June 27, 2014

On The Changes In The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Comparing Book to Film

The latest film in The Hobbit trilogy has caused a lot of dissension among fans. Most of the disagreements concern the liberties PJ & Co. have taken with the story. In this post I look at the major (and often minute) narrative deviations in The Desolation of Smaug. I will warn you though that heavy spoilers lie ahead. So if you've already seen the film (or just don't care) and if you're undaunted by long posts go ahead and jump the break!


The film opens with a familiar sight, Peter Jackson eating a carrot in Bree. While this is not mentioned anywhere in The Hobbit or any other of Tolkien's writings I don't really mind. :-) We soon move to inside the Prancing Pony where Gandalf meets Thorin. Here Gandalf encourages Thorin to take back the Lonely Mountain. They also (re-)introduce a very key element in the story, the Arkenstone. In the film they're making it much more important in the book. Apparently, besides being a symbol of the King Under the Mountain, whoever has it can call upon the 7 dwarf armies to help him/her. Such a pact never existed in The Hobbit (nor other writings for that matter). It does give the stone even more meaning for Thorin though by the end of the film. But the real importance of this fact will become much more important in film 3, The Battle of the Five Armies. 

While this "chance" meeting never took place in The Hobbit it is mentioned in the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings. There is also a fairly substantial section in the Unfinished Tales describing the conversation as well (but the writers of the film don't legally have access to that work). This will be the basis for many of the changes throughout the film. The Hobbit was intended as a simple children's tale when it was published in 1937. Several years later, while Tolkien was working on The Lord of the Rings, he wrote a lot of back-story to the events described in The Hobbit and gave them much more meaning to the legendarium (see "The Quest for Erebor" in Unfinished Tales). So, while many of these deviations are not in The Hobbit per se, they are in other of Tolkien's works and are critical to events that take place in later stories.

Sign of The Prancing Pony as seen in Fellowship of the Ring
When the previous scene concludes we land right back into the story. The dwarves are still being chased by Azog and his gang. This brings us right to another deviation, Azog. He is another Tolkien character not in the actual Hobbit. However, in Tolkien's story he was killed at the Battle of Azanulbizar (the battle seen in a flashback in An Unexpected Journey). In the films he apparently was not killed or has been brought back by the Necromancer (the former of which I think is more likely as there is no definitive explanation given in the films thus far). He has a personal grudge against Thorin in the films for being a member of the House of Durin and for cutting his arm off at the previously mentioned battle outside Moria. For much of film 1 and for film 2 he has been chasing Thorin & Co. In the films it is used as motivation to keep the dwarves moving and to tie in the Necromancer sub-plot. In that regard I appreciate the change but I'd much prefer to have Azog's son Bolg take over the role and remain a little more true to the Professor's original story.

Because they are being chased by a blood-thirsty orc pack out in the Wild Gandalf leads the Company to Beorn's house. But on the way Beorn starts chasing them and the dwarves barely make it inside in time! No walk through the flower fields and no dwarves walking in every 5 minutes. I was obviously disappointed about this, but I can see two good things accomplished by such a deviation. The first is time. This film is constantly moving and to act out the book would have disrupted the pace and slowed the story wwaayy down. Second, it shows right away that Beorn is not a tame creature, even though he may be good. Still, I wish there would've been a way for the book's story to make it into the Extended Edition.

Beorn Chasing Dwarves
While sleeping in Beorn's house we see Bilbo playing with his Ring and being obviously attracted to it, a theme that will continue throughout the film. In the original book Bilbo's ring was not evil and did not possess many of the qualities Tolkien later gave it. It was simply a magic ring that turned you invisible. Such a change results in this film being understood in light of LotR (in fact, while working on LotR Tolkien even changed the Riddles in the Dark chapter in the newer versions of The Hobbit to better fit with the evil nature of the Ring).

The next morning the dwarves have a short breakfast with Beorn who explains that Azog hunted his people for sport. Again, such a story is never given in Tolkien's works. I think it is simply the film-makers trying to explain a little bit of this mysterious character's background and give him a more personal hatred for orcs and particularly Azog. It also helps explains why he would lend the dwarves ponies. After that we're off again. The stay in Beorn's house was much too short. Hopefully the Extended Edition will bring more scenes with this character.

