December is upon us, which means it’s time for the next installment in Oscar-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson’s second Middle-earth trilogy, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (read our review).

Jackson’s decision to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s fairly straight-forward Hobbit novel into a sprawling fantasy/adventure movie trilogy – featuring additional plot material that serves as a prelude to the Lord of the Rings trilogy – continues to divide film buffs, as evidenced by the range of critical reactions and general feelings towards the first chapter, An Unexpected Journey (read our review), and to a lesser extent with The Desolation of Smaug.

Sidestepping that debate – how does The Desolation of Smaug compare to the middle-chapter in the Rings trilogy, The Two Towers? One is a rousing fantasy adventure, while the other is a grandiose fantasy war epic – but does one achieve what it sets out to do better than the other?

Well, in keeping with our comparison between An Unexpected Journey and Fellowship of the Ring, we’ll examine The Desolation of Smaug and The Two Towers with regard to five different aspects: the characters, story, world, action/effects and direction. (Of course, if you’re already decided which one you feel is better, feel free to jump ahead and cast your vote in the comments section of this article.)

The Characters


Thematically, the first installments in Jackson’s Hobbit and Rings trilogies examine flip sides of fate – choosing your destiny vs. accepting the destiny you are given – which are elaborated upon in the second chapters of each respective series, through the collective experiences of the many, many Middle-eartheans that populate both films.

In The Desolation of Smaug, we get the pleasure of watching Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) continue his evolution as a character, gaining more courage and sharpening his wits – but remaining a polite and pleasant (if bumbling) Hobbit at his core. Meanwhile, the film better establishes why Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is perceived by his dwarfish peers as a king-in-waiting and great leader, yet it doesn’t skip addressing the dangerous consequences that his actions bring (nor how Thorin’s stubbornness can be as much a strength as a weakness).

As a result, Bilbo and Thorin continue to make for compelling leads in The Desolation of Smaug, since we are shown heretofore unseen shades of their moral fiber and personality; including, a darkness glimpsed in Bilbo – brought out by The Ring of Power (which becomes a great metaphor for how Bilbo’s newfound bravery/cunning is a double-edged sword) – and Thorin’s questionable motives, as his (Noble? Selfish?) desire to reclaim the Lonely Mountain brings out the cracks in his armor (which is overtly, but still effectively, symbolized with the Arkenstone).


Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) has moments of strength, but he’s mostly the same plucky, yet passive, Hobbit in The Two Towers as we saw in Fellowship of the Ring; albeit, worn down by the burden of being Ring-Bearer; it’s Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) who starts to emerge as more resourceful than he originally seemed. Similarly, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) largely treads water rather than making progress forward with his character arc, yet is also portrayed with greater depth (thanks to a series of flashbacks to his time in Rivendell).

Certain supporting characters – like Kili and Balin in The Desolation of Smaug; Merry and Pippin in The Two Towers – are given room to grow in the respective Middle-earth films, while others remain flat and unchanged; save for Gimli in Two Towers, who gets reduced to mostly comic relief and played for laughs a bit too much. Bombur in The Desolation of Smaug, by contrast, is still primarily a source of humor, but he gets adequate time to prove his valor (see: the water barrel sequence).

Surprisingly, it’s Legolas and the newly-created Tauriel who make for especially intriguing (and unexpectedly multi-dimensional) players that intrude on the proceedings in The Desolation of Smaug, more so than comparable additions in The Two Towers like Eowyn and King Théoden.

Depending on how the Mirkwood elves fit into the story of the final Hobbit movie, they could wind up feeling like dead weight (unlike Eowyn and Théoden in Return of the King); the same goes for other additions, whose storylines are but partially finished in these second installments (see: Bard the Bowman from The Hobbit, Faramir from Rings).


Meanwhile, Gandalf gets sent away to manage other tasks (read: functions more as a plot device than character) for large chunks of both films, which are likewise evenly matched in having a wonderful scenery-chewing motion-capture addition: the malicious, yet pitiable, split-personalities of Gollum/Sméagol (Andy Serkis) and the baleful, yet egotistical, dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch).

