The Hobbit was never meant to be part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium. It was related, certainly; Elrond Half-elven was borrowed from the then-unpublished Silmarillion, and a few bits and bobs from the long history of Middle Earth were alluded to. Still, it was a children’s book that stood on its own until Tolkien fulfilled his publisher’s hopes for a sequel. The Lord of the Rings made The Hobbit into an integral part of Tolkien’s cycle of tales, and its writing necessitated changes to The Hobbit’s text to bring it more fully into the fold. Hollywood’s timing being what it is, Rings made it onto the silver screen first, and was such a runaway success that it meant more changes to The Hobbit when it took its turn in the movies. No longer was it a mostly self-contained children’s story; for film, it had to be a prequel to a great trilogy, ready to offer comparable thrills and set pieces to what came before.
The results were mixed, as was the reception, but the cast of The Hobbit films was as fantastic as the one for Rings. A mix of old and new faces traversed Middle Earth over Peter Jackson’s prequel trilogy. So for any newcomer to the trilogy, here is a quick guide to the major players:
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman and Ian Holm)
The hobbit of the title is Bilbo, the “uncle” (technically first and second cousin, once removed either way) of Frodo Baggins of The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo is a well-to-do resident of Hobbiton living a comfortable, homely routine in middle age when the wizard, Gandalf, disrupts everything by pushing him into the role of burglar in a dwarf-quest. Fussy, timid, and unlearned in the arts of war and survival, Bilbo, nevertheless, carries a deeply repressed desire for adventure, and he discovers wells of wit, cunning, and mercy within that make him vital to the mission’s success. For most of the trilogy, Martin Freeman brings his considerable comic charms to the part, as he did in the British version of The Office and as Watson in Sherlock. The late Ian Holm cameos as an elderly Bilbo at the beginning of the first film and the end of the third, tying the trilogy into the opening scenes of The Fellowship of the Ring.
Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen)
Olórin was his name in his past in the West that is forgotten. Gandalf, he’s known as to the Men of the North; Mithrandir to the Elves; Tharkûn to the Dwarves; Incánus to the Men of the South; to the East he goes not. The grey pilgrim is the most prominent of the five wizards in stirring the races of Middle Earth to face the evil of Sauron, and his involvement in the dwarves’ quest is part of that larger design. Gandalf is also the most human of the wizards, irascible but full of love and kindness for all the peoples he works to protect. Sir Ian McKellen happily reprised the role of Gandalf from the Rings films, undertaking another epic shooting schedule at age 71 when filming began. Now in his 80s, McKellen has recently popped up in the big-screen version of Cats and as an aged Prince Hamlet at the Theatre Royal, Windsor.
Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage)
Gandalf may have the greater defense of Middle Earth in mind, but the thirteen dwarves who mount the quest are looking to reclaim their treasure and their homeland. Leading them is Thorin Oakenshield, by rights, King of Durin’s Folk in Erebor, displaced by the dragon Smaug. Though he led his people in exile into a sustainable life, Thorin burns with longing for the mountain that was theirs. Haughty, hasty, and somewhat comic in the book, Thorin was made into a far more brooding figure in the films, played with appropriate intensity by Richard Armitage. The Hobbit brought Armitage international attention, but he had already made a mark in British film and television through roles in Sparkhouse and the 2006 BBC series, Robin Hood.
Balin (Ken Stott)
It wasn’t just Thorin who lost his place as a figure of fun on the way to the screen. The whole company of dwarves is slightly ridiculous in the book, very much in need of Bilbo’s unexpected practicality and guidance. Balin, one of the few dwarves besides Thorin to get some characterization, has an earlier appreciation for the hobbit’s talent than most of the others, so it seems appropriate that he saw one of the larger expansions on his role for the films. As played by Ken Stott, Balin is the eldest of the dwarves, the right hand of Thorin, and a kind, grandfatherly presence in the company. The Hobbit wasn’t Stott’s first time facing fantasy or action in films; he put in appearances in the 2004 King Arthur and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. But the actor is probably most well-known for his starring role as DI John Rebus in ITV’s Rebus.
Kili (Aidan Turner)
Without wife or child, Thorin’s heirs are Fili and Kili, the sons of his sister. In the book, the two are very much a set, with the same blue cloaks, yellow beard, and keen eyesight. While they don’t look alike on film, they’re still played as a like-minded duo in An Unexpected Journey. But in the last two films, Kili falls in love with the elf, Tauriel, and she returns the attraction. This was among the reasons that actor Aidan Turner’s dwarf make-up was minimal compared to the others; too extreme a transformation would mask Turner’s good looks, which might take away from the romance. Turner is known for playing Ross Poldark in BBC’s Poldark giving one of TV’s most swoon-worthy performances.
