I am far from being a Tolkien fan. I remember finding in my high school’s library an old and battered paperback of Fellowship of the Ring during my first year and trying to read it. A chunk of its cover was gone, torn maybe, patched with white heavy paper (cartolina) and it had that musty smell books get inside a library, in the company of fellow volumes, untouched for years. I got through around three-fourths of the book before all the songs with unearthly names tired me.
Like most of my generation, my main acquaintance with Tolkien has been through the eyes of Peter Jackson. While I’m aware that Tolkien purists would scowl at the liberties Jackson took with the material (like, hey Aragorn and Arwen’s love story was never really elaborated in the books), I do consider his work exemplary pieces of cinematic storytelling.
However, I also take the opinion that splitting The Hobbit into three movies is a liberty quite large to take. While I haven’t read the book, I’m pretty certain that the first installment of Jackson’s Hobbit was padded with all those chase scenes and sword fights. Glad as I am to indulge in the scenery and wonders of Middle Earth once more, the most significant scene I can find in the first installment was those which involved Gollum, frail for all he is, a victim of his own greed as much as of circumstance.
Come the middle installment of this ongoing trilogy, I think I’m starting to discern a similarity between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Where Fellowship ends soon after a rather tiring battle sequence with a note of promise of hope-after-hardships for the main cast, so does the first Hobbit installment. Where Two Towers ends after a battle victory which is really just a prelude for a larger-scale war awaiting in the next installment, the second Hobbit ends after the main characters earn a temporary reprieve against the dragon Smaug, and even provides a set-up for a larger battle in the third installment.
Make no mistake, I still find Jackson’s take on The Hobbit, liberties and all, an enjoying experience. Though purists may argue that Tolkien will not be pleased with liberties taken with his work, I think we can at least agree that Jackson did his homework before taking the liberties. His additions and diversions do not break the spell of Tolkien’s Middle Earth but they do weaken the power of the story.
Blame it on the decision to make a trilogy out of a single book but I find that the story lines we follow in Desolation of Smaug not cohesive enough to make for a compelling tale. Early on in the movie, Gandalf separates himself from the main party to investigate the Necromancer’s presence further. A little before the end, just after we’ve reached the climax of Gandalf’s and the dwarves’ story lines, we see Legolas run after some orcs while Tauriel stays behind to take care of an ailing Kili.
Contrast to the story lines we had to follow in Lord of the Rings—which all revolved around the problem of destroying the One Ring and defeating Sauron once and for all—the dilemmas of each story line in Desolation do not move around a central theme. Each party to his own, at least until the last moment when Smaug decides to lay waste on Laketown. By the time this happens, I still had my sympathies divided over the imprisoned Gandalf, the dwarves trying to outwit Smaug, Kili’s near-death brush and his dreamy admission of feelings for Tauriel, and Legolas’ pursuit. And even at that, Smaug only ties up two of the multiple story lines.
The bottom line is that after two hours, the story was unable to make me care for the characters enough. I will surely watch the final installment because I want to see more, not because I want to know what happens with Bilbo and company.
If it’s any saving grace, what Desolation lacks in its plot, it makes up for execution and technical merit. Desolation is as much eye-candy as eye-candy can go. While watching, I found myself smiling at the wrong scenes because I was thinking of the computational effort that went into the construction of the scene rather than on what is actually happening. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen dragons given facial expressions before Desolation‘s Smaug. And it is every-facial-muscle believable at that. The scene where molten gold pours on Smaug is also well-done. The fluidity of molten gold is something no mere movie maker will attempt. Jackson certainly knows how to play his strong cards.
As I noted earlier, Jackson seems to be replicating a certain pattern from LotR into Hobbit. And please, please, I hope that what There and Back Again takes from Return of the King is in how it herds its story into a rousing conclusion, one that viewers can actually care about. After all, it finally concludes what is meant to be a single installment tale.
Here’s to hoping that Jackson has more tricks to play hidden in his sleeve.