Hobbit Movie Thoughts: The Magic of Imagery

Generally, when there is a new film based on a book that we study here, either I or Louise Freeman puts on the gloves and slogs into the fray to present thoughts on what was good, what was true to the book, and what was just plain awful. After five films, Peter Jackson’s forays into Middle Earth generally get the same reaction from readers like us, and much of it isn’t very positive. As I braved the theater with my two favorite adventuresome gents, we really did not expect a close-text interpretation. My running joke about the Hobbit movies has been that they are really cool action films that I enjoy, as they sort of remind me of this book I love. So instead of trotting out my trusty notebook, for the last Hobbit film installment, the Battle of the Five Armies, I wanted to do something different. As I watched the film, I began to wonder how future readers might be affected by the film interpretations. Rather than wringing my hands over how the film veers, often dramatically, from the text and tone of Tolkien’s work, I thought it might be more interesting and thoughtful to look at one of the reasons why the novel is so resonant, and why this story, even with radical alterations, is so engaging as a film: the power of imagery.

“Because it was Real”—Why Imagery Matters

The Hobbit is a story that revolves around images, from Bilbo’s green door to Gandalf’s smoke rings, from the webs of Mirkwood to the hoard of Smaug. As a child, reading the book for the first time, my experience was a highly image-driven one, and that is not surprising, considering that Tolkien was directly influenced by the ancient epics, particularly Beowulf with its powerful word-shaped images, the kennings, that give us images like “swamp-thing from hell” and “swan’s road” for Grendel’s mother and the ocean, respectively (at least in Seamus Heaney’s fabulous translation). Those images have stayed with me, as I know they have for other readers. Though a film can “sully” the images we have, it also can blow life and color into them. Some of the novel’s most riveting images are those that a film version can use to the same effect. Whether through the magic of CGI or the pen of an animator or artist, those Mirkwood spiders are images that work visually, and even kinesthetically, making our skin crawl. I had nightmares over the ones in the old animated version, firmly placing me in sympathy with Tolkien’s friend and writing group support team member, C.S. Lewis, who hated all things creepy crawly and was clearly the model for Bilbo Baggins. Thankfully, the Battle of Five Armies has no giant arachnids (much to the disappointment of the casting agent for acromantulas, who has been quite busy over the last several years due to Harry Potter and Middle Earth movies). However, the last third of the novel, and its film counterpart, have plenty of other powerful images that work on each of our senses.

“Look! The Eagles Are Coming!”–Visual Imagery

When I teach literature students about imagery, they inevitably latch, first of all, onto the visual images, as those are theones the word “imagery” calls to mind, and this installment, both in text and on screen, has no shortage of powerful visual images. The closing credits, with Alan Lee’s meticulous sketches and absolutely beautiful character portraits, echo the importance of the visual in this story. For a tale that revolves around someone who finds a ring that makes him vanish from sight, there is much to see here, and much of it adds to the circular symbolism of the One Ring. That round Bag End door, where the story starts and where we come back at the end of the book and this film, making a circular story, brings us  to the completion of an adventure that is in every sense, a “ring” composition, while other ring and circle symbols are more subtle; Bilbo, at one time, carries three (well, of course it’s three!) circular objects in his pockets: the Arkenstone that he is hiding from Thorin, the one Ring that he is hiding from everyone (except Gandalf, of course, who has been on to him the whole time), and the acorn that he collected and which he plans to plant when he gets home (the party tree!). The circling Smaug, both terrifying and symbolically powerful, is realized in graphic detail for the film, but his serpentine nature connects to the circular imagery in the text as well. The serpent also is echoed in the use of knotwork and woven threads as imagery. Though only movie magic can make the very mortal Orlando Bloom, who has aged a decade since last taking up his bow,look like an ageless Legolas, his hairstyle and that of many of the other elves and dwarves, with intricate braidwork, connects to the story’s themes of interwoven threads of stories, of fates, of races. The story and the film both also evoke Tolkien’s moral story center with light and dark imagery. From the glowing Arkenstone to the white elf-gems and shimmering gold, the hoard of Smaug is a fantastic manifestation of light and dark imagery. The treasure is bright, beautiful, and meant to be shared, distributed by a generous king per the Anglo-Saxon, Beowulfian virtues so intrinsic to Middle Earth, but it is kept in the dark, by a dark-hearted, selfish creature who has no use for it and yet cannot be persuaded to part with one piece. The same temptation can ensnare humans (this means you, Eustace Clarence Scrubb!), and dwarves, as the film  illustrates through the madness of Thorin, visually depicted as his being swallowed up in the golden floor the dwarves inadvertently created in the second film. It’s actually a nice visual representation of his internal struggle, highlighted by the shadow of Smaug’s slithering tail in the gold that circles Thorin’s feet to become a consuming black hole.   When Thorin breaks the hold of the gold fever, he changes clothes, from his kingly raiment to his humble traveling and fighting clothes, a visual demonstration of his release from the hoard’s spell.

