Charting a course through Middle-earth can be nearly as taxing as surviving an international media tour for an end-of-year blockbuster. Peter Jackson knows this better than anyone. His film journeys through the vast realms of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings are familiar terrain.
Just last week, his salt-and-pepper curls fell at slightly unruly angles and his white dress shirt looked more comfortably lived in than freshly pressed as he posed on a giant chair flown in from New Zealand from the set of his latest film, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.”
Still, the director was in good humor. Some admirers are comparing “Smaug’s” jovial spirit to the high-water mark of Jackson’s career, his epic “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
“Quite a few people are saying that,” said Jackson, 52, at a Beverly Hills hotel. “We are consciously trying to deepen the characterizations and conflicts without straying too far from Tolkien.”
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“Smaug” primarily centers on the middle portion of Tolkien’s landmark 1937 youth novel, but Jackson and his writing partners, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, have expanded the narrative to include new characters and moments referenced in the appendixes of “The Lord of the Rings.”
“That was one of the decisions we made at the very beginning,” Jackson said. “Do we take a children’s book, a very simplistic children’s book, and faithfully adapt it? Or do we make a film that will live alongside the other three movies that we made? We are the same storytellers, Philippa, Fran and I, we’re the same people working on it. We’re trying to be faithful to the style and the tone.”
In this second portion of the saga, Martin Freeman’s good-natured Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, continues on his quest to help the dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and company reclaim the treasure of their lost homeland Erebor, which has been usurped by the evil dragon Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch). Ian McKellen’s wizard Gandalf has more of a solo role to play, ferreting out a great, ancient evil that is settling over the land.
Bilbo and Thorin’s travels take them to the forest of Mirkwood, where they encounter a race of Sylvan elves that includes Orlando Bloom’s Legolas (a member of the “Rings” ensemble) and Evangeline Lilly’s warrior Tauriel. She is the first character wholly invented for a Tolkien film by Jackson, Walsh and Boyens (Guillermo del Toro also is credited as a screenwriter on “Smaug”).
“For some reason that I don’t quite understand, a lot of women love these stories more than other types of fantasy,” Jackson said. “We just felt it was a bit male-heavy and we could do something about it.”
There are other new players, including Luke Evans’ human Bard the Bowman, who resides in the enclave of Lake-town, which sits in the shadow of the Lonely Mountain near the deserted area known as the Desolation of Smaug.
Narratively, Jackson said he felt greater freedom with this installment than with “Unexpected Journey” or the upcoming “There and Back Again.” He neither had to establish the story and introduce the characters nor deliver “an exciting climax” for the trilogy.
But there was dragon anxiety. He acknowledged that he felt some apprehension over finally bringing Tolkien’s great red-golden beast to the screen.
“You keep hearing all this expectation,” Jackson said. “ ‘I want to see Smaug, I want to see Smaug.’ I hadn’t seen Smaug up until a few months ago, really, not in his current form!
“Those things,” he added with a laugh, “are a bit of a pressure.”