Tolkien Geek

Blogging J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" and other aimless pursuits.


The Top 20 Coolest Things I Learned From The DVD Commentary of "An Unexpected Journey"

Being able to watch a film with the “Commentary” feature enabled is one of the wonderful things about the DVD and Blu-Ray formats. It’s not for everyone because for some it can be a strange experience. On the one hand, you’re watching the action unfold with the soundtrack turned low which makes it all but impossible to hear the actors speaking and on the other you’re listening to someone (usually multiple voices) talking about what’s going on as you watch. Sometimes the commentary doesn’t even relate directly to what you’re seeing and goes off on tangents that are disjointed, though often interesting.

For a film of a typical length this can be a grueling process but it can be especially difficult to hold your attention for one of this length. I understand that there are folks out there who always fully intend to watch the commentary for films like this but never seem to get around to it. I decided to make some notes as I watched the “Filmmaker’s Commentary” for the Extended Edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey so I could share some interesting stuff that popped up throughout the 182 minutes of musings and ramblings (that’s a full three hours and 2 minutes).
I could write pages and pages about all the minutiae I discovered but I chose to limit it to 20 items. Now, the title of this post alludes to the top 20 coolest things from the commentary but some of them aren’t so much “cool” as they are informative in terms of what went behind some of the changes from book to script.

The Filmmaker’s Commentary was comprised of Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens. Fran Walsh, Jackson’s wife and Boyens’ writing partner, has yet to appear in any of the commentaries or special documentaries associated with the Lord of the Rings or Hobbit films. This is due to her desire for privacy as the “silent partner” in her filmmaking endeavors with husband Peter Jackson. But Boyens, by and large, speaks for both of them and their experiences in the script-writing department.

The following tidbits are applicable to the Extended Edition so some of these scenes are unfamiliar to those who’ve only watched the theatrical versions. Also, I list them here according to the chronology of the movie and they are not listed in any particular order of “coolness”. Enjoy.
  1. The Oldest Dwarf Gets A Makeover: Thorin’s apparent youth in the film version is a noticeable change from the book. It was decided he should be a character that the audience could invest in and see as a future King rather than someone who is in his twilight and already close to the end of his life. This will make his ultimate fate all the more tragic.
  2. The “Tookish” Part of Our Hero: There is an extra scene in this version of the Prologue. It shows a young Bilbo having a delightful time at a party honoring The Old Took (Gerontius Took, Bilbo’s maternal grandfather). This came as an inspiration from Sir Ian McKellan himself who told Jackson that he wished he could meet the “young Bilbo” that Gandalf knew as adventurous and always looking for Elves. Some observant devotees of the included documentaries may notice that The Old Took was played by Set Decorator Dan Hennah!
  3. An Old Man and His Walking Stick: Gandalf’s staff is different here at this appearance at Bag End and according to Peter Jackson we will find out in the last film why it is not the same staff he uses in “The Fellowship of the Ring”.
  4. A Very Long Tangent: All of the material in the prologue was originally written as part of a flashback story to be told during the meeting at the Bag End sequence. It was deemed much too cumbersome, however, and they decided to use it for a Prologue to the film as told to the audience by the older Bilbo played by Sir Ian Holm.
  5. At Least There Was No Autotune Involved: When the Dwarves sing the Misty Mountains song they are lip-syncing a recording of it. But they did so with the recording playing back at a faster speed. This was done so that the editing staff could slow down the film and make it appear as if the scene is going in slow motion with the song being played back at the original speed.
  6. Blooper Alert: In the flashback scene showing the Battle of Azanulbizar, Jackson points out that there were no trees on the rocky Dimrill Dale set (which was the same one used for the escape from Moria in “The Fellowship of the Ring”). Yet Thorin miraculously finds an oak branch to use as a shield. After rethinking what he just shared Jackson mused that maybe he shouldn’t have mentioned that.
  7. Their Names Escape Me: J.R.R. Tolkien’s estate still retains the rights to any of the author’s works outside of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. So when Gandalf describes to Bilbo the other members of his order he isn’t able to name the two “Blue Wizards” or give the proper name of that order. It wasn’t until Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-Earth that the wizards were identified as the Istari and the two unnamed members were named either Alatar and Pallando or Morinehtar and Romestamo. So Gandalf appears merely to have forgotten them.
  8. O’er The Fields We Go: Peter Jackson came up with the idea of Radagast’s rabbit-sleigh, much to the dismay of the special effects designers. Apparently, Jackson was inspired by photos of giant rabbits that he had previously seen on the internet.
  9. Not So Fast There, Philippa: Philippa Boyens makes a passing reference to the upcoming “Battle of Dol Guldur” later in the trilogy and Peter Jackson gently chides her to not give anything away. Too late. It looks like we can count on a fully developed sequence of the Necromancer being driven from his stronghold in the final film.
  10. Cupid’s Arrow: It was mentioned that Kili is the only Dwarf archer in the company. This was by design because of his now revealed affinity with “another character” that had yet to be introduced (Film Two had not yet been released when this was recorded). We now know that this character is Tauriel.
  11. And There They Brew a Beer So Brown: Jim Nesbitt (Bofur) sings a version of “The Man in the Moon Stayed Up Too Late” in the extended dinner scene in Rivendell. Nesbitt actually came up with the tune himself. As it’s presented in “The Lord of the Rings”, Frodo says that Bilbo wrote the song but Jackson and Boyens say they included it here because he could have conceivably heard it her first. Why not?
  12. An Unexpected Guest: Jackson describes how they filmed Sir Christopher Lee at Leavesden studios in England against a green screen for the scene of the meeting of the White Council. He was later inserted into the footage of the other actors in New Zealand. He also reveals that this is not the last time we will see Saruman in the hobbit movies!
  13. Glad to Finally Meet You: This is Cate Blanchett and Sir Ian McKellan’s first scene together in any of these Middle-earth films. We forget that they never had one together in “The Lord of the Rings” even though in the book Gandalf recounts to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli his stop at Lothlorien on his way to Fangorn Forest (after his fight with the Balrog). Both actors were thrilled to be able to interact with each other on screen for the first time. Here we also see traces of the “unspoken alliance” between the two characters of Galadriel and Gandalf and their ability to communicate without speaking. Her parting words to him are “if you have need of me, I will come”. We know from Film Two that this need will indeed present itself.
  14. The Blade That Was Brought In (To The Story): During the Council meeting Elrond, Galadriel and Saruman examine the Morgul Blade that Radagast gave to Gandalf after his encounter with the spirit of the Witch King. Jackson mentions that this blade and the one that pierced Frodo’s shoulder in “The Fellowship of the Ring” are one and the same. Further he promises that we will see how it ends up back in the Witch King’s possession later in the trilogy. The sword is purposely being used as a “setup” for later events.
  15. Is It Tasty, Preciousss?: The “Riddles in the Dark” sequence was the very first one that was filmed so that Andy Serkis could then be freed up to assume his duties as 2nd Unit Director. The entire scene was filmed with multiple camera angles and Serkis and Martin Freeman ran through the entire sequence from start to finish several times over the course of three days.
  16. Losing His Birthday Present: Boyens commented that they intentionally had the Ring “escape” out of Gollum’s pocket while he was committing an act of murder on the injured goblin.
  17. Welcome To The Wraith World: When Bilbo falls as he is pursued by Gollum and the ring goes onto his finger they deliberately copied the way it first came onto Frodo’s finger at the Prancing Pony – shot for shot.
  18. A Necessary Consistency: Gandalf appears at the moment the Goblin King prepares to torture the information out of the Dwarves. He wields Glamdring but, though it is of the same make as Sting, it doesn’t glow blue in the presence of the goblins. Boyens reminds us that they forgot to give the sword this property back in the LOTR trilogy, specifically in the Mines of Moria. So, it didn’t make sense to do it here.
  19. “Mr. Gandalf! Help!”: Jackson explained that they needed a reason that Gandalf couldn’t intervene in the head-to-head fight between Azog and Thorin (and later Bilbo) so they had to have him rescuing Ori and Dori with this staff after they lose their grip on the tree branches. In other words, they needed to keep him busy.
  20. Subliminal Imagery: If you look closely at our first glimpse of the Carrock, you may notice that the very top is in the shape of a bear’s head – this was Alan Lee’s idea as a hat tip to Beorn, who we will meet in the next film.

