Back in 1964, for a dollar amount that has been described by those involved as “peanuts,” producer William L. Snyder managed to snag the film rights to a then-obscure series of fantasy novels penned by a middle-aged philologist from Oxford. Snyder then enlisted the services of renowned animator Gene Deitch, and for the next two years tried to secure funding for a full-length theatrical adaptation of his acquisition. Unfortunately, nobody in Hollywood had ever heard of this English professor or his quaint little fairy tales, so Snyder couldn’t raise a dime in funding.
As fate would have it, however, with just a few scant months remaining before Snyder’s rights to the works were set to expire, American college students rediscovered the nearly forgotten stories in a big way. Seemingly overnight, Snyder found himself sitting on a hot property. With no time remaining to produce a feature film, yet needing something – anything – to put in a theater in order to retain movie rights to the books, Snyder gave Deitch thirty short days to write, animate, and print a single reel, 12-minute long version of the first novel in the series. Hacking out large chunks of the narrative and making drastic changes to what was left, the animator valiantly succeeded in delivering the film mere days before the deadline. And that was how, on the last day of June 1966, the first film adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit made it to the big screen.
OK, so it only made it to one screen for one day and then disappeared, but it existed just the same. And these days, it’s actually pretty easy to find the thing floating around the Internet, so if you’re really interested in a 12-minute long version of The Hobbit with changes to the story that Deitch admits “a few years later would have been grounds for burning [him] at the stake” (there are no dwarfs, Bilbo marries a princess at the end, and so on), you should have no trouble finding a copy. But even if you don’t have the stomach to track down Snyder’s version of The Hobbit, it’s still nice to know the thing is out there for at least one simple reason: perspective.
You see, over the years, there have been a number of attempts to bring the works of Tolkien to life, and none of them, not a single one, has been entirely faithful to the narrative, tone, or spirit of the original novels. And there never will be such a movie for the simple and obvious reason that what makes a good book does not necessarily make a good film. I first opened the pages of The Hobbit when I was eleven years old, and I still count those few days it took me to make my way to the end of the story to be among the greatest reading experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I treasure Tolkien’s The Hobbit, but I’m not so sure I’d enjoy watching a straight-ahead film adaptation of it. I’m just too afraid that certain passages that come across on the page as lyrical and whimsical would most likely translate to the screen as saccharine and dull. When you translate something like The Hobbit to film, you have to change things to make it work – that’s just the way it is. (Maybe you don’t make the insane decision to get rid of all the dwarfs like Snyder and Deitch did, but you do change some things… and that’s OK.)
I guess all of the above is my extremely long-winded way of explaining why I’m perhaps a bit more forgiving of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit movies than many of my peers in the ever-widening circle of Catholic movie reviewers. Because Tolkien’s works are so deeply infused with his Catholicism, his writings have reached a near state of idolatry amongst us papists, and as a result, there are a legion of fans (many of them film critics) who will brook little deviation from the printed page. I get it, I really do. It would be great if every Catholic theme present in the book made it into the films; the world would be a better place for it. But if I may paraphrase a certain grey wizard, I don’t get to decide which adaptation of The Hobbit makes it to the screen; all I get to decide is what to do with the adaptation I am given. And that Hobbit is Peter Jackson’s, not J. R. R. Tolkien’s.
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Nowhere does this become more abundantly clear than in The Desolation of Smaug, Jackson’s second movie in his Hobbit trilogy. The first film, An Unexpected Journey, was mostly fun, but also somewhat bloated and overlong due to Jackson’s inclusion of seemingly unnecessary scenes from both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings appendices. There’s a bit more of that in The Desolation of Smaug (with trailers and ads, you’re definitely going to be sitting in the theater for at least three hours), but this time around, it becomes a lot clearer what Jackson is up to with all the extras.
The film begins with a prologue not found in the novel in which Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield meet prior to the events in the first movie in order to discuss the dwarfs’ upcoming quest. It’s here we learn that Gandalf’s interest in the endeavor springs from the fact that he suspects the returning Sauron (I’m sure you remember him) will undoubtedly utilize the dragon Smaug as a devastating weapon against the peoples of Middle Earth. Just imagine how The Battle of Helm’s Deep would have ended if the forces of good had to fend off a nigh, invulnerable dragon as well as all those Uruk-hai, and you can easily see why Gandalf would be concerned. Now to be fair to Peter Jackson, Tolkien himself actually penned this bit, but it was published posthumously and never made part of the actual book of The Hobbit. With its inclusion at the start of the film, however, Jackson tips his hand about what his Hobbit movies are really about.
