The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (review)

December 23, 2013 The Hobbit 16

I saw The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug with my family on Thursday night.  First impressions: I really enjoyed it. Parts of it had me laughing, while parts had me on the edge of (or nearly jumping out of) my seat. And I couldn’t watch the spiders at all, other than the occasional peek. (Apologies if that’s a spoiler, but I figure that anyone familiar with the book knows about them already.)

The movie is, of course, visually gorgeous, and there are some very good performances to go with the fantastic sets, costumes, makeup, and special effects. It’s a testament to both the writing and Richard Armitage’s acting that I like movie-Thorin despite his arrogance and stubbornness, and I understand why his dwarves and even Bilbo follow him — neither of which I ever really got from book-Thorin. Martin Freeman is of course marvelous as Bilbo, showing the hold the Ring is beginning to exert on him as well as his growing courage. I don’t think Ian McKellan is capable of a bad performance, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug is terrific – just over-the-top enough to be convincingly draconic, without (quite) going over the edge into parody-villain. They’ve deepened and roughened his voice to make it suit the immensity of the CGI dragon, but if you know it’s him, you can hear flashes of Khan here and there.

However, the writers and director did add a great deal of material, some from the LOTR appendices and Tolkien’s other works, but some completely original to the movie. And when I say a great deal, I mean a great deal. Almost half the movie is different from (or in addition to) the book.  While the purist in me is trying hard to be horrified, I have to admit that on the whole, their choices work, and serve to strengthen and deepen characters, increase tension, and avoid some of the improbably lucky coincidences on which the book’s plot turns. 

I was surprised that we spend so little time at Beorn’s house.  More surprising was how much the filmmakers condensed the time in Mirkwood — though the scene with the spiders was more than long (and scary) enough for me.  We don’t spend as much time in the Elven halls as I expected, either, but the expansion of the Elven king Thranduil’s character, giving him a complexity and nuance not seen in the book, makes up for the brevity.  If you’ve seen the trailers, you’ll know that Legolas appears in the movie, though he’s not even mentioned in the book; since we do know from LOTR that he’s the son of the Elven king in Mirkwood, it makes a lot of sense to include him.  Legolas’s relationship with his father is more complex than I anticipated, and I’m curious to see where those two characters go in the third movie.  By the way, don’t miss Gloin’s brief mention of “my son, Gimli.” It’s a delightful moment, since LOTR fans know what good friends Legolas and Gimli will eventually become — despite hints that Legolas will have personal reasons to dislike dwarves.

One of the most controversial changes is the introduction of Tauriel, the female elf.  I admit I was skeptical before I saw the movie, but the filmmakers managed to make her interesting and important rather than the token female I feared she would be, giving her real character and motivation as well as several rather significant scenes — not all of which involved fighting.  She serves as a bit of a conscience to Legolas, reprimanding him at one point for the Mirkwood elves’ isolationism, and her interactions with the dwarves, while decidedly not canon, will undoubtedly prove influential in more ways than one.

There have also been some complaints about the scenes showing Gandalf’s movements while the dwarves are in Mirkwood and at the Lonely Mountain, but these scenes, at least, are based on material found elsewhere in Tolkien’s work, even if the details are conjectural.  In fact, this installment of the movie trilogy continues and deepens Peter Jackson’s attempt to tie what is otherwise an episodic children’s adventure tale to the darker, more epic events of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  For that, I give Jackson full marks.

One thing did irk me: this movie ignores the laws of physics even more than the last one did.  I’m not just talking about Legolas’s amazing fighting skills and unusual balance; after all, he’s an Elf, and they’re supposed to be more than human. But I do expect dwarves and hobbits to be subject to the laws of gravity and thermodynamics, and without giving too much away, well… apparently they are not.

But that’s a minor quibble about what was otherwise a very good movie. All in all, I recommend The Desolation of Smaug if you enjoyed An Unexpected Journey. If you’re very familiar with the book, try to go in with an open mind. Oh, and by the way, don’t expect a tidy ending; this one is definitely a cliff-hanger.

16 Responses to “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (review)”

  1. Dan O.

    Good review Lark. If you go into this movie as someone who’s read the book and you don’t like things being changed, then chances are you might not be too happy with the liberties that were taken. Me, I’ve never read the book so I can’t complain.

