Review: “The Desolation of Smaug”

Now I have seen it.

And I have just one word for the second installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit:


That is all.


Only one of these men is wise.

O.K., several people have asked me for more than one word.  If you like mindless action scenes that go far beyond anything you can even remotely believe as actually happening, you will love it. The dragon is good. We expected Jackson to get that part right. But he just can’t leave the story alone, not when he can show Legolas killing more orcs than Sauron and Saruman together ever bred.


Hint to PJ: dragons sleep on top of their horde, not under it.

It is no longer possible even to discuss with a straight face the commonly urged defense that adaptation to a new medium requires changes. Of course it does.  In Jackson’s LOTR, the dropping of Bombadil and the conflation of Arwen and Glorfindel fit this category. But the necessity of changes begs the question of what changes. The effect of these in the second Hobbit is that all the charm of the original story is gone. How, for example, is the way the company gets into Beorn’s house an improvement on the original–or even an adaptation of it? You could not have found a better way to induce Beorn to kill first and ask questions later. That he doesn’t, that Bilbo wakes up to find him having a civil conversation over breakfast with the dwarves, is unmotivated and unexplained. Jackson sacrifices everything to the excitement of one more orc chase.

I haven't yet been to Wales, but the hills in Scotland are certainly inspiring in their own right.

Ooh! Let’s put an orc chase HERE!

It has been said that the main flaw is Peter Jackson himself. We can accept that verdict and make it more specific. It is the fact that he is in love with what he can do with CGI for its own sake as opposed to for the sake of the story. And he is in love with his own ideas, not with Tolkien’s story, which to him is just raw material. That is why the more you love Tolkien, the less you like Jackson.

The ultimate indication of how far the film is from the book is the marginalization of Bilbo. The Hobbit is about the growth of Bilbo as a character. In the movie, he is merely an appendage to, or perhaps an excuse for carnage between Legolas/Tauriel and the orcs and a gratuitous love story between Tauriel and Kili. I would like Tauriel if she were in her own story in a different world. Here–she doesn’t belong.


Will we ever get a good adaptation?  I think it unlikely in the near future.  It would require someone with Jackson’s talent and funding, but without Jackson’s hubris. And human nature dictates that most people who have the former are also likely to have the latter. But if it did happen, and only attracted people who complain about Jackson, it would have a substantial audience!

Dr. Donald T. Williams is R. A. Forrest Scholar at Toccoa Falls College.  Check out more of his writings at


About gandalf30598

Theologian, philosopher, poet, and critic; minister of the Gospel who makes his living by teaching medieval and renaissance literature; dual citizen of Narnia and Middle Earth.

Posted on February 3, 2014, in Children's Literature, Donald Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien, Middle Earth, Movie Reviews, The Hobbit and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. The one upside to all this is that now we don’t have to worry about Jackson being the definitive version. So much can be done better, that there’s bound to be another director out there waiting to pounce and make a billion dollars.

    That is if the scarred and terrified Tolkien Estate will ever let someone else try!

  2. I haven’t seen the Hobbit movies out of principle and foreboding, and I’m definitely not going to now. I was worried they were going to mess with Beorn, who was one of my favorite characters; evidently I was right.

  3. “It is no longer possible even to discuss with a straight face the commonly urged defense that adaptation to a new medium requires changes”

    Wait a second. Let’s be consistent here, shall we?

    Why are you bothering to compare the book to the movies when Jackson (as you seem to acknowledge here) clearly has no interest in a pure adaptation? Or, a better question:

    If Tolkien’s book didn’t exist, how would you judge this as a movie?

    Of course this movie wouldn’t exist without Tolkien’s book, but as far as many people knew, before The Fellowship of the Ring came out in theaters, Tolkien might as well have never existed.

    We might also ask “Is it only good art if it replicates the goodness of the original work?” or “Was Jackson even trying to create good art?” but I think we’ve covered that ground many times.