The Set for Beorn's House (Not a screenshot from the film) 
Once we reach Mirkwood Gandalf see's The Eye crudely painted on an elvish statue and this causes him to leave the Company in search of answers. I'll cover Gandalf's storyline later, but I wish he and the dwarves could have argued a bit more about sending the ponies back to Beorn's. Anyhow, the dwarves enter Mirkwood. Very quickly things don't seem quite right. Everyone, including the audience, looks and feels a bit discombobulated. Everything is a bit psychedelic. Bilbo starts seeing doubles of himself. A great interpretation of Mirkwood. However, changes soon begin again. Instead of running off the path in pursuit of a light (and hopefully food) the dwarves simply lose their way. No big elven feasts in the woods now or later. Soon Bilbo is forced to go up a tree to get a sense of direction. He is swarmed by hundreds of butterflies (which are the wrong color) and the scenery and music is stunningly gorgeous. But instead of seeing no end to the forest Biblo can see all the way to the Lonely Mountain itself! It seems like in some places in The Hobbit (and LotR) geographical distances have been greatly shortened or altered. When Bilbo calls down the Dwarves have already been taken by spiders. The events have been clearly altered and rearranged but it makes for a very well edited film sequence. 

The spiders are frightfully terrifying which almost made this arachnophobe shriek (especially while watching it in 3D!). Bilbo does play a critical role in helping the Dwarves escape, but he doesn't do it alone. Toward the end of the sequence a group of elves comes bounding in led by Legolas and the highly polarizing Tauriel. Before I make a few comments on these two I would like to address my main issue(s) with the previous Mirkwood sequences. It's too short. In the book it feels like we are in Mirkwood fffooorrreeevvveeerrr. The dwarves are starving and even the reader feels a bit claustrophobic, gasping for air. In the film we aren't there long enough to experience any of these feelings. Part of this is due to many scenes being cut. One of my favorite parts from the book is when Bombur falls into the Enchanted river. This scene is entirely omitted in the Theatrical Cut (I say theatrical because it was shot and will hopefully make it into the Extended Edition). As mentioned earlier, the Dwarves don't struggle after the elven feasts (and neither are all the Dwarves captured at once). Hopefully the Extended Edition can resolve this problem. Besides this chapter being too short it was one of my favorite parts of the film (especially the soundtrack).

Dwarves Carrying Sleeping Bombur in Mirkwood. Extended Edition Perhaps? 
Now I will spend some time discussing elves. While he is not in The Hobbit itself, Legolas should be here when considering Tolkien's larger story. In Rings Tolkien explains that he is the son of the Elven King in The Hobbit (who, in Rings, is named Thranduil). Furthermore, when we look at Legolas's age it makes perfect sense from a canonical standpoint and a film standpoint for him to make an appearance. Now, how much of a role Legolas has can be disputed.

His father on the other hand was nearly nailed in all aspects of his character, conceptual appearance, and acting, But his role too is slightly altered. During his conversation with Thorin he knows much more about the dwarf and his quest than he does in the book. The King also reveals a massive scar on his face that shows quite a bit of tissue and bone. Somehow in the film he's able to conceal and expose it at will. I suppose the purpose of this was to quickly and visually show the audience that Thranduil has faced dragons in the past (he talks about facing the dragons of the north) and the consequences of doing such. I think this whole thing is quite silly, but in the film it helps to give quite a bit more depth to his character in just a few seconds.

One of the most polarizing aspects of this film is undoubtedly the character Tauriel. She has been completely invented for these films. At first I was highly skeptical of such an addition, "now PJ is simply making elaborate fan fiction" I thought. After seeing the film a few times I think in many ways she was much better than I expected and also a lot worse. In the films she is the Captain of the Guard and naturally comes down to check on the captured dwarves. Starting in Mirkwood it's obvious Kili immediately takes a liking to Tauriel and he tries (and succeeds) to start a conversation. From here the Tauriel/Kili storyline rapidly develops (or rather degenerates). I can think of only 2 possible things that come out of this invented storyline that I like. 1. The theme Howard Shore wrote is absolutely gorgeous. It's one of the most beautiful and heartwarming themes heard in all his Middle-earth soundtracks thus-far. Plus, the lyrics are part Sindarin and part Khuzdul which is quite fitting. 2. During the main discussion between the two we learn from Tauriel of the wood-elves' love of starlight. This bit of information is really nice (removed from the romance bit) and is very accurate to the book (again, removed from the romance part). Then it gets worse again. We learn that Legolas also likes Tauriel. Ughh. They just had to add a love triangle. Later on in the story Kili is severely wounded and she comes to his aid. That by itself wouldn't be sooo bad, but she heals him with athelas while talking and looking like almost exactly like Arwen in FotR. This is the part of DoS I liked least. For a self-described "lowly Silvan elf" to perform such an act severely undermines Arwen's later role in Rings. Then Kili's hideously cheesy line which accompanies the tail-end of the scene just makes me cringe. To Tauriel's credit though I think most of the "romance" bit falls on Kili's shoulders. So, while I utterly detest the attempted love triangle other elements of Tauriel I really like and enjoy. I think her character gives a lot more colour to the film and her political and philosophical views contrasted to Thranduil will bring about some interesting implications in film 3.

