Caution: contains indescribably massive spoilers for both The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and the book, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again - don't say I didn't warn you!
The second of Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations of The Hobbit is in the cinemas now, but is it a faithful adaptation of the book? And are the new films faithful to Tolkien’s wider mythology, known as his legendarium?
In order for an adaptation to be faithful, the spirit and content of the source materials must be respected. Generally speaking, if the spirit is maintained, the content can be altered (sometimes this results in improvements to a story). What’s more, it is possible to keep the content and alter the thematics – some Shakespeare adaptations have attempted this, such as Julie Taymor’s film version of The Tempest.
On this basis, I maintain the claim I made previously in respect of An Unexpected Journey: although The Desolation of Smaug makes a great prequel to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, it isn’t a faithful adaptation of the book nor of the legendarium, although it is a better adaptation of the legendarium than of The Hobbit, since that particular book has such a specifically fairy tale feel (usually explained by it having been written by Bilbo). Broadly speaking, the tone, theme, and spirit of The Hobbit are all being altered in the service of creating a prequel to Jackson’s first Tolkien film trilogy – and I think this is the right thing for him to be doing, more or less. It’s what fans of those films would want, at least. But the geek in me cannot resist a little bit of nitpickery about the new movie…
Thirty Changes Between the Film The Desolation of Smaug and the Book of The Hobbit
- The goblins are now orcs and continue to pursue the company beyond the Misty Mountains.
- Radagast appears as a character, rather than just being mentioned briefly.
- Mirkwood messes with the minds of the company; they don't simply get lost.
- Stones are not used to fight the spiders (although the use and naming of Sting is accurate to the book – one of the few things that is!).
- As if by magic, Legolas appears! (Although as Thranduil’s son, this is consistent with the legendarium at least).
- An entirely new she-elf character is invented.
- All the dwarves are given some personality, instead of functioning like the Nine Brothers in Kurasawa's classic Sanjuro i.e. as one collective character.
- The Elvenking doesn't just like white jewels, he has specific white jewels he wants from the treasure hoard under the Lonely Mountain.
- The barrel escape becomes a fight sequence against orcs.
- One of the dwarves is injured.
- The company meet Bard, who takes them to Lake-town.
- Lake-town is under an oppressive regime and do not immediately welcome the company.
- Lake-town has something called a 'dwarven wind-lance' (that serves as a plot device for the next movie).
- The black arrow is not Bard's personal relic, but custom ammunition for a 'dwarven wind-lance'.
- Bard has a daughter as well as a son.
- Bard's son reveals the weakness in Smaug's chest to the company.
- The weakness in Smaug's chest is linked to Girion's attack on Smaug to strengthen Bard's role in the story (in the book, Bilbo tricks Smaug into showing his chest, and he notices the weak point personally - which directly leads to Smaug's death via the thrush).
- The people of Lake-town blame Girion for their plight (or at least can be rhetorically persuaded to do so).
- The people of Lake-town are not immediately cognisant of the prophecy regarding Durin's Folk (this facilitates a reveal with Bard as he connects the dots).
- Three dwarves remain behind in Lake-town (to provision characters for the third movie's dragon fight).
- The gate into The Lonely Mountain opens under different conditions in order to create an new dramatic failure-into-success scene.
- The Arkenstone is elevated from a sacred relic of Durin's Folk (one of seven dwarf families) to an instant "King of All the Dwarves" plot device.
- The Arkenstone is no longer a cut jewel, but instead resembles a Simaril (which - despite popular fan theories - it cannot be).
- Bilbo does not steal a cup.
- Smaug discusses the Arkenstone with Bilbo for the purposes of foreshadowing (although most of the conversation between Bilbo and the dragon is very close to the book - the other thing the film doesn't change much!).
- Smaug does not attack the secret entrance to the mountainside, and there is no discussion about whether to close the door, nor is the secret entrance destroyed.
- Bilbo is not concerned about the thrush listening in on his conversations with the dwarves (in the book he suspects – correctly – that the thrush is intently learning all it can).
- The dwarves fight Smaug inside the Lonely Mountain in an elaborate and over-the-top action sequence (in the book, the dwarves never encounter Smaug, only Bilbo does).
- Legolas comes to Lake-town and has a dramatic fight with orcs there.
- Smaug tells Bilbo he is leaving for Lake-town (in the book, there is some mystery about where Smaug has gone)
Twenty Changes Between the Film The Desolation of Smaug and Tolkien's Legendarium
- Azog does not die in T.A. 2799 but survives until T.A. 2941 (the year of The Hobbit's events), 142 years later.
- The Third Age Mirkwood is given the hallucinogenic properties of the First Age Mirkwood (which is about a thousand leagues north and six thousand years in the past).
- There are warrior she-elves among the Sylvan elves (Tolkien has no female warrior elves).
- The White Council don't know Sauron is in Dol Guldur (in the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings it is explicitly stated that they know this 90 years before the events of The Hobbit).
- Gandalf and Thorin meet in The Inn of the Prancing Pony in Bree a year before the events of The Hobbit and discuss Thráin and the Arkenstone (this would have be mentioned in the Appendices if it had happened).
- Gandalf visits the tombs of the Nazgûl.
- Gandalf travels with Radaghast the Brown during the quest to regain Erebor (although this is not precluded by the legendarium, it is not explicitly mentioned in the chronology).
- Gandalf is not incapacitatingly terrified of Sauron (in the legendarium, Gandalf - in his previous life as the Maia spirit Olórin - is reluctant to become incarnate in Middle-earth because he is so afraid of Sauron).
- The White Council do not plan to attack Dol Guldur (according to the Appendices, they plan this during the Quest of Erebor).
- Dol Guldur is enchanted to make it appear deserted.
- Gandalf suicidally decides to enter Dol Guldur alone, even though he has a fair idea of what he will find there, and that it is beyond his powers to defeat it.
- Sauron and Gandalf meet (in the legendarium, they never do).
- Sauron and Gandalf talk (in the legendarium, pretty much no-one in the Third Age does in person, although some - including Saruman - do so via palantíri 'seeing stones').
- Sauron and Gandalf fight (in the legendarium, absolutely no-one in the Third Age does, and it would be certain death to try).
- Sauron has an unspecified reason to keep Gandalf alive (of course, pragmatically, Gandalf can't die until encountering the Balrog named Durin's Bane...)
- Sauron does not abandon Dol Guldur simply because he has finished making his plans (this explanation is provided in the Appendices).
- Gandalf is captured by Sauron.
- The possibility of reconciliation between dwarves and elves is implied far earlier than the friendship of Legolas and Gimli (which in the legendarium is presented as effectively unprecedented).
- The Battle of Five Armies (in the next film) is implied to serve as cover for Sauron's relocation to Mordor, rather than being unconnected (although this is a logical alteration of the chronology).
- The movie credits say “Based on the Book by J.R.R. Tolkien”, meaning The Hobbit, but the film draws just as much from the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings and The Quest of Erebor, and makes most of the rest up out of whole cloth.
I will say this for The Desolation of Smaug, though – I haven’t had such fun trawling through the sheer minutiae of an adaptation in many a long year!
For Graeme Strachan - he made me do it!
- "Faithful Adaptation and the Hobbit" (January 2013)
- "What are we playing with? Role-taking, role play and story-play with Tolkien’s legendarium" (Author Original Manuscript version)