When a book or comic with a significant public following gets made into a film there are always those who are disappointed with the interpretation. Cards on the table, I’ve been a fan of The Hobbit since I was a small boy, so my expectations for this release may have been unnaturally high. But given there’s plenty of people singing director Peter Jackson’s praises, I feel its worth sounding at least one cautionary note…
The Desolation of Smaug is the second installment in Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, arriving in cinemas worldwide on Boxing Day. It picks up the story hours after Bilbo Baggins and Co. have been rescued by giant eagles from the Misty Mountains and are now on the run from goblin search parties. The next barrier to their quest for the fabled treasure of the Lonely Mountain are the dark reaches of Mirkwood. This movie sees them through its spider-infested trees to the edges of the Long Lake and finally the bowels of the mountain itself where the dreadful dragon Smaug awaits. But fans of the book needn’t worry that the story will be too familiar to enjoy.
Peter Jackson has turned what might otherwise have been a boring ‘middle chapter’ into a high-stakes adventure. The mining of Tolkien’s other writing has produced an exciting sub-plot for the wizard Gandalf as he investigates the origins of the Necromancer and probes the extent of his dark power. Jackson has also contracted some of the slower parts of the book (the journey through Mirkwood only seems to last a day), and invested extra energy into the dwarves’ escape from the spiders and Elvish imprisonment by building in running battles with unexpected characters. And where Tolkien’s text fails him altogether, the director hasn’t been afraid of creating whole new characters and scenarios – a she-elf who falls in love with a dwarf, a covert orc-invasion of Laketown and an unexpected attack on Smaug.
So for someone who’s never read The Hobbit it’s going to a roller coaster of a ride … but one that misses Tolkien’s destination altogether.
Is this what Tolkien would have wanted?
As an author J.R.R. Tolkien was deeply concerned with the extraordinary feats that could be accomplished within the confines of ordinary friendships. His greatest work, The Lord Of The Rings is, in essence, an incredible victory accomplished by some unexceptional friends. Tolkien showed us how simple faithfulness could be a force to be reckoned with – and his goal was similar in The Hobbit. Bilbo Baggins enters the story a fastidious bachelor afraid of dwarves chipping his crockery. But as the Troll Fens, the Misty Mountains, Mirkwood, and the Long Lake roll by, a quiet courage emerges. By the end of the novel, this squeaking hobbit has rescued the company three times and emerged as the moral force of the story.
Sadly, Peter Jackson’s version obscures all of this. His piling on of additional plot lines, action sequences and superhuman characters may make for a good blockbuster, but they only serve to bury Tolkien’s Bilbo. Our hero’s worthy successes disappear beneath the stupendous feats carried out by wizards, elves and villains alike. Worse, The Desolation of Smaug hides just the sort of day-to-day perseverance we need to develop the courage of our convictions.
Are we in it for the long haul?
As Christians, we are called to a life of perpetual endurance – the long race rather than the glorious sprint. As Paul puts it,
“I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me … forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
This too was Tolkien’s Christian conviction: the slow, steady demonstration of faithfulness that at last wins through to the promised crown of life. However, this world is much more entertained by the special, the spectacular and, above all, the swift. Orlando Bloom’s Legolas or Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel are more of what’s called for – heroes born brave, beautiful and impervious. Unsurprisingly, neither appears in Tolkien’s version of The Hobbit.
Watching The Hobbit with your kids
The Desolation of Smaug is something I’d save for high school students as there are some fairly graphic images. However there’s also an opportunity to ask serious questions:
- The Wood Elves’ King, the master of Laketown and Thorin all have something in common – did you spot it?
- What does their greed for gold do to the way they treat other
- How can we stop good desires becoming bad gods?