The Desolation of Smaug Soars to New Highs and Plummets to New Lows

A long, long time ago, in a quiet little room somewhere in the medieval quadrangle of an Oxford college, a professor named J.R.R. Tolkien found a blank page in a pile of examination papers and idly scribbled the words, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Tolkien likely did not know that the sentence he wrote would become one of the most famous opening lines in English literature, and one of the most influential. This story began very modestly and quietly, after all, but it has continued with us ever since, for nearly a century now, reshaping children’s and fantasy literature, then role-playing games, movies, and global pop culture. The Hobbit wasn’t the first Middle-earth story Tolkien wrote, but it was the first one published, and the one that made everything else possible.

Rereading The Hobbit, it’s easy to see why it was such a success. It’s told with a wry voice, great charm and wit, and is wonderfully imaginative. Bilbo Baggins is one of children’s literature’s great heroes, despite being a fussy, wealthy, middle-aged man. What he lacks in childlike years he makes up for in childlike size, and the book aptly portrays the childlike wonder and fear of finding oneself thrust out into a bigger world, whether one likes it or not.

At the heart of the book is Bilbo’s encounter with Smaug the dragon. It’s a scene that consciously echoes Beowulf’s fight with the wyrm, and Sigurd’s deadly duel with the dragon Fafnir (not to mention Tolkien’s own story of Túrin and Glaurung). But unlike those other protagonists, Bilbo is no warrior. He’s barely even the burglar he was hired to be. As Tolkien writes, going down alone into the darkness to face Smaug is the bravest thing Bilbo ever does. Smaug, after all, isn’t just a fire-breathing monster, he’s also highly intelligent and can mesmerize with his eyes, and manipulate people with his words. Smaug’s deadliest weapon is his tongue, and Bilbo has to use all his wits not to get tripped up by his own, and thus found out.

Bilbo’s conversation with Smaug perfectly captures the great vulnerability of a child in an adult’s world. Children know how to use speech to trick people, hurt feelings, and get what they want, but adults are far more skilled at weaponizing it, turning it into a sleight-of-hand to extract information, manipulate, threaten violence, and dominate. All this Smaug has honed to an art. Bilbo escapes, but only just, and reveals to Smaug more than he intended, with disastrous consequences.

The Desolation of Smaug, the second of Jackson’s three Hobbit movies, captures this scene perfectly. It’s incredibly tense, as Martin Freeman’s Bilbo tries to sneak around—physically and verbally—Benedict Cumberbatch’s great red-gold dragon in his Scrooge McDuck-style hoard of treasure. Freeman and Cumberbatch have great chemistry from their days as Watson and Sherlock, and it pays off beautifully here, even with Cumberbatch on screen as a giant CGI lizard. That CGI is amazing, by the way. The Weta Workshop never misses, and their Smaug is gloriously realized. His red skin with cooled-lava-like streaks of black, his reptilian but cunning face, his vast and terrifying size: it’s fantastic. I’m a fan of Rankin-Bass’s feline Smaug, but Jackson’s dragon matches the monster I always had in my head when reading the book. One of the pleasures of a cinematic adaptation is seeing a book “come to life,” and while the Hobbit trilogy often falls short on that count, here it soars.

The Desolation of Smaug is the most mixed bag of the entire trilogy, containing some of its best scenes, performances, and design work, but also some of its worst adaptation choices. It suffers the middle-movie syndrome of not having any distinct identity or narrative throughline of its own. Jackson solved that issue in The Two Towers by threading it with the themes of war and trauma, but while Smaug has better individual scenes and performances than An Unexpected Journey, it lacks the narrative cohesion and character arcs of its predecessor.