In the end, the Hobbit film emerges triumphant, since it takes more time to form nuanced protagonists and supporting characters alike.  However, there is a drawback to that approach, which shall be addressed next…

The Winner: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Next Page: Story and World

The Story


The Desolation of Smaug, like An Unexpected Journey, is distinctly novelistic in its design, which allows for the inclusion of a handful of narrative asides, tangents and/or character-driven moments that will tie in together over the long haul (ie. during the Hobbit trilogy finale). Two Towers, like Fellowship of the Ring, is more of a streamlined cinematic rendition of its source material, yet also far-reaching and perfectly willing to take its time chugging along. Is one storytelling approach fundamentally superior to the other?

There’s a worthwhile debate to have about that (see also: those who prefer the Rings movie theatrical cuts vs. extended editions), but for our purposes we shall instead focus on what these two films manage to accomplish, using their respective methods.

We’ll run through these accomplishments by bullet-point:

  • Neither The Desolation of Smaug nor The Two Towers have proper beginnings nor endings, yet each film still manages to have a proper three-act structure (complete with a framework that includes a prologue, to get the story rolling).
  • The former is akin to a serial adventure episode, while the latter manages to have achieved a somewhat greater sense of completion by the time the climax is finished.
  • Two Towers trisects into three separate narrative threads in the beginning, but is (mostly) able to keep the juggling act steady throughout. The Desolation of Smaug has a clear story through-line, yet weaves in subplots in a (again, mostly) balanced manner.
  • A lot happens in both films, yet Two Towers offers a little more immediate payoff, while The Desolation of Smaug saves more for later.


Interestingly, while the storytelling pace quickens and the stakes ramp up exponentially in The Desolation of Smaug (compared to its predecessor), Two Towers slows down after the burst out of the gate on Fellowship of the Ring and is bigger in terms of battles, scale and emotion – all while keeping the stakes high.

However, Two Towers has a tendency to feel somewhat repetitive at times during its final act (i.e. the Battle of Helm’s Deep) and is a bit sluggish in the middle, during the build-up to the big showdown. By comparison, The Desolation of Smaug uses a predictable, yet smooth, road map for direction throughout (i.e. an obstacle course of events linked together) – which could be better or worse, depending on how you look at it.

All factors weighed, the edge will go to Two Towers in this area of consideration, based on the logic that it feels more like a full story (and less a middle-chapter).

The Desolation of Smaug, like An Unexpected Journey, has an internal structure, but feels more like a part of a whole – which, if the final Hobbit installment is up to scratch, could result in the trilogy providing an overall more fulfilling experience than any individual Middle-earth film (or even the Rings trilogy), in terms of how the over-reaching plot is executed.

But, until further notice, we cannot say for certain that will be true. Thus:

Winner: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

The World


An Unexpected Journey invests more time than any Rings movie in making Middle-earth feel like a living, breathing realm, allowing moviegoers ample time to enjoy playing in this sandbox – but does The Desolation of Smaug manage as much, seeing how it’s more action-packed and set piece-heavy? Or is it Two Towers that paints a more detailed and richly-colored world populated by hobbits, dwarves, humans, and so forth?

Well, Two Towers slows down after Fellowship of the Ring and pauses to examine Tolkien’s imaginative kingdom from a more intimate perspective, offering a closer look at the personalities of orcs and Uruk-hai (apparently, those loathsome beasts can be kind of whiny), while also envisioning landmarks that will haunts your dreams (see: the Dead Marshes) and delving into the history of the world’s forests, through the subplots involving the Ents and Treebeard.

Indeed, because Two Towers doesn’t cover the entirely of its source material (saving certain events for the Return of the King adaptation), it allows the film an opportunity to better flesh out the characteristics of creatures and cultures around Middle-earth – particularly those of the humans who populate the open plains of Rohan (and Gondor’s foot soldiers who keep Mordor at bay) – compared to Fellowship.


Having said that, Middle-earth once again feels more properly-realized in the second chapter of the Hobbit trilogy than its counterpart from the Rings movies.

The Desolation of Smaug envelopes viewers in the history of this land and its fantastical inhabitants – shape-shifters, orcs, giant spiders – in addition to offering scenes you might’ve never expected to see. (Seriously, who thought drunken Mirkwood elves would make an appearance?) Similarly, the presence and influence of evil returning to Middle-earth is reflected in the landscape in ways that the second Rings movie sometimes doesn’t accomplish.

