Tuesday, 24 December 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Starring: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Stott, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lily, Lee Pace, Luke Evans

Directed by: Peter Jackson

Written by: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro, based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien

After the battle outside Goblin Town, Bilbo Baggins and his Dwarvish companions are still on the run from Azog the Defiler and his band of Orcs. More pressing is their need to reach the Lonely Mountain in a matter of weeks – a journey that will take them through the treacherous Mirkwood and the slums of Lake Town. Meanwhile, something is stirring in an ancient ruin…

Adapting a beloved text must be the most thankless task in Hollywood. This suggests, given the sheer number of adaptations released each year, that the vast majority of screenwriters are rampant masochists. There are countless people just itching to tear into a film even when they aren’t already a fan of the source material; anyone with a tendency to use certain parts of the internet will, on at least one occasion, have wandered into a flame war over the creative decisions taken during the process of adaptation, whether it’s cutting a popular moment, creating a new character, or just abandoning the whole idea and writing a film about how difficult adaptation can be (see: Michael Winterbottom’s ‘A Cock and Bull Story’, Charlie Kaufman’s ‘Adaptation’). Hell, simply altering a costume can produce cries of “ruined forever!” from particularly diehard fans.

It’s all the more difficult because there is no really definitive answer to what actually constitutes a good adaptation. Rigid fidelity to the source text? That’s a bonus, but it often comes at the expense of good writing, acting and story-telling. The Harry Potter franchise is a mixed bag, all in all, but the first two films – the only two that don’t deviate from or at least severely trim their sources – are nigh unwatchable unless you’re pre-adolescent (or drunk; try it sometime, it’s fun). Zak Snyder’s production of ‘Watchmen’ was almost a frame by frame reproduction of the comic, which rendered the whole thing rather redundant. Updating it for contemporary audiences? Possible, but not a sure-fire success; the Wachowski siblings perhaps correctly felt that the anti-Thatcher politics of Alan Moore’s ‘V for Vendetta’ weren’t as relevant to an audience in 2005, but in making it more a generic anti-totalitarian story, arguably missed the entire point of the main character. Adhering to the spirit of a text, but changing details? Probably the most successful process, although you can’t please everyone. To return to the Potter franchise, the third entry, ‘Prisoner of Azkaban’, is the most critically successful, and also the one that deviates most from the source, chopping and changing relatively important details to suit the needs of making a quality film.

Which brings us to ‘The Hobbit’. When news first broke of the forthcoming adaptation, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Jackson had proved himself with the excellent ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, and now Guillermo del Toro was involved as well! Sadly, he dropped out along the way, although his creative fingerprints can still be seen in certain parts…and then came the news that there were going to be three films. From one book, which is a relatively slender tome. Clearly a financial decision – why release one box office success when you can release three? – but has it been justified?

Part one, ‘An Unexpected Journey’, was far too long. While it must be said that, to my eyes at least, there wasn’t a single bad scene in the film, a good hour or so could have been kept back for the extended cut, or even left out altogether. The whole strand of the dwarves being pursued by orcs, while given some justification in ‘Desolation of Smaug’, was almost entirely unnecessary, if admittedly thrilling, and it took far too long to actually get the plot started. Happily, this has been corrected for part two, at least to a certain extent.

After a brisk prologue, taking us back to the first meeting of Thorin and Gandalf, via a cheeky directorial cameo, the film gallops through its allotted plot at a relentless pace. It is no shorter than the first part, but at no point did I find myself checking my watch. Thrilling moments come thick and fast, especially from the astonishing barrel ride sequence, which ties together the group of fleeing protagonists, trapped in barrels and largely weaponless mid-river, the pursuing orcs, and two Elvish warriors, leaping around like ninjas on steroids, and is probably the most accomplished set piece of any of the Middle Earth sagas thus far. It is far from the only highlight though; the journey through Mirkwood is initially unsettling, before becoming outright horrific at the arrival of a group of giant spiders which are guaranteed to send arachnophobes in the audience behind their seats, while the more leisurely trip to Laketown allows a much seedier side of Tolkien’s world to come to the fore; within this section, Luke Evans turns in a solid turn as Bard, a character destined for more prominence in the third part, and an interesting mirror in some respects to Richard Armitage’s Thorin, both rather brooding, tortured souls, but Bard exhibiting a spark of humanity (for want of a better term) that Thorin lacks. Elsewhere, Ian McKellen gets to shine (almost literally) in a single-handed assault on the Necromancer’s fortress, leading to the shocking revelation that Sauron has returned (note: not actually a shock at all).