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      Thanks, Dan! It’s odd, because I’m usually indignant when the film deviates from the book, but I was OK with most of the changes in this movie. I wouldn’t say it’s as good as the three LOTR films, but it is a lot of fun.

  2. Greg

    Thanks for the review. I’m one of those who dislikes deviations from the book, so I’m probably not going to like this movie. 🙂 I’m going to do my best to just relax and go with it though… I’m a little disappointed to hear that the time at Beorn’s house is short, and the same with Mirkwood. I am however looking forward to the barrels out of bond sequence, which is a favorite of mine. I’ve heard they’ve padded it considerably with a running battle, but what I’ve seen of it looks fun.

    As for the added stuff, I probably will gripe about it although I did always enjoy reading about the White Council so maybe it will work for me. I hope to see this over the holiday break.

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      Hmm… you may gripe, but there’s a lot to enjoy even with the added and changed material. Like I said, the purist in me tried to be angry, but I was having too much fun! So I hope you enjoy it, too.

  3. Lianne @

    Great review! Glad to hear that you enjoyed the movie. I too was surprised by how quickly the Mirkwood sequences moved, especially as I was anticipating for this since the first movie. For the most part I’m pretty cool with most of the deviations they’ve made for the movie, perhaps not as strongly convinced as with the changes made to LOTR but I wasn’t nitpicking in the theatre, which is a plus, lol.

    I need the third movie in my life now, lol

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      “I need the third movie in my life now, lol”

      That was pretty much the blanket reaction of the entire audience at the showing I went to, if the groans are any indication. And like you, I wasn’t nitpicking (much) during the movie; it moved to fast and kept my attention too well. (I did mutter to my husband once or twice that “that isn’t in the book”, but it was more informative than grumbling.)

  4. kimbacaffeinate

    Wonderful review I love the series and yes totally agree you need to have an open mind. I did not like the spiders either..LOL Merry Christmas!

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      I’m looking forward to the extended DVD, both to see what they add and because I’ll be able to skip the spiders. (Which might not be quite as bad on the small screen, anyway…)

      Have a great Christmas, Kimba!

  5. Fawn Palmer

    Beorn is to me like Tom Bombadil. They are older beings who are the misty past, before Elves even. I have not seen the movie yet so liked reading this review. I am looking forward to the deeper character interactions she discusses. Have to see it now. 🙂

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      I hope you’ll enjoy it, Fawn! I would have liked a little more Beorn, but it’s true that that section is really a minor interlude in the book, as well — at least in terms of the overall plot. So I guess it’s reasonable that they cut it a bit short. I’m hoping for more when the extended edition DVD comes out. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the movie!

  6. Anonymous

    My family went to see The Desolation of Smaug a few days ago, and we spent the ride home picking it apart from the seams. (We really loved it, it’s just our habit to do that.) We were mostly upset about the way the did Beorn’s scene, as that was (in my opinion) one of the best parts of the book. I agree with you about Thorin–I couldn’t figure him out in the book at all.

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      My daughter ‘Robin’ and I do that too. Like you, it’s not because we didn’t enjoy the movie! (Well, sometimes it is. Percy Jackson [cough, cough]) I’m hoping for more Beorn in the extended version.

  7. Rachel Bradford

    Don’t be silly. Dwarves don’t feel gravity! 🙂 I haven’t been able to see this movie yet, but I can’t wait. I admit to being a little disappointed to find out that it’s not the end of the story. The book simply isn’t that long, is it? But I’ll still love the movie. 🙂 Thanks for the review!

  8. Cheryl @ Tales of the Marvelous

    I also enjoyed this a lot, especially Cumberbatch as the voice of Smaug. I kept hearing Sherlock. 🙂 And I so wanted him to say something like “You seem familiar” to Martin Freeman (co-star in Sherlock) but he never quite did…

    I agree entirely on the added material. I vaguely feel that I should be outraged…but I’m not. Jackson seems to be really good at knowing exactly when and how to cut or expand Tolkien, and though Mirkwood felt a little rushed and Legolas’ part felt a little extensive, most of the movie I was willing to go along with him on…