I love the sequence when Bilbo rescues the dwarves. It was very accurate to the book (despite the time-frame which was severely shortened) and Martin Freeman is hilarious as Bilbo. His performance has probably been my absolute favorite part of the Hobbit films so far (along with the soundtrack). The following Barrel sequence is one of the two most embellished parts of the whole film. For one thing the tops of the barrels are open, but this I think is a good choice for film (even though it means omitting some episodes later on). The main changes though come in the action. The elves catch on to the Company fairly quickly and begin running alongside the floating dwarves. Then Azog's pack now led by his son Bolg re-enters the picture. Yes, they're still on the hunt. Now the action really gets exciting. Legolas has some otherworldly acrobatics and a never-empty quiver. Now all three parties are fighting against each other while furiously running (or floating) downstream. In the melee Kili gets severely wounded (and is later healed by Tauriel as mentioned above). Eventually the dwarves make it out of this scrape and float away. The elves capture an orc for interrogation and in that process learn about something or someone called "the One", a reference to Sauron and that sub-plot (which will be discussed later). All of this action is pure embellishment. My thoughts on the "drawn-out" action sequences will be laid out near the end (for obvious reasons ;-) ).

After the exhilarating barrel ride we are almost immediately introduced to Bard, unlike in the book. In The Hobbit Bard literally appears right before he slays the dragon. He jumps into the story out of nowhere. In the film he's introduced to the audience very early on and personally smuggles the Company to his house (so no hungry dwarves showing up at the feast). The widowed film Bard has also been given a family, one son and two daughters. A son (Bain) is mentioned in the Appendices but not any daughters. Even though this isn't true to the original book I think it is a great change. In the book having an unknown character slay the dragon works, and that could work in the film, but adding Bard early allows a lot more of the political and economical situation in Lake-town to be seen. It also gives Bard much more character development. While in Bard's house we learn of Girion and his failed attempt to kill Smaug with a smaller cross-bow device called a Dwarven wind-lance. In later scenes it seems that Bard will also try to use such a device to slay the beast. Not exactly canonical, but it makes more sense from a practical standpoint. In the end the additions to Lake-town and particularly Bard were some of my favorite aspects of film 2. Bard is much more of an interesting character and one that the audience can easily relate to.

Speaking of politics in Lake-town the Master (who is wonderfully portrayed) has an invented "side-kick" named Alfrid. He's the stereotypical bad, crafty, advisor you just want to hate. He looks an awful lot like Grima Wormtongue. Partly due to his counsel, the Master plans to arrest Bard and succeeds right near the end of the film, also something which is not in the book.

The Master and Alfrid 
The dwarves are actually also captured by the Master a bit earlier in the film and a dramatic confrontation occurs in front of the people between Bard and the Dwarves led by Thorin. The Master plays the situation to his advantage somewhat like in the book and the Company is provided with some ridiculous Lake-town attire before heading out the next morning. Well, 10 members of the Company leave that is. Oin, Bofur, and Fili stay behind to look after injured Kili. This changes allows for the previously discussed Tauriel healing scene and it also makes the cliffhanger much more exciting (or should I say frustrating?). Also, when Tauriel and Legolas do come later so does Bolg and his pack of orcs. A long skirmish takes place and Legolas eventually rides off after Bolg while Tauriel stays to help Kili. All of this is invented material for the film.

Bolg as seen earlier in the film

Throughout the entire movie Gandalf's storyline has also been developing. In-between different scenes we him trying to get at the root of the Dol Guldur mystery. At first he goes all the way back to the High Fells of Rhudar (which is an invented location) to investigate the Morgul Blade found by Radagast in film 1. Apparently, in the film world the 9 Nazgul were killed and buried there. Now, as Gandalf and Radagast discover, something has called them back. Having the Nazgul die and be "resurrected" makes no sense within Tolkien's legendarium and very little in later PJ Middle-earth films. The Nazgul never "died" nor were they buried. They (particularly the Witch King of Angmar) led wars in the North, but they were never defeated. They are obviously connected to Sauron and The Ring, but between Sauron's fall at the end of the 2nd age and his re-appearance toward the end of the 3rd the Nazgul were the principal antagonists in Middle-earth history. This is material available in the Appendices that PJ has blatantly contradicted. Not only that, but it adds another made-up layer of complexity to creatures/characters that are already confusing to non-Middle-earth fans. This and the Tauriel/Kili healing scenes are my least favorite part of the Hobbit movie(s) so far. But solely within the Hobbit films themselves this idea manages to work, for now. Gandalf and Radagast deduce that such an act could only be committed by Sauron (though they don't name him, yet). The pair of Istari then go to Dol Guldur.

