Chekhov’s Dwarven Windlass: My Thoughts on the 2nd Hobbit Film

13Dec13

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Fair warning: I feel no qualms about spoiling a film based off a book that was published in 1937. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already seen The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. You’ve probably read the book by J.R.R. Tolkien. You’ve probably seen the Rankin-Bass animated film from 1977. You’ve probably, god help you, read The Silmarillion. Maybe you had an Elvish wedding. Maybe you named your firstborn Aragorn, son of Arathorn, even if she was a girl, and now she’s old enough to resent you for it, you hapless nerd.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Spoilers ahead.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, congrats, Tolkien fans! This movie is pure fan-service. The casual audience need not apply. There’s nothing to see here except orcs and elves and scenic vistas, and I must admit that while there’s no lack of technical proficiency involved in Peter Jackson and company bringing these fantastical worlds to life, I think I’m beginning to lament my stay in Middle-Earth. It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie-going experience for The Desolation of Smaug, with three minor exceptions:

  1.  Kissy Stuff – This movie dedicates a lot of screen time to a doomed-to-failure romance between Kili, a dwarf, and Tauriel, a sylvan elf. I don’t care about this in the slightest, because it has nothing to do with the core story of The Hobbit and it can’t amount to anything because Kili dies in The Battle of the Five Armies at the end of the book. (OMG SPOILERS!) In the third film, the kissy stuff will evolve into weepy stuff, as Tauriel will have the opportunity to shed bitter, dramatic tears over Kili’s arrow-riddled body. I get it. This is pure Hollywood marketing at work. It’s meant to make the movie broader and more accessible, especially to the women in the movie-going audience. But I know plenty of Tolkien fan-girls and fan-ladies, and I’d like to think that none of them are going to be impressed by such blatant pandering. We don’t need an Aragorn / Arwin parallel in this film. The Hobbit doesn’t gain anything by inserting a tragic romance. Next time, leave the kissy stuff at the door.
  2. Prequel Fever – It’s a mistake to try so hard to tie the central conflict of The Hobbit movies to the narrative of The Lord of the Rings films. Everybody already knows all about Big Bad Sauron and how the Dark Lord eventually gets his ass royally kicked. It’s not surprising to anybody when he shows up here. There’s no mystery, no big reveal. And there’s already plenty of juicy material with Thorin and his quest to restore his kingdom, no matter what the cost. Sauron’s presence in the film – lurking in the background, breathing heavily, and going “Grrr! I’m so bad. Just wait until you get to The Fellowship of the Ring!” – is at best a distraction and at worst wasted celluloid.
  3. Chekhov’s Dwarven Windlass – Peter Jackson, you tease. You show me the dwarven windlass, you spend at least three scenes talking about how black arrows are designed for shooting down dragons, and then you give me that ending. And in case you don’t already know – SPOILER WARNING! – “that ending” means the film ends without a dwarven windlass being fired. The final scene has Smaug flying off to attack Laketown and Bilbo wondering aloud about what horrors their quest has unleashed upon the world.  This is dirty pool. You can’t expect the audience to remember all of the effort you’ve expended foregrounding dwarven windlasses and black arrows and whatnot and then make them wait another year before you fire the bloody thing. Bad form, Mr. Jackson. Bad form, indeed. In the theater I was in, a member of the audience actually stood up and yelled “Aw, man!” when the credits rolled, and I have to agree with him. I’m beginning to understand how the people that went into Fellowship without realizing the film was the first part of a trilogy must have felt when the credits rolled and Sam and Frodo were nowhere near Mount Doom.

I could go on. I could find all manner of minor quibbles, and layer them over with a viscous coating of snark. But that’s not my style. Suffice to say, there were brief moments of genuine movie magic in The Desolation of Smaug, parts that made me smile like I did back in 2001 when I saw the trailer for Fellowship and just a glimpse of the Balrog’s foot was enough to send me into a paroxysm of fanboyish enthusiasm. But the old feeling just isn’t there anymore. Once I could sit with one of these films for two hours and forty five minutes and be enthralled the entire time. Now I can’t help but dissect these movies with a more critical eye. I wonder about the sacrifices that were made to turn a children’s book into the next big epic fantasy trilogy. I think of how I would have done things differently, if I were in the director’s chair.

I envision a film that ends with Bard standing amidst the smoldering ruins of Laketown, a bleak expression on his face as he surveys the broken body of Smaug. The ancient wyrm lies dead with the shattered remnants of a black arrow protruding from the weak spot above the dragon’s heart. Bard turns and with weary eyes he looks to the Lonely Mountain, and for the first time he sees lights glowing there. The forges are relit, and already the greed for dwarven gold sends murmurs rippling through the shell-shocked townsfolk who have gathered to gawp at the fallen dragon. The murmurs turn into a dull roar as the living lament the slain, and angry voices cry out for reparations, recompense for the evil that the dwarves and their quest let loose on Laketown. In this disorganized rabble, we see the beginnings of the Army of Men take shape as the peasants grit their teeth and grip their spears.

Then and only then do the credits roll.

That’s the movie I wanted to see.

And I would have fired that darn dwarven windlass, doggonnit.

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