As mentioned in the title of this post, I have followed Richard Armitage’s career for a little over five years. When I first saw him on our TV screen, he was (to me … and to Australian audiences) a little known actor who, as Harry Kennedy, married Geraldine, the Vicar of Dibley; played the dastardly (but rather handsome) Guy of Gisborne in BBC’s Robin Hood Series; and was part of Harry Pearce's team as Lucas in Spooks. It was obvious to me, after seeing his work, particularly in the BBC period drama of North & South, that this actor was far more than just a good looking person .. he had a depth to his acting that deserved to be recognised by a wider audience. As a “fan” (and I’m uncomfortable with that adjective), I was intrigued to know where his career would head, and how he might earn recognition without people focussing on the “looks” factor/objectification that so often is an outcome in screenwork.
Around about the time I was discovering Richard’s earlier work, I heard, via TheOneRing.net that Peter Jackson had the film rights to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”. At that point in time, he was to produce the movie (on the proviso that it was to be greenlit) … and he was to co-write the script along with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. Having loved The Lord of the Rings trilogy (books and films), I was excited by the prospect of another Peter Jackson/Weta produced movie on the horizon.
Back in the Armitage sphere, I couldn’t help but think that being cast in The Hobbit would be a great thing for Richard. Moreover he had let one or two hints drop in interviews that he had loved Tolkien as a boy. (One, in a Robin Hood audiobook interview, and the other in an interview on the Vulpes Libres site “In conversation with Richard Armitage” when he was asked to list five of his favourite books .... top on his list was: “The Lord of the Rings: the best adventure novel for a 12-year-old boy. A ‘road movie’. I was playing one of the Elves in a school play at the time (researching even back then).” Statements in interviews like these had me hopeful that he would consider auditioning for The Hobbit. The most likely character (or so I felt) was Bard the Bowman … a nice role in a big movie with a great director, cast, crew and the genius of Weta. … So as a “fan”, I had Richard’s future dream role clearly in my hypothetical mind’s eye. The big problem was that Sir Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro (the director in 2008) and casting directors would have to notice him ….and, … he would have to want a role in the movie.
So thus it was that I joined TheOneRing.net, I hoped, despaired and almost gave up, but in October 2010, the announcement came that Richard was in the movie … not as Bard but as Thorin Oakenshield, Son of Thrain, son of Thrór , King under the Mountain. I confess, I was a bit perplexed by the casting for that particular role, (along with most of the Tolkien fandom, I suspect).
Over the next two years (once I was confident RA was firmly ensconced in the role and PJ had not made a mistake in the casting), I re-read the Hobbit a number of times in an attempt to come to grips with Thorin’s character; but it was the Appendices at the back of Return of the King; and the chapter in Unfinished Tales, “The Quest for Erebor”, that really helped in terms of fleshing out the character that is Thorin Oakenshield.
So, after two years of speculation and two more years of exploring the character of Thorin; his backstory, and composing a two year timeline comprising all the news articles for the production period of these movies, (small wonder I felt so gutted when I missed getting Richard’s autograph on the Wellington red carpet as he literally raced past my spot to talk to media and then make it post haste to the stage for the official proceedings), I have finally seen the movie!
That was a piece of my own backstory with regard to the emotional investment I had in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” and the next two movies…
Moving on to my thoughts about the movie …..
Australia was one of the last countries to see “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey". We went to the second session on the first day of release in Australia (Boxing Day). I had been given the soundtrack for Christmas, so had already been for a two hour walk accompanied by the music ….Stunning!!! My expectations were probably far higher than those of any film reviewer, given the years of waiting, and I confess that I had one or two butterflies in my stomach hoping that the movie was going to be great and also hoping we would not have hecklers in the audience spoiling the experience for us. As far as that was concerned, the only minor irritation I had was the rustling of popcorn and wrappers, which I could only hear in quiet sections of the movie.
