The Tolkien Nerd’s Guide to “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

As Peter Jackson ventures further from J.R.R. Tolkien’s original text, the source material becomes harder to pin down but is still satisfyingly nerdy

Evangeline Lilly plays Tauriel, an invention of Peter Jackson's, in the latest Hobbit movie. Courtesy of New Line Cinema

Peter Jackson’s latest installment of The Hobbit trilogy has elicited some mixed reviews. Chris Orr at the Atlantic calls it “bad fan fiction,” proving that “more is less,” while Michael O’Sullivan at The Washington Post hails it as  “a fun redemption of the film franchise” whose action-packed scenes help right the wrongs of the first movie’s “bloated boring and slow” plot.

Die-hard J.R.R. Tolkien fans, however, likely side with that first review, as shown in some blog postsReddit threads and Tolkien forums. Jackson strayed from The Hobbit book in his first movie but those additions largely borrowed from Tolkien’s broader lore. In this film, however, the director has taken more liberties, beefing up the action and introducing invented characters such as Tauriel, the “she-elf,” but sacrificing some development of beloved characters in the process.

To stretch The Hobbit—originally a light-hearted 300-page children’s story—into what, in the end, will likely be a nearly nine-hour epic trilogy, Jackson again relied on three main sources: original material from The Hobbit book, including expanding on minor elements that were mentioned only in passing in that text; details that Tolkien revealed in The Lord of the Rings books and their Appendices; and things he just made up himself. The sly allusions to Tolkien’s broader world are still there, but they are even more obscure than before. In some ways, however, this makes picking out those hidden gems and Easter eggs all the more appealing for fans.

Last year, we consulted with two Tolkien expertsJohn Rateliff, an independent scholar, and Michael Drout, an English professor at Wheaton College, to help us sort through the cinematic noise and identify true Tolkien threads. We’ve returned to them this year to get their take on the new movie and help us navigate the sliding scale from unadulterated Tolkien to Jackson invention.

True to the text

Some favorite moments from The Hobbit book clearly made the cut, such as when Bilbo, so proud of himself for smuggling his friends out of the Wood-elf kingdom, suddenly realizes he’s missed out on jumping in a barrel himself, or when Bilbo quakes at the size of Smaug, who stretches from one end of the room to the other. Much of Smaug’s dialogue—what Drout describes as the “aggressive politeness” of the British upper class—was taken straight from the book.

In other instances, some might argue that Jackson actually improved upon the original text, as Tolkien has a habit of introducing important material very abruptly in his stories. In the book, Bard only appears in time to save the day, for example, and the dwarves are more or less indistinguishable from one another. Jackson smoothes the story out by introducing characters early and giving them back-stories. Only Bard’s son, Bain, was ever mentioned by Tolkien, and that was only in a genealogy reference in The Fellowship of the Ring. Jackson gives Bard a family and a personality, presenting him as a rogue with an altruistic streak. Likewise, Jackson fleshes out each of the dwarves’ characters. Save for Thorin and Balin, none of Tolkien’s dwarves possessed distinguishing characteristics, but in Jackson’s world Bofur is a charmer, Bombur is a bit of a clown and Kili is a romantic. “The Hobbit dwarves are mildly ridiculous,” Drout says. “But at this point in the movies, the dwarves have achieved dignity and heroic stature.”

In some cases, the experts think Jackson took the plot expansion liberties too far. The Arkenstone does appear in The Hobbit book, but it plays much smaller a role—it’s just a very fancy heirloom also known as the “heart of the mountain.” Jackson turned the Arkenstone into something that resembles a Silmaril—irreplaceable, magical jewels—from The Silmarillion. In Jackson’s world, the Arkenstone holds global significance for all of the dwarves—not just Durin’s Folk. Whoever possesses the Arkenstone automatically becomes their ruler. “The Arkenstone is not supposed to be a mechanism,” Drout complains. “They’ve taken it and turned it into the Ring.”

In a few precious cases, however, extreme nerdiness does prevail. In an early The Hobbit manuscript Tolkien wrote but scrapped, he originally toyed with the idea of either Fili or Kili suffering an injury or being captured mid-tale. In the movie, Aidan Turner’s Kili does indeed fall victim to such an injury. Likewise, the scene in which Thorin surfs through a molten river of gold (though Drout declares this flourish completely unnecessary) may have borrowed inspiration from an original outline in which Tolkien had Bilbo floating through a stream of dragon’s blood. “Maybe they came up with that independently, but again, it sounds like they came across that little detail,” Rateliff says.

