If it's December, it's time for another Peter Jackson attempt to bring the words of J.R.R. Tolkien to the megaplex and maybe make another billion at the box office.
For the fifth time in 13 years, movie-goers have a chance to immerse themselves in Middle-earth, this time by sitting through 161 minutes of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second of three films based on one rather puny novel published in 1937.
The first instalment, last year's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, alienated some audiences with a slow-moving start and goofy action sequences. But it still wound up raking in more than $1 billion.
The prequel-sequel is slimmer and darker, which is better news for most fans. But will it satisfy the serious Tolkien geeks? Here's a primer on three of the most noticeable deviations from the immensely popular, 76-year-old source material:
New elf on the shelf
OF all the liberties taken with Tolkien's text, Jackson's creation of a She-Elf named Tauriel had the geeks most unsettled before the release of Smaug.
While nobody can quibble about the addition of a female character -- there are an awful lot of guys with beards in the original work -- there were concerns a romantic subplot would be cheesy and also demeaning, as if the only role a female can play in a fantasy flick is to serve as the object of some other character's desire.
As it turns out, there is a romantic subplot, but it doesn't cast a terrible shadow across Middle-earth. Tauriel, played by Lost alumna Evangeline Lilly, winds up being a warrior: An arrow-slinging captain of the guard for a community of wood elves.
Lilly is given a lot more to do as an action hero than Liv Tyler got to work with as Arwen in The Lords of the Rings trilogy, which merely expanded an existing character from the novels rather than inventing a new one outright. So there is no cringe factor.
Back in Bloom
THE reappearance of Legolas, Orlando Bloom's heroic elf character from the LOTR films, also served as an annoyance to the Tolkien purists, who feared Jackson was simply trying to cash in on the popularity of a character from the other trilogy. Given the awkward nature of Elijah Wood's scenes as Frodo in the first Hobbit movie (Frodo does not appear in the novel), there were legitimate concerns about Bloom appearing in a film version of a book where Legolas isn't mentioned.
Jackson works around this by connecting Legolas to the greater mythos of Middle-earth, reaching back not just to The Hobbit, but to The Silmarillion. For starters, the prequel version of Legolas is presented as a xenophobic son of the Elvenking Thranduil, who is characterized as an isolationist.
But the real bone thrown to the geeks in Smaug is a direct reference to Legolas' status as a Sindarin elf, a high-caste minority that rules over the more numerous Silvan elves, whose numbers include Tauriel.
This minutiae may come across to most viewers as clumsy social commentary. But the geeks can take it as a sign Jackson isn't taking Tolkien lightly.
The Middle-earth chess match
FOR die-hard Tolkien fans -- the folks who pored over the timeline and appendices at the end of The Return of the King -- the most exciting aspect of expanding The Hobbit into three sprawling films is watching how Jackson elaborates upon the emergence of Sauron, the Big Bad in Middle-earth.
In the novel, which focuses mainly on the hobbit Bilbo and the company of dwarves, a shadowy character known as The Necromancer, who inhabits a forest fortress called Dol Guldur, is only mentioned in passing. Only a few passages in The Lord of the Rings reveal The Necromancer was actually Sauron, who kept his identity secret as he was trying to regain his strength before an effort to reconquer Middle-earth.
The notes reveal how Sauron was driven out of Dol Guldur by an alliance of elves and wizards while Bilbo and the dwarves were adventuring into the lair of Smaug. Those notes also suggest it was important for the good guys in Middle-earth to take out the dragon before the War of the Ring, where a flying fire-breather would have served as a formidable weapon.
Jackson makes this strategy more explicit in the second Hobbit flick, providing some justification for expanding a wee little book into a sprawling trilogy.