The Desolation of Smaug: Adaptation and History

**SPOILER WARNING : The Desolation of Smaug**

After seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, I was surprised to see all the changes from the original novel. Don’t get me wrong: the film was great — it just wasn’t really The Hobbit, but a story inspired by it and built from its frame. Surprised though I was, such changes are understandable, when a story is transformed from a 300-page children’s book into a major film trilogy aimed at adults some 80 years later. This short essay intends to explain what I see in some of the adaptation’s changes.

First of all, let us remember that Tolkien, as a medieval scholar specialised in Anglo-Saxon philology, knew what he was doing when he wrote his novels. All of them are clearly infused with the spirit of the Middle Ages, and use narrative tropes and topoi directly inspired by medieval literature.

In the same way, it is wrong to argue that Peter Jackson’s team “did not understand” whatever aspect of the novels (Hobbit or Lord of the Rings) that was not reproduced identically in the movie. It is unlikely that any change to the original story is an accident or the consequence of reading too quickly or not enough or badly. Rather, alterations to the novels are choices, voluntary acts, and in some cases well-reflected ones to respect the spirit of Tolkien’s work and universe — as we will see with two examples.

(I only saw the movie once, so allow some inaccuracies.)

Beorn the Berserker

Beon the Skin-changer was always inspired by the Germanic berserkers (bear shirts) — warriors who would enter a trance and symbolically “change” into bears to do battle. Thus they became terrible fighters with no fear, but also little control on themselves. (On this and other bear-related issues, Pastoureau, 2007) In the novel, the berserker nature of Beorn is especially evident in the Battle of the Five Armies, in which Beorn participates as a bear. Other details included his name, which meant warrior in Old English, but derives from the Germanic root for bear.

The original novel was targeted at children, so Beorn was a bit tuned down as a berserker. However, he is fully reinstated as the historical bear warrior in the movie: when he wears a man’s form, he can be reasoned with; when in bear shape, however, he is “unpredictable” and will kill anything. This follows closely the battle frenzy state of berserkers, who could do nothing but fight when they wore their bear’s shape and entered their battle frenzy. This is possibly closer to Tolkien’s own idea of Beorn, if he had not “tamed” him in the interest of children.

Sadly, this new portrayal did cut out one of the best, most funny scenes of the novel, when the dwarves and Bilbo are introduced two by two, but I guess it wouldn’t fit as well in what was the darkest, most depressing movie of the five Peter Jackson adaptations. The movie ends at the lowest point of the trilogy, as wanted by the three act structure (cf. The Empire Strikes Back, for example).

The Prince of Esgaroth

The novel’s Master of Laketown was an elected mayor, representing the interest of the commercial burgher class and of “business”, himself only interested in money. He had to be contrasted with Bard, the courageous bowman from the royal line of Dale. The Master is not depicted in a very good light, unlike the latter. Basically, Tolkien was building them from the medieval aversion of lowly burgher-led municipal government and preference for blood, and the right of noble warriors to rule.

As you may have noticed, today, most people in the Western world approve of democracy and disapprove of divine right monarchy. Few people have any sympathy for lineage, and many like elections. The classic contrast between Bard and the Master is more ambiguous to contemporary attitudes: the Master is an elected official, but he is greedy and craven, and Bard is courageous and selfless, but only inherits his dignity by birth. This would make it harder to identify and sympathize with Bard, and harder to dislike the Master.

The Peter Jackson adaptation modernizes their “political” characterization. The Master is no longer elected, nor a merchant mayor, but a noble and tyrannical prince. Bard, while still the heir of Girion, becomes a sort of Robin Hood, a people’s champion who violates unjust laws and organizes opposition against an oppressive government. As in a “medieval” reading of the novel, we have a clear and unambiguous contrast between the two, but with reference to modern attitudes: the Master is still greedy and cowardly, and claims legitimacy from his birth; Bard is still selfless and courageous, and claims legitimacy from the people.

Works cited

Pastoureau, Michel (2007). L’ours: Histoire d’un roi déchu, Paris, Seuil.


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