Before anyone gets too excited or too defensive over the title of this post, let me start by proclaiming that I am not only a massive fan of Tolkien’s masterworks, but I am also a big fan of Peter Jackson’s filmic interpretation of THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. Now I’m speaking of the Extended Editions, of course. For those who have only seen the Theatrical Cuts, I can only say that you haven’t seen the actual films and can, therefore, only offer a limited judgement of the work that was done in bringing that story to the screen.
The Extended Editions, particularly of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, were vast improvements over the shorter versions. What disappointed and seemed like a loose veil of a story wrapped around a series of poorly staged battles at first, suddenly blossomed into the emotional character adventure and exploration — with full social and historical commentary intact — that had made the Tolkien books so compelling. Were the films as good as the books? Of course not! If you expected that, then you believe in the impossible. So, given realistic expectations, I found the films to be an extraordinary achievement on a massive scale. I loved them and have happily returned to that 12-plus-hour cinematic adventure on several occasions. Not that I didn’t initially enter in to Jackson’s world without some serious concerns.
When I first heard that Jackson was going to tackle this beloved piece of literature, I was more than a little worried. With the exception of HEAVENLY CREATURES, I was not a huge fan of Jackson’s work. His combination of darkness and comedy rarely worked for me. I like my coffee black. Cream and sugar not only waters down the taste, it changes the taste completely. I had every reason to believe that Jackson would infuse these films with a goofball humor that would consistently undermine both the integrity and gravity of the books and the stories they contained. But to my jubilation and astonishment, Jackson — with one or two exceptions — created what I found to be a very dark, enthralling and epic motion picture experience.
When I then heard that Guillermo del Toro was tapped to direct THE HOBBIT, I worried again. While somewhat fascinated with elements of Del Toro’s work, I have never quite connected with his style or instincts as a filmmaker and was more than a little concerned that he would take THE HOBBIT in a direction I would not like. When he backed out and Jackson stepped back in, I was both relieved and thrilled.
Unlike many others, I was fascinated by the notion that Jackson and company were not only going to film THE HOBBIT, but many of the other tales that connected that first book to the trilogy; they were going to take Tolkien’s other writings of Middle Earth and expand on that initial story written for a young audience. What remained in question was whether Jackson would attempt to capture the childlike sense of play that separated THE HOBBIT from its more adult follow-up, or whether he would focus more closely on allowing the filmed version to exist more as a prequel to his own LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. Was it possible to do both? It seems Jackson has tried.
I must say here that I actually enjoyed the first HOBBIT film. Not nearly as much as THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but I so love this world and these characters that venturing back was, quite simply, a joyful and pleasurable experience for me. What kept that film from matching its predecessors, however, were those goofy elements that Jackson had been known for in the past that were responsible for allowing me to drop out of so many of his other films: a self-consciousness; that recurring “wink” to the audience; a schizophrenic tone shift that always felt more adrift to me than it did daring, a pubescent sensibility that I was thrilled seemed almost absent in his LOTR films. I was vastly disappointed in both Jackson’s KING KONG and his adaptation of THE LOVELY BONES. They both missed their marks for me by wide margins. But I still believed that Jackson’s connection to Tolkien’s work brought out something different in him and, as a result, I chose to hope and, to an extent, trust his work and vision in this department.
My gravest issue with Jackson’s first installment of THE HOBBIT — to address this in more detail — was that, for me, many of the action scenes stepped too far out of the reality of the created world. Reality. An odd word for a story that takes place in a mythical land of elves, hobbits and dragons, I know. But each and every world has its own set of rules. Break them and the pieces crumble. Jackson allowed the most dangerous and life-threatening sequences to devolve into moments of silliness and a defiance of gravity meeting flesh and bone that, for me, undermined the threat of the dangers themselves, thus vastly decreasing the tension and forcing me to take the lives of the characters far less seriously. Was Jackson giving in to his own worst sensibilities that had kept me at arm’s length in the past? Or was he simply trying to honor the fun, playful aspects of Tolkien’s book in his own way? I truly do not know. For me, Jackson walked a fine line in that first HOBBIT film. Luckily, he teetered on the better side of it and left me wanting more (i.e. excited about the next HOBBIT installment).
Yesterday I returned to Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkien’s world with THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG.
What. The. Hell. Happened?
I sat there gape-jawed and full of embarrassment as I watched what played out for me like every Tolkien-hater’s misguided vision of what THE LORD OF THE RINGS and THE HOBBIT must be like. Jackson had, somehow, managed to turn this film into something almost indistinguishable from every other action/adventure movie oozing out of the fetid remnants of Hollywood today. STAR TREK, DIE HARD, THE HOBBIT… They’re all now just effects extravaganzas moving through tired, similar plots with action scenes that are played more for the humor and hijinks (and, again, winks to the audience), than they are for any true commitment to story or character or consequence. The action scenes in DESOLATION OF SMAUG are almost unwatchable in their entirety. Silly, tired and overdone, they come and go with little impact as eyes glaze over with the fog of the insipid and the mundane. As if Rube Goldberg had fashioned an action sequence for a prepubescent animated Disney film on a horrifically uninspired day. Even Martin Freeman, who was so charming and full of life in his depiction of Bilbo Baggins in the first HOBBIT installment, devolved into nothing more than a lifeless prop here, seconded only by the regression of Sir Ian McKellen‘s Gandalf into nothing more than a familiar face with a large stick and baggy robe. Was it the decision to turn the intended two films into three that caused this greatest of missteps? Was it Jackson’s over-attention to the 3D/48 fps process that distracted him from the actual storytelling that is to blame here? I truly don’t know. What I do know is that my personal experience of THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG was utterly and entirely disappointing and even somewhat painful. The reduction of this great story into something as tepid and weary as what I witnessed yesterday is something worth mourning. Not a global crisis, to be sure, but from a film/movie perspective, incredibly sad. My personal experience of this filmed version of THE HOBBIT is forever tainted in such a way that, unlike the LOTR, I will never go back to this prequel trilogy as I will not allow myself to submit to any of the feelings this middle film elicited in me. Some missteps I can push aside, oftentimes many. But some are far too great to dismiss or ignore.
This is one of them.
THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG is the film people who complain about Jackson’s reinterpretation have seen all along. The version I never saw. The version I dreaded.