The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is without doubt a vast improvement on the overlong, capering An Unexpected Journey, but in a handful of meaningful ways it’s also improved upon Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings films too.
There’s going to be spoilers, so you have been warned…
1. The Hobbit films shows us a world people actually live in
Once we left thew Shire and Bree-Land behind, The Fellowship Of The Ring was a story about kings and quests. Middle-Earth transformed in an instant from being a place in which people live, to being a box-fresh setting for a Dungeons & Dragons expansion.
In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, director Peter Jackson showed us a great deal about dwarves, their language, culture and industry in a way that been merely intimated in Fellowship. In The Desolation Of Smaug, he goes even further, showing us the elves of Mirkwood and the men of Lake-Town.
We’ve seen Elven domains before – Rivendell and Lothlórien in The Fellowship Of The Ring – and more than our fair share of human kingdoms – Anglo-Saxon-inspired Rohan in Towers and the soaring Gondor in Return Of The King – but there was never any sense that people lived in them, just wide-eyed extras.
All of these were mere painted backdrops for a story too high stakes to effectively show you how people lived.
In Desolation, the narrative structure and the motivations are simple enough to take us from this world of cataclysm and total war to a world of normal people – Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans’)’s adorable Welsh offspring and shanty hovel, the self-interested rulers of Lake-Town, and the people’s anxieties and ambitions. Now in a way that Rohan and Gondor weren’t, Lake-Town feels like a real place, whose inhabitants we care about and whose dilemmas we understand.
The Elves too get a bit more space to breathe in Desolation – we seem them talk amongst themselves, comport their affairs, defend their borders and drink themselves into a stupor – heck, we even know how they trash their empties and where they keep their prisoners. Compare that to the scenes of them gliding around woodland glades in The Two Towers.
Lord Of The Rings introduced the elves as a pointy-earred plot device – dispensing warning, background info and R&R like pastoral service stations. The Hobbit, meanwhile, has turned them into a society.
2. The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug shows us moral grey
Many of the key difference in tone between the two trilogies comes simply from the fact that they’re both very different types of books, written decades apart for very difference purposes.
One is a children’s bedtime story, and the other is a mythological epic – a contemporary answer to the poetic Edda or Kalevala – and yet the morality inherent in both isn’t all that dissimilar. Good is good and evil is evil, yet somewhere along the way, Peter Jackson elected to show us the thousand shades that lie between, making The Hobbit comparatively far more subtle and nuanced.
Though it’s classically resonant to divide the world into pure and incorruptible characters, in narrative terms it was actually fairly galling to see leaders of men across all three of The Lord Of The Rings movies lose their way because evil had been whispering in their ear or because they just didn’t measure up to the living legend in their midsts.
Boromir (Sean Bean) was a hard-bitten warrior who knew more than any other member of the Fellowship the cost of Sauron’s advance and the terrible hardship of conflict, and so he sees the One Ring as the magical nuke that only he has the guts to detonate.
The problem for viewers unable to surrender their contemporary sensibilities is that it’s not fully explored or built upon, and instead Tolkien has all ambiguity thrown between the two great magnets of good and evil. So Boromir succumbs to evil and tries to snatch the ring – he can’t just want it, he has to go berserk over it – and then embraces good by recognising
Jesus Christ Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) as his lord and saviour in a classic deathbed conversion.
The ethical purity of Aragorn simply steamrollers aside all lesser mortals, whose failings have to have consequences catastrophic enough to be judged evil – Théoden (Bernard Hill), when not magically possessed, is a coward who makes bad decisions, and Denethor (John Noble) is psychotically insane. It’s all so glib and two dimensional, but it works in the sense that myths and sagas often were glib and two dimensional.
In contrast, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) – who occupies a dash of both the Boromir and Aragorn role in The Hobbit by being a flawed veteran and a king without his throne – is allowed to show his darkness by degress, to increasingly trouble Gandalf (Ian McKellan), and in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug physically threaten Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and coerce the people of Lake-Town down a path to destruction.
Bard the Bowman is similarly fascinating – another Aragorn-like descendent of kings – he’s also a cautious outsider who only discovers his moral authority when pushed, stepping up to demonstrate himself the kind of leader that Thorin isn’t.
With both characters there’s a clear arc underway and their behaviour is allowed to run a more authentic gamut without needing to blame magic or just slap a GOOD or EVIL sticker on their foreheads.
3. The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug gave us a real romance
It’s a fairly damning indictment of the entire series that Desolation Of Smaug‘s love triangle between Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), smouldering dwarf
Fíli Kíli (Aidan Turner) and the lifeless Legolas (Orlando Bloom), complete with a “Father forbids it!” Romeo & Juliet romance across tribal boundaries – as trite and cliched as it was – seemed infinitely more convincing and emotionally rewarding than the dreary matter-of-fact love story in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy.
Expressionless elf maiden Arwen (Liv Tyler) is in love with handsome destiny-meat Aragon. Both Arwen’s role and the importance of their romance was significantly beefed up to compensate for JJR Tolkien’s sexless sausage-fest – yet we’re told rather than shown this love in dull exposition scenes, just as we’re told rather than shown why they cannot be together in equally dull dream sequences or portentous exchanges with the austere Elrond (Hugo Weaving).
Let’s not even entertain the whole demeaning business with warrior princess Éowyn (Miranda Otto) getting all broody over Aragorn – she never stood a chance and was promptly married to a character she’d never been seen speaking to – Faramir (David Wenham) – off camera.
In comparison, actually seeing Tauriel become steadily smitten with Kíli, challenge her CGI-faced surrogate brother/suitor Legolas and defy her surrogate father/liege lord Thranduil (Lee Pace) was absolutely electrifying.
4. The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is better paced
This is mainly aimed at the Hairy Bikers segments of The Two Towers and The Return Of The King, which cut from high-octane battle scenes to Frodo (Elijah Wood), Sam (Shaun Astin) and Gollum (Andy Serkis) yomping up cliff faces and bickering about elf bread or the correct way to cook fish.
In terms of pacing, it’s the storytelling equivalent of that bit at the end of the rollercoaster where the train just trundles limply into the shed before you get off – only here you’re expected to stay on for another two hours.
The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug splits the story much more satisfactorily, jumping between the Orc assault on Lake-Town and Bilbo and crew’s encounter with Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). In pure filmmaking technique, it was pretty much word-perfect – keeping the energy up right up ’til the cliffhanger.
It’s only bloody Sylvester McCoy, everyone!
The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is in cinemas now – read our review here. You can order The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Limited Edition Steelbook on Blu-ray for £22.75 at Amazon.co.uk.