Image © Warner Brothers Pictures.
“The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien has long been one of my favorite books, perhaps my very favorite. I first read it about fifty years ago, and I’ve read it many times since. Though initially on the fence about the Peter Jackson-directed Tolkien films, I’ve come to enjoy them a great deal, but part of that enjoyment comes from not expecting them to follow the books closely. In his three “Lord of the Rings” films, Jackson did stick closely to the book much of the time. His films are epic in scale, and that book is too, so most of what Jackson added there was more screen time to the battles and action.
With “The Hobbit,” the book itself is a smaller story. Yes, it does have some epic moments, but much of the book is more intimate and personal with a relatively small cast of characters: the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf are the core group. The story is lighter in feel too, with only hints of the larger troubles in the land of Middle Earth in general. Now, Peter Jackson and his writers, in deciding to make this a three-film series, clearly needed to live up to their previous trilogy as far as the epic scope and the action. This meant adding things. In the first Hobbit film the additions were most obvious in extra battle scenes and a few new characters drawn from hints in other Tolkien work, or made up whole, but I’d say it was about 75% close to the book.
“Desolation of Smaug” flips that around, I’d guess it’s about 25% close to the book. There are lots of new things in the storyline, large and small, from new characters (Evangeline Lilly makes an excellent elf maiden, but she’s new) to events that diverge from Tolkien’s narrative quite deliberately for storytelling reasons. Despite all that, I enjoyed the film, it’s a fun action-adventure ride, and Jackson and company clearly love the original books. The changes they make are always respectful and understandable, in my opinion. But everything has to be larger. More action, longer and more thrilling and more complex at every turn. I saw the “higher frame rate” version this time, and I have to say it worked really well for me. You can read about Jackson’s approach in THIS article, but I did find it easier on my eyes, especially when following quick movement. There were moments when it approached a live video feel, but that only struck me occasionally, mostly it just flowed smoothly. I’d recommend that version if you have a choice.
The middle film of a trilogy usually suffers from that placement by dropping us into and out of an incomplete story at both ends. The beginning of this one avoids that somewhat by adding to the beginning of the whole story: Gandalf’s first meeting with Thorin. The end, though, is abrupt and clearly “to be continued.”
In all, I had a fine time, and recommend the film, just don’t go expecting the plot to follow the book very much. Enjoy the ride you’re on instead.