I went to see the second instalment of Peter Jackson’s epic visualisation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug – the other day. It is clearer than before that he is not just concerned with translating the book to the screen – in all its detail – but with providing a bridge to the Lord of the Rings films (amongst other things – see below). Thus we have a prologue between Gandalf and Thorin in a tavern on the fringes of the Shire, which not only recalls a similar scene in The Fellowship of the Ring, but is both an addition and a prequel to the action of An Unexpected Journey, or Hobbit Part One. And the film is full of reminders of the battle with Sauron to come, the most notable being Gandalf’s confrontation with him at Dol Goldur.
The result of all this is some abridging of the episodes covered in the book – the sojourn in the house of Beorn, the passage through Mirkwood – while others are embroidered for self-evidently commercial reasons: the flight from the Wood-Elves’ dungeons by barrel is now harried by orcs arrayed along the banks of the river, who are in turn decimated by Legolas (a fuller-of-face but digitally rejuvenated Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly in an invented role designed to provide some feminine interest in a hopelessly male-dominated franchise); most significantly, Bilbo’s famed encounter with Smaug (silkily voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) becomes a suitably momentous finale for Part Two, with all the Dwarves involved in a cat and mouse game with the dragon around the furnaces and halls of the Lonely Mountain.
This is all very cinematic, just as it may alienate purists – a trade-off that has forever bedevilled adaptors of works for the big screen, just as the casting of Stephen Fry as the Master of Lake-town may have had more than just this reviewer shifting uneasily in his seat! For the rest one feels ambivalent. On the one hand, the flight downriver by barrel delivers some bravura pieces of choreographed action that would have been unimaginable years ago (Balin’s bounce along the banks, taking out orcs as he goes), and the rousing of Smaug from his slumbers is not only a breath-catchingly tense moment but the movement of thousands of coins as he stirs is brilliantly caught by the CGI. On the other, though, there are diminishing returns in the repeated spectacle of the impossible made possible through the contrivance of visual effects: a character takes a leap into the abyss, so to speak, without a second’s hesitation in the sure knowledge that point A will meet with point B at just the right moment. In the past, one incidence of this kind of brinkmanship would have been enough to strain credibility in the film’s world order; now, with cross-contamination from videogames, film producers give us several per movie. Thus, there is never any question of an ordinary orc besting Legolas or the Dwarves, since their survival is crucial to the outcome of the narrative; in this, the films are admittedly no different from the boys’ adventure story dynamic of Tolkien’s original. But the requirement for cinematic spectacle to equal the reader’s indulgent imagination carries its own dangers of audience fatigue.
One final thought concerns the introduction of the character of Tauriel, and the blossoming love story between Kili (Aidan Turner) and her. Having rescued him from the spiders in Mirkwood, Tauriel forms a growing attachment to her handsome captive, and the relationship is given sufficient screen time to matter to the audience. When they fight for each other in the skirmish with the orcs by the river, the bond is intensified, and Kili’s mortal wounding with a poisoned arrow occasions a rescue expedition in defiance of King Thranduil’s orders that has the girl risk all against further orc attacks, in order to save his life through the application of a herbal remedy from her own fair hands. Pace the questions it raises about the acceptability of miscegenation in Tolkien’s world (it should be noted that she is not considered worthy to be Legolas’s consort, so what, then, of marriage to a Dwarf?), this is a canny introduction by Jackson and his team not only of an element of romance, but also of modernity, in a franchise so top-heavy with knightly valour: analogies of interracial/inter-faith love matches in our own era are not hard to find, and for avatars of female characters who know how to handle themselves every bit as well as their male counterparts, look no further than Angelina Jolie, Uma Thurman and Scarlett Johansson!