We have been living on the crumbs of information from US and UK promotional interviews connected with the Premieres since November 28th. Initially the reviews were glowing, but for all the effort Warner Bros and the cast put in to promotion particularly in the USA and UK, reviewers started the ball rolling with negativity which has seeped to a small degree here. I stopped reading reviews after a while as I wanted to make up my own mind about the following issues that appeared to engender the most criticism:
1. The 48fps format (HFR) .... unfortunately a number of us, (the loyal audience), do not have ready access to 48fps in our local cinemas. I will have to reserve judgement until I manage to find a cinema with HFR.
2. The length of the film.
3. Comparisons with the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy. A little unfair to compare given the fact that Unexpected Journey is only the first in the series of three, and I believe all three should be seen prior to making comparisons. Moreover, I went to see "The Fellowship of the Ring" with absolutely no expectations ... in fact, I did not believe it was possible to make a realistic movie out of the books, and we would be "doomed" to watch it in cartoon format only. Peter Jackson proved me wrong, but now, of course, we have come to expect great things from him, and the audience and critics have set the bar extra-ordinarily high for this, and subsequent movies.
Discussion with regard to the length of the movie and the characters follows:
The Storyline and Characters:
a) Thorin: Being a very “Thorincentric” viewer, I was sincerely hoping that we were going to get a Thorin with whom the audience could relate. To truly understand Thorin and his underlying anger and resentment, the viewer really needed to know why he was the way he was. “A great dwarf of proud bearing”, a fine leader and fighter, but at the same time a displaced, fairly tragic king in exile whose family had lost home, possessions, loved ones and identity. He was determined to avenge his forefathers and reclaim Erebor for his people. If the scriptwriters (Peter Jackson, Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh) had omitted the backstory of Thorin and Durin’s folk, namely, The Sacking of Erebor and subsequent exile as related by Bilbo senior (Ian Holm), and The battle of Azanulbizar (as recounted by Balin), we would have had a very thin plotline indeed. The Sacking of Erebor is recounted in the book during "The Unexpected Party". To have Bilbo, senior, tell the story, works just as well, and there are some epic scenes where we catch a glimpse of Smaug. The poignant image we are given of the dwarves wandering in exile is powerful as is the image of Thorin hammering at his anvil in Ered Luin.
"The years lengthened. The embers in the heart of Thorin grew hot again, as he brooded on the wrongs of his House and the vengeance upon the Dragon that he had inherited. He thought of weapons and armies and alliances, as his great hammer rang in his forge; but the armies were dispersed and the alliances broken and the axes of his people were few; and a great anger without hope burned him as he smote the red iron on the anvil." J.R.R. Tolkien: "Return of the King Appendix A: III: Durin's Folk" p 358.
This was one of the scenes I was hoping would be included in the movie as it sums up why Thorin is so intent on his mission to reclaim Erebor. The other part to Thorin's backstory was the Battle of Azanulbizar (as recounted by Balin), in which Thorin proves himself as a courageous fighter, and earns the title “Oakenshield”. Interestingly, a second storyline is established which outlines the hatred that exists between Thorin and the Orc Chieftain, Azog, who was thought to have been killed by Thorin at Azanulbizar. (Azog was responsible for beheading Thrór, Thorin’s grandfather and displaying the severed head as a trophy).
The more I read about Thorin, the more I was convinced that Richard Armitage would be able to portray him perfectly. As an actor he plays the displaced, angry character well, and he did not disappoint as Thorin. I confess I was dubious about the “hot dwarf” image, and I know that Richard Armitage had been quoted as hoping this role might negate that image a little, but …. sorry RA, I’m pretty sure the role will assist in the “hot” stakes and not diminish them!
