Dear Mr. Peter Jackson,
It’s time for an intervention. I wasn’t going to write about the Desolation of Smaug, I really wasn’t. Everything I felt about that film had been succinctly expressed elsewhere. Then you went and announced that the extended edition would have twenty-five minutes of unseen footage. Twenty. Five. Minutes. That’s enough time to cook a meal. Enough time to read several essays on this site. Enough time to watch an episode of Rick and Morty. Enough time to go for a walk or ride a bike or read a short story. That is far, far too much time to add to your new trilogy and it proves something truly alarming – you believed that the Desolation of Smaug needed to be longer.
Now I know there’s no real reason to listen to me. You’re a successful, wealthy director and I write articles on the Internet. But listen, this is only presented with the best of intentions, I’m not proposing that I know better than you, just that my distance to the films may lend me some much needed perspective. Some of us have a hard time understanding our problems when we’re too close to them, so here I am offering a different viewpoint. Perhaps most relevantly I’m a fan. I’m a fan of Tolkien, and I’m a fan of your work. I think the first Lord of the Rings movies are brilliant. Odds are there will never be another adaptation of the series that good. They’re a wonderful testament to your restraint and epic scope and (most of the time) command of tone. Hell I even like the generally maligned King Kong remake you directed. So what changed?
Well my word choice has been oh so very careful, and I’d like to point you towards the word “restraint”. Then I’d like to ask you a question: Was there a single moment during the making of The Hobbit when you decided to restrain yourself? What about during Lord of the Rings? I would bet serious money the comparison isn’t even close; you so clearly exhibit far more self-control with The Lord of the Rings films.
I like having restrictions. I like having rules of things that you can’t do, and I see a lot of movies in which somebody has never had that conversation with themselves. I look at them and I’m like “None of this is unified. You’re just doing shit that doesn’t even make sense on its own terms….”
That’s a quote from Steven Soderbergh. His point is actually about setting rules for yourself before filming, specifically in a technical sense. He’s imploring directors to set rules about what lenses, shot types, and camera movements they use. He goes on to say, “This has become like the best entry-level job in show business, directing a movie. It’s crazy.” Now that is not you, your directorial skills are solid. The problem is your script, which desperately needed more restraint, restrictions, rewrites; in fact, almost everything Soderbergh says about filmmaking applies wonderfully to your writing. This may sound a little insulting, but bear with me, let’s talk about this.
You’ve always been an indulgent filmmaker, it’s part of your style, there’s no arguing that on Lord of the Rings you cleverly directed that indulgence behind the scenes. You built insane models and used armies of extras and built giant dead mumakils. The worst moments came when your indulgence crept into the script. Things like the dwarf tossing joke, Legolas skateboarding, and the killing of the mumakil completely undermined the tone you were trying to craft, at least in those scenes. They were jokey or unbelievable in tense, grounded scenes. They were, however, brief, and that was their saving grace.
When I first saw An Unexpected Journey my first reaction was essentially “gee whiz that’s a lot of CGI.” Every action scene in that film is an overwhelming flurry of pixels divorced entirely from any sense of reality or danger. They don’t work in any sense. You struggled juggling the comedic, child friendly tone you kept going for, with the tense, adult sensibility you still felt some scenes needed. It’s hard to make us care about the dramatic past struggles of the dwarven race when you follow it up with trolls making fart jokes or a wizard who seems like he’s going to spend the whole series with shit all over his face.
I actually believe you realized your own shortcomings at some point during the process. Back when you weren’t planning on directing this series you’d tapped Guillermo del Toro to sit in the chair. Hellboy, Hellboy Two, and Pan’s Labyrinth all perfectly demonstrate the tonal understanding he would have brought to the project. It was an inspired choice. It wasn’t your fault it fell apart, but credit where credit’s due – at some point you truly understood this project.
If An Unexpected Journey was disappointing than Desolation was just plain awful. That’s harsh I know, but it needs to be said. It’s a tonal disaster, switching from toilet humour to Laketown politics to video game action sequences. After perfectly casting Martin Freeman, you largely ignore and undermine his character. You cast the wonderful Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug and completely undercut the nearly wonderful scene between him and Freeman. You butcher your internal logic, you completely ignore all the basic principles that go into making good action, and goodness gracious is it long. The Laketown and Legolas subplots you seem to be using to stretch out your film are mind numbing and unneeded, the action sequences last eternities and don’t have a lick of tension or stakes in them. We’ve seen far too many CGI stunt doubles survive far too many ridiculous falls and blows to ever worry about their safety. In fact, the action scenes are so divorced from reality in Desolation that there are moments where I became convinced you’d given up on the concept of tension altogether, but then you’d throw a half-hearted death scare in there just to clarify how clumsy the tonal effect is.
A lot of people are comparing your films to the Star Wars prequels, and that’s not very fair. It’s true that they are both underwhelming, CG heavy prequels, but that’s where the similarities end. The Hobbit films are nowhere near as badly written as the Star Wars prequels, though there is one comparison to Desolation that seems to have been largely missed. The Star Wars prequels, for all their many, many flaws, connect with children. It’s weird, but it’s true. So it’s not crazy to think the crude humour and lack of real drama in The Hobbit was intended to make the films more child-orientated. Here’s the thing, the only kids I talked to who saw The Desolation of Smaug found it long and occasionally boring.
Which brings us back to this extra twenty-five minutes and one burning question – who are these extra scenes for?
Desolation is already too long and bloated for kids, yet it seems to have sacrificed anything that could have possibly made it appealing to adults. There’s no drama, no character arcs, and has one of the more ridiculous romantic subplots I’ve seen – nothing for and adult audience to sink their teeth into. Yet the series still manages to be too adult (not to be a dick, but I am essentially using “adult” incorrectly in this sentence; no part of Desolation is adult, it’s just long) to appeal to kids. So who the heck is this film for, and why could it possibly need twenty-five more minutes?
It may be grim, but I honestly think The Hobbit series is beyond saving. Maybe, Peter Jackson, you could do all your fans a favour next project? Maybe you could go back to the basics and really think about the foundational principals behind drama, tension, and character. Maybe you could get away from the CG and potty jokes too, or at least find a project more suited to them. Maybe, at the very least, you could take a hard look at your foray directing The Hobbit series and try to think about the mistakes you made?