On Hobbits and a Matter of Design, Part II


Let’s look at the dwarves as depicted in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy.


The Dwarves of The Hobbit Trilogy.

When viewed as a group, the thirteen dwarvish warriors on their quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain look quite fetching. I applaud the design of their clothing and weaponry. These elements suggest something about each dwarf’s personality, his background, his skill set, and his relative socio-economic status. For example, Bifur – with his shaggy appearance and massive spear – appears to be some sort of hunter or trapper. Thorin Oakenshield, on the other hand, wears fine furs and polished armor that befit his role as an exiled king.

I have no issue with their costumes nor with their props. My problem resides in the make-up design, because too many of these dwarves just don’t look like dwarves.

First, let’s examine what I consider to be the best examples, the dwarves that are maximally dwarvish:


Bifur, Balin, Oin, Gloin, Dori, and Bombur.

Each of these characters has what I would call typical (perhaps even stereotypical) dwarvish features: pronounced noses, robust facial hair, and a certain stoutness in the waist and torso. My favorite of this group is Balin, whose make-up and wig-work suggest a character who is wise and kind but also long-suffering, a character whose life has been touched by tragedy but whose eyes still twinkle with a spark of genial wit. The actor, Ken Stott, disappears into the make-up and into the role. I look at Balin and I don’t see a man in a spirit-gum beard; I see a dwarf from the magical land of Middle Earth.

Next we have the dwarves whose designs I find a bit iffy, albeit understandable from a marketing context:


Kili, Fili, Bofur, and Thorin.

I don’t fault the filmmakers for the look of Kili, Fili, and Thorin Oakenshield. Aidan Turner, Dean O’Gorman, and Richard Armitage respectively are all handsome men, and it would be a shame to conceal their beauty with too many prosthetic make-up appliances. I’m not averse to the idea of eye-candy, but this feels like a missed opportunity. Who’s to say a dwarf can’t be handsome, but still uniquely dwarvish? These dwarves don’t look like dwarves to me; they look like human beings. Without the visual context of size and scale, there’s very little about them that suggests “dwarf”.

(Note: I include Bofur in this category of human-like dwarves merely because he looks like a goofy human to me. Bofur looks like the creepy uncle who shows up uninvited and ruins your 7th birthday party with his antics. What is up with that hat?)

Finally, there are the odd men out, the dwarves that I don’t know what to do with:

questionable_dwarvesNori, Ori, and Dwalin.

All I can say about Nori and Ori is that I think they look weird. Dwalin may be the Achilles heal of the entire dwarven enterprise, because in every promotional image (and in every scene in which he appears in the films) I invariably see an actor in a terrible bald wig, which is weird because Graham McTavish, the actor who plays Dwalin, shaves his head. How does adding make-up make a bald man’s real head look so fake and unconvincing? What were the make-up artists thinking?

I’ve often seen people complain about the new-fangled, high frame rate, high definition screenings of The Hobbit movies making the films look like they were lit and shot with a soap opera aesthetic, but I think the problem runs deeper than that. Ultimately, there’s no consistency, no over-arching visual theme, to the design of the dwarves in these movies. We’ve got typical, Tolkien-esque high fantasy dwarves, dwarves who are for all intents and purposes human in appearance, and dwarves that look like actors in bad make-up. The weaker design elements drag the stronger ones down.

Compare this to the 1977 Rankin / Bass animated Hobbit film:


The Dwarves of the Rankin / Bass animated film.

In this group group shot of the dwarves, we can see that there are certain common characteristics that define them: their thick beards, their small stature, their large noses, and their stout frames. Other artistic flourishes such as the color of their cloaks give these dwarves a dash of individualism, but overall there is a consistency – even a uniformity – to their visual design that suggests that these are not merely human beings shrunk down to a smaller scale, but rather a race and a culture all their own. The inherent strangeness of their appearance adds to the fantastical tone of the story.

It’s true that as individuals the Rankin / Bass dwarves may not be as immediately recognizable. It’s much easier to tell the difference between Kili and Fili in the live-action version, for example. I’m not convinced that this is a great disadvantage, though, considering the animated film’s run-time. It’s my opinion that aside from Thorin Oakenshield and possibly Bombur, whose characterization revolved around being comically fat, the dwarves weren’t particularly well-rounded or three-dimensional in Tolkien’s children’s book, either.

Ultimately, I suppose it all comes down to a question of taste. Do you prefer a consistent but otherworldy set of designs, or an inconsistent set of designs that appeals to American cinema’s love-affair with characterization but runs the gamut from good to bad to ugly? Do we really need a dwarf pretty enough to be one of the points on a love triangle involving elves? If that really is Graham McTavish’s scalp, why does it look like a ten cent novelty bald cap?

That’s enough dwarves for now. Next time we’ll take a look at dragons, one area where the new movies arguably have a scaly leg up. Stay tuned for Part III.


3 Responses to “On Hobbits and a Matter of Design, Part II”

  1. Well, I think it also has a lot to do with the reality of doing it live-action as opposed to animation. The only complaint I had with Rankin-Bass’s characterization was of Elves, particularly Thranduil who looked like a big skinny frog and spoke like an exile from Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany.

    My beef with ALL the LOTR films has to do with the excessive and often unnecessary use of CGI than the numerous deviations from the stories.

  2. Not to be lame, but I agree wholeheartedly. Hollywood puts too much weight on looks, not so little that we need to make up for it with “sexy dwarves”. I was immediately disappointed with the lack of dwarfness, especially after Gimli was so dwarven that he might as well have been cut straight out of Hero’s Quest.

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