The flaws are apparent from the get-go. After a flashback showing Gandalf’s fateful meeting with Thorin in Bree, we get the Dwarf company on the run from Azog again, and seeking refuge in Beorn’s house. The Beorn scene in the book is delightful, as Gandalf cunningly gets around the were-bear’s gruff suspicions by telling a rambling story and slowly revealing the Dwarves two-by-two. It’s a wonderful fairytale moment that introduces both Beorn’s nature (essentially good, but easily angered and dangerous) and highlights Gandalf’s considerable wit. Gandalf, like Smaug (and Saruman for that matter), is a master of the magic of language. He can light fires and fireworks with spells, but his true purpose in Middle-earth is stoking hope and courage in the hearts of its peoples, and he does this mostly with words of wisdom, comfort, and counsel. The movie, however, drops all of this and instead has Beorn in bear-form chase the company into his house, which the Dwarves barricade against him. When he shows up later, back in man-form, he’s apparently fine with all this. Again and again, the movie makes the mistake of thinking the only way to create conflict and tension is through a fight scene or a chase.

After their pointless sojourn in Beorn’s house, Gandalf goes to investigate the tombs of the Ringwraiths, and Bilbo and the Dwarves head into Mirkwood. Despite his horror background, Jackson drops all pretense of horror here. The endless, pitch-black, poisonous, eye-filled forest of Tolkien’s book is replaced by a small set that Bilbo and company wander around drunkenly for a few minutes before being attacked by spiders.

The spiders, at least, are wonderfully creepy, and the deep command of Tolkien’s mythology that Jackson showed in the Rings movies shines through here, as it’s the One Ring that allows Bilbo to understand the spiders’ terrible speech, a neat way of keeping a kidlit aspect of the book (giant talking spiders) while linking it to the larger narrative and history (the long, complicated relationship between Dark Lords and giant spiders). If only the rest of the story had been this clever.

The Dwarves are rescued and taken captive by the Wood-elves, led by Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, who isn’t in the book, but whose presence makes sense (this is his home, after all). This leads us to the film’s other high point besides Smaug, which is Lee Pace’s grandiose Thranduil. Pace’s towering stature and deep voice are perfect for the Elvenking, and he gives Thranduil an outsized nobility and haughtiness that befits an immortal woodland elf-lord. He feels like a Faerie-King of old, both ethereal and razor-sharp, which is exactly as he should be. It’s also a very fun performance; Pace is clearly having the time of his life, and it shows. When he’s on screen, the film is as mesmerizing as Smaug’s eyes.

Also introduced here is Evangeline Lilly’s Silvan elf Tauriel. Alas, poor Tauriel. The Hobbit is, it bears saying, bereft of women. Tauriel is Jackson’s attempt to amend that lack, and her original character arc, whose ghost still shines through at times, would have done it well. Tolkien’s books are stuffed with Elves, but even in The Silmarillion, most of the Quendi we meet are aristocrats. Having a new key character be a commoner-elf, and a woman, is a smart move. Tauriel seems to have been written to play a role similar to Quickbeam among the Ents, the relative youngster who chides their elders to take a more active role in the world, and Lilly is great when that’s the character she’s allowed to play.

But somewhere along the line, the character was changed and her story becomes almost entirely about her love triangle with Legolas and Aidan Turner’s Kili, who is costumed to look remarkably similar to Aragorn, to remind us all of how much we liked the Aragorn-Arwen romance. But Lilly and Turner have little chemistry, and it doesn’t help that their first interactions happen when she is literally his jailer. The entire venture is a profound miscalculation, and it’s especially disappointing because Tauriel could have been such a wonderful addition to Middle-earth. Instead, she’s reduced to being the Mr. Pibb to Arwen’s Dr. Pepper.

Bilbo rescues the Dwarves from Thranduil’s dungeons by stuffing them into barrels and then sending them floating down a river. Of course, this is also mutated into a chase/fight scene as the Elves and Orcs both descend on the bobbing Dwarves. Many people have said this scene plays like something out of a video game, but it looks more like a theme park ride to me, and it’s just as thrilling as watching a video of other people riding a theme park ride (i.e., not at all).

The Dwarves and Bilbo are rescued by Luke Evans’s Bard, who takes them by boat to Lake-town. Here again Weta shines, turning Lake-town into a crowded, labyrinthine Norse Venice (the architecture is a nice nod to Tolkien’s conceit of the Lakemen’s dialect of the Common Tongue being analogous to Scandinavian languages, in the same way the Rohirrim’s language is to Old English).

