Peter Jackson is turning J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Hobbit into Chase Movies – as thirteen dwarves and a hobbit are hunted across middle earth by a pack of orcs. Tolkien purists may turn up their noses at this device, but it solves a problem in his original plot. The author brings his hobbit burglar all the way to the Lonely Mountain, but doesn’t know what to do with him once he’s there. Bilbo Baggins is clearly incapable of getting Smaug’s vast and stolen hoard into the hands of Thorin & Company – not, at least, without either killing the dragon, a feat that is beyond him, or else slowly pilfering the lot, which would take up the whole of his lifetime, and more. Tolkien skirts round the difficulty by having Smaug killed by a man, rather than by Bilbo, Thorin or any of his companions. (Bard the Bowman, from nearby Laketown.) Indeed, the rival kings under the mountain – dwarf and dragon – never meet.
Peter Jackson’s second hobbit film, The Desolation of Smaug, solves this problem rather neatly – and fairly authentically. The forces of good and evil both have an interest in Smaug and his trove. Sauron, a.k.a the Necromancer, is happy to have Smaug left in situ, and may come to exploit the destructive power of the dragon to his own ends. (Tolkien refers to this possibility in one of the appendices to the Lord of the Rings.) Gandalf wants Thorin & Company to destroy the dragon, and reclaim their treasure and home. These conflicting interests drive that chase across middle-earth towards the Lonely Mountain. And they provide a kind of legitimacy for the various indignities that Jackson has wreaked on Tolkien’s original plot: orcs pursuing dwarves into Laketown, a dwarf and a she-elf falling in love, and more – much, much more.
The Desolation of Smaug is also a Chase Movie in a different sense. Jackson is turning a slim children’s book into three fat films. Each must rattle along at a terrific pace if it’s not to sink under its own weight, like an over-laden barge in Jackson’s dismal Laketown: The Desolation of Smaug is chasing Oscars, or at least workability. Three main engines power it. First, a fleshed-out sense of motive. Jackson gives Thorin a motive to hire Bilbo – he wants the hobbit to find the Arkenstone, which will give him the legitimacy to the summon the dwarf army that might (just might) slay the dragon. He gives Bard a motive to kill Smaug: his grandfather, the lord of the dragon-torched town of Dale, bungled his attempt. And he gives Tauriel – Jackson’s female elf – a motive too: like Gandalf, she is consumed by the urgency of saving a wider world from evil: amidst her debate with the Elvenking, we hear an echo of the 1930s.
Second, there is wind-up-the-tension cinematography. Thorin’s boot stops the key to the mountain’s hidden door from sliding into a chasm. Bilbo pursues the Arkenstone across crazily tipping hillsides of gold. Dwarves, elves and orcs barrel-ride and battle down a river with contortions so inventive as almost to disguise their implausibility. Third, there is acting that seldom does less than the job and often does more – especially Richard Armitage’s meglomaniacal Thorin, a rollickingly greasy cameo from Stephen Fry as the venal Master of Laketown, and Ken Stott’s Balin, a performance that one would describe as full of humanity if he wasn’t portraying a dwarf. Some fine acting, nice camerawork, characterisation into which thought has been put, affection for his source: what more can one ask for from Jackson?
Just one more thing, I think – the most important of all. Adaptations can play as fast and loose with plot and character as they like. But those that work usually stay faithful to the spirit of their original source. And though the world of The Hobbit may be strange, its spirit is familiar, and is summed up by Bilbo’s words when, for the first time in the book, finds himself alone – in the dark, in the mountains. ‘”Go back?” he thought. ‘No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!”‘ It isn’t fanciful to see through the medium of those words the soldier as well as the professor – the man who served in the First World War, went down with trench fever, and wrote later: “By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.” Today may be your last, but Keep Going: pack up your troubles in your old kit bag.
Martin Freeman’s Bilbo deftly captures that understated, decent, undemonstrative never-say-die Englishness (and the Benedict Cumberbatch-voiced Smaug is a convincingly terrifying foil). But though Bilbo is not exactly driven to the margins of the plot, Jackson’s teeming invention and embroidery – his pursuing goblin-and-wolf pack; his Laketown of Hogarthian squalor; his isolationist elves (who, in the words of a friend of mine, “could have stepped from the pages of Chips Channon’s diary”) – have the effect of removing the hobbit from the centre of the story that gives the book and films their title. And when Freeman isn’t on screen, that spirit tends to vanish. As I say, Jackson moves his film along fast. But not so fast, at almost three hours length, that one doesn’t notice. And when Freeman isn’t there, disbelief can’t so easily be suspended.
In other words, The Desolation of Smaug eventually goes down, dragged low by its sheer length. Were it 40 minutes less long, Gandalf’s shapeless venture into Dol Guldor might be less of a mistake, the immense chase sequence at the end would feel less like a console game, and Smaug might have found a convincing reason for not making a bonfire of Thorin & Company (rather than flying off to incinerate Laketown). But were the film shorter- and its predecessor, There and Back Again, similarly trimmed – Jackson could have packed his Hobbit into two films, rather than three – even, maybe, into one. That, however, would presumably have meant lower profits. Tolkien writes that the Master of Laketown comes to a bad end. “He fell under dragon-sickness, and took most of the gold and fled with it, and died of starvation in the Waste”. There must be a moral in this, but I hate to think what it is.