    As I’ve said before, “adaptation” is a misnomer. What you are looking for is closer to a “translation,” if we can consider the medium of text to be something like a different language from the medium of film. Are there sometimes things lost or necessarily added when one translates speech from one language into another? Of course! But the intent is always to maintain the fundamental meaning so that clear communication of ideas is the result. Jackson’s not doing that, nor do I think he ever really intended to.

    Is that a result of hubris? Possibly, but I don’t think it’s quite fair to damn him so and not give him the benefit of the doubt that his motivation was to make a good movie rather than to tread on our beloved Tolkien’s grave.

    Of course, you’re welcome to fume as much as you like. I’m sure Jackson doesn’t mind. 🙂 But I prefer to actually allow myself to enjoy the movies I shell out $12 for and to try to judge them based on their own “language,” so to speak.

    By the way, you missed something: Jackson’s Smaug is actually a Wyvern (according to our resident Dragon expert, Melissa).

  4. Well, Erik, the movies do not bill themselves as “loosely based” on Tolkien’s work. We judge them as adaptations because they ask us to. And even if I do judge “Desolation” strictly as a movie, forgetting that I had ever read Tolkien, I come to the same conclusion: More gratuitous violence than is needed, too many mindless “action” scenes for which disbelief is not so much suspended as hanged, drawn, and quartered. They are less stupid when viewed that way, sure, but stupid is still the word.

    • And what do they mean when they say “adaptation”? Clearly not what you’re expecting, so I’m not sure why you keep insisting on that word, or implying that they mean what you mean or vice-versus. Show me where Jackson ever said that he intended to be exactly faithful to the text, and I will eat my aging athletic wear.

      You’re surely welcome to think it was stupid, but that’s not what you spent your post talking about. You went on again about how it didn’t represent the text. That is the inconsistency I find in your argument.

  5. None in “Desolation.” But I can think of two in LOTR (amidst many stupid ones). Having Anduril kept in Rivendell actually makes more sense than having Aragorn dragging a useless weapon (dead weight!) around with him in his endless backpacking treks through the wild just so you can have a dramatic scene using it as a prop with Sam at Bree. And having Aragorn dismiss the army of the dead at the end of the battle of Pelennor fields makes more sense than doing it at Pelargir. And there were other changes that I would call acceptable, if not smart, such as conflating Arwen and Glorfindel (which I already mentioned).

    • What about the dwarves being so one-dimensional in the book, or how little sense it made for the Battle of Five Armies to happen? Those are just two things off the top of my head, but there are a lot of things in the Hobbit that just wouldn’t work outside the book. I think the idea of trying to add a non-male character into the mix was kind of dumb in execution, but there are a lot of people who dislike the fact that there are *no* female characters in the Hobbit at all. You may say “well, that’s just how Tolkien wrote it” but I think it’s a legitimate concern to contemporary audiences. Aside from that, adding Legolas was at least not contradictory to canon. Where was Legolas in Tolkien’s Hobbit? Well, he didn’t exist yet. But the LOTR movies existed before the Hobbit movies, so it’s not that hard to believe that if Tolkien had written the Hobbit with LOTR in mind that he would have included Legolas, if probably not so prominently.

      I still think you’re too stuck in how things are changed from the book. I’ve moved on from that discussion because Jackson’s changes are pretty much all about what would make this a good movie, not about what would capture the book’s best aspects. I wish that wasn’t true, but it *is*, so I don’t see any point in pretending that it isn’t. Jackson apparently thinks big, whimsical action scenes make for a good cinematic experience (which to him apparently revolves around spectacle more than anything else). But I do think that this habit is also Jackson’s attempt (perhaps feeble) to capture the delight of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, so again that comes back to what you expected. Should Tolkien have made this a serious, grim affair like the LOTR movies?

      It also think it’s a little silly to criticize the Hobbit movies for being unrealistic when the book was not trying very hard to be realistic either. Does Jackson go too far? I think that is certainly debatable, but I think it’s mostly a matter of taste. The “STUPID” scenes didn’t bother me because I expected the movie to be fun, not serious. I don’t think your general complaint that Jackson misses important aspects of Tolkien’s books is as relevant a defense in this area, if anything, because the purposes of the book and the movie are clearly different.