When they get there Gandalf sends Radagast to go get Galadriel's help while he goes in alone. In the ruined fortress Gandalf is confronted by Azog but manages to evade him (thanks in part to his angelic abilities). He is soon confronted instead by the Necromancer and through a creative and dramatic set and visuals, music, and sound effects he is clearly declared to be Sauron in the form of The Eye. Gandalf is captured and is left helpless to watch an army of orcs march out, probably on their way to Erebor for the Battle of Five Armies. This latter part was actually much truer to cannon than you might at first guess. In The Hobbit Gandalf does leave the Company at the edge of Mirkwood but Tolkien had no idea what he was doing until working on The Lord of the Rings. It was then in the Appendices that Tolkien finally explained what Gandalf was up to. During the time of The Hobbit he and the White Council attacked Dol Guldur and chased the Necromancer out, something we will probably see in film 3. In Tolkien's story, Gandalf had actually been to Dol Guldur twice before, a couple hundred years earlier, and confirmed that it was truly Sauron aboding there. So, really, in the film the chronology has mostly just been condensed. But Gandalf was not imprisoned and an orc army from Dol Guldur did not participate in any major battles at this time.

While on the Necromancer, Azog, BoFA, and such it should be noted that in a previous scene Sauron commands Azog to lead his armies. That means we will probably see Azog direct Sauron's armies in an assault against the Lonely Mountain in film 3 (in an assault better-known as Battle of the Five Armies). That also means that the orc/warg army will not be raised as a direct response to the death of the Goblin King, or at least not all of it.

Orcs Marching to War From Dol Guldur 

Back to the Dwarves, they make it to the Mountain and end up finding the door fairly quickly. Like in Mirkwood, I wish we could've seen them struggling a bit more. In the book they searched for days and then sat on the "doorstep" for several more days. The door is actually revealed by moonlight, not a last ray of sun. There is an emotional scene with Thorin as it is his first time inside Erebor since the dragon came. Thorin talks about how he "knows these walls", a comment which has some interesting implications. In the book Thorin never knew about the secret passage until Gandalf told him about it in Bag End. In the films it seems like Thorin had already known about "another way in" and just didn't have the map or key.

Dwarves About to Enter Erebor 
Bilbo ends up only making one trip down the long tunnel. It is certainly one of the most tense parts of the film. Instead of approaching a red glow that steadily gets brighter and warmer, Bilbo steps out into a massive stone-cold hall filled with gold. No dragon in sight. He had been given instructions to find the Arkenstone, so that's what he begins to do. In the process he awakes Smaug. Bilbo and The Dragon have a truly memorable encounter. Dialog in this scene was often taken directly from the book ('I am barrel-rider"). The conceptual design and CGI are incredible, Smaug truly is the Stupendous.

While walking around the hall and soon chasing after Bilbo, playing with his prey, he knocks over some large pillars that send shockwaves up to the dwarves. They get restless and deem they must do something to help their burglar so they all rush down together. Then they too are caught in the chase. This starts a lengthy (~20 minutes) cat and mouse chase that stretches across all (or at least most) of Erebor until the end of the film. Included during these action-filled sequences are two critically important character scenes that justifies the dwarves' actions and hints at Thorin's further degression that we'll see in film 3. First, Thorin confronts Bilbo at sword-point about the Arkenstone. The audience knows Bilbo located the stone a little earlier but we don't know if the Hobbit was able to grab it whilst being pursued by a dragon. Bilbo claims ignorance/innocence and then the chase resumes. It's a graphic image that shows the beginning of the end for Thorin. While this exact scene is not described in the book it is very much in spirit with Thorin's character in these chapters. Second, for a time the dwarves hide-out in one of the smaller rooms that is filled with dead dwarves who were blocked in by Smaug. It's a truly moving image with decaying bodies of dwarves, often including women and young children. It shows a glimpse of the heart-wrenching tragedy caused by the Dragon. This encounter really pushes the Dwarves (mainly Thorin) over the edge emotionally and they (he) resolve to attempt to slay the Beast. Then, after several more visually stunning action scenes Thorin's plan is realized. They lure Smaug into a vast hall where they reveal a huge golden statue. The newly formed figure (which they completed over the past several minutes) isn't given enough time to solidify and melts all over Smaug, drowning him. It looks like the Dwarves have won, but Smaug flies out of the pool and up into the clear night sky, covered in gold. It has got the be one of the best play on words in cinematic history. Smaug truly was Golden for a few moments before it all beaded up and fell to the ground. Smaug, enraged and tired of chasing dwarves, flies off to Lake-town. The film ends with Bilbo exclaiming, "What have we done?!" making for one of the biggest and most frustrating cliff hangers ever.

