12/18/2013 03:51 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2014

The Unexpected Desolation of Peter Jackson's Hobbit Movies

This article contains spoilers.


The most common criticism leveled at last year's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was that it felt bloated. At the time, I didn't necessarily agree.

Now that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is in the mix, it's clear the story of The Hobbit has absolutely been stretched beyond its limits, and a trilogy of films was unnecessary.

Money, of course, is one reason for a trilogy. Perhaps another is that Peter Jackson and his team set a precedent for diving deep into J.R.R. Tolkien appendices with The Lord of the Rings films, and they believed fans wanted, and expected them, to do the same here.

The Rings films were handled with such care and precision (even the expanded versions for home video don't feel overdone) that it's surprising The Hobbit series is turning out so differently. While there are many fun sequences in the movies, a few of the greatest moments of the story suffer due to the extra material.

Even if this had remained two films, as initially intended (and everything was essentially the same with massive chunks taken out), it's likely the story still wouldn't have worked without a streamline of the narrative and a clearer focus.

The fatal flaw -- and it is fatal if you prefer character and story to action sequences -- is that Peter Jackson and crew have barely focused on the title character of Bilbo Baggins.

An Unexpected Journey may as well have been called "Thorin", since the character of Thorin Oakenshield seemed to take precedent in the storytelling. After a certain point, Bilbo Baggins was barely a presence. The title is, after all, The Hobbit. It's Bilbo's adventure we are supposed to be following.

In the first few sequences of The Desolation of Smaug, I thought there was a course correction, and Bilbo was back front and center. Then, Bilbo disappeared again in the middle hour. He's practically relegated to a background player even more than in the first movie.

By the time Smaug ended, I decided that if the first chapter should have been called "Thorin," then this should be called "1,001 Ways To Kill An Orc". *

Bilbo Baggins gets particularly short shift in the film's take on one of the book's most unforgettable sequences: his conversation with the great dragon, Smaug. It's a huge crime.

When it was announced that The Hobbit movies were finally going to be made, this was the sequence I most looked forward to. It starts off near perfectly, but devolves into something I did not expect.

Unless my memory of the book is wrong, Bilbo never removes The Ring (which renders him invisible) while he is in Smaug's presence. In the film, something causes The Ring to blow off Bilbo's finger shortly after the conversation starts, and he is literally caught right in Smaug's eye.

It felt as though this had to be done because the filmmakers backed themselves into a corner. There is a "ghostly" visual effect required whenever anyone is wearing The Ring. By the film's rules, in order for the movie audience to see Smaug clearly, Bilbo can't be wearing The Ring.

However, with this shift, the entire dynamic that made the tête-à-tête between Bilbo and the dragon so unique and fun in the book, is absent.

The scene is no longer about Smaug trying to solve the riddle of the invisible thief. Bilbo's overextended flattery to Smaug, and the cunning banter and barbs between the two, are gone. Instead, Smaug quickly turns into an action set piece.

The visual effect of Smaug is unquestionably stunning, but I found myself not caring all that much. As impressive as the effect is, the character of Smaug isn't there to give it greater weight.

To make matters worse, the thunderous, low-end of the soundtrack (at least in the colossal Grauman's Chinese IMAX in Hollywood where I saw the movie) rendered it practically impossible to understand what Smaug was saying at times.

In essence, both characters from the film title are woefully underserved. It's a shame really, because the first few minutes of the scene prove leaving it closer to its original state could have been greatly effective.

Some may argue that leaving the scene "as is" could have played "boring." Well, Jackson allows four or five minutes of screen time for a dwarf and an elf (a character invented for the film) to bond. That screen time could easily have been given to Bilbo Baggins and Smaug for their similarly stationary, but classic and important, conversation.

Additionally, Jackson allowed the sequence with Gollum to play out with near exactness to the book in An Unexpected Journey. Why couldn't the same have been done here?

I'm not a Tolkien purist by any stretch. I just loved The Hobbit growing up. I also love film, and noting where film adaptation works and doesn't when translating a book for the silver screen.

In this case, a scene that should be cat and mouse, prey and predator, turns into something completely different, especially when the dwarves are brought in.

In the book, Bilbo is the only catalyst for Smaug leaving his domain. The dwarves are peripheral. In Jackson's film, suddenly there they are -- charging in (why did they bother sending Bilbo in alone in the first place?!) and it becomes about chase and escape, and fire-breathing that hurts no one.

Further frustrating is that it felt like barely two minutes had passed once we got Bilbo into Smaug's lair, before the film was cutting to Gandalf's mission (which feels pointless, as it doesn't quite line up with the The Fellowship of the Ring), and cuts again to Laketown, and more of the dwarf/elf love story.

The middle section of the film that takes place in Laketown was quite long. It felt like it took forever to finally get to the dragon, and then we don't even stay there! Had Jackson let Bilbo and Smaug's talk play out first, and then all hell broke loose, and we cut to other characters, I would have accepted it.

The part of the story I most wanted to see handled by Peter Jackson and team now exists. For my taste, they didn't get it right.

* As I watched, it occurred to me that some genius is going to put together a YouTube video with all the Orc killings from all the movies. It won't be me, but someone will, mark my words!