A film can vividly present images that most readers have already conjured for themselves, like the swooping eagles, the devastation of Smaug, and the interrupted auction of Bag End. It can also add visuals that can be distracting or even bothersome (like gratuitous violence, too much screen time for the icky orcs and the rotten Laketown lackey, Alfred), but which, at other times, can be very meaningful: on the journey back to the Shire, Bilbo and Gandalf pass through a field of flowers which appear to be Lobelia, and Bilbo is about to have the legendary spoon altercation with Lobelia Sackville-Baggins; upon re-entering his nearly emptied home, Bilbo lovingly straightens his parents’ portraits and discovers the handkerchief that he forgot upon setting out 13 months earlier; in the confrontation with the Necromancer (yes, not actually in the novel’s text), Galadriel reveals the power beneath her calm exterior, as she does when she shows Frodo how terrible she would be with the One Ring as her own; and the were-worms, though not in the book and perhaps just a chance for Peter Jackson to show off his impressive monster collection ( I still cannot watch parts of his nausea-inducing King Kong), make more nice circle visuals. But the best visuals a movie can give, for this reader, are the facial expressions of a well-cast actor. Sir Ian McKellan’s wonderful expressions perfectly epitomize the range of Gandalf moments, from grumpy to suspicious (that last pipe scene is priceless), while Richard Armitage’s eyes are often perfect mirrors of Thorin’s struggle. And Martin Freeman makes Bilbo just as understandable,  frustrating, delightful, and quietly heroic as he is on the page. He has this little thing he does with his nose (and it’s not just a Freeman thing, as Dr. Watson doesn’t do it) that is just wonderful. We can watch the whole story develop just by watching his face.

“Don’t bother knocking” –Auditory Imagery

However, imagery is more than merely visual images. Auditory, or sound imagery, can be just as evocative. C.S. Lewis wrote that a flaw in many books is that less skilled authors never think about how words sound. A good author thinks about the auditory effect, whether it’s Lewis naming his jaded, false jade, false goddess (Isis) villainess “Jadis” or J.K. Rowling making us hiss when we say aloud the name Severus Snape. Tolkien clearly used remarkable auditory imagery, whether with the names of his own characters (is there any reader who can’t see fat Bombur when we say his name?) or the description of sounds ranging from feasting to combat. A film, especially in a theater with good sound, can immerse the audience in a sea of sound imagery, and though it can sometimes be overwhelming or gratuitous, it can also be perfect: Smaug’s chilly hiss (Benedict Cumberbatch really sinks his teeth into that voice) is beautifully echoed in Thorin’s mad threats; if actual Middle Earth Dwarves had left recordings, they would probably sound like Billy Conolley’s Dain; the clink and hiss of the gold and the faint hum of the Arkenstone speak to the power of the treasure. Many of the speeches of the characters, even when they are shifted in context (such as Thorin’s farewell to Bilbo) or added (Bard and his son) can nicely convey Tolkien’s world, a world in which the sweeping majesty of the elves, the wild courage of the dwarves, the magic of wizards, and the humble practicality and decency of hobbits all exist side by side and work together. The auditory effect is most effective at the end of the film, which uses sound to tie into the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, and which uses the marvelous song, “The Last Farewell,” sung by Billy Boyd, who was the movie Pippin, to use sound as both a last, bittersweet note but also as a link to the rest of the story of the One Ring and its eventual destruction.

“Is this the halfling who ate my food and stole my keys?”–Kinesthetic/gustatory/olfactory imagery

It is easy to overlook some of the other types of imagery authors have at their disposal, but the story of the hobbit is also rich in these as well. Kinesthetic imagery recreates the sensations of movement, as with Bilbo’s popping buttons. Organic imagery depicts the sensations we feel inside our bodies, like Bilbo’s stomach wagging like an empty sack, while tactile imagery conveys the sensations we perceive with our skin, like the feeling of cold, which comes through strongly in the film with some very memorable ice moments. Of course, there is plenty of violence that may convey images no one really wants to experience, like being eviscerated or decapitated or flung against rocks, and many of those would also include some pretty nasty olfactory images (smell) that make us all glad we do not have smell-o-vision in books or movies (really, do we want to know what orc blood smells like? And that is to say nothing of how stinky everyone, human, dwarf, hobbit, and probably even elves, might be by this point). But not all olfactory images are negative. The spring flowers that greet Bilbo in the Shire look fragrant, echoing Tolkien’s many positive olfactory images, many of which are also gustatory (taste) related. Though the last section of the story features less food imagery than the beginning, with its memorable sacking of the Baggins’ larders by the unexpected party of dwarves, that imagery is evoked neatly by Bilbo’s invitation of those selfsame dwarves (well, ten of them anyway) to stop by any time for tea, or other meals, without knocking. The domestic, homey power of olfactory imagery adds to this story’s reminder of the power of home, of place. After all, smell is the sense most associated with memory, followed closely by the related sense of taste. That explains why tasting something that reminds us of Mom’s cooking (like the redeemed food critic does in Ratatouille) can be so transporting. Thus, smell and taste, especially positive ones, echo the sentiment a dying Thorin expresses to Bilbo: that if more people valued home over gold, the world would be a merrier place.

So, in the interest of the world being a merrier place, I shall offer no more salacious jabs at Mr. Jackson or snarky complaints about how the film did or did not do as it should have. Rather, I hope you will join me in considering how images, both beautiful and terrifying, merry and sad, are the keys to this story, and to any story that makes us want to go there and back again.


  1. Mrs. Hardy,

    You say you hope readers will discuss how “imagery” are the keys to Tolkien’s Hobbit (and presumably this is meant to apply to any and all possible stories that may or ever will be told).

    Well, my question is whether or not it’s considering looking at this whole matter from a slightly different perspective.

    I think it is actually possible for either book or film to be a vehicle for mythopoeic experience. The problem is, regardless of whether or not the story actually contains symbols that could be designated mythopoeic, or have a structure that is circular, one simple fact remains: you can’t really make anyone truly “See” all these elements, even if they are right in front of him, unless he or she is in the right “open” frame of mind. The even bigger challenge is this. Even if a person can be made to see these mythopoeic elements, even if he can grasp their value in some vague way, there’s still the possibility that he or she may still dismiss them with a phrase like, “They don’t do anything for me, really”.

    This is something I’m just starting to realize, and I don’t think it’s a topic that’s ever been broached that much (if at all) here on HogPro. The realization that a person may not be able to get anything out of a story containing elements of Mythopoeia, even when it’s all explained to them, came to me in this fashion.

    I like to read a lot, and also think a lot about what I read (I know, weird, huh?). At some point I wondered what would be found if I turned my attention from the book or film right in front of me to the audience I was ostensibly a part of. The conclusions I reached on my own are kind of interesting.

    What I realized was that out of all the possible populations of the world, both current and whoever is down the line, only a small coterie at any given time would or could ever possibly be devoted to such bookish pursuits as Biblio or Cinephilia. It is from these coterie enthusiasts that we get what little knowledge we have of fiction in any of its forms. The rest, in fact perhaps the great majority of people, won’t exactly understand what’s to get so excited about. It’s not that they’re anti-art or anything. In fact, the type of person I’m thinking about is likely to be more indulgent of entertainment than not. However, this indulgence may never go further than entertainment proper. The majority of the audience may think a book or movie is a good way to kill and hour or so, but most would be bewildered by the idea that fiction can be a storehouse of all the world’s knowledge. Whaddaya mean? It’s not even real, for gosh sake, they may protest! And, to be fair, they’re right. Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, or Huck Finn, Benjamin Braddock, or The Lady and the Tramp are really, from their perspective, either just words on a page or else just an actor stepping into a part or talking behind just a bunch of flickering pictures, nothing more.

