbo sends the dwaves down through the trapdoor in their barrels, and finds himself left alone, with the trapdoor swinging automatically shut, Freeman mimes the most hilarious moment of realisation. His whole body freezes, and one hand goes up, finger lifted in the “wait a moment…” gesture. It converts the book’s “Most likely you saw it some time ago and have been laughing at him…” into economical visual shorthand. In doing this it retains the authentic silliness of the original without letting it leak out from Bilbo’s fussy, unheroic heroism, where it belongs, into the wider world of the film, where it doesn’t.
There is an argument to be made that what follows from the trapdoor scene – a riotous chase-and-fight sequence, with the dwarves and Bilbo pursued downriver by elves and orcs – represents the very opposite of respecting the source material. I made that argument myself in the case of Unexpected Journey‘s equivalent scene, the running battle in the goblin caves: purest essence of video game, grafted on for the sake of pleasing the younger punters, and intercut with the one really strong scene in the film, the Bilbo-Gollum battle of wits, in a way that reduces the impact of both.
This time I can only report that I was laughing all through the river fight sequence, and leaning forward in my seat. It’s great fun. The fact that I can say this is all the evidence you need that Jackson has done a lot of things right in this film. By the time the dwarves climbed into their barrels, I was happy to climb in there with them. I was on board. Though I will give myself the slight cover of pointing out that this time, the Playstation fight sequence doesn’t interrupt a stronger scene, and comes after a long period of fear and imprisonment – first the capture by the spiders, and the intense, claustrophobic battle which follows, and then the capture by the elves – and leads into the negotations for passage through Laketown. It’s the right moment for a bit of full-speed-ahead action, in other words.
If I had to sum up Peter Jackson’s film-making personality in one word, “action” would probably be it. Or perhaps “motion”. His camera is constantly on the move, rising above the characters for a panoramic view, weaving around them, panning sideways, zooming in. Everything has moving parts. Everything is physical. Remember the fight between Gandalf and Saruman, in The Fellowship of the Ring? The two great wizards unleashed! Big moment! And it turns out that wizards unleashed equates to… two old men engaged in magic kung fu. They throw each other back, they slam doors, they flip each other over. In The Two Towers, Gandalf exorcises Theoden of Saruman’s corrupting presence, and we see Saruman physically expelled, flung to the ground. That queasy heat shimmer Bilbo sees when he puts on the ring? It’s the illusion of constant motion. Magic in Jackson’s Middle Earth is the power to make things move.
This means two things. First, Jackson is fundamentally out of sympathy with Tolkien, whose idea of magic was that it was numinous, parsimonious, and used to coerce or exert force only by the corrupt. There are few moving parts in his world: everything good is organic, all of a piece. The big Gandalf showpiece scene in the new film, without going into spoilerific detail, is big on the special effects: glimmering magical force fields pushing outwards, pushed back inwards, evil power reaching out dark tendrils of visible influence, and, yes, more magic kung fu. It’s like seeing a Jedi fight a mutant octopus. Tolkien would have loathed it.
But second, when Jackson is on form – and he is, here, for most of the film’s length – he has an energy and a sense of play which make him very easy to watch. I would rate this his best film since The Fellowship of the Ring, were it not for a surprising pratfall in the final act. This pratfall goes by the name of Smaug.
The one part of Unexpected Journey I loved was the conversation between Bilbo and Andy Serkis’s CGI Gollum. The one part of Desolation of Smaug I expected to enjoy, going in – I expect it’s obvious that my expectations for the film overall were about ankle-high – was its matching scene: the conversation between Bilbo and the sly, malevolent, worryingly intelligent dragon he and the dwarves have come to overthrow. Benedict Cumberbatch voicing an evil genius who also happens to be an unstoppable death-dealing invulnerable flying fire monster – what’s not to like?
Spoiler-avoidance forbids me to answer this question in full. But briefly: Jackson and his team write Smaug as a blustering thug with the tactical and strategic intelligence of a drunken lemming. Cumberbatch’s elegant drawl, which could impart so much menace to the character were it allowed, is electronically rendered as a basso profundo growl, with reverb so heavy it leaves little room for personality. And what voice acting survives this treatment is simply, and surprisingly, not very good. When the great worm comes out with the line, “I am fire! I am death!”, he leaves a long, ten-months-pregnant pause before the last word: “I am fire! I am…. death!” It’s melodrama posing as drama, or, in other words, it’s purest ham.
When I panned Unexpected Journey last year, one response I got from a number of people was, “I guess that’s understandable, from a Tolkien fan”. This is an odd response in a way, since it suggests that knowing much about the thing Jackson is adapting is a handicap when it comes to appreciating the adaptation. But in another way it’s to the point: a film can’t be a book, and straining for fidelity is often a hallmark of the worst literary adaptations. Jackson stays true to the exact details of Tolkien almost nowhere here. It isn’t quite true that I have no problem with this; I would much rather watch a good version of The Hobbit which is also a faithful one. But if the choice is between fidelity and entertainment, go ahead and entertain me. This is the deal Jackson sets out to make throughout this film, and the consequences for the whole extended Smaug sequence give his subtitle an unfortunate second meaning. But as barren of good ideas or fun as the Jackson/Cumberbatch Smaug turns out to be, the rest of Desolation of Smaug isn’t desolate at all.
IN CINEMAS NOW