The epic journey continues for a furry-footed hero, a wizard, and a posse of dwarves when The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opens in theaters on December 13. The film is the second of three films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 fantasy novel, the predecessor to The Lord of the Rings. In this installment, hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) travel to the Kingdom of Erebor to battle the dragon Smaug.

The first film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, opened December 14, 2012. It grossed $85 million in its first weekend and has gone on to see a $303 million total domestic gross. Yet reviews were tepid – the film has a 65% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 58% score on Metacritic. Some Tolkien purists questioned Jackson’s decision to stretch out the relatively humble storyline of The Hobbit into three full-length films by taking liberties with the source material. For the first Hobbit film, Jackson and cowriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro looked to appendices in The Return of the King (the third volume of The Lord of the Rings) to build upon the happenings in Middle-earth. In the new film, Jackson and his fellow screenwriters have added material that never appeared in any of Tolkien’s work – in the form of a female elf with blade-wielding skills played by Evangeline Lilly (Lost).

Fan Fare

On November 4, cast members took part in a fan event that was live-streamed to select theaters around the world. Orlando Bloom (who plays elf warrior Legolas) and Richard Armitage joined Anderson Cooper in New York City, Peter Jackson took part in the conversation via satellite from Wellington, New Zealand, and Evangeline Lilly chimed in from Los Angeles. Lilly acknowledged that some fans of The Hobbit might see her character as an unwelcome addition to the franchise by asking if there were any “haters present” (a few in the audience raised their hands).

In an earlier interview with Tolkien fan site The One Ring, Lilly had expressed her personal connection to Tolkien’s work, and how she was initially reluctant to see the Lord of the Rings films because she feared they might compromise the books: “When Lord of the Rings first came out in the theaters, I refused to see it because I thought they were going to massacre Tolkien’s work and I was like ‘I’m not honoring this, I’m not going to see this, I’m not paying money.” When gently challenged by the interviewer over her claim to be a “diehard” fan of Tolkien, she emphasized that “really and truly they were some of my favorite books and for a time they were my favorite books; and out of all of the books when I was a kid, The Hobbit was my favorite. It was my absolute favorite and my favorite part was the elves in Mirkwood forest.”

On the publishing front, Houghton Mifflin, too, is expanding on Tolkien’s world. An official movie guide, a visual companion, a movie storybook, and an activity book will be published on November 19, and a sticker book will follow on November 26. And the franchise doesn’t stop there: Denny’s is once again serving up a slice of Middle-earth by reprising its Hobbit-themed menu from last year. Joining returning offerings like the Radagast’s Red Velvet Pancake Puppies are some new dishes, among them Smaug’s Fire Burger and Elven Woodland Pecan Pie. (Who are we to question the famously prodigious Hobbit appetite?)