moviesvirtual children by Scott Warnock

The desolation of dumb Smaug

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It’s just a movie. It’s just a movie. It’s just a movie. I repeated the mantra, but if I adhered to it, and not just in this case but in general, if I got all Zen-like and hey-let-it-ride, what would I write about this year?

So my two boys and I went off to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I don’t have to pile on too aggressively, since there are plenty of critiques of the movie out there. Here’s a good one. (By the way, spoilers about The Hobbit, book and movie, follow.)

It’s Peter Jackson’s movie. I’m aware of that. If I want to whine too much about it, I should somehow obtain the charisma, talent, and money of Jackson to make my own halfling movie. I love the book, but I’m not a purist. I recognize, again, it’s only a movie.

With that thought front and center, and armed with my mantra, I was good with Jackson’s approach. Until about two hours in. Then disappointment. The problem wasn’t that Jackson’s movie looked shockingly like most of the stream of trailers we sat through before the movie: all slow motion fighting and violence (like the last movie) and dumb quotes.

The problem wasn’t the length. It is a long movie. When I looked over I guess in the hope of seeing child-like wonderment in the face of my 12-year-old (incidentally, this quest for child-like wonderment is one source of constant disappointment: Parents to be, lower thy expectations!), he muttered, “This is a long movie.” Still, it was good enough. We three avoided overpriced candy and popcorn and got out of there for 35 bucks for about 8 person hours of entertainment. Not bad.

My problem, even if I hadn’t read the book, is that the movie became plain old stupid. Inane like almost every action movie. Imbecilic like the newer Star Wars movies. Stupid and thoughtless.

The stupidity hovers around it, but it settles in strong when Bilbo and the dwarves finally meet the titular villain, the epic dragon Smaug. From there, your pleasant suspension of disbelief must shift to shut-your-brain-off-and-love-bright-noises mode. Otherwise, you’re in for frustration.

Jackson didn’t follow the book, which, again, is fine, but the book’s plot is smarter than Jackson’s. Why downgrade? In the book, Bilbo, the hired thief, ventures solo into the dragon’s lair. He sees the sleeping dragon, grabs a golden cup, and flees back to the dwarves, proving his thieving abilities. The dragon awakens suddenly and realizes this single cup is missing from his vast horde — his avarice depicted so well — and goes out on a pony-eating rampage, seeking the thieves. Later, invisible Bilbo then returns to the lair and trades wits with the dragon before escaping, barely, back to the dwarves.

In the movie, Jackson has the trading wits part right away and then has the whole group go into the dragon’s lair. Keep in mind, these dumb dwarves have been captured so far by goblins, trolls, spiders, and elves during their adventure. They are not exactly a bunch of Navy Seals. Yet the dragon, a creature of mythical proportions that has – time to go nuts with Italics — devastated an entire region of the world, destroyed entire communities, singlehandedly wiped out a whole city of ancestral dwarven defenders, can’t kill these bumbling intruders in his own lair. Remember Dungeons & Dragons? It wasn’t Dungeons & Goblins. “Dragon” = epic, mythical. A dragon is often the last thing adventurers see.

But this dragon can’t kill the dwarves. Then, the stupid-ass movie version of the creature, after an absurd life-or-death battle with the thieves, leaves them in his lair with all his treasure while he goes out to destroy a human city. In the book, when Smaug misses the golden cup, he rampages: “To hunt the whole mountain till he had caught the thief and had torn and trampled him was his one thought.” In the movie, he splits. He ends the film saying, “I am death,” which I found laughable considering he’s not even death to the goofy oafs in his own home.

“Okay, so you’re death,” I thought, in an attempt to buy in. As we walked out of the theater, my youngest, my little guy, said, “Why would the dragon leave with all those thieves in his lair?” As if smote, I reeled, stumbled, leaned against a nearby car, choked back despair and other emotional surges, and then said, patting him, “I don’t know son. It’s part of a greater cultural dissolution of plot and logic.” Realizing the possible scarring, I added, perhaps unconvincingly, “Oh, it’s just a movie.” I handed him the last Sno-Cap from my pocket, and we all drove home.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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8 Responses to “The desolation of dumb Smaug”

  1. And Tauriel and Legolas? AND FILI!! What the hell? Jackson did have a heck of a task, striking a balance bewteen children’s book and adult entertainment, but there was a clear mark of the money people wanting to stretch this thing out to three movies. It should have remained two. They even admit, on the DVD commentary, that it was originally two movies. And the cup thing — such a lovely reference to BEOWULF… Tolkien would weep…

  2. As a devoted Tolkien fan I have to take exception to the comment above. His works are not intended as “children’s books” buy are regarded as premiere fantasy genre please. :)

    But I suddenly find myself hoping the movie is not in 3D this Sunday when we hope to continue our “tradition” of Tolkien movies with my brother. (I had NO idea I was paying $36 for one third of a movie last round.).
    Then again (bragging warning) I do have the option of just enjoying the scenery and being able to say “oh! We’ve been there!!”

  3. Yes, Scott, it’s just a movie, not the book, and in many ways a downgrade. I felt like an inverted Gandalf (from the seat of seeing on Amon Hen IN THE BOOK not the movie) and wanted to say PUT THE RING ON, YOU FOOL! to Bilbo.

    That having been said, I still like the scene with the stone giants throwing boulders at each other from the 1st part of the Hobbit movie.

  4. Mary, I am a devoted Tolkien fan, as well … but I will have to take an exception to your exception … “The Hobbit” WAS a children’s book, drawn in part from writings and illustrations for his own children.

    Interesting note … The Hobbit went to press following favorable review from a publisher AND the publisher’s 10-year-old son.

    That being said, The Hobbit as a fantasy novel has tremendous appeal for adults, as well, and was children’s literature, as one writer noted, “in the sense that it appeals to the child in an adult reader.”

    Tolkien’s own recorded recollections appear to support – and contradict – all of the above … LOVE IT!

  5. Hey Smaug, I mean Scott–
    I CRY FOUL!! There is no way you had any snow caps left after a 3 hour movie. And don’t try to say you found it in your pocket and didn’t know it was there…you have that Smaug like sense that knows where everyone of those little treasures are. Come to think of it..that might not be the only trait you share with Smaug by the way, which might explain why you are so adamently challenging Jackson’s weak depiction of him…but that’s a conversation to be had with your therapist.
    I do agree with the rest of your commentary..how dare Jackson not take our fantasy seriously!

  6. Mary — the Hobbit was, in fact, written for children (Tolkien’s own, in fact); though, Tolkien did express his own regrets, in his letters, that is was so silly in spots. But LotR was not written for children, nor was The Silmarillion.

  7. Chris … BUT, WAIT, you also get … uh, never mind :-)

  8. Jeff — L (as they say) OL.

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