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The middle of the journey in Middle-earth

Take “Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” . . . Middle films are the bastard children of trilogies. Their unenviable fate? To keep the plot going, to up the stakes (and swordplay) even further, but to offer no satisfying resolutions. So it is with “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” which opens Friday, the follow-up to last December’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” and the second stage in Peter Jackson’s quest to scale J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel up to a full-blown, no-dwarves-barred epic.

In “Desolation of Smaug,” viewers will again be immersed in Tolkien’s tale of elves, sorcerers, and vengeful quests — and they will visit lands even farther from Bilbo’s idyllic Hobbiton.

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“It’s brand-new territory and a very different part of Middle-earth than we’ve visited before,” said John Howe, conceptual designer for the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” film trilogies. Places like Lake-town and Mirkwood have an “element of exoticism . . . like heading toward St. Petersburg rather than heading to Rome.”

Some will welcome this return to fantasyland. For others, the first trip left them feeling queasy. Jackson turning a 300-page children’s book into a trio of three-hour movies — by adding a prologue, flashbacks, and extra scenes and characters taken from Tolkien’s other writings — struck many critics as a misstep. Or, “sort of stretched,” as Bilbo once said, “like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.” We’ll likely see more of this massaging in “Desolation,” plus extended battles, extra chase scenes, and cliffhangers that many would say are better suited to a theme park ride than the Tolkienverse.

“What if it’s a trap?” asks goofy wizard Radagast in a scene from the new film.

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“It is undoubtedly a trap,” replies Gandalf.

Or take this line from Thorin, enhanced with extra-crispy dark and stormy angst: “If this is to end in fire, then we will all burn together.”

‘It’s brand-new territory and a very different part of Middle-earth than we’ve visited before.’

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In “Desolation of Smaug,” screenwriters Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro again pump up lesser players and invent new faces. Bard (Luke Evans), the Lake-town hunk whose bow skills will later prove pivotal, is given a family. Legolas (Orlando Bloom), the elf from the “Rings” movies but never mentioned in the book, makes an unscheduled appearance. The writers invented a fresh female elf character named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) to thicken the plot.

“[Jackson] has this amazing capacity to keep everything developing and changing as he goes,” said Howe, “and some kind of miraculous grasp of the movie as a whole that lets him achieve these changes.”

This is all either a good thing or a travesty, depending on one’s fealty to the original text. That said, “An Unexpected Journey” grossed $300 million domestically and $1 billion worldwide, so expect even frustrated fans to be on the hook.

Faithful readers have been carrying around their own private film versions of “The Hobbit” in their heads. With part two of this unexpected trilogy, Jackson’s version will be further set in stone harder than dragon’s scales.

Questions about the adaptation abound. Why do the barrels the dwarves escape in have no lids? Will Tolkien’s talking spiders speak? What will Smaug look like? What has been added, fabricated, or lost, and where exactly will this middle passage through Middle-earth end? All of that and more awaits us in a theater as dark as any enchanted forest.

As for part three? Getting Bilbo & Co. there and back again will require one more year of labor for Jackson & Co. “The Hobbit: There and Back Again” is slated for December 2014 release.

“Until everything is delivered,” Howe said, “Peter is capable of all kinds of surprises.”

Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at ethan@ethangilsdorf.com.
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