By Shawn StJean
About a year ago, I posted some cultural criticism comparing Peter Jackson’s adaptation to J. R. R. Tolkien’s source novel in the first part of his second film trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. My analysis arrived at the conclusion that the film, from the perspective of an American viewer at least, and despite its considerable achievement as escapist spectacle, does not merely drag out Tolkien’s book for more profit. It fundamentally alters Tolkien’s children’s novel, in order to support a cultural endorsement of violence against “lesser beings,” and even subtextually endorses the War on Terror.
I’ve held off on writing up the second part for a month or so now, because this is not a review designed to evaluate the latest film, The Desolation of Smaug, for the purposes of recommending it to theatergoers. Rather, this cultural analysis aims to interrogate some substantive departures Jackson makes from Tolkien, and to see where they, and the general tenor of the film, lead.
As long as he sticks close to Tolkien’s original material–and he often does–Jackson can’t produce too much to disturb the average thirteen-year-old (which is good, considering that millions of children below that age will have seen it by now, under the law.) The MPAA rating states: “Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images.” And what exactly is the nature of “fantasy action violence,” and how would a twelve-year-old define “fantasy”? A ten year old? Eight? Given what follows, I’m not sure the film shouldn’t have been rated “R.” But then again, how many ten-year olds received human-target-based Rated M video games this holiday season from their families?
The “Barrels Out of Bond” adaptation parallels, in Jacksonian idiom, the distended flight of the dwarves and Bilbo from the Orcs in “An Unexpected Journey.” Adding the elves Legolas and Tauriel to the show, the same bashing of non-human skulls is enhanced by bow-and-arrow strikes to the head and face for several minutes, and at extreme close range, along with the usual decapitations and garden-variety impalings of orcs. Combined with the spider scene earlier, one wonders what age children should be barred from viewing, for the sake of a peaceful night’s sleep. The importation of Orlando Bloom’s character for the nearly sole purpose of killing, in various spectacular ways, seems an especially egregious alteration of Tolkien, given that children have no way to distinguish CGI-slaughter from the real concepts of battle and death. Legolas even, unaccountably, turns his bow on his friend Tauriel at one point –in order to reinforce his dominance over the female 1, one supposes.
Bilbo, of course, Jackson turns into a swordsman as good at dispatching enemies as any of the dwarves–this is a particularly telling change from the novel, as viewers are meant to identify with the everyman protagonist. I don’t mean to suggest that killing giant spiders (who would most certainly kill you, a la The Incredible Shrinking Man) is suggestive of violence against humans, though Jackson–in an otherwise brilliant cinematic device–allows Bilbo to hear English words from them, by putting on the ring.
The premise that Smaug could be turned into a Weapon of Mass Destruction by Sauron–who has yet to manifest himself as a threat–seems particularly resonant in this decade of government-fostered nuclear anxiety, both real and invented, the like of which has not been seen since the 1960s. A common scholarly interpretation back then was that Tolkien’s LOTR, with a great alliance (elves, dwarves, hobbits, men) against an axis of evil (orcs, Sauron, Saruman) and vying for a weapon of power so great that it would corrupt anyone who used it, functioned as a political allegory for the WWII/Cold War period, with Tolkien implicitly arguing against the use or at least expansion of nukes, even as “deterrents.”2 In 2014, of course, the alliances have changed, but the principles remain the same: We have It only for good, but if They get It, only evil can result.
Such proactive thinking must underlie the role of the White Council. Gandalf’s reconnaissance mission to the tomb of the future Lord of the Nazgul (at Galadriel’s prompting) leads him into a direct confrontation with the disembodied Sauron at Dol Guldor. Knowing this for a trap, he nevertheless dismisses ally Radagast beforehand on a pointless errand. This seems uncharacteristically hubristic of the wizard, who spends most of his time setting pieces on the board in defense of Middle Earth, not actively participating, and then mostly as a non-combatant advisor. “We must force his hand,” before he regains his full strength, Gandalf insists to the Brown wizard. Again, as in the first film, the implication that we had better heed the greater wisdom of those with power, and that power equals wisdom, shines through here.
Thus, some of Tolkien’s non-intellectual minor characters have, paradoxically, been tamed and de-powered by Jackson. Bard, willing to bend the rules and smuggle the dwarves into Laketown, functions as the sole and ineffectual voice of reason against stirring up the dragon, contrary to both the mob and the corrupt government (cf. John Proctor in The Crucible, Brody in Jaws). Even the sane shapeshifter Beorn, though he professes a dislike for dwarves because of their greed and androcentrism, admits to supporting their doomed errand solely because he hates orcs more. We have to wonder if Jackson isn’t working at cross-purposes here, since these brief pauses for warning can’t possible compete with the epic splendor of violence that follows.
The Smaug chase sequence and climax of the film is, unfortunately, drawn out to a fatiguing degree. Since western dragons are an archetypal symbol of greed, Tolkien appropriately pitted Thorin’s desire for the arkenstone against it. Leaving Kili, Fili, and Ori behind because no individual can be allowed to jeopardize the quest (the CIA’s old “big picture” argument) proves that Thorin has been corrupted, just as the ring is corrupting Bilbo into lying. But there is further irony in the fact that this run-away-from-the-fire-breathing-dragon business had to be convoluted to an effective 45 minutes of screen time in order to make the trilogy-formula work for the studio (read “ticket sales”.) The dwarves are allowed to show some spontaneous ingenuity here, in navigating the mazes of the lonely mountain, Erebor. That is good, since Jackson requires credible descendants of those who built such an underground city, just a generation previous.
The film continues Jackson’s tradition of amplifying violence, on every level: from the personal to the communal. Bottom line, Tolkien’s songs and comical scenes (such as Gandalf’s incremental introduction of the dwarves to the gruff Beorn) have been replaced with extended chases and gratuitous killing (the wood-elf-King’s lying to and beheading of a captive orc jumps out as an example). The sad thing is, this is no unique malady of Peter Jackson’s, but epidemic to our culture. Are we really so addicted to profit–commercials in movie theaters, merchandise tie-ins, multiple releases on DVD and Blu-ray in extended editions–that we’re afraid to produce a simple children’s story that is appropriate for children? Or are there darker forces at work here?
1. As important as I think it for young people to see strong female characters onscreen, Jackson’s introduction of she-elf Tauriel into an admittedly very male-centric narrative accomplishes nothing outside of the male-copy mode. “You fought well today,” the wood-elf monarch deigns to appraise her, but, like Ophelia, she is immediately forbidden a romantic connection to a male above her station by an imposing father figure. So with seemingly nothing else to do, she develops a romantic interest in “tall for a dwarf” Kili. Both Tolkien’s and Jackson’s own handling of dutiful-but-secretly-rebellious daughters Eowyn, and Arwen, in LOTR, was far superior to this obligatory and disappointing character abuse.
2. Tolkien famously rejected the interpretation of political subtext–as all allegorists inevitably do. Allegory by design insulates the artist from charges of subversion.