(To quote my middle daughter: “Mum, I thought you said Richard Armitage wanted to look ugly in this movie! He actually looked really hunky!!!”)
b) The Unexpected Party. This scene, lengthy though it might have seemed, is almost completely loyal to the book. It introduced the dwarf company; established (in part) Gandalf’s role in helping Thorin on his quest, and the tension that existed between them; and portrays Bilbo as a comfort loving Hobbit who was deeply reluctant to “go on an adventure”.
c) Bilbo: Perfectly played by Martin Freeman, Bilbo is very much used to his comforts, (being a very “well to do” Hobbit), and leading a safe, peaceful life. Throughout the movie however, Bilbo begins to show himself to be stronger and more resourceful, starting with the encounter with the trolls; then with Gollum; and then finally he courageously attempts to attack Azog in order to save Thorin.
d) Gandalf: Sir Ian McKellenis Gandalf … who else could have replaced him had he decided not to take the role? Gandalf has a fondness for Hobbits which is not shared by Thorin Oakenshield. Gandalf’s backstory and the reason why he is actually assisting Thorin to reclaim Erebor is not revealed in this movie. Philippa Boyens in a recent interview hinted that his plan will be illuminated in “The Desolation of Smaug”. The tension existing between Thorin and Gandalf is well portrayed – Thorin is stubborn, and opinionated, but he reluctantly takes Gandalf’s advice in using the Hobbit as a burglar. Thorin originally had grandiose ideas and was keen to wage a war of attack against Smaug, but lack of support from his kinsmen in other dwarf kingdoms had made it impossible to fulfil that plan. Moreover, Gandalf was able to convince him that a plan for a silent attack on the dragon by taking a hobbit as his secret weapon was more practical. Hobbits were stealthy, dwarves were not renowned for their silence.
e) Radagast the Brown, Saruman and The White Council. Gandalf had concerns related to the growing evil in Middle earth and the vague suspicion that Saruman the White had lost track of the original mission of the five Istari (Wizards – White, Blue, Brown and Grey) to free Middle-earth of that evil (namely Sauron). Gandalf believed that Saruman had been seduced by power. The fears Gandalf has of that growing evil are reinforced with the encounter with Radagast the Brown (one of the five Istari) in the movie. Radagast, the fourth Istari, became (according to "Unfinished Tales") enchanted by the birds and beasts of Middle-earth and he elected to live amongst the wild creatures forgetting his purpose. The inclusion of Radagast in the movie is a welcome addition in my opinion, as we know little of him from reading the books and Appendices.
The addition of The White Council into this movie to me makes perfect sense as it establishes the following:
That there is an evil brewing in Mirkwood (once “Greenwood the Great” before the shadow of Dol Guldur fell on it in the 3rd age). The “shadow” of evil emanated from Dol Guldur in the southern part of the great wood. Radagast is made aware of the evil when he discovers the plants and animals are dying and the presence of giant spiders.
It confirms the suspicion that Saruman may not be entirely trustworthy particularly as he refuses to believe of the evil in Dol Guldur and the release of the Witch King of Angmar. This distrust is echoed by Galadriel who speaks to Gandalf privately through thought messages.
What is not mentioned (but I need to revisit the movie to check this), is the fact that Gandalf is concerned that Smaug will be used to Sauron’s advantage and he must be removed at all costs. Thorin’s mission therefore suits the purpose to remove evil from Middle-earth.
None of this of course is mentioned in detail in the movie and I expect it will be clarified in the future movies. Given the complaints of the film being too long, it was appropriate to touch on the facts concerning Gandalf, but not elaborate at this point in time. To leave this scene out would make the plot incredibly simplistic and I suspect the critics would then complain that there was no story. Tolkien certainly added a number of details after writing the Hobbit in order to bridge the time between it and Lord of the Rings.
Elrond appears in the book and is just as majestic in this movie as he was in the LOTR trilogy. I thought his character was portrayed with a little more humour compared with his more stern demeanour in Lord of the Rings.
f) Azog and Bolg: In the Appendices, Azog was killed by Dain Ironfoot in the Battle of Azanulbizar. The scriptwriters have changed the story so that it is Thorin who injures Azog. Thorin believes Azog is dead, but Azog survives and hunts Thorin enacting revenge for his wounds. Bolg is Azog’s son and in the book, leads the goblin armies in the Battle of Five Armies (Film three). In "An Unexpected Journey", Bolg leads the warg and orc pack hunting Bilbo and the dwarves, and reports back to Azog. While this storyline does not follow the events in the Appendices, I think it works. I’ve always had reservations about the casting of an older actor as Dain Ironfoot (ie Billy Connolly). Dain was 33 when he killed Azog at the battle of Azanulbizar and an older Dain would have seemed out of place. By having Thorin fight and injure Azog, it allows for a believable revenge story arc to develop throughout the movie and in those to follow.
