Peter Jackson and the Desolation of Dragon Sickness

One of the trailers before Guardians of the Galaxy was for the third Hobbit movie (“the defining chapter of the Middle Earth Saga”- right!) which reminded me, Oh yeah- there’s one more of those coming out. It occurred to me then that while I made a big to-do about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey I still have yet to sound in on the second installment… Huh.

Full disclosure: I fell asleep at its midnight premiere. Thrice! While that doesn’t exactly certify its inferior quality, it’s hardly a testimony to its greatness. Let me make clear what I’m not taking issue with before I unleash all my grievances.

Fanatical purists have no moral high ground in complaining that any of Jackson’s films don’t line-by-line match the text of The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit; it’s in the nature of cinema to both concentrate and excise and to expand and fill out. It’s inevitable, and as much as I would’ve loved to see Tom Bombadil skipping through The Fellowship of the Rings, it simply couldn’t happen without making it a six hour movie. Jackson has great skill in isolating the vital strains of Tolkien’s stories and maximizing their emotional wallop, and when it comes to prioritizing, Farmer Maggot and the Barrow wights just don’t quite measure up when production time and studio funds are on the line.

When it comes to what does make the cut, Jackson characteristically embellishes what is implicit in any particular sequence in Tolkien’s novels. This is to be expected, though: the details of the Battle of Helm’s Deep, for instance, are the product of his imagination filling out what is suggested in that portion of the text of The Two Towers. Any film adaptation does this- it comes with the medium. Movies focus on a few primary figures but extrapolate the world they inhabit in a maximalist way which novels and theater do not (indeed, cannot). This isn’t to say that every movie is an epic, only that a movie set in New York City will necessarily depict thousands of pedestrians with every exterior shot, whereas a novel set in New York City may evoke the city’s hustle and bustle from time to time with atmospheric cues rather than drawing it into the foreground. The type of embellishment Jackson provides in the Helm’s Deep sequence honors the source material by instantiating the tacit elements of the sequence as described in the novel to provide a fitting background to what is explicitly depicted.

All well and good. Where it starts to go awry, though, is when the sheer volume of outrageous stunt choreography and CGI hysteria overtakes the forward motion of the plot and derails it entirely with meteor strikes of preposterously manic set pieces. You know what I’m talking about: Bombur’s Wild River Barrel Ride is fun and everything, but what the flip is it doing here? Slapstick is great. Intricate, convoluted action is great. Neither element in itself is a hindrance to a transportive, affecting story. But when a significant percentage of your film consists of it and your film is a nine hour adaptation of a fairly short children’s novel, the weight they bring to bear on that story become millstones. The density of insubstantial contrivance floods our vision with data but instantly evaporates, leaving us thirsty for something nourishing and pure. After press-ganging Legolas into the tale, lighting the first ember of a preposterous dwarf/elf romance, and rehashing episodes and themes from The Lord of the Rings (Gandalf’s imprisoned again, another substitute ruler doesn’t want the rightful king returning), one can’t help but infer that massive fluff quotient has been introduced to pad the small percentage of faithful adaptation. Ever since the intricately crafted bedlam of the justly lauded Mumakil sequence in Return of the King, it seems as though Jackson has developed a compulsion for convoluted showpieces which smuggle contraband across the border of the absurd.

Remember King Kong (and how it felt like the justification for rebooting it was meager at best)? Remember how there’s absolutely no way in Tartarus Jack Black could outrun a stampeding herd of apatosaurs? Well, that didn’t stop Peter Jackson from doing it anyway. Too many of his action sequences now feel like they’re there because they could be done rather than because they were necessary for the story he’s telling. It’s like RotK set a standard in place and the Law of the Mumakil keeps pushing him back to the drawing board for new variations on the same elephantine theme. This more is better ethos is another instance of a theology of glory eating away at the integrity of the film’s hull. The painful irony at work here in Part 2 is this same theology of glory working itself out in Thorin, the Master of Laketown, and Smaug. Tolkien diagnosed it as “the dragon sickness”, that gnawing, maddening avarice which overtakes those who have been enchanted (which was an almost exclusively negative word in the medieval period) by dragons’ hoards. The sediment of death attached to them acted as an external force of evil manipulating the internal moral weakness of the dragonslayers. Tolkien developed this theme as he reflected upon Beowulf’s bewilderment by the dragon’s cursed treasure and other similar legends and recognized the analogy with what C.S. Lewis dubbed the “idolatry of artifacts, the great corporate sin of our own civilization.” Steering along the edge of the abyss in the wake of his astronomical success, Jackson has gazed too long within it; like the heroes of these works, he’s succumbed to the lure of material wealth. The innocent exuberance of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers has steadily declined into the dissipated squalor of King Kong and now The Desolation of Smaug and I, for one, miss the good old days. (And by “good old days”, I mean, of course, Dead Alive!)

Is The Desolation of Smaug awful? No, that’d be going too far. But I was surprised to find myself disappointed by it. That obnoxious adipose layer obscured the heart of the film- its story, its characterization, its intertextual echoes of the great heroic sagas of our shared cultural heritage. Perhaps The Battle of the Five Armies will course correct this slump, but only time will tell.

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