      • I don’t see the Dwarves as all that one-dimensional; nor did I think the Battle of the Five Armies all that hard to understand. But I do agree that the movie had different purposes from the book. I’m just not sure how that is a justification for its stupidities, most of which in my judgment remain even if the book is ignored.

        • The dwarves might as well be one person rather than 13 in the book, but unless the movie was *much* shorter, having that many characters on the screen with so few differences between them would have been extremely confusing and annoying. In a book, it’s just an amorphous group of people that can act as one in many ways and have individuality when the situation calls for it (Bombur falling into the black river and falling asleep, for example). But on the screen, their number and image is right in your face, so you can’t ignore their number. As for the Battle of Five Armies, doesn’t it basically amount to a coincidence in the book? Tolkien doesn’t really bother to explain the motivation behind the goblins’ actions (because he doesn’t have to). You may not like Azog in the movie, but I think it’s helpful that there’s an orc general who will be actively lobbying to go kill Thorin and company rather than a bunch of apparently leaderless goblins (after the goblin king is killed) just at the right moment to have a climactic battle.

          In any case, I am glad that you can see my point of them being different in purpose, even if you don’t think that’s as important to the evaluation as I do.

  6. I agree with you gandalf30598. The second Hobbit installment was terrible. Even as a movie, I felt like it was a jumbled up mess of action scenes. I miss the deep conversations between characters in LOTR. There is also way too much CGI in the Hobbits. The wargs and orcs were way more realistic in LOTR.

  7. I am in full disagreement with this naturally, mostly because The Hobbit is impossible to translate properly into film the way it is written. Well, not impossible, but it would be a short, silly road movie full of stuff you never get explained, with loads of silly songs, talking handbags and God only knows what.
    The main reason for the changes you are complaining about in your post stem from the fact that this is NOT The Hobbit translated into movie form, and it was never meant to be. It was intended to be the prelude to LotR, which is incidentally what Tolkien himself later decided it should have been as well. He tried for many years to rewrite it without losing the “charm” you`re talking about, but gave it up.
    And that`s why the movie actually shows what Gandalf is doing when he abandons the party most of the time. The story is the Rise of Sauron and the beginning of the War of the Ring, period. The Hobbit grazes a few issues connected with this without explaining them; Gollum`s cave and finding the Ring, Gandalf disappearing, presumably to root out Sauron with the WC in the books, although it isn`t explained there as far as I am aware; and above all why it was so important to reconquer Erebor. This key point is not explained in any meaningful way in The Hobbit at all.
    As a result of this the movie is darker and more action-ey than the book is, but lighter than LotR. It hadn`t gotten as dark yet as it would later. When you see the movies like this, these decisions actually make some sense, although they are clumsily executed. If something could be done about the ridiculous barrel scene I think it would be a lot less noticeable though.
    But you just can`t say on the one hand that you accept adaptive changes and on the other that changes don`t conform to your version of the “charm” of the original story, and that they are therefore stupid. Trust me, that book is charming to people for any number of reasons. It`s even entirely not charming for others, for exactly the same reasons. The point you`re missing is that you have to make some hard choices when you start an adaptation of The Hobbit to movie. These basic choices are as follows:

    1) Make a purist`s (pedant`s) version, including only what is in the book. The dwarves can have different colored beards and hats, but must otherwise look and behave exactly the same.
    2) Make a movie that conforms to The Hobbit but takes creative license without taking literary license.

    In both these cases you can not explain why Gandalf leaves; you can not show any scenes from Dol Guldur, the White Council meeting; (because Bilbo did not attend that.); you can show very little, if anything, of Thranduil, no named orcs or anyone of significance in the goblin cave apart from Gollum, etc etc etc. Presumably we would also have had to include all the songs, talking handbags, bipedal dogs and what have you, to the detriment of the movie in my opinion. Or we could:

    3: Make a more adult version of The Hobbit (Just PG 13, but it beats PG 5 which option 1 and 2 would have been) which includes the DG/WC/Radagast bits for the links to LotR.

