Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

How To Design Your Dragon II: The Desolation Of Smaug

I’ve just written an article on common ways movies, TV, and comics mess up dragons, but there’s one I never got to – the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities, that most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm, SMAUG!

Smaug as drawn by J.R.R. Tolkien; but what would he know about it?
Death of Smaug detail.

This one, as redesigned for the movie (WHY?!?) was especially messed up.

Before the movie came out, I had great hopes for a Smaug design from the same people who created this:

Look at what you can do, guys, when you put your imagination to it!
Richard Taylor’s crew designed an awesome Balrog for Fellowship Of The Ring. (Jamie Beswarick and Ben Wootten seemed to do a lot of the cool work on the final.)

I kept trying to imagine what would happen when they designed a dragon. Then they did, and it was… meh. It was bland. It was dull. It was neither hot nor cold, so I spit it from my mouth.

Movie creators: go back and look at Tolkien's work and your own Balrog to see how this should be done.
Pallid and unremarkable. Sure, it’s a dragon, but that’s all I can say about it. The colour matches the Tolkien drawing above – but look at the one at the bottom of this article.

In the other article, I spoke about the number of limbs a dragon needs (minimum four legs, whether it has wings or not). Tolkien drew Smaug with six. He wrote him with six. (“There he lay… Beneath him, under all his limbs” “The black arrow sped straight from the string, straight for the hollow by the left breast where the foreleg was flung wide.” ~ chapters XII and XIV emphasis mine, thanks to friend Bindibadgi for the research.) ((But what would he know about The Hobbit, amiright?)

So why did the movie version only have four?

Worse, in the theatrical release of the first Hobbit movie, he had his six. They teased us with it – but then, with the extended cut of the first movie and the second and third movies, they hacked off his front legs. A failure of adaptation, a failure of continuity, a failure of imagination, a failure all-round. (Their excuse is they wanted to capture Benedict Cummerbatch’s performance… I don’t accept that. There are too many ways around it.)

I said in the last article that I don’t necessarily think it looks uncool to have a four-limbed dragon. (Reign of FireDragonslayer) And yet, he just looks clumsy and useless during the attack on Laketown. It just doesn’t even look good here.

In my last article, I also said you could make a dragon any colour you like. I stand by that – if it’s an original dragon. Or, if it’s based on one where we don’t know the colour (in the first How To Train Your Dragon book, Cressida Cowell never tells us Toothless’s colour – though it’s narrowed down to a small range). Neither of those apply here.

Does the movie dragon look anything like this?
Conversation With Smaug by J.R.R. Tolkien, detail.

Smaug is red. Or, more accurately, red-gold. Those who’ve read the book (which apparently doesn’t include the film-makers, and not just because of Smaug) know this. So why did they make him lapis? Answer: The Hobbit movies fell very much under Hollywood’s orange-teal obsession.

Worse, like his limbs, they teased us with it. We caught tiny glimpses of him; an eye here, a leg there, and they were clearly and properly red. In fact, if you watch The Desolation Of Smaug carefully, you can see the scene where he changes colour – he’s talking to Bilbo, and he’s red, as he should be. We cut away to another scene, then cut back. The lighting, the time of day, the angle, Smaug’s position – nothing has changed. Except now he’s lapis.

The movie version of Smaug was his own level of wrong, on multiple levels.

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