A Review of The Desolation of Smaug
Less action, more magic. I could stop at that and it would be a fitting review of this movie. The current craze for ultraviolence in mega-budget movies made possible by CGI too often seems to coincide with weak writing. Don’t get me wrong—there’s no question the special effects in this movie are an incredible achievement. Smaug is so realistic as to be terrifying. It’s no wonder my nephew believes dragons actually once existed. But as the Lord of the Rings series stretches out, it becomes more of a franchise than a fantasy. Even the Elvish realm here seems to have morphed into a military stronghold. The breathtaking haven of Rivendell, the lyricism of its earth-based magic, is sadly missing here.
Instead we have what I call the Delusion of Invulnerability. For some reason popular culture right now seems transfixed by this fantasy ideal. Maybe because as civilization exceeds its capacity and the climate breaks down, our imagination reaches ever farther from the chaos. Humans have the rather charming trait of avoiding reality at all costs. The harsher the reality, the more we find ways to avoid it. I’m sure the Mayan nobility were convinced of their invulnerability right up to the last minute before the Spaniards arrived.
Cartoon-like super heroes are just today’s Gilgamesh or Jason and the Argonauts. They share the same tradition though not the same character. But of late the Delusion of Invulnerability seems to have taken over. Heroes must be invulnerable. It’s the ultimate fantasy of those who feel powerless. One can imagine an abused child inventing a fantasy hero gifted with otherworldly powers for protection. But what’s forgotten is that the point of the original hero tales was not invulnerability at all. It was its opposite. Not limitless powers, but the sudden, often harsh realization of human limitations.
To begin at the beginning of myth—Gilgamesh. The point of the epic story is not that this Mesopotamian king gets everything he wants, super powers or no. His power will certainly earn him some victories, such as over the Forest Guardian in the Forest of Lebanon. But it is not limitless. There are times when he must fail. In fact, he fails at his ultimate quest—the secret of Everlasting Life. He returns to his city kingdom a humbled though not a broken man. He has learned one of the first lessons of mature consciousness: his own limits. The Greeks had a wonderful word for the quality that causes us to forget these limitations: hubris. And all too often the Greek gods sent thunderstorms, plagues and tsunamis to remind us.
It may well be true that the old myths no longer work for the 21st century—at least the religious ones. But to extend that imperative to the total scope of mythology is misleading. And in general a misunderstanding of metaphor and allegory—the twin engines that drive mythic tales. Christians and Muslims alike need to lighten up and stop taking their allegories so literally. As Joseph Campbell’s work on the hero’s journey made clear, these stories speak to the archetypes in all of us. With knowledge of their symbolism we are enriched, given an advantage in life we might not otherwise have. Understanding the archetypes helps us navigate through the hero’s journey that is our own life. So no, mythology itself is not passé. It’s needed more than ever.
The Desolation of Smaug reflects the fact that the culture at large is in a very precarious state at the moment. This degree of insecurity about the future seems to breed an obsession with security and violence. But the movie could also be read on another level: as a capitalist allegory. Think about it: Smaug the dragon sits on his mountains of gold and treasure and causes only desolation to others. He destroys their communities while he hoards his wealth. He lacks all conscience. Sounding familiar yet? Any one of a dozen Wall Street speculators? The CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation? It takes an exceedingly brave individual—a hobbit—to challenge Smaug alone. Bilbo as Karen Silkwood or Malcolm X—the David against Goliath archetype.
Writers Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro may or may not have been thinking this metaphorically. Judging by the rest of the film I’d guess not. But that’s the great thing about art, even mass-market art—it leaves at least some interpretation to the viewer. Not nearly as much as reading the original books, of course. It’s the exercise of participatory imagination I fear is being slowly stifled by the wizardry of special effects. It used to be that readers prized their own unique mental pictures of books they read. I remember drawing each one of the major Lord of the Rings characters from the clear mental picture I had of them. Now we can hardly wait for the movie to come out.
I have to wonder if the writers of the Lord of the Rings franchise are starting to run out of steam. There are some welcome comic moments in The Desolation of Smaug but pitifully few amidst the graphic carnage. Maybe the writers are caught up like the rest of us in the overwhelmingly dark picture we have of the world right now. Maybe, not having grown up with the routine graphic violence of video games, it’s just too much for me. So much preoccupation with conflict I find unsettling. Fear is too easy a motivator during difficult times. Not to mention an effective argument for a tighter security state.
Having watched Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy a couple of years ago, I re-read Tolkien’s novels again after a gap of probably 30 years. I was deeply struck by the differences between the books and the films. I enjoyed Jackson’s version of the story—his casting choices were brilliant, the actors superb, the New Zealand landscape the ideal Middle Earth. Andy Serkis as Gollum is nothing short of a terrifying revelation. Yet I’d forgotten how much poetry there was in the novels. In the movies, the characters are forever carving their way through Orc flesh. In Tolkien’s original stories they are forever singing songs and quoting rhymes. This actually fits with a hobbit’s true nature—to love and indulge all good things in life. And as any traveller knows, a song on the road to Mordor is a guaranteed spirit lifter. A nugget of poetry can resonate like a plucked string for days.
My partner Anne always shudders at these new movies. “Why do they have to make such horrible, evil creatures? Why focus so much on the dark side?” She has a point. But of course it’s the good old human shadow again, looming above our shoulders. And the higher the pitch of denial, the larger and nastier it gets. The day of reckoning always comes. For individuals it can mean neuroses that cause oneself and others distress. For whole civilizations it can mean a descent into barbarism. Tolkien here would remind us that with a beloved old song, a scrap of poetry, the darkness is driven off, lit up like Elvish crystal. It’s beauty, not just strength, that will fend off the dark, lift the light of spirit above the slime.
Because in the end, we are mortal. And mortality means vulnerability. No use fighting it. For all I know, these could be the real last words of King Gilgamesh in his lonely palace in Uruk. As any true hobbit can tell you.