With one film left, audiences have a much clearer picture of Peter Jackson’s grand plan in giving his Hobbit movies an upgrade from two films to three. The truth of it is that it was both a necessary and unforgiving decision that has consequences evident in most of the successes and failures in the first two films, and it’s a trend destined to continue in the finale. See, The Hobbit as a dramatic narrative fails miserably. There are fifteen main characters between the thirteen dwarves, the title character Bilbo, and the Wizard Gandalf. Of those fifteen, only two —Thorin, the leader of the Dwarves, and Bilbo — have anything close to a dramatic arc. The rest of the Dwarves are a hive mind of bad manners and thriving facial hair, a joke that works on the page and not on the screen. The wizard is a wonderful and endearing character, but he’s an unchanging rock to anchor the story, and he’s only as dramatically compelling as the characters around him. Worst of all is the narrative structure of Tolkien’s text. Only half the chapters, ten of nineteen, include what could be called the book’s storyline, with the rest featuring self-enclosed episodic encounters usually lacking in character or plot. In each, the dwarves are captured, or nearly so, and escape in the nick of time. That might work on HBO, but not in the Cineplex.
Look for proof in the amazingly visceral spider sequence early in the going, which picks up right after An Unexpected Journey closes. In the book, this is one of a large series of caught and escape plots, and after having several of them back to back in the previous film, the redundancy would have been transparent. We’d have been bored if we weren’t already. To remedy this, Peter Jackson, along with his cowriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, donate ample screen time building up the relationship between the spiders of Mirkwood and the rising evil of Dol Goldur. This serves multiple purposes: it disrupts the formula and gives added liveliness to the encounter by sheer diversity and gives added weight to the encounter by tangentially connecting it to the story at large. This example is archetypical of the nature of Peter Jackson’s inventions from story beat to story beat: even though they require added screen time, they’re (mostly) necessary in the adapting of a rigidly repetitive text where characters all behave the same.
The same can be said for the addition of the elf Tauriel, arguably the most controversial of the many changes for Desolation of Smaug. Even with the numerous changes following Bilbo and Thorin’s party, there’s a natural lack of diversity in their character types and personalities. Even with Jackson’s best attempts to humanize them, they can’t come close to the Fellowship as an interesting and emotionally engaging unit. Tauriel became a powerful narrative tool wielded expertly by the writers. Conflict is made up of oppositions, and conflict means friction. Not only does she liven up the picture through sheer variety, Tauriel also contrasts the Dwarves every bit as much as she contrasts her own people, adding surprisingly potent energy into The Desolation of Smaug. Quickly after we meet her, we’re introduced to the elven king Thranduil, played to perfection by Lee Pace, who gives us the most fully realized elf in all five Middle Earth films. He’s a fascinating character: an isolationist hell bent on protecting his magnificent kingdom. It’s easy to see why: the Woodland Realm is one of the coolest locations in all the films, where stone is carved into organic patterns to mimic tree branches (it crescendos with the best action sequence of the year). As much as she respects him as a ruler, she opposes his rule and instead empathizes with the peoples facing impending doom in Middle Earth. Her presence gives context to our company of characters and her own elven heritage as well as the threats at large. And, although romance subplots don’t remind of our favorite Oxford Professor of language, all her qualities are decidedly Tolkien. Crucially, so is Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins. A certain golden trinket has an elevated role in Smaug, and Freeman deals with the dark as well as the light in effortless grace. In fact, the whole cast is on point.
Not all additions are so cleanly beneficial, such as an elongated battle with Smaug the dragon that exists mostly to delay The Hobbit’s climax into the third film. The finale is made up of tired action movie heroics for a half hour, and although it’s undeniably visually mesmerizing, you can see the hands of Peter Jackson reaching into the film and stretching it out like a rubber band nearly to the point of breaking. The first hour and a half of the lengthy running time moves at such an effectively rapturous pace, from the trek through Mirkwood to the delightfully Dickensian Lake Town, that as the pacing slacks and the action plods on some audiences will be exhausted. The drama with Smaug is crosscut with action in Lake Town, playing up the social strife between a newly introduced character named Bard and the sordid Master of the city. These scenes are effective without overstaying their welcome, but it’s difficult not to get the feeling a more streamlined third act would’ve been better. It’s only because Smaug is indeed so stupendous that saves the third act from snapping, helped in part by Benedict Cumberbatch’s delightfully sinister voice work. Smaug is amongst the finest things Peter Jackson’s ever brought to the screen, and the dragon earns an extra lap around the bases. Pure. Movie. Magic.
These Hobbit movies won’t ever escape the flaws of source material ruthlessly difficult to adapt, but luckily, Smaug, the film as much as the character, roars.