Be warned, there are some spoilers here!
I may be half a world away, but no matter where a person may find themselves on this planet, certain things remain constant. In my case, that's Tolkien fandom. So for our first full weekend in Korea, Tara and I made sure to ride into the city to watch the latest installment of the Hobbit, known around these parts as 호빗:스마우그의 폐허. And I'll say this for the film; you have not truly experienced The Desolation of Smaug unless you've seen it as it was intended: on the big screen, in a packed theater, with Korean subtitles.
Joking and gratuitous Hangul aside, this was more or less the film I've been expecting since last year's Hobbit spectacle, truly spectacular in the most cinematic sense. Some things left me disappointed, while others worked better than I had hoped they might. It was often funny and never boring, which I suppose was the main objective all along. It's still not quite a right adaptation of the book, but perhaps it's taking shape as something truly worthwhile in its own right.
So once again, the name of the game is running across the natural majesty of New Zealand and the artificial majesty of New Zealand's finest computer software. Gravitas and fun mix in just the right proportions, keeping the setting both credible and bearable. We get a few more battles than the book might have lead us to expect, including some epic wizardry from Gandalf and some bucklin' swash from Legolas and Tauriel, a new character who truly enriches Peter Jackson's Middle Earth. Indeed, this movie makes even clearer the message that the Middle Earth of the movies has grown quite distinct from that of Professor Tolkien's own labor of love. Existing somewhere betwixt the realms of faithful adaptation and ecstatic fan fiction, it can only be fairly judged on its own terms.
There are a lot of little ironies in Peter Jackson's approach to the Hobbit series. The man who decided that Tom Bombadil was inessential and could be left out of the script, gives us a heaping helping of Beorn the skin-changer, whose presence in the book is not exactly critical. Maybe if Tom Bombadil could become an enormous CGI bear, he might have warranted a cameo in The Fellowship of the Ring. Legolas was one of the most fun characters to watch in the first trilogy, but while his insertion into The Hobbit does make a certain amount of canonical sense, the role of Tauriel in the story almost renders him unnecessary. In fact, Jackson invents an entirely new orc fight sequence (in the streets of Lake Town, though most of its inhabitants seem to have slept through it) more or less to give Legolas something to do, while Tauriel contributes much more meaningfully to the plot.
Speaking of Tauriel, there's a lot I'd like to say about her! Much as I admire the vision of J.R.R. Tolkien, there is no denying that women are hard to find in his works. In fact, if memory serves then the only named female characters in the original text of The Hobbit are Bilbo's dead mother and greedy cousin. Insofar as adaptation is about addition as well as subtraction, then the addition of more female characters is a perfectly valid choice for a more socially conscious age. Tauriel is a good example of such a character done right: she fits credibly into the world of the male characters without seeming like an exception, as though it were perfectly natural that the captain of the Elven-King's guard might be a woman. Legolas gets all the attention, but this movie could easily have been made with Tauriel as the central elf.
Now, amidst all the additions and other goodies, it can be easy to forget about poor Bilbo and the dwarves. That's a crime, because once again Martin Freeman's one-on-one with a CGI character is the highlight of the movie: the mighty Smaug is not to be denied the limelight. As glorious a computer graphic as was ever put to screen, Benedict Cumberbatch's voice work gives the dragon the simple fairy tale arrogance that defined him so well on the page. Smaug is Gollum writ large, less complicated and more bombastic, yet alike in their fierce intelligence and sinister playfulness. Compared to these, the Necromancer seems almost like a distraction.
I could go on and on about this and that, because The Desolation of Smaug is bursting with characters worth talking about. I'd like to write about how Thorin's evolution into a tragic hero is handled so sympathetically, or what the social and political conditions of Lake Town imply for fantasy fiction into the future. I'd really like to, but we could be here for days. There is an awful lot to take in, and multiple viewings may be in order.
I re-watched An Unexpected Journey recently, and while it holds up a year later, there is little question that The Desolation of Smaug is the superior movie. It still remains to be seen whether the third installment will tame Jackson's madder impulses and bring us a truly satisfying conclusion. When all is said and done, will the whole work be worthwhile? I sure hope so. But even if it ultimately fails in its artistic goals, at least The Hobbit will have given us plenty to talk about.