g) The Dwarf Company: Audience members who are familiar with the book will know that the character development of a number of the dwarves is very sketchy. They work as an ensemble. Only a handful of dwarves have dialogue in the book (Balin, Dori, Bombur. Fili and Kili, Gloin). The challenge the scriptwriters had was to individualise each dwarf.
I’ve read comments to the effect that the dwarves were hard to distinguish in the movie. To that I would reply … check out the original source material to see what little information they had to go by! I suspect that each dwarf will become more developed and better known to the audience in the subsequent movies. It seems that they have certainly given Bofur (James Nesbitt) much more dialogue … in the book he barely has any. Out of all the dwarves, Balin was the dwarf most like the book character for me.
With reference to the two young dwarves, Kili and Fili, the idea of having “hot dwarves” (and Thorin can also be included here), was certainly a controversial one, but my impression is that they add energy and bravado to the company. (They certainly appealed to the younger female members of my family). Incidentally, there is nothing in the book describing their looks … they were young, energetic and had very good eyesight but I had no complaints surrounding their good looks. (I detected some mischief as well).
h) Riddles in the Dark: A scene which is faithful to the original text featuring wonderful Andy Serkis as Gollum. Beautifully done scene by both Andy and Martin Freeman.
Set design, location, costumes:
It would be very remiss not to mention the exquisite work that has gone into the set design, props and costumes. Location and scenery were also outstanding! The IMDb page for “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” lists the names of all involved behind the scenes …. with the notable omissions of Alan Lee and John Howe, the conceptual designers. (I may have missed their names given the huge numbers of people who worked on the project). One of the really positive aspects of going to Wellington to experience the red carpet World Premiere, (irrespective of the fact that the main stars were rushed past us), was the enormity of the project - the huge numbers of people involved inthe production became apparent. To have actually seen and had our Hobbit book signed by Sir Richard Taylor, Dan Hennah, John Howe and Alan Lee, and to have visited Weta Workshop, made the movie more meaningful and special for us.
To sum up, at no point did I ever feel the movie was too long and I felt that the additional material was essential to establishing the story arc of the main characters. The Hobbit is a simple children’s story – Sir Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens had the choice of staying completely with the material in the book, or broadening the story to include the material written at a later date by Tolkien. This material outlines further the history of Durin’s folk in particular, and also connects with the later Lord of the Rings trilogy. If they had taken the former option and stayed with the information contained in the book, they would have had a good adventure yarn with shallow character exploration. Given the criticism that the movie is too long and that the material it contained was “padding”, makes me wonder if those reviewers consider that movie-going audiences are only interested in “action” as opposed to “story telling”. The fact that the movie has broken box office records all over the world to me implies that the critics have got it wrong and Sir Peter Jackson has it right. As a fan of Sir Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, the incredible work of Weta, and of Tolkien’s vision of Middle-earth and its people, I was kept entranced for the entire 169 minutes. Having Richard Armitage cast as Thorin, and doing justice (as I always knew he would) to the role, was an added bonus. The movie is the first in a trilogy, and until all three movies have been released, it will be difficult to compare with Lord of the Rings. I will definitely be seeing the movie again at IMAX and then hopefully in 48fps so that I can form my own opinion on high frame rates.
Actor Richard Armitage has been cast as Thorin Oakenshield in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit Movies. This blog aims to explore the stories about Tolkien's dwarves and any other material that may be related to The Hobbit. I have been a long time follower of Richard Armitage's work and have also developed a great love and appreciation of Tolkien's writings. I was captivated by Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies and will wait with great anticipation to see how he can bring "The Hobbit" to life for audiences.