Update. Next Publication is: Under Strange Suns, available digitally August 2015, print version due December 2015, Twilight Times Books.

The Hobbit part II – what was that?

I’m going to grouse about “The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug.” Sorry, but I have to vent a bit after dropping twenty-four bucks for a couple of tickets to see this bloated zeppelin-wreck of a film.

Before I begin kvetching, praise where praise is due. The sets are gorgeous. In small doses the fight scenes are well staged and fun to watch. And Benedict Cumberbatch voices a truly menacing Smaug.

Look, I’m not going to complain about the changes to the novel. I understand this is a licensed version of the Hobbit, not a faithful adaptation. Fine. Suffice to say that it would easier to list the bits that actually adhered to the text than to list all the revisions, additions, deletions, etc. Peter Jackson has a story he wants to tell, and that story appears to be only tangentially related to the book. (Indeed, his film seems to revel in the changes. One imagines Mr. Jackson chortling gleefully as – to take just one example – in an iconic scene Bilbo climbs to the top of a tree in Mirkwood to try to get the party’s bearings. But whereas in the book Bilbo cannot see the edge of the forest because he climbed up in a depression or bowl, in the film Bilbo sees quite clearly the Lonely Mountain, completely reversing the intent and impact of the scene. Seriously, sometimes it seems like the filmmakers are taking the piss – if the book describes a straight line, they put in a labyrinth.)

So, Peter Jackson is telling his own story, one that owes no allegiance to the source material. Characters have little relation to their book counterparts other than names. Fine, I can accept that. I am willing to watch the film on his terms.

My problem is with the film itself.

The movie is overstuffed, a hyper-kinetic cartoon that holds the same respect for the laws of physics as an episode of “Dragon Ball Z.” And it is just too damned long. Why, with this much action and such a wearying run-time, does Mr. Jackson feel the need to milk additional dramatic tension from a scene, adding minutes unnecessarily? Mild SPOILER. In the midst of an engaging and exciting fight with spiders, why must we also deal with Bilbo dropping the Ring and needing to search for it? What does that add? We know he’s going to find it again. End SPOILER. Characters are forever dropping things. It ratchets up the drama, but it’s a lazy parlor trick, detracting from the more immediate scene.

And then there is Mr. Jackson’s apparent need to explain everything, to provide backgrounds and motivations for everyone. Fine. (Though – BEGIN DIGRESSION: See, in certain types of story we accept and expect that certain things simply are. We don’t ask why. Understood tropes and archetypes. They need to be there to further the story. Or, just because. END DIGRESSION) Mr. Jackson wants to know why and how and wants us to know. Except when he doesn’t. When he adds something he tosses it in without explanation. Here, however, apparently only the residue from the book requires explication, not the filmmaker’s additions. It seems, for example, that Tolkien’s Beorn requires a detailed explication but the multi-cultural enclave of Laketown does not. It’s alright. We’ve long accepted that we are in an alternate universe Middle-earth and not in the Northern European analogue of the source material. The point is that we can accept the appearance of African, Asian, and Australian Aboriginal townsfolk without any explanation. So why do we require a deep background for Bard the Bowman? The Black Arrow? The weak spot in Smaug’s armor, etc? Can’t we just move this seemingly interminable story along?

If we can call it a story. The whole thing is a series of action beats without a resolution. It is a ‘story’ without a beginning, middle, or end. Of course it is the second film of a trilogy, so it was bound to be problematic (vide “The Two Towers”.) But Mr. Jackson deliberately took on that risk when he decided to chop up a single novel into three movies.

And does that romantic subplot work for anyone?

To sum up: go ahead revise, alter, create from whole cloth. But such comes with the expectation that the changes are going to make for a good film. Unfortunately, this one simply isn’t.