Two Towers rectifies a problem in Fellowship of the Ring – where beautiful Middle-earth settings occasionally feel like shiny backdrops that are too removed from the proceedings – but The Desolation of Smaug pulls you into the scenery; quite literally, thanks to the 3D cinematography and camera work (more on that later). Casual moviegoers might not enjoy how stuffed the Hobbit films are so much when compared to die-hard Tolkien fans, but it’s hard to deny that the new playground is an improvement.

The Winner: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Next Page: Action/Effects and Direction

The Action/Effects


Two Towers boasts a meticulously-staged extended action sequence with the Battle of Helm’s Deep, a clever mix of practical and digital tools to create the towering Ents and the game-changing motion-capture monster that is Gollum.

The Desolation of Smaug continues to raise the bar for immersive 3D filmmaking, builds on the Rings movie foundation to create incredibly expressive and tangible mo-cap characters/CGI visuals, and offers moviegoers the mother of all dragons (no, not that one) in the marvelously digitally-rendered Smaug.

So… which film is the more impressive, effects-wise? Well, although certain aspects of Two Towers are now somewhat dated, there is a grisliness to its production design that is sometimes lacking, yet desirable, in the polished miss-en-scene of The Desolation of Smaug. Then again, the heightened realism of CGI elements in the second Hobbit installment stands above that in the Rings movies now, even though Two Towers still blends old-school/digital age techniques rather well.


When it comes to action, The Desolation of Smaug has two spectacular sequences/set pieces (the escape from Mirkwood and journey into the Kingdom Under the Mountain), which blends sophisticated camerawork with CGI to create the impression of high-octane battles – where elves swoop like hawks, orcs thunder on the ground like wildebeests and a massive dragon coils and maneuvers like a slippery snake.

Two Towers, on the other hand, has the Battle of Helm’s Deep – gruesome and mind-boggling large in scale, remaining one of the most (if not the most) grand battles of the silver screen. The eye candy might not be as dazzling as you remember in Two Towers (compared to The Desolation of Smaug, anyway), but the action choreography and sheer numbers involved with the Rings installment are still hard to top, even today.

Thus, the final decision:

Winner: The Two Towers for action, The Desolation of Smaug for effects

Direction


Both Two Towers and The Desolation of Smaug are cinematic circus performances, serving up hefty helpings of narrative bridge work, personal character moments, huge fights, big-budget qualities (costumes, sets, effects, etc.) and deeply-entrenched themes (morality, environmental concerns, spirituality, etc.) that are bubbling just beneath the surface – resonating all the stronger because the films often don’t call attention to them in a fashion that prioritizes sermonizing over storytelling.

Peter Jackson’s direction on Two Towers feels more confident than on Fellowship of the Ring, no doubt in part because he’d gained much experience and wisdom from shooting the first installment in the Rings trilogy – having hit the ground running on his first tour of the world of blockbusters epics. That sense of self-assurance remains abundantly clear and noticeable in The Desolation of Smaug; no matter how over-filled and bloated the film may feel at times, there’s always a sense that Jackson has full control of the steering wheel now.


But does one film rule them all (see what I did there?), when it comes to this category? It’s difficult to firmly declare one as being more steadily-captained than the other (for this writer, anyway), seeing how Jackson the director manages to very much accomplish what he intended with both the second Hobbit and Rings installment. The story might well be different when it comes to Return of the King versus the final Hobbit film, There and Back Again, but until then:

Winner: It’s a Tie!

And So, the Overall Winner Is…

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug


In this scenario, the overall winner in the Middle-earth showdown in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, triumphant over The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Is Two Towers superior to The Desolation of Smaug in certain regards? Will some moviegoers still prefer the former, due to its iconic status in moviemaking history and sheer epic tone? Yes and yes, on those counts, but The Desolation of Smaug is arguably better as a whole package – an exhilarating fantasy adventure with heart, humor, and timeless themes.

Mind you, that doesn’t take away from Two Towers, which remains an excellent work of filmmaking; it’s merely recognition that, in its own way, The Desolation of Smaug might be better at reaching the goal that it sets for itself.


If An Unexpected Journey was the journey to the top of the roller coaster, then the second Hobbit installment is the thrilling plunge that follows afterwards. Hopefully, we’ll get thrown for some wild loops along the way during the (again, with fingers crossed) satisfying denouement, The Hobbit: There and Back Again.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is now playing in theaters.