What has been seen cannot be unseen and so it is hard to look behind to a time when one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s most iconic creations, the character of Thorin Oakenshield, was anything but what we know him to be from Peter Jackson’s film interpretation of “The Hobbit”. It’s hard because there are major differences between Tolkien’s original version of the character and the film version. And, although the “Hobbit” films drew criticism for embellishing and expanding on the book, this article seeks to argue that those differences are there for the better, at least in the case of Thorin Oakenshield. And most of them actually match Tolkien’s vision for the character expressed in material complementary to “The Hobbit”.
In the book, as in the film, Thorin is the leader of a company of Dwarves who embark on a quest to kill a dragon and retrieve their stolen gold, but what separates the film from the book, and what essentially elevates Thorin’s character, is the focus on the motivation behind his quest and a stronger infusion of nobility into that motivation. Tolkien does not really write Dwarves as heroes, at least not for the most part of “The Hobbit”. Their leader, Thorin Oakenshield, is shown to be a great warrior and the heir to a great kingdom, but his concerns are focused mostly on material gain rather than on seeking honor. The book gives the account of Smaug’s attack on Erebor, Thorin’s kingdom, and we learn that he is in fact trying to reclaim his lost homeland, but he comes across more as greedy for the gold under the mountain rather than interested in reclaiming a kingdom with everything that it entails. The film cleverly shifts the focus and scope of Thorin’s vision from mere pecuniary interest to transcendental heroism. Film Thorin wants to take back what is his not only as a Dwarf but as a king who has the responsibility of ensuring the safety and welfare of his people. He is animated by a long-growing need to fulfill the duty bequeathed to him by his father and grandfather in the form of a map and key that give hidden access to the Lonely Mountain: to reclaim the lands and wealth that rightfully belong to the Dwarves of Erebor. It is not a matter of greed, but a matter of honor.
In fact, film Thorin seems entirely disinterested in all things material. With the exception of a short scene in the extended version of the first film where he is seen sharing a drink, a laugh and even dancing with his Company, he spends much more time staring gravely into the distance, contemplating both traumatic past and dark future, than eating or simply enjoying a moment of his life. The other Dwarves can still find joy in simple, earthly things such as a good party, food and drink, music or pranking each other. But not Thorin. If in the book he was just as fond of music and food as his fellow Dwarves, the film version of him doesn’t even seem to be cut from the same stuff that other Dwarves are made of.
This enhancement of Thorin’s heroic dimension for the big screen is not all artificial beefing up to match Hollywood standards. Admittedly, there is a bit of that as well. Thorin’s nemesis in the film, Azog the Defiler, is not even present in the book as he was killed almost a century before by Dain, at the battle of Moria. In the book, Thorin’s direct opponent is Bolg, Azog’s son, who has a secondary role in the film.
Another change to Thorin’s character that was obviously meant to endear him to present-day moviegoers lies in his appearance. Beyond the inherent subjectivity of appreciating appearance and beyond disputes on whether or not Tolkien’s Dwarves are supposed to be attractive to the human eye, it is probably safe to assume that Thorin’s appearance in the film surprised most people. Our expectations for Dwarf looks are based on the one Dwarf that we got to see in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Gimli. Though a loveable presence, Gimli was not necessarily the heart-throb of the Fellowship. Moreover, the book describes Thorin as having a long beard that he tucks into his belt (he is the king of the Longbeards, after all) and he is 195 years old, which is well beyond middle age in the Dwarf lifespan. The film version of Thorin looks noticeably younger, sports no visible scars in spite of his status as a great warrior (as opposed to Dwalin, for example, who is appropriately scarred) and his beard is trimmed short. The creators of the film admit openly that this was a conscious decision to make Thorin look more attractive. In the making-of appendices to “An Unexpected Journey”, we get a detailed look at the evolution of Thorin’s appearance for the screen.
We find out that although he started out sporting a long beard, a decision was made to keep it short in order to take advantage of Richard Armitage’s handsome features, and it is in fact a real beard. As for the age difference, an explanation is offered that they wanted viewers to believe that Thorin was still capable of fighting for his people and of possibly producing an heir. Richard Armitage has even thought up an in-universe rationalization for Thorin’s lack of a long beard in that he decided to keep it short in memory of the Dwarves who died in dragon’s attack on Erebor whose beards were singed by Smaug’s fire. Justified or not, fan girls, myself included, not so secretly squeal over the version of Thorin that eventually made it onto the screen.