However, as entertaining as all of this is, it’s all a prelude to the main attraction; everyone watching this, whether a die-hard fan of the novel or a complete novice lured in by the trailers, is probably going to be watching for the dragon. And what a dragon Smaug is. On a purely technical level, he’s an astonishing achievement, so well crafted that you genuinely believe he’s there, that Martin Freeman was standing in the same room as a mythical beast. Early trailers were a little underwhelming to my mind, but whether a result of being viewed on the big screen or because of a spruce up prior to release, Smaug is the most impressive thing put on screen all year. Quite apart from the technical wizardry behind his realisation though, enormous credit must go to Cumberbatch, bringing far more depth and subtlety to the role than he managed with Khan over the summer (and overshadowing his second role as the Necromancer entirely, although equally, the Necromancer is largely represented by black smoke). His voice is perfect, as is his motion-capture – clearly having spent a lot of time studying with Andy Serkis – and his scenes opposite his ‘Sherlock’ co-star are the highlight of the film by a long stretch.

An unqualified success then? Well…no.

For a start, as I said, the rest of the film is really just build up to the meeting with Smaug, much as ‘An Unexpected Journey’ was overshadowed by the ‘Riddles in the Dark’ sequence. And while it’s hardly unusual for a film’s climactic stages to overwhelm the rest of it – indeed, it is perhaps somewhat desirable – there aren’t many films that spread a single novel over three instalments. As exciting as the action is, as engaging as the voyage through Mirkwood is, as intriguing as the visit to Laketown is, it’s high quality padding. True, I was absorbed throughout, but there’s little need thus far for either film to run to such lengths.
More specifically, we have Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel, a controversial area of the film. Where much of the added content comes from the Appendices to ‘Lord of the Rings’, Tauriel is completely invented for the film. Debate has raged back and forth over the merits of this decision, which seems to have come about largely out of a desire for there to be a woman with an actual speaking role in the film, which is perfectly reasonable. However, if you’re going to invent an entirely new character in the name of female representation, then squandering her on a fairly standard and insipid love triangle is perhaps not the best way of going about it. Lilly is fine in the role, and to be fair does have some decent chemistry with Aiden Turner’s Kili, not to mention the fact that Tauriel, alongside Orlando Bloom’s returning Legolas, spends most of her screentime leaping around like a hyperactive ninja, kicking ass left right and centre. It’s hugely entertaining, but given that their action scenes add on a good half hour of screentime that is largely unnecessary, and the love story seems redundant and badly thought out, there seems to be little need for either of them to be there.

Mind you, you could say that about at least eight of the thirteen dwarves, still lacking much in personality, for all that their exquisite design lends them character. And Stephen Fry is woefully miscast as the Master of Laketown; fruitily entertaining, to be sure, but nowhere near sinister enough to live up to the man’s reputation. Worst of all, an early scene – one Tolkien actually wrote, and keenly anticipated by many fans of the book – is dispatched with indecent haste. It’s perhaps not that important a scene in the grand scheme of things, but given the extra content and drawn out battles, it’s hard not to feel that a little more time could have been lavished on it.

Still, it wasn’t until I sat down to think about the film that many of these problems came to mind. As I said at the beginning, at no point was I looking at my watch. And the film is a definite improvement over the first instalment. But it’s looking much more likely that this time next year, we will know for certain that there was no need for a third film. Enormous fun, but still too much of a good thing.

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