Thranduil (Lee Pace)
If the dwarves became nobler on film, the Wood-elves of Mirkwood were made much less likable. While they do hinder the quest in the book, they are still elves, and “that is Good People” according to Tolkien. Their king Thranduil, while mistrustful of dwarves from their long rivalry, holds them no particular grudge and comes off as a more reasonable ruler than Thorin. The Thranduil of the films is a far colder and morally ambiguous figure, the deserving subject of Thorin’s scorn for his failure to aid the dwarves when Smaug first came. Actor Lee Pace was a fan of The Hobbit since childhood and took care to try and give a respectful, coherent performance. This year, Pace jumped into sci-fi with Apple TV’s Foundation.
Legolas (Orlando Bloom)
Thranduil is only ever called Elvenking in The Hobbit book; he doesn’t get a name until his son Legolas, never mentioned in The Hobbit, turns up to the Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring. Legolas’s spectacular martial feats as part of the fellowship became a fan favorite of the Rings films, and he was the only member of the fellowship besides Gandalf who could plausibly play a major role in the Hobbit movies. Orlando Bloom was back in the stunt harness and given more to play through his attraction to Tauriel and his strained relationship with Thranduil. Though I imagine it had to be a little awkward playing father-son scenes with a “father” two years Bloom’s junior. Bloom also starred in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and recently starred in the Amazon Prime Video series, Carnival Row.
Tauriel (Evangeline Lily)
Tauriel doesn’t exist in the book, or in any of Tolkien’s writing. She was created for The Hobbit films to provide a prominent female character. Captain of the border guard of Mirkwood, Tauriel is a brave and able warrior, young for an elf (only 600 years old), and reckless. The attraction she inspires in Legolas displeases his father, but Tauriel’s unconsummated romance with a dwarf doesn’t make him any happier. Alas, there’s no happiness for Tauriel herself by the trilogy’s end either. Her portrayer, Evangeline Lily, came to prominence through TV’s Lost. After being a part of an infamous love triangle in that show, Lily specifically requested no such complications for her part in The Hobbit. That wish was granted – until pick-up shooting following the move from two films to three.
Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy)
One of the five wizards, Radagast is only mentioned in the book, going on to make a brief appearance as Saruman’s unwitting dupe in The Fellowship of the Ring before vanishing from the story. On film, Radagast never turned up for Rings, but made a prominent showing in all three Hobbit films as a fidgety, bumbling, but prescient hero continually underestimated by Saruman. Comedian Sylvester McCoy, the seventh Doctor Who, brings a wonderful eccentricity to the part.
Bard (Luke Evans)
Some characters in The Hobbit were altered and expanded from the page to the screen, but the character of Bard was given a brand new sense of significance in the films; after all, he doesn’t do much more in the book than turn up to kill the dragon and sort out the ruined Lake-town. The film Bard is pivotal to the dwarves’ entry into Lake-town, and his persistent voice of reason makes him enemies with Thorin and some of his own people. He’s also made a family man, giving Lake-town some human characterization. After playing Bard, Luke Evans would make a similarly intense turn as Dracula in Dracula Untold, and later take over the part of Gaston for the Beauty and the Beast live-action remake.
Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch)
There would be no quest, no Hobbit, and no Rings had Smaug, greatest of dragons in his age, not descended on Erebor from the North and stolen the Dwarf-kingdom from Thorin’s kin. The fire-drake hoarded the vast wealth of the dwarves inside their mountain halls, snaking and sleeping through the gold as his nest. Bilbo’s success in penetrating his horde so vexes Smaug that he rushes off to take vengeance upon the Lake-town he guesses aided in the burglary, and there meets his doom. The confrontation between Bilbo and Smaug is a highlight of the second Hobbit film, and playing opposite Martin Freeman is none other than his Sherlock Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch. Like Andy Serkis before him, Cumberbatch provided motion capture for his Middle Earth character, though not even the best actor can quite match the proportions of a dragon the size of two jumbo jets. You can see Cumberbatch this month as he reprises his role of Dr. Strange in Spider-Man: No Way Home.
The experience added a very doable goal to McKenzie’s career bucket list …
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