Not so smug about Smaug

Warner Brothers released the first clips of Smaug the Dragon this week, six months ahead of The Hobbit, Part 2: Desolation of Smaug.

‘You are?’ the stranger asked politely. ‘Why, I am Bioquxqwehr, a Gchqetuzgchzghghughwy from the city of  Cigghguhqchchgh in the land of Aqghpowiqghghghpoewqgch.’ ‘A land,’ the stranger observed ‘where the commonest cause of death is choking on one’s own tongue?’ ‘Why yes,’ said Bioquxqwehr. ‘How in all the name of Pwqhexghxghxghchchghxiud did you guess that?’

‘I say, George old boy, off for a spot of dragon hunting, eh what?’ ‘I should jolly well think so.’ “By Jove, bit of a ripping wheeze, that!’

The creature is the whole rationale of The Hobbit and, I suppose, focus of the next two movies in the nine-hour epic adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s modest childrens’ tale.

We know what Smaug looked like because Tolkien carefully drew him – my copy of The Hobbit has the author’s own illustration on the cover, in fact. A classic dragon, a creature St. George would have been proud to defeat in single combat – and deliberately done that way by Tolkien, for good reason.

Does the dragon look like that in the movie? Noooo.

Sigh.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I’m a huge Peter Jackson fan. I’m a huge Tolkien fan. And the imagery we have in our heads as we read a story will always differ between people

But Tolkien was pretty specific about the look of his dragon

Question: should film-makers follow the author’s vision – or is it adding something to have a new look to Smaug? Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

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9 comments on “Not so smug about Smaug

  1. Consider any art form doing this. I usually return to the argument of the Magritte, “The Treachery of Images (La trahison des images)”. Most of us are familiar with the image, which shows a pipe that looks as though it is a model for a tobacco store advertisement. But Magritte painted below the pipe “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”), which seems a contradiction, but is actually true: the painting is not a pipe, it is an image of a pipe. Regardless of how a person wrote or drew a character, when another interprets it, it is their interpretation of the information (even if a drawing is provided). ‘The Little Prince’ (by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry ) provided a classical argument of the fact, when a child drew an image of an elephant inside a boa constrictor and asked adults if they were afraid, they tended to see a shape which appeared to be drawing of a hat. There is no reason, when someone is interpreting or adapting the information, that they should not choose to create their perception. I am sure in many of your carefully researched items, you must have ‘interpreted’ or created a version from your understanding, of someone else’s interpretation of an event, simply by the fact that you were not there?

    • Certainly – and the perception we have in our consciousness of anything experienced is very much individual and personal to us from this perspective (philosophical relativism). The issue with history is trying to first identify how participants may themselves have seen something (which you can’t, completely) and then transfer that partial image to the mind of the reader, through words (which are imperfect vehicles for concepts) as completely as possible. Very difficult when put in those terms, and I wonder whether many historians think about it that way.

      In terms of Tolkien, he left specific drawings which could have been used to develop a similar-looking dragon in the movie. The head we’ve seen is different. Is this more creative ducks-and-drakes with The Hobbit? Or a reasonable way of conveying the emotional content Tolkien had in mind – updating it for the modern audience and adding a layer of interpretation? I’m ambivalent about it, not least because the ‘classic’ dragon image Tolkien used remains very much current.

  2. bevrobitai says:

    Phew, that was an erudite response from Gregory! I’m OK with the movie version of Smaug so far – well we’ve only seen the head so it’s hard to tell – but it looks more dragon-like than the Tolkien illustration on the cover of the Hobbit where Smaug’s head looks more like a fox than anything else. Jackson’s dragon head is a bit dinosaurish, but scary and reptilian as it should be. I’m just wanting to hear his voice, being a Cumberbatch fan!

  3. kokkieh says:

    I haven’t seen the new trailer yet, so I can’t comment on Smaug specifically, but it seems to be standard practice when adapting especially fantasy to film. Game of Thrones, Legend of the Seeker and Harry Potter as examples. At times the film version differs so radically from the book you start to wonder if it’s the same story (or as happened in the HP franchise, the films overemphasised certain sub-plots from the books while completely ignoring highly significant events and conversations). I don’t particularly like it. Considering all the blood, sweat and tears I’m pouring into my own novel, I have difficulty to stomach the thought of some producer/director taking my story one day and adapting it (read “ruining it”) to suit their own tastes.

    I loved the way Andrew Adamson (another Kiwi) did the Narnia films, remaining mostly true to the books but embellishing just enough to make the story less preachy and more gripping for modern audiences.

    • I agree. While one the one hand few books translate directly into film, some of the liberties taken with the stories often remove the key themes the author had in mind (which, at least, could be re-cast for the screen). That said, Adamson’s adaptation of the Narnia stories was amazing – I was sorry they decided not to do ‘The Silver Chair’ (leaving us with the slightly cheap BBC adaptation only) – but I’m looking forward to ‘The Magician’s Nephew’.

  4. In this case, I’d have to say “Yes”, the film maker should follow Tolkien’s vision of his dragon. If there had been no sketches, or artwork of any kind, I’d allow the film maker to give us his own vision. But this is a bit like rewriting a major character. Kind of makes me wonder what they were thinking.

  5. I have a friend who is an avid reader of the books that spawned Rizzoli & Isles. She watched only the first 2-3 episodes and could not get into the characters because their hair color was opposite of the book. I’ve never read those books, and thoroughly enjoy the show. I doubt that hair color would have made much difference to me as long as the characters themselves remained true to the book.
    As for a dramatic difference in dragons, I’m not certain, but I think that might be a problem. Too much of a change in looks might require a change of personality which would not do at all. When Kyra Sedgewick quit “The Closer” I did not consider it a problem. Her character was getting too whiney and needy. I watched 2 episodes of the revised show, and could not take anymore. The woman they put in as lead was okay for a side part, but I always saw her as the bad one, partly due to her voice. I liked all the other characters, but with her as boss, I could not handle it. I felt she was wrong for the part.
    I want the movie producer to be faithful to my book when I finally get it done. I probably would not have trouble making minor changes, but I have my character’s appearance for a reason. Suppose they decide to make Cora a blackbird instead of the lovely black snake that she is. The whole interplay of the characters would be wrong because of that single change. That leaves me with the answer: the movie producers should have stuck with the description in the book.

  6. jakeescholl says:

    Yeah, I think directors should stay with the authors vision. I was a little bummed also. I’m just happy Smaug doesn’t look like a cat like in the cartoon. :)

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