For months, director Peter Jackson has been teasing audiences with fleeting glimpses of the fearsome dragon that lies in wait for Bilbo Baggins and his cohorts in the second part of his epic Hobbit trilogy: a blast of fire here, a menacing baritone voice there (courtesy of actor Benedict Cumberbatch). In just six days, with the Dec. 13 opening of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the director will finally pull back the curtain on his interpretation of one of the best-known villains in fantasy literature.
Author J.R.R. Tolkien pulled out all the stops in his depiction of the vain, arrogant dragon who jealousy guards a massive pile of stolen gold in the Lonely Mountain: “My armor is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!” Smaug boasts in the original novel. But, as Jackson knows well, moviegoers have seen countless depictions of dragons in every conceivable medium since The Hobbit was published in 1937. So how do you deliver a truly mind-blowing Smaug to an audience that has been there and fire-breathed that? “I thought, ‘What is it about a dragon that would surprise people? What is that people wouldn’t be expecting?’ ” Jackson tells EW.
The director and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens began by approaching Smaug not as a visual spectacle but as a character, one who’s been warped by his blind, irrational hunger for gold. “We took the approach that Smaug is a paranoid psychopath,” Jackson says. “He has a lust for gold, but it’s a lust that he can’t explain. He’s not like a normal person who wants wealth for all the trappings of fast cars and yachts. Smaug doesn’t have any of that, the poor guy. For 200 years, he’s been there on this pile of gold waiting for someone to come, just sitting there doing crossword puzzles and catching up on Breaking Bad seasons on Netflix. He hasn’t got much else to do.”
Once the reluctant hobbit hero Bilbo (played by Martin Freeman) enters his lair, Smaug’s true evil genius comes into play. “Smaug is super intelligent,” Jackson says. “Unlike Gollum who’s a messy, scattered kind of character, Smaug is smarter than Bilbo is. He’s very, very cunning. He plays psychological games with Bilbo. He’s really the Hannibal Lecter of the dragon world. All of that is to some degree in Tolkien’s book, but we really focused it razor-sharp for the movie.”
As for the look of Smaug, Jackson knew he needed to deliver something eye-popping but he wasn’t sure where to begin: “I didn’t have a particular vision for Smaug. It’s not like I’ve grown up since I was a kid with this idea of what this guy looks like in my mind.” He quickly rejected the idea of trying to come up with some wild, outside-the-box form for the dragon. “That would be a silly thing to do,” Jackson says. “He’s a dragon and he has to have a classical kind of dragon feel to him.”
Instead, he focused on the scale of the scaly beast. “The very simple thing I had in my head was to make him a hell of a lot bigger than what people would be imagining,” Jackson says. “I thought, ‘The one thing that would surprise me is if he lifts his head out of the gold and, instead of his head being two or three feet long, his head is the size of a bus and his body is the size of a 747. That would be pretty scary.’ So I thought, ‘OK, we’ll go with size.’ “
In the end, after the months and years of build-up to the big reveal, Jackson is confident Smaug will live up to fans’ expectations: “I think anybody who’s waiting to see Smaug is not going to be disappointed,” he says. “I promise you’ll feel like you’ve had your delivery of Smaug, 100 per cent.”