Larry D. Curtis, as part of the team at TheOneRing.net, has been comprehensively covering the works and adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien for more than a decade, making the not-for-profit site the leading source about The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings for fans and filmmakers worldwide. Curtis represents the site at conventions and events around the US including San Diego Comic-Con. You can read his The Hobbit Countdown here at Movies.com every other Monday.
Looking into the face of Thorin Oakenshield, it is easy to see determination, an undercurrent of anger and a Dwarf with the confidence to try to reclaim a mountain from a dragon. Warner Bros. released its final Dwarf image Sunday, saving Richard Armitage’s Thorin Oakenshield for last.
TheOneRing.net had the honor of introducing the final image to complete the set that so far serve as the best clue for movie fans of what to expect in December 2012 (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) and December 2013 (The Hobbit: There and Back Again). So what do the images tell us? Quite a lot actually.
First things first, lets give credit where it is due. Peter Jackson has assembled, with the leadership of Richard Taylor, perhaps the finest or at least one of the finest special effects studios in the world. Weta, which includes Weta Workshop, has a supremely talented design department that consistently delivers the best in costumes, weapons, characters, creatures and environments. The team has worked on some of the biggest blockbusters and earned honors for its incredible special effects achievements. Not only is the team talented but Taylor and Jackson demand its finest efforts and push them to exceed studio benchmarks, knowing fans of J.R.R. Tolkien and fans of the film adaptations will notice every detail.
As expected, there are criticisms of the finished product from around the web and, frankly, I can find things not to like as well. But setting aside personal preferences and taste on niggling details, the level of achievement on the Dwarves is deserving of lavish praise and should give fans confidence that nothing about the production is half-hearted.
The set of Dwarven characters speak to the strength of the design team in creating not carbon-copy characters, templates within a race or groups of creatures but unique individuals with stories that are told visually and immediately on first sight. Geographic locations, occupations and familial relationships are all on display without a single word of dialog or a single on-film act. We can see scholars, eaters, miners and Goblin killers at first glance. We can see brothers, uncles and fathers, too, and all of the characters are built on the foundation of Dwarven culture and even history expressed through armor and weapons and hairstyles. We can be sure Weta constructed individual backstories and histories to inform design decisions for each character.
Critics should remember that author J.R.R. Tolkien intended The Hobbit to be a children’s story and he didn’t populate it with 13 fleshed-out Dwarven characters, but left them mostly as impressions or charicatures with colored hoods or diverse musical instruments to differentiate them and let the reader fill in the details. Jackson’s team was faced with the challenge of scripting more than just cardboard cutouts to stand in the background behind central characters. They needed to create genuine-feeling, relatable people with motives and emotions. Part of making them authentic and easily recognizable to the audience was with strong visual clues. So with that challenge in mind, some of the quirky hair or costume decisions come from the storytelling demands of film as a visual medium. Tolkien could allow readers to fill in the blanks with their own imaginations while film must address with specificity exactly what everything looks like.
Certainly any team of designers under the guidance of any director is going to make decisions that do not please everybody and some decisions could upset a great many. Further, a motionless character image isn’t fully indicative of how a character or object will work on the silver screen. The in-movie experience can dramatically improve or decline in quality but the final verdict must wait to be given until displayed in its final, cinema ready form.
Every taste will be different, but for me the youngest Dwarves, Fili and Kili, are challenges. Their GQ looks are hard to reconcile with their “kin,” but my personal preferences must wait to see the finished product before making final judgement. On the other side of the coin, great design or costumes don’t make great films, which is what we all hope for from the adaptation of The Hobbit. “Pretty good,” will not do here.
I instantly smile and like the rotund Bombur and his hair necklace. I admire the scars of Dwalin, and the apparent runes on his polished head. I love that Ori has a book and a scarf and that we get to meet the scribe of the very book Gandalf reads in Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring.
As I look into the eyes of the newly released Thorin Oakenshield staring daggers while perhaps mistaking the studio photographer for the Great Goblin, I see the determined, sometimes abrasive leader the character needs to be. I see his famed Goblin-slayer Orcrist with its own name etched into the details and nod. I can imagine Armitage’s booming voice and I can run through my own version of the book, and so to me ... he feels just right. I imagine I can see his damaged family legacy and his hatred and anger and need for revenge. I can relate to Bilbo Baggins being intimidated by the aggressive heir to the lost Dwarven kingdom.
So far, they got this one right.