    Once you accept that option 3 is the far superior one for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that Jackson had already made a highly successful LotR trilogy he wished to connect these movies to, then you must rethink your criticism accordingly.
    It would still be fine to criticize the ridiculous action scenes, and the one with the barrels in particular, love scenes out of nowhere and all the rest of it, which I do as well. But you can no longer couch this criticism in a confusing medley of gripes about the literary liberties being taken. We have already agreed that the movie had to be made this way in order to make any sort of sense as a movie. It`s just a fact that young people love action and sex, and a movie for young people like Jackson`s Middle Earth movies will therefore contain a certain amount of this. I`m just glad it`s action and not sex. I can imagine Galadriel with cleavage rubbing herself against Gandalf easily enough, and I`m glad Jackson has at least avoided half of the usual Hollywood cheap shots.

    • Skulb, I think in your zeal to defend Jackson you missed my point. I do not and did not object to incorporating material from the backstory in order to expand the movie and make it a prequel to LOTR. I think that was an interesting thing to do and that it was worth trying, fwiw. None of the stupidity I referred had anything to do with that or had to be there because of that. It does not come from that strategy but from being more in love with cool stuff you can do with cgi than with the story in any version, using cool cgi effects for their own sake rather than as servants to the story; and it hinders the telling of the reconceived story just as much as it does the original one. If you give me scenes I cannot believe in, even on the premises of the imagined world, I’m going to call it stupid. Because it is.

      • It`s not really zeal, just that I sometimes find the criticism of his ME movies jumbled and confused. Either we must discuss adaptation, license, additional content, removed content, poor interpretations of characters and motivations or CGI fetishism. I just find it difficult to follow a criticism that tries to do all of it at once.
        And apart from the barrel scene I didn`t think DoS was too bad. I never had your affinity for Beorn though, and I never quite got who he was and what he was doing living in a weird house in the middle of nowhere all by himself. Another example of where The Hobbit explains basically nothing of any note, and is in dire need of embellishment:) For a while I though he was secretly Radagast, because one of the descriptions of Radagast in LotR is that he can change shapes, and because Beorn`s house is quite close to Rhosgobel where Radagast lives. That`s how poorly some of this stuff is actually explained by Tolkien. No wonder there are mistakes here and there.

        To list the things I liked about the movie: Bolg and Azog, Gandalf. All the dwarves except the two pretty ones. Gandalf and Radagast. Dol Guldur and Sauron (yes I know, how dare I?). The initial meeting between Gandalf and Thorin. Beorn in bear form, but also his bees. Mirkwood and the spiders. Thranduil and the forest place. Bard and everything in Esgaroth. Stephen Fry was enough to make the ticket worth it all by himself. Erebor and the dragon. The treasure hoard in particular was brilliant.The scenery was beautiful and appropriate, the music was perfect and most of the dialogue was great. Also the CGI was almost perfect, unless there was too much like you said. But I thought it was about right, and in tune with the previous ME movies from Jackson.

        All in all there was a lot more to like about this movie that to dislike, at least for me. But to be sporting I`ll list those as well: Tauriel and Legolas. Please won`t somebody kill them off in a dramatic plot twist. The barrel scene. Was well choreographed but too much so. Impotent orcs being manhandled as if they were paralytic by Legolas and co. The scenography in Erebor was a bit overchoreographed for my taste, particularly when Thorin falls down a mineshaft and ends up standing on Smaug`s nose. Again, it was all well made, but a bit much for me. The two pretty dwarves. Beorn`s human form was uninspiring but not anything I`d get a hangup over.

  8. Reblogged this on Through a Glass Darkly and commented:
    So I haven’t done much writing myself recently (a technicality that will shortly be remedied); meanwhile, anybody who loves reading Tolkien and is curious about the movies will enjoy this review (and the ones that follow). Next time somebody asks me how I felt about The Hobbit Movies, I will direct that person here.

  1. Pingback: Review: Jackson’s “Battle of the Five Armies” | While We're Paused!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: