x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Casting The Hobbit

The news that Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of this vertically challenged company, was to be played by an actor with a not-that-appalling appearance, sparked minor fury in the fan ranks. Is it acceptable then to cast someone who is good looking as a dwarf?

Sean Astin, left, Elijah Wood, Billy Boyd, centre, and Dominic Monaghan, right, appearing in "The Lord of the Rings".
Sean Astin, left, Elijah Wood, Billy Boyd, centre, and Dominic Monaghan, right, appearing in "The Lord of the Rings".

While casting good-looking chaps and chapesses might be fine for slushy teenage vampire flicks, it seems the world of dwarfs and dragons is a very different kettle of fish. The line-up for Peter Jackson's forthcoming version of The Hobbit is slowly taking shape, with the welcome news last week that Sir Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis will reprise their roles as Gandalf and Gollum respectively. The roles of each of the 13 dwarfs accompanying Bilbo on his merry little quest have finally been filled. But the news that Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of this vertically challenged company, was to be played by an actor with a not-that-appalling appearance, sparked minor fury in the fan ranks.

"So far, the biggest controversy among fans with the casting of The Hobbit has to be the casting of Richard Armitage as Thorin," says Pat Dawson, a senior staff member of the Tolkien fansite TheOneRing.net. Armitage, best known for a major role in the BBC spy drama Spooks, is considered by many to be a somewhat handsome gentleman, and certainly not "grim-faced" as Tolkien described his dwarfs. And it's this that is causing the upset.

"It would, quite frankly, ruin the movie if the dwarfs are portrayed as anything more or less than what they are: short, strong, muscular, slightly over-weight, bearded and 'grim-faced'," one commenter on the site exclaimed. "Authenticity is very important."

There were similar murmurings of disapproval when The Lord of the Rings was in pre-production, when Elijah Wood was cast as Frodo Baggins, but then it was regarding the actor's age rather than his attractiveness. "Many fans thought from the beginning that he was too young to play Frodo," says Dawson, pointing to the fact that in the books he celebrated his 50th birthday shortly before setting out from Hobbiton with his all-powerful piece of jewellery. "While 50 is relatively young for a hobbit, Frodo being played by a 20-something was too much of a stretch."

Thankfully, the performance by Wood, along with most of the cast, was enough to win over many. Fans were particular delighted with McKellen's Gandalf, Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn and Serkis's Gollum. And in The Hobbit, while the addition of an attractive dwarf in the party might upset some, the lead character is already exciting many.

"Martin Freeman is perfect for the role of Bilbo," says Dawson. "He's been a fan favourite from early on in the rumour cycle because he not only looks so 'Hobbity', but he's an accomplished actor in his own right." While Dawson suggests that most fans prefer relative unknowns, to avoid being "jarred out of the film by recognising a big-name actor 'playing' a beloved character", she says that so perfect is Freeman that almost everyone will be able to overlook his recognisability from The Office, Love Actually, and numerous others.

One thing fans haven't complained about so far is size, and it's not purely because they've been casting diminutive actors.

"With special effects the directors have more freedom in choosing their talent," says the Los Angeles-based casting agent Victoria Burrows, who was heavily involved in the casting for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. "In the case of The Lord of the Rings, we did veer towards shorter actors as it made production work better, but if we loved an actor, they were hired." Alongside helping cast Wood, Mortensen and Sean Austin, Burrows brought into the fellowship John Rhys Davies, who managed to play the three-foot dwarf Gimli despite being over twice that height in reality.

In fact, Rhys Davies's height actually helped the filming process as he was in good proportion to the hobbit actors, who were around 5' 6". Had he been shorter, shots of the entire fellowship would have required three camera passes rather than two.

In 1999, when discussing his coming three-part epic, Jackson said he didn't want to go down the route of casting authentic little people. "We are casting normal-sized actors and using prosthetics, computer tricks and other less-complicated trickery to reduce them in size." Among this "less-complicated trickery", the simple act of kneeling down proved extremely useful.

Unfortunately, while Jackson's clever use of CGI and knee bending might have waved goodbye to the days when any film featuring small people needed genuine small people in the roles, one casting director for The Hobbit did add a requirement that wasn't so warmly welcomed.

In November, a British actor attending a casting audition in New Zealand was apparently turned down because her skin colour was too dark to play a hobbit. The casting director was immediately dismissed, with a spokesman for Jackson saying the director had never issued such an order, but not before the actor in question had started a Facebook group called "Hire hobbits of all colours! Say no to hobbit racism!"

Thankfully, there can be no such prejudice surrounding the next major character announcement: the voice of Smaug the dragon, the large fire-breathing, mountain-dwelling antagonist. "The predominant rumour for the part is that it will be filled by Bill Nighy," says Dawson, almost instantly conjuring up scenes with a rather sneering, sarcastic dragon. "But many other actors' names have been thrown in the pot by fans, including Patrick Stewart and Alan Rickman."

No doubt whoever voices the giant, gold-hoarding flying lizard will be subject to extreme fanboy scrutiny. Will Bill Nighy or Alan Rickman be just too British? Would a Patrick Stewart-voiced dragon sound too much like a Star Trek captain or wheelchair-bound X-Man?

In any case, Tolkien purists have another issue on their hands to deal with first. Wood has just been cast to play Frodo again in The Hobbit. This time, it's not his age that is the issue, but the fact that he's in it at all, Frodo being absent from Tolkien's original novel (set 60 years before The Lord of the Rings).

According to TheOneRing.net, Frodo will appear in the film's opening scenes, introducing the story by reading from Bilbo's authored account some years later.

While this scene doesn't mess with timelines and helps link the Lord of the Rings trilogy with The Hobbit, it hasn't gone down terribly well among some. "The worst idea ever," says one commenter. "Horrible, horrible," writes another.

It doesn't even bear thinking about what would have happened had the actor originally rumoured to play Bilbo been confirmed. Although he might have worked height-wise, there can't be many out there who would have wanted Tom Cruise as the hobbit hero.