Because he made The Lord of the Rings films first, Jackson doesn’t really have the luxury of ignoring those stories. So rather than try, he’s simply charged full steam ahead and made The Hobbit a true prequel with every event that transpires having some significance to the larger story, which concludes with The Return of the King. In short, Jackson’s Hobbit is not meant to be a stand-alone story like the original novel, but a chronicle of the events leading up to The Fellowship of the Ring. That’s why we not only see the adventures of Bilbo and the dwarfs on their way to the Lonely Mountain, but we also spend considerable time with Gandalf as he searches for evidence of Sauron’s return and with the elves of Mirkwood as they argue over their potential involvement in what is to come.
Not all of the additional material feels necessary, though. The elven war-maiden Tauriel – a borderline Mary Sue if ever there was one – turns out to be a surprisingly welcome new character, but her blossoming love triangle (I’m not making this up) with Legolas and the dwarf Kili comes across as forced and somewhat of a waste of time (though it could have some emotional payoff in part three if Jackson sticks close to the book). Still, such unnecessary digressions are fewer this time aro
und than in the first film.
The movie remains at its best, though, when it sticks with Bilbo and his companions. The film covers the company’s meeting with Beorn the man-bear, their encounters with spiders and elves in the forest of Mirkwood, the daring escape to the lake-town of Dale, and the initial encounter with Smaug in the Kingdom Under the Mountain. There’s plenty of action to be had, with the dwarfs’ frantic trip down the river by barrel with orcs and elves in hot pursuit being a definite crowd pleaser.
But as in the first film, it’s Bilbo’s alone time with the villain that is the most memorable thing about the movie. Say what you want to about other parts of the film, but Benedict Cumberbatch’s turn as Smaug does full justice to the most especially greedy, strong, and wicked worm found in Tolkien’s novel. His interaction with Martin Freeman’s spot-on Bilbo made me feel like I was right back in my childhood bedroom under the covers with a flashlight reading that scene. I’d like to thank Mr. Jackson for that.
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The ending of the film, however, I’m not so sure about. The first movie concluded with Bilbo performing an uncharacteristic bit of warrior-like heroism, a fact that didn’t sit well with Tolkien purists, but was kind of necessary in order to provide a small character arc and give the film a good spot to fade out on. As for the conclusion of this movie, well… let’s just say that between this and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, there’s going to be an awful lot of frustrated audiences chomping at the bit for next year to hurry up and get here.
It’s an odd ending in that it doesn’t really provide any closure for any of the characters. No story arcs are concluded at all. But in a way, Bilbo’s final words (which I won’t spoil here) are kind of fitting ones to end on considering the internal changes many of the characters undergo during the course of the film. Bilbo, as evidenced by his newly awakened viciousness when confronting the spiders, is beginning to show the effects of carrying the One Ring – it’s finally becoming his Precious. For his part, Thorin begins to become consumed by the thought of the ever-nearing treasure locked up in his lost home. It’s a sickness of the soul that spreads to both the elf king of Mirkwood and the Master of the lake-town once they realize who Thorin is and where he is going. And just in case anyone misses the subtext of the corrupting power of greed running throughout the film, Smaug helpfully spells it all out in his conversation with Bilbo.
Given the recent release of Evangelii Gaudium, in which Pope Francis comments on the evils of unbridled consumerism and the idolatry of money, the movie’s concern with greed is somewhat timely. “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience,” the Pope stated. “Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.” This is exactly what happens to the characters in The Desolation of Smaug, and Bilbo’s lament at the very end shows he finally realizes it, but perhaps too late.
So, while all the additions may result in a questionable (some will say lousy) adaptation of Tolkien, in a weird way it all comes together to make the second Hobbit film a better, more enjoyable movie than its predecessor. And at least Jackson kept the dwarfs in the story, so even the hardcore Tolkienistas would have to admit he did some things right.