You might have heard of a little book titled The Hobbit. I've been reading it to my kids lately, so the book is fresh in my mind, and the second installment of Peter Jackson's trilogy is a good reminder that 1) The Hobbit is actually about a hobbit, and 2) the "Desolation of Smaug" is not about hobbits.
So what is the "Desolation of Smaug" about? Legolas.
Now that's not being entirely fair. It's about dwarves fighting giant spiders, an elf/dwarf romance, and a egotistical maniac who just happens to be a dragon.
There's a lengthy scene in first installment of "The Lord of the Rings" in which we see Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) as his jocular, pipe-smoking self. This was back when Jackson wanted to film "The Hobbit" series but got "The Lord of the Rings" instead, and it's clear that he slipped in much of the charm of the early chapters of "The Hobbit" into the other movie. So now the parent has become the child, and "The Hobbit" is fully in service to "The Lord of the Rings." At every turn we're reminded that this is not about Bilbo (Martin Freeman), but about the coming of Sauron. In essence, this is the Middle-Earth equivalent of George Lucas' "Star Wars" prequels, with one critical difference: they're rollicking fun.
While "An Unexpected Journey" was off to a slow start, "The Desolation of Smaug" starts off running and then breaks into a sprint. Moments that were leisurely in the book are cranked up to 11 in the film; dwarves don't just show up in pairs at werebear Beorn's (Mikael Persbrandt) house, they run there when the skinchanger rampages around in his massive bear form; Gandalf doesn't just investigate the Necromancer, he has a battle royale with the dark lord himself; and the dwarves don't just bump along in sealed barrels down the river to escape, it's a wild water ride filled with elves, orcs, and dwarves in the middle. And Legolas (Orlando Bloom) kicking ass.
Remember that scene when Legolas did that crazy move atop the Mumak in "Lord of the Rings?" A good half of "The Desolation of Smaug" is that over and over -- Legolas at his most awesome, potentially to impress his love interest and hot elf chick Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, who is part elf anyway) who easily keeps up with him. And yet she's torn by her growing affection for the relatively tall (for a dwarf) Kili (Aidan Turner). None of this is in the books of course -- not Legolas, not Tauriel, and not the relationship -- but it provides some interesting dynamics in the interplay between dwarves and elves.
Eventually some of the dwarves and Bilbo make it to Smaug's lair, and he's every bit impressive as we imagined, embodied by Benedict Cumberbatch's silky snarl. The conflict between he and Bilbo is greatly expanded and goes beyond a mere cup; indeed, Smaug is both more vicious and calculating than his book version, constructing an escalating series of grudges against his real and imagined enemies.
But you know what? It works. Reading The Hobbit reveals Tolkien's genius in how it delights children -- my kids are still laughing at the talking troll purpose -- and watching the film reveals Jackson's genius in keeping adults entertained for two hours. No one will confuse the two and that's okay.
Want more? Subscribe to this column; follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, and the web; buy my books: The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games, The Well of Stars, and Awfully Familiar. Become an Examiner and get paid to write today!