Bard shelters the Dwarves in his home, but becomes alarmed when he discovers who Thorin is and what his intentions are. Bard believes that Thorin’s quest will result in Smaug destroying Lake-town and argues vehemently against it. He cites an old prophecy that the return of the King of the Mountain will cause “the lake to shine and burn.” It’s worth taking a moment here to refer to the book, where that prophecy is repeated word for word, but means the lake will shine and burn with gold—not dragon fire. It’s a happy prophecy, and one all the Lakemen (not just Stephen Fry’s greedy Master) embrace because they believe the King Under the Mountain will bring renewed prosperity.

Jackson positions Bard as a brave truth-teller and Thorin as motivated by reckless arrogance and greed, and the film largely frames Bard as right. After all, Smaug does fly down and burn Lake-town to the ground (er, water) and the third movie shows the aftermath with a desperate, crying woman running into the Lake screaming, “My baby! Where is my baby?!” But the movie seems to have forgotten its own opening scene and the fact that this quest is, you know, explicitly planned and blessed by Gandalf, aka Olórin, aka the Wisest of the Maiar. The appendices of The Lord of the Rings go even further, in fact, with Gandalf heavily implying that his meeting with Thorin, and thus the Quest of Erebor, was divinely inspired, likely by the chief Vala Manwë, and possibly even by Eru (God) Himself. Bard is thus railing against heaven’s own will.

It’s not that good characters can’t be at cross-purposes, or fail to grasp the potential catastrophic results of their plans. But the movie’s framing means Gandalf is heavily responsible for the destruction of Lake-town and the deaths of hundreds or even thousands of people, and that unlike Bard, he either was too foolish to see it, or was willing to gamble it—neither of which matches the character of Gandalf that we know. Jackson’s desire to ramp up conflict leads to a strange and frankly careless bit of character assassination.

Of course, Smaug burns Lake-town in the book, as well, but this is an event nobody anticipates. No one in Esgaroth objects to Thorin’s venture, and most assume that if Smaug is still around, he’ll kill the Dwarves and that will be that. The possibility of Smaug attacking Lake-town isn’t mentioned. The X-factor is that dangerous conversation between the wyrm and Bilbo, where the hobbit accidentally reveals that he’s come by way of Lake-town. That’s what sets Smaug off to Esgaroth. But Bilbo is also the one to spot Smaug’s weak point, a fact he conveys to a thrush, who then whispers it to Bard, who then takes down the dragon. Book-Bilbo may inadvertently send Smaug to Lake-town, but he’s also the one who provides the “inside information” necessary to take down the dragon. Movie-Bilbo provides no such intel and ends the movie gravely wondering, “What have we (‘we’ here including Gandalf and maybe God Himself) done?”

Gandalf isn’t around to defend his schemes since he’s taken captive by the Necromancer, who turns out, to the surprise of no one, to be Sauron. I haven’t even mentioned the side plots with Azog and his son Bolg, and Bolg’s night raid on Lake-town, or Kili’s poisoning, or Lake-town’s off-brand Wormtongue, because this movie is stuffed with incident and yet devoid of significance. Did I mention that Thranduil magically reveals to Thorin that half his face is burned off? No? Well, I forgot, just as the filmmakers did, because it never comes up again.

Smaug, more than any other of his six Middle-earth movies, puts all of Peter Jackson’s strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker on full display. The creature, set, and costume designs are top notch, the cast is stellar, and certain adaptation choices reveal a deep understanding of Tolkien’s world and themes. But the inflated run time, the endless need to turn every interaction into character conflict, a chase, or both, combined with tired attempts to recreate the successful bits of the Rings movies, ultimately sends the movie down dimmer paths than even Bilbo would dare to tread. You can’t blame Jackson and the studio for wanting to rake in more money, but they of all people should have known that sometimes there’s a dragon under all that gold, and it’s just waiting to wake up and lead you astray.

Austin Gilkeson has written for Tin HouseMcSweeney’sVultureForeign PolicyThe Toast, and other publications. He lives just outside Chicago with his wife and son.

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