Nearly everything described in the previous paragraph was added for the film. It was undoubtedly one of the most exciting and visually stunning parts of cinematic history, but it was also one of the most embellished. I like the idea of having Thorin (and the dwarves) actually try to do something about Smaug. In the book the dwarves are nearly humorously incapable of doing anything about the dragon. It's one of the most ironic parts and provides a lot of opportunity for Bilbo's character. But from where the dwarves were established in AUJ that wouldn't work in these films. Their quest is portrayed much more seriously and (by film standards) we've been building up to this moment too long for the dwarves to sit and do nothing. As much as I enjoyed the action scenes I think it was a bit overdrawn. I would've much rather preferred to have some of that screentime used for more scenes in Mirkwood or with Beorn. One of the most visual images in the book (at least for me) was lost in these changes as well. I loved the picture of Smaug lashing around the exterior of the mounting frantically searching for the dwarves all while furiously breathing fire and destroying large pieces of the mountain. Of course, in exchange we get some equally graphic visuals, just not Tolkien's.

Wrapping it all up...
In the end The Desolation of Smaug deviates from Tolkien's writings probably more than any other Middle-earth film made thus far by Peter Jackson. It also appears to be the most polarizing. A lot of people make it out to be like Hobbit fans are either strict purists or embrace everything done by PJ & Co. While there are people at both ends of the spectrum I think most lie somewhere in-between, including myself. While I love The Hobbit and other works by J.R.R. Tolkien I also really enjoy the movies. I relish in the scenes almost exactly like the book and sometimes I think certain changes in the film are good (like introducing Bard earlier). Other deviations I don't like so much at all (e.g. Tauriel/Kili/Legolas).

I think when looking at these films it's good to look at other material written by Tolkien too (e.g. the Appendices), but we should always begin and end with the original book. The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings. It's a children's tale that has a lot of comical adventures and getaways throughout. That's why I think the humorous gestures (e.g. Bunny Sled) and sometimes almost ridiculous action sequences in the Hobbit films are generally a good thing. They help lighten the adventure and in a sense, keep it more in the spirit of the book. At the same time the weight and gravitas that Tolkien later intended for the Hobbit has also been balanced into the equation. It's a very tricky thing and one that will and has upset a lot of people. Those who want it to be like LotR are going to be disappointed at the childishness and sometimes ridiculous side of it. They'll complain about lack of character development and want things they like in LotR that simply are not there in The Hobbit. Others who want it to be more light-hearted will experience opposite reactions. In Desolation of Smaug I think they did a decent job at this balancing act but sometimes I felt like they lent too far to the action side of things and shortchanged other scenes (such as in Mirkwood for example). This will probably be amended in the Extended Edition though.

Despite all the additions/modifications I never felt like they took away from Bilbo's journey in a way unlike the book. In the marketing side of things it's hard to spot a hobbit between all the elves and wizards, but in the film itself Bilbo was the primary character and always the main focus.

While many of these changes are not fitting with Tolkien's intentions they will all wrap-up with the conclusion of The Battle of the Five Armies. Peter, Fran, and Phillipa may not always be faithful in their adaptations, but they know how to tie up a good story and connect all the dots.

So I guess the safest thing I could say is that it's a very conflicting topic, even within the head of one fan! While on the one hand I love many elements of the film I also dislike other parts. In the case of a book adaptation no one is going to ever be completely happy. But in the end I think these Hobbit films have done a very good job thus far in telling the story of The Hobbit, even though they make a few too many changes along the way. I certainly can't wait to see what lies ahead in the final chapter.

From theonering.net Twitter Page

An earlier version of this post first appeared in February 2014 on my first blog, www.animatostudios.blogspot.com

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