Well, I said this day would come! I've finally seen The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and it's time for me to talk about it. For my readers' sakes though, I'm going to keep the focus of this entry tied in with Villain Month instead of rambling aimlessly. Seeing how this movie is named after an iconic bad guy, I think I know what to discuss today:
Is Smaug really the villain in The Hobbit?
Let me clarify something -- Smaug is definitely a villain. He has a mind of his own and he deliberately kills and terrorizes people for his own selfish gain. What's up for debate here is whether or not he's the main villain in the story.
This especially becomes debatable looking at the Hobbit movies, where the story is now split into three parts. I don't want to give away any major spoilers for the second movie here, but let's just say that Smaug isn't going to be in the third one for very long. Audiences will go into the theatre next year and see a three-hour Hobbit movie that most likely won't have a dragon in its second half. It's pretty odd for a fantasy film to lose its biggest threat so early; imagine what Lord of the Rings would have been like if Frodo threw the One Ring into Mt. Doom at the halfway point of Return of the King. That story would have worn out its welcome rather quickly after that point, but The Hobbit manages to go on for quite a while without its great and terrible dragon. Could that be because Smaug isn't really the main villain?
He's certainly treated like he is. The scenes leading to his appearance build him up as the most horrible monster to ever plague Middle Earth and the only thing that's keeping peace and prosperity at bay in the world. Everyone that Bilbo, Thorin, and company encounter in the first movie and in this one warns them not to enter the Lonely Mountain (and tries to prevent them from reaching it) because they're afraid that Smaug will destroy everything if he's awakened. Granted, he does destroy quite a bit after waking up, but he's dealt with relatively quickly. To top that off, the story promptly moves on from him and then becomes about a number of other dilemmas that have risen over the course of the plot, many of which don't pertain to him.
Considering this, Smaug seems less like the main villain and more like a huge MacGuffin -- a mere plot device that was used to get the real story rolling. Smaug may in fact be the biggest and longest-staying MacGuffin in storytelling history. Even Marion Crane was gone within the first half of Psycho. Given what happens afterwards in The Hobbit, Smaug's removal from the tale seems to do nothing but make the treasure he was guarding suddenly accessible to every interested rival party.
So then who or what could be the real main villain in The Hobbit? The movies have heavily suggested the Necromancer, which really supports the idea that Smaug was just the story's cover-up for a far greater threat, but our knowledge of Lord of the Rings tells us that the Necromancer won't accomplish much by the end of the trilogy. The main villain also definitely isn't Azog the orc, who's been reduced to a prominent minion as of the newest film. It's not even the One Ring, despite the much more emphasized effect that it seems to have on Bilbo in the movies.
I was weighing these options in my head on the way home from the theatre when all of a sudden, it hit me: maybe The Hobbit has NEVER had a main villain. Maybe the biggest obstacle in this story is an antagonist. And then it all fell into place for me -- the greatest force of evil that the characters have to overcome in The Hobbit is the treasure.
Greed is an enormous running theme in this story. The dwarf king Thror's greed caused him to steal from his allies and build up the treasure hoard that attracted Smaug, Smaug himself was greedy enough to kill hundreds of people for that treasure, most of the people who offer to help Bilbo and the dwarves along the way only do so because they want a share of that treasure, and [a major character] eventually turns on Bilbo over a piece of that treasure. That mountain full of gold can be seen as the One Ring on a way larger scale, symbolizing all the corruption in the world and bringing out the worst in everybody who lays eyes on it, and Smaug can be seen as a way larger version of Gollum, the most corrupted victim of all.
So yeah, Smaug just went from main villain to main victim in my mind in the course of an evening. That isn't to say the character is any less imposing, just that he's not the type of character I used to think he was. Rest assured, he's well worth the price of an admission ticket if you have any desire to see Desolation of Smaug in theatres. And if treasure is the real antagonist, then look forward to a scene near the end where Smaug almost literally transforms into the main villain for a few seconds.
You'll know what I mean after you've seen it!