In a three-part series (one, two and three), I spent a good deal of time demonstrating that the best fantasy is realistic. Given that the glorious works of J.R.R. Tolkien illustrate this principle and that the screen adaptation of the first book, The Hobbit, does not, I had the perfect opportunity to make my case. At times, the argument grew subtle; for example, when I vigorously debated at what point in the story it was appropriate for Bilbo to find his courage. More than one person accused me of being too fine.
Then, Peter Jackson - who, in the spirit of the fantasy genre, shall evermore be known as Peter the Accursed - released The Desolation of Smaug, a movie that ranks as the most horrific moviegoing experience of my 51 years. If science possessed the ability to selectively obliterate these audiovisual inputs from my brain, I would admit myself to the Cleveland Clinic, have my skull opened, and my brain tissue irrevocably ablated. I am sad I cannot have this major surgery.
Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter the Accursed demonstrated in the first Hobbit movie a belief that scenes devoid of extreme action lacked a hold on the mind of the vapid modern moviegoer. They were just getting warmed up. Little did I know that this belief would evolve into a total departure not only from Tolkien's work, but good storytelling in general.
If I attempted to document all the absurdities in this movie, it would be a 10,000 word post that no one would read; my goal is to keep this to 1000 words that no one will read. Fortunately for brevity, there is a legal concept called res ipsa loquitur, which is Latin for "the thing itself speaks." The idea is that usually in legal proceedings you have to explain the offense - the hit and run accident was really murder; the bad roofing job was a con artist stealing an old lady's money. You have to make your case. But there are times when the thing that happens is so glaringly obvious that no case need be made. Anyone who has read the book and seen the movie needs no explanation of the violence done to the story. The very fact that the movie poster below contains two characters never referenced in The Hobbit makes the case the the book itself was discarded as a serious source of plot material.
The Desolation of Smaug picks up at Chapter 7, Queer Lodgings, and follows Bilbo and the dwarves through Chapter 13, Not At Home (roughly; given that the story has been vaporized, sometimes it's tough to determine). Would it surprise you to know that the sum total of violent, martial activities engaged in by Bilbo, the dwarves, the elves, the men of Lake Town, and other characters is THREE: Beorn kills a wolf and goblin off camera, Bilbo kills some spiders, and the dwarves use sticks, rocks and small knives to drive away more spiders.
There is not a single live orc in these eight chapters. There is not a single live goblin in these eight chapters. No elf shoots an arrow or uses a sword. No man of Lake Town shoots an arrow or uses a sword. No dwarf lifts more than a stone or small knife in his defense (except to shoot arrows at animals for food...and miss).
Chapter by chapter, let us examine the bravery and military chops of our dwarven heroes:
- Queer Lodgings: Meekly approach Beorn at Gandalf's direction. Want to steal Beorn's ponies.
- Flies and Spiders: Grumble, complain, fall into the river, starve, get lost, get caught without much of a fight by large spiders. Freed by Bilbo and, at his direction, wield sticks, stones and the odd knife to fight off spiders.
- Barrels Out of Bond: Easily captured by the elves after begging for food, three times disrupting a feast, rescued by Bilbo. Complain.
- A Warm Welcome: Impose upon the hospitality of the people of Lake Town by deceitfully exaggerating their prowess and reputation.
- On the Doorstep: Grumble and complain.
- Inside Information: Cowardly refusal to go into the mountain. Send Bilbo. Bilbo does the heavy lifting while the dwarves wait outside.
- Not at Home: Cowardly refusal to go into the mountain. Send Bilbo again. Only reluctantly go to Bilbo's aid, which they do not have to provide. Greedily claim and obsess over the unguarded horde.
Why, in a segment of the book that features, for all intents and purposes, absolutely no battles, would you rewrite the script and subject your viewers to almost three hours of endless battle between made-up characters on both sides? What's the point? If your assessment of the market is that you're dense audience will only be impressed by a suffocating barrage of ludicrous battle scenes, then direct another damned story, for heaven's sake!
The answer is money. The Lord of the Rings trilogy has amassed almost three billion dollars in movie revenue alone worldwide. Production companies continue to battle over royalties for the Hobbit series even now. The movies Peter the Accursed has made - a short book bastardized into almost nine hours of film - is about dollars, not the classic story. But hidden beneath all those dollars is an error: a belief in the stupidity of the average moviegoer, and in the notion that Tolkien's nuanced story would have kept people away from the theaters.
If Peter the Accursed decided to make a movie about the Bible, he would have Jesus and his disciples as shuriken-wielding attack ninja who rip through the Roman Empire like tissue paper, chopping up Pontius Pilate, the Sanhedrin and the Roman legions like so many orcs. Because, of course, it's more exciting that Peter run across the helmeted heads of Roman guards while implanting three shuriken's into the head of Caiaphas than to deny Jesus and reel away in shame.
Reality vs. absurdity, and absurdity has won.
I have selected only one aspect of the movie's abominable treatment of the book: the violence and fighting. Other elements were more absurd: an elf/dwarf love story, the golden idol in the mountain, etc. but, despite what my friends and family think, the most important thing is not the fidelity to the original story; it is theoretically possible that Peter the Accursed could have directed a screen adaptation that was unfaithful to the book but still great storytelling. The point is that, even if The Hobbit did not exist and The Desolation of Smaug was an original work, it is insufferable storytelling. It is unrealistic fantasy that leaves the viewer battered, annoyed and unimpressed.