Drawing upon old manuscripts is impressive, but Jackson and his crew might have taken an even deeper dive into Tolkien’s world than that. In Rateliff’s two-volume study, The History of the Hobbit, he mentions that it strikes him as odd that in the novel, as the dwarves walk past their fallen kin, they do not react at all. In the movie, however, the dwarf company is deeply moved by the sight of the mummified dwarf wives and children. “They could have arrived at the logic of that reaction themselves, or they could have come across that comment,” Rateliff says. “If it was the latter, that means they’re not only reading Tolkien, but they’re reading Tolkien commentary, too.”

The wider lore

The Desolation of Smaug prominently features the languages of Middle-earth, which are detailed throughout Tolkien’s works, especially in The Lord of the Rings and the History of Middle-earth volumes. Neither Rateliff nor Drout are skilled enough Middle-earth linguists to catch the non-subtitled dwarf slurs Thorin throws at the elf king, or the instructions that the orcs shout from the rooftops in Lake-town. They did, however, notice a couple fun quirks that lend the languages extra credence. 

When Legolas (who, by the way, has no business appearing in The Hobbit) confiscates the dwarves’ swords, for example, he distinctly says the word “Gondolin.” We know from the first movie that the swords originate from Gondolin, but the subtitles—like real-life translations that are not always perfect—do not include this subtlety. The orcs continuously refer to Gandalf as sharku, meaning “old man” in Black Speech, but this is not translated. Likewise, Tauriel and Legolas refer to one another as mellon, or “friend,” in Elvish. The astute fan will recognize this Easter egg, recalling the password into the mines of Moria, from The Fellowship of the Ring movie. “Talk about having faith in the geeks,” Rateliff says. 

The most obvious borrowing from The Lord of the Rings books is the subplot at Dol Guldur, where the Necromancer has now been unveiled as Sauron. At the end of The Hobbit book, Gandalf briefly mentions his issues with the Necromancer, but it’s not until The Lord of the Rings Appendices that Tolkien expands upon this and reveals that the Necromancer was in fact Sauron. In order to tie his films together, Jackson explicitly makes this connection. “The literal Lord of the Rings comes on stage for a cameo in The Hobbit,” Rateliff says.

From here, things get even more obscure. The Tolkien estate is a particularly libelous bunch, so Jackson must be extra cautious to only borrow from texts he has the rights to, which are the Lord of the Rings trilogy (and its Appendices) and The Hobbit. The Desolation of Smaug opens with a flashback to the town of Bree, where Gandalf meets with Thorin over a pint to discuss plans for taking back the Lonely Mountain, which  clearly comes form the Appendices. This scene, however, also flirts with details potentially taken from “The Quest of Erebor,” a short story published in The Unfinished Tales in which Gandalf explains his reasoning for choosing Bilbo, for helping Thorin and for encouraging the dwarves take back the Lonely Moutain. But Jackson does not own the rights to that story, so the allusion, while tantalizing, is vague at best.

Rateliff’s wife caught one other potential allusion to the deeper Tolkien lore. In the book The Hobbit, Mirkwood forest is less of a bad psychedelic trip, and more of just a grueling trek. Jackson’s idea for giving the forest hallucinogenic-like effects may have come from The Silmarillion, which describes a being namedMelian placing a protective enchantment called the Girdle of Melian around the forest. Her spell causes those who try to enter it to become lost and confused—much as the dwarves and Bilbo became in The Desolation of Smaug.

Artistic license

People often categorize Tolkien as a fairly loose writer because of his tendency to meander through a story (think 23 pages devoted solely to describing Bilbo’s birthday party in The Fellowship of the Ring). Many do not realize, however, the extent to which he labored over every painstaking detail, Rateliff says. What results is a very tightly interlinked body of work, meaning making even seemingly small changes—an albino orc there, an elven warrior here—will reverberate throughout the entire story. As these changes build up, the movies depart further and further from the books. “When Legolas showed up, I thought that would be a fun cameo, but he almost takes over about half an hour’s worth of the movie,” Rateliff says. “It’s like, ok, we’re spending a lot of time away from our main characters here in what’s essentially a fun action subplot.”