    The thing to notice about these types isn’t the elements of the whole picture that they leave out. What matters more than any of that, I’d argue, is the conclusion it inevitably leads to. Namely, that it takes Imagination in order to enjoy Imagination. You have to still have at least some vestiges of the ability to take pleasure out of the art of make believe (and believe me when I say the ability to “pretend” is in fact and “art”, almost a “craft”). It may be this is an art that some are more capable of than others.

    Novelist Frank Norris once theorized (in words that seem to mirror Wordsworth, now I think of it) that at the beginning everyone naturally has an outsized imagination, hence the reason why so many look back fondly on their childhoods. The key thing to notice, or so Norris held, is that some people deliberately choose “cultivate” their Imaginations, while others allow this particular faculty to either deteriorate or else fall more or less silent.

    If all this seems novel, it really shouldn’t. It’s just an addendum to the distinction C.S. Lewis made between The Many and The Few in the audience from “An Experiment in Criticism”.

    What else I’d like to add (and this bears on films like Jackson’s Hobbit adapt) is that just as it takes Imagination to tell a well written story, so what may be called a “lack of the proper amount” can result in such lackluster products like the film under discussion in your post.

    Is there anything else that can be drawn from this train of thought? I think so, at least. For one thing, I think a case can be made from the above that the ability of any given person to be entertained by any and all possible art depends on the point of view that person brings to the table, and sadly even then the person may not be able to grasp the full significance of what they see or read. The enjoyment of art, it seems, is a very delicate balance, one that may very well involve the interplay of both Imagination and Reason in order to experience the full effect of art.

    What can be drawn from “that” conclusion relates to a point you made. You mention in your article “the power of imagery”, and you seem to imply that it’s “power” and hence it’s “value” lies in this statement: “Because it was real”. Ummm, I really do have to apologize for the criticism, however I do think it’s valid.

    I said just now that I believed the ability to fully appreciate art depends on a balance of Imagination with Reason. As such, I think the place of “image” in art depends on more than just it’s “appearance” or the ability to see it. As Lewis pointed out in “Silent Planet”, you can’t really “see” anything until you know its exact nature, and just what its function is. With a fictional image, or archetype, the task is much harder because, in the strictest sense, an imaginary picture has no “exact” or “perfect” representation.

    Let me be a bit clearer about this, if I can. I once said that the importance in storytelling is “Getting It Right”. By that I meant the correct sequence of events and characterization out of any given archetype. However, read it again. You’ll notice that while I do talk about characterization and situation, I never once bring up the topic of “appearance”. In my view, situation and character “as written” are more important than how anyone may choose to depict them. The key to this thinking is that good story writing, if it has any value, can automatically transcend any possible visual style, rendering Story more important than Image, which is here seen as a subordinate to a much larger process. Also, on this view, an archetype of Imagination, is better thought of as an idea than as a clear cut “image”. Tolkien can write about “a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle.” The problem emerges when the question is broached: is your green door the same image as my green door? How can one be sure? To take another instance, let’s examine the imagery of Huck Finn. Does my version of the Mississippi of the Mind look the same as yours? The only thing I think either of us can be certain of is this, both our ideas would be a poor match for the actual geographic American river. Hence we see the cut-off point between fact and fantasy. We also see, perhaps, the Imagination’s major limitation as opposed to Reason and Experience, and of the unreliability of images in terms of fiction. As the artist Rene Magritte observed of one of his own paintings, “This is not a Pipe”.

    To sum up, then. The two points I tried to make (and perhaps not very clearly) is that while I do believe a case can be made for Mythopoeia, the ability to appreciate it properly requires a surprising amount of skill and work before either symbol or structure can take effect. Also, that “writing” is more important than any visual “style”.

    I don’t know how any of that must sound, or even if I made any sense. It was just something interesting food for thought that I believed (at least) might add something to the discussion (if any).

    …I’ll go take my meds now.

  2. David James says

    Chris wrote,” To sum up, then. The two points I tried to make (and perhaps not very clearly) is that while I do believe a case can be made for Mythopoeia, the ability to appreciate it properly requires a surprising amount of skill and work before either symbol or structure can take effect. Also, that “writing” is more important than any visual “style”.

    I really appreciate both well written thoughts on this post from Elizabeth Hardy and Chris.

