Updated: Nov 19, 2019
It is well known that The Hobbit was written long before its renowned sequel was ever conceived. However, there are also many things that people are not aware of. One of these was that Tolkien was reportedly “dissatisfied” with the finished product (a sentiment expressed during and after the publication of the sequel).
In fact, he revised it several times, going so far as to completely rewrite the celebrated “Riddles in the Dark” scene. In the original, there was nothing ominous or dangerous about the Ring at all. Gollum was a friendly, happy-go-lucky character who helped Bilbo find his way out of the tunnel after the lovable Hobbit won their riddle-game. This was, of course, entirely and shall I say, drastically overhauled in the 2nd edition (the one we all know and love today).
His displeasure with it was so great that he even went so far as to commence on a rewrite that would retell it in the tone and style of The Lord of the Rings (which was something the filmmakers attempted to emulate with varying degrees of success). Fortunately or unfortunately, that revision only proceeded past several chapters before it was abandoned.
But Jackson and his team of Tolkien scholars were, without a doubt, utterly aware of this, as is seen in the two most prominent criticisms aimed at the films. 1) being the decision to expand the source material into a trilogy, and 2) deviating from the book's playful feel to the far-reaching, more action-oriented style of the Rings trilogy.
How Expanding Two Films into Three Undermines the Structure
At its inception, the original plan was to release two separate installments, titled An Unexpected Journey and There and Back Again, respectively.
The first movie would have covered not only the troll-scene, Rivendell, the Misty Mountains, and the famous Riddle-scene, but also Beorn, the journey through Mirkwood, and the Dwarves' capture and escape from the Wood-Elves. This original "first movie" was set to end right after the "Barrels Out of Bond" scene––just before the Dwarves enter Lake-town.
However, the decision was made to expand two films into three just six months before the premiere of Journey. Only naturally, this resulted in a rearranging of the film's structures––and one could make a very good case that this is precisely why the reception to Hobbit was so polarizing.
For one, the structure just feels...off. Something is missing. These "missing" elements can, to a point, be shrugged off because so much else is well done. But it's still annoying.
I think anybody would agree that pacing was a major issue, specifically in regards to An Unexpected Journey. The deliberate, plodding pace of the film irked a good portion of its audience, save for those who find every moment spent in Middle-earth, a glorious and sublime spectacle.
However, whatever problems people may have had in regards to Journey's pacing, these were quickly and shall I say, pointedly, resolved in the first few minutes of Smaug. Aside from a brief prologue that provides some hitherto unperceived depth and gravitas to the quest, the story starts off with a bang.
While An Unexpected Journey may have stumbled overall, The Desolation of Smaug was a grand, fun, and purposeful––yet at the same time somber––romp through Middle-earth, featuring a little bit of everything: action, mystery, romance, humor, and suspense, which are, for the most part, doled out masterfully. It is, without a doubt, the best entry of the trilogy.
As with Gollum, the scene featuring Smaug conversing with Bilbo was widely-praised as a glorious spectacle on all fronts and deservedly so. The climax that followed between the Dwarves and Smaug received a much more polarized reception, and although it ended on a cliffhanger, many concluded that it was overall, a step back up to the high bar raised by the Rings trilogy.
With high expectations flying high once again, the next and final installment, The Battle for Five Armies, was released the following year. The story picks up right where the last ended: an account of Smaug's devastation of Lake-town and his subsequent death at the hands of Bard the Bowman. This pivotal scene is generally regarded as the film's best––thanks to Smaug, yet again––but the prominently featured battle is nearly as spectacular.
Yet it is here, where the move from two films to three rears its big, ugly head. As was stated earlier on, Smaug's death was originally supposed to serve as the lynchpin of the second act of the second movie––not the introduction to the third. This ended up making his death feel anti-climactic.
When you set up and build a villain for so long, only to kill him off at the beginning of the next episode, you create problems. Now, this can be done right. Just look at the person of Thanos in Avengers: Endgame.
The reason why he was able to be killed off so early on worked because he had already won. Thanos did what he set out to do and as a result, he had reached the end of his journey/character arc––and thus could be killed off, without any major ramifications to the structure or story.
Smaug, on the other hand, hadn't done so, and as a direct result, the feeling of "payoff" that is so often needed in similar cases, fell flat. Once again, this could have worked much better if it had served as the launching pad into the third act of the second film. By then, the audience would already be neck-deep into the story, and with a swifter time slot in play, it would have felt much more natural.
While easily being one of the trilogy's––no series'––more entertaining, brisker, and darkest installment, the script could certainly have been better written, and several unnecessary elements that were first introduced in Smaug, should have been excised.
In this case, the extended edition is actually a much more developed and efficient film than the one we received in the theatrical release, and it likely would have been better received had many of its cut scenes been kept intact.
This meditation on "necessary scenes" is an entire digression all unto itself, and therefore, let's move on.
TO BE CONTINUED: SPECTACLE OR ATROCITY?: A REVIEW OF "THE HOBBIT TRILOGY" – PART 3