The ongoing being-chased-by-orcs theme also had the experts shaking their heads. Orcs show up sparsely inThe Hobbit book, during the tree-climbing scene depicted in An Unexpected Journey and again at the end of the story. The movie trilogy, however, latches on to this new twist and turns up the tension with the constant threat of orc attack. This adds some thrills, but also significantly changes the stories’ tone. “The chase scenes are well done but it means there’s other scenes we don’t have time for in order to keep the pressure up,” Rateliff says. “There’s simply not as much time for Bilbo and Gandalf to interact when they’re running.”  

Along the same lines, the dragon chase scene—another Jackson invention—is visually spectacular, but doesn’t accomplish much plot-wise. Smaug pursues the dwarves up and down the Lonely Mountain, blasting fire and smashing pillars along the way, and yet he doesn’t manage to harm a single one of them. This may be because killing off the dwarves would diverge from Tolkien’s plot. “It’s not like I want dwarves to die, but if there’s going to be a 20 minute battle, I want there to be consequences,” Rateliff says.

Instead of trusting Tolkien, Jackson replaces original material with “sequences that look like theme park rides,” Drout says. “It must drive [the movie industry] crazy that Christopher Tolkien absolutely refuses to let them build a theme park.”

Some characters are new, too. Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel, a 600-year old warrior whose Elvish name translates as “wood-maiden,” is not a Tolkien character. If fans thought the Lord of the Rings was a bit short on women characters, the The Hobbit only amps up the dude fest: Tolkien did not feature a single female character in the book. It’s easy to understand the logic behind Jackson’s decision to invent a character to fill that void, but the purists still balk because in Tolkien’s version of reality there are no female warrior elves.

That said, both Rateliff and Drout approved of Tauriel’s treatment in the film. “She’s certainly better than whiney old Legolas,” Drout says. And thankfully, her charter does not succumb to the fantasy female stereotype; she wears sensible armor, wields a workable weapon and has a personality. “This isn’t the mandatory Matrix-like fighting female that seems to be in every sci-fi movie,” he continues. Evangeline Lily “does a good job making you care about that character, and she also captures some of the weirdness that elves have about them.” 

The adventure continues

Whereas last year our experts made predictions for the upcoming film, this year they are a bit stymied. The invented plot twists make the task of forecasting what comes next more challenging. Nevertheless, here are a few musings about the final film (spoiler alert!):

Creating characters outside of Tolkien’s original work may mean they’re destined to be “sacrificial lambs,” Rateliff guesses. In other words, Tauriel’s graceful role may be short-lived once the Battle of Five Armies descends. Speaking of which, at some point, Thorin needs to come up with an army of dwarves for fighting in that battle. Most likely, the Arkenstone will play a role—no doubt an overly dramatic one—in his summoning of those troops. On the other hand, where the human army will come from remains an open question since the people of Lake-town look like a pretty poorly prepared bunch.

In other potential battle news, in the first movie, Galadriel promised to come if Gandalf calls, so she and the White Council may very well show up at Dol Goldur for a Necromancer take-down. But then again, Radagast could just turn up and free Gandalf from his wizard-sized birdcage. “I’m voting for Radagast,” Drout says.

Finally, when and how Bilbo will reveal to his friends that he possesses a magic ring remains a mystery (or will he even tell them at all?). In The Hobbit book, Bilbo told the dwarves—but not Gandalf—about the ring back in Mirkwood forest in order to save them from the spiders, but Bilbo seems much more guarded about it in the movie.

As the movies wear on, critics speculate that perhaps only the most devoted Tolkien fans are coming back for more. Last weekend’s opening drew in an impressive $74 million, but that’s $10 million less than last year and also less than pundits predicted this film’s opening would gross. If Tolkien fans largely account for the viewers who are still turning out, Jackson would probably do well to trim a bit of the action fat next time, while adding more of those Easter eggs for the nerds. “He really had a balance in the first movie, but in this one I think he decided to just listen to the critics and make Indiana Jones,” Rateliff says. “I liked it in its own terms, but it wasn’t the movie I wanted to see.” 

Still, he adds, “I can’t wait to find out what’s coming next.”

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