    There is much to observe and consider when comparing the Classic work of ‘The Hobbit’ from book to film. I’m certain that if we had a group of 12 of us in a room to discuss the variations and liberties that Peter Jackson has taken with Professor Tolkien’s book we would have 12 different criticisms of what we appreciated or disliked about Jackson’s screenplay and directing of this work. But in light of Imagination being the driving force within us, struggling with what we imagined about ‘The Hobbit’ as a book read years ago as a child and as an adult with what we witnessed in the film, we are really looking into “Peter Jackson’s” imagination into ‘The Hobbit’ are we not? That can make a book purist very uncomfortable, unless we we give Jackson the same “grace” Professor Tolkien would give us within our own imagination as we read about the Shire, or about what the city of Dale would have looked like or the great Dwarve stronghold of Erebor, the Lonely Mountain. We as readers are not likely to place our imagination on film the way Peter Jackson has with 6 films from Tolkien’s world and yes I’m not in agreement with some his additions and subtractions , but the films were assigned to Jackson and he then gave us his version of mythopoeic storytelling of ‘The Hobbit’ from the vision of Middle-Earth he read as child and as an adult.

    There were many scenes in this film close to what I imagined as a reader and to have those imaginary scenes placed on a giant screen in the theatre was not a bad option, even if I prefer to have a master like J. R. R. Tolkien to give me that first glimpse into Middle-Earth.

  3. David,

    I think you may be onto something when you say it is really Jackson’s imagination on screen in the Hobbit films, and no one else’s.

    From my own standpoint, as outlined above, I’m always able to basically shunt aside visuals in favor of the writing, and wind up judging from there. From that vantage point, the main problem Jackson’s adaptation raises for me lie in two areas. (1) Pacing, (2) needless padding, and perhaps (3) an element Irony and Satire added in there as well.

    In terms of pacing in The Hobbit, the book itself has a rather brisk pace, yet it’s obvious that compared to the average modern blockbuster, it appears slow and sedate. This speaks more to both lack of knowledge and imagination, rather than any flaw in the book itself.

    Compared to the book, Jackson, I think, tends to bring everything to halt either for the sake of spectacle, or for a tack on that wasn’t in the original novel to begin with, making its addition there superfluous.

    In terms of Irony or Satire in the novel, here’s where things get interesting and a bit more complex. I think it can be argued that The Hobbit (also LOTR) is in part a satire of the kind of mindless, gung-ho, blood and carnage style of storytelling, perhaps best summed up by Robert E. Howard at his most decadent, and maybe a bit by the kind propaganda that was sold to British soldiers during the First World War. It helps to keep in mind that Tolkien had been exposed to a lot of the downside of war, and that this was bound to leave him with some very specific ideas about combat and heroism. In fact, in his essay Beowulf: The Monsters and The Critics, Tolkien makes a statement that I tend to believe is the ultimate theme of both Hobbit and Rings: “The Wages of Heroism is Death”. That leads me to believe that, without throwing Romanticism out altogether, Tolkien is nonetheless satirizing the kind of false romantic spirit as exemplified by elves, orcs and dwarves. He also uses his stories as an opportunity to redefine heroism, remember Thorin’s final words and I think you’ve just been given the author’s mantra for real heroism.

    All that is something I didn’t get from Jackson’s take. My thinking is to wonder whether or not Tolkien may not have been inspired to pen a similar Satire out of Jackson if he were alive to see it today, as it harkens back to a lot of the mindless formula that was a target of the original novels.

    As to the question of pacing in story in general, my best guess is if you asked an average person today, their idea of “good pacing” may stem more from their movie-going experience before anything else. Therefore they’re more likely to have a shorter tolerance for anything too long on the grounds that it “lacks excitement” or something like that.

    In a way, considering what most people are given in terms of entertainment today, that’s probably an unavoidable conclusion for a lot of folks (no telling how many, though) to jump such a conclusion.

    The problem with that is, if you take such complaints to Shakespeare, say, or Dante and Chaucer, their basic response would be more or less: “Are you sure you’ve a taste for this sort of thing?”

    Namely, you need the right mindset to enjoy the right story at the right time. This does bring back the suggestion that it takes Imagination to enjoy Imagination. That leaves the question of how capable any given person is of enjoying any kind of story. It’s a topic that’s worth exploring, I think, although where it could all end up.

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