But fortunately, there is much more to Thorin than his impressive looks, and a great part of that is actual material that Tolkien wrote after the publication of “The Hobbit” and that Peter Jackson and his creative team drew on to construct a more complex character than the one we knew from the book.
“The Hobbit” starts out as a children’s story but it does not end that way, for Bilbo’s journey goes ever on into darkness. So, the seeds of Thorin’s tragic complexity are within the book itself, but the wholeness of his character is not highlighted enough and this is where the movie comes in to offer a broader, more complete image of who he is. There is one great scene that is essential to this story and that Tolkien did not include in the book, but that he writes later into “Unfinished Tales,” in a chapter called “The Quest of Erebor”. Peter Jackson gives us a wonderful representation of this scene at the beginning of the second film in the trilogy, “The Desolation of Smaug”, where Gandalf “accidentally” meets Thorin Oakenshield at the Prancing Pony inn in Bree and convinces him to embark on a quest to take back his homeland. We learn why Gandalf is even interested in this quest. It is because evil is rising again and the dragon Smaug worries him. He even produces a promise of payment written in Black Speech for Thorin’s head. Someone obviously wants him dead because he is the heir to the throne of Erebor, the one kingdom that stands guard over the rest of Middle Earth in the face of Sauron’s minions.
“Unfinished Tales” is the main source that gives the essential background of Thorin as an already established leader of his people, creator of a second home for the exiled Dwarves of Erebor in the Blue Mountains, but never quite able to forget his duty of reclaiming the old kingdom as well as the wealth that lies beneath it. Many fans of the “Hobbit” films call Thorin a prince in their fan fiction. Well, no, boys and mostly girls, Thorin was already a king at the time of the quest, just not King under the Mountain.
“The Quest of Erebor” chapter presents Gandalf recounting his meetings with Thorin on the subject of a quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain. He mentions that Thorin was troubled by thoughts of revenge on the dragon Smaug and of repairing the wrongs done to his people. An earlier version of Gandalf’s account paints a very recognizable picture of the brooding, tragic figure that Thorin Oakenshield is in the film. He is described as “an heir without hope”, whose heart’s embers grew hot again with age. Tolkien himself envisages Thorin as being after more than the gold under the Mountain.
Another important bit of character history is given in Appendix A to “The Return of the King,” the third book of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The “Durin’s Folk” chapter details the Battle of Azanulbizar, or Moria, which we see as a flashback in the film, and which is shown to be the decisive moment when Thorin proves himself as a worthy leader by standing up to Azog, the commander of the Orcs. This is not exactly what happens in the source material. Thorin does fight in this battle and sustains the great loss of his grandfather, King Thror, but he does not have a big heroic moment of the dimension shown in the film. Still, this material provides the bigger picture of the odds that Thorin and his people have had to overcome.
If some liberties were taken to change the source material in one way or another, this is not a legitimate reason to bash the films. For one thing, the films are an interpretation of the books, the director’s, the screenwriters’ and even the actors’. One cannot ask a group of creative people to refrain from reworking some aspects of a written work when recreating it in another form, because that is not very creative. In the case of Thorin Oakenshield, going outside the boundaries of the book itself and even rearranging some pieces of background were creative choices that benefitted the character greatly. Last but not least, casting Richard Armitage in the role was a true stroke of genius, not only because he gives a memorable performance, but because a lot of what we see on screen is the result of his own research and composition work. If you detect a Shakespearean vibe in Thorin, that’s because he has roots in Shakespeare’s tragic kings. If you find his dark baritone voice particularly mesmerizing, that’s because it was inspired by Gregorian chants. And if you think his oaken shield looks pretty cool, that’s because Richard Armitage drew it himself.
J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Return of the King”, Harper Collins, 1999
J.R.R. Tolkien, “Unfinished Tales,” Harper Collins, 2009
Livia Miron is a hired writing gun in the IT industry and a creative writer in real life. She is a long-time Star Trek fan, a devout Middle-earther and a recent Star Wars convert. Currently, her passion for writing is driving her deeper and deeper into the mithril-laden mines of Hobbit fan fiction. Livia lives in Romania and is proud of her heritage, but she is also an incurable Anglophile.