So, there you have it. Some interesting stuff, and there’s quite a bit more. If you’re so inclined by all means check it out. I plan on doing the same thing for each of the other two upcoming commentaries.

Now that we’ve covered and revisited the first two-thirds of “The Hobbit” from book to script we will head into the home stretch to look at the last chapters and speculate how the newly christened final installment – The Battle of the Five Armies – might look this December.


Chapter Twelve, Revisited

When it was first announced that this film series would be split into three movies I thought long and hard about where the break points would be that comprised the start and finish of film two. The former was easier because the arrival of the Eagles to save Gandalf, Bilbo and the Dwarves not only seemed like a logical ending for film one but it marked the point at which we would be one-third of the way into the book. The latter, the ending of film two, was a little trickier to pin down. On the one hand you see the need to build momentum to a sort of climax (like the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers) but also it had to leave you wanting more.

I originally guessed that Smaug’s attack on Lake Town would close out the second installment so I had gone so far as to examine chapter fourteen “Fire and Water” last year in anticipation of The Desolation of Smaug. But the movie ends just as the dragon is headed off on his mission of destruction. Incidentally, this point is right around the two-thirds mark of the book. Peter Jackson decided to create a cliff hanger going into film three but there was still the problem of needing a climax for The Desolation of Smaug. So they created one, which I will explain shortly.

When we left off with Bilbo he and Balin were discussing the task on which he was about to embark. In the book, he actually makes two trips. The first is to investigate the dragon and in the process he recovers a gold cup to prove his talent for burglary. Smaug stirs, noticing the cup is missing, and flies out of the mountain, destroying their camp and killing their ponies. At this point there is little choice left but to send Bilbo back down again and, under the cover of the Ring’s invisibility (a power the Dwarves are now aware of), try and discover some kind of weakness or vulnerability they can exploit.

In the film all of this eliminated and rather than merely investigate the situation Bilbo is instructed specifically to find the Arkenstone and bring it back to them. Also, the revelation of the Ring and what it can do for Bilbo is eliminated. In fact, he may never unveil his secret in the film version at all (other than to Gandalf).

Because of this change, the whole encounter with Smaug is very different than in the books. After initially being invisible, Bilbo reveals himself and the dragon - though menacing - does not try to kill him at first and tries to get as much info out of this stranger as possible. Smaug suspects that the Dwarves sent Bilbo in to do their dirty work and believes that Thorin, son of Thrain, is behind the whole thing.  During this conversation, Bilbo does spot the weakness of a missing scale on Smaug’s underbelly. He was already told of it by Bard back at Lake Town. The legend is that, with this hole being exposed, Girion had only needed one more black arrow to kill the dragon but never got to fire it, and that arrow remains in Bard’s possession.

Now to the dragon itself. Weta Workshop (with the designs of Alan Lee and John Howe) did an excellent job of creating Smaug. Its face reflects motion capture technology taken from Benedict Cumberbatch very much in the same way that Gollum’s expressions came directly from Andy Serkis. But since the tech in this process has advanced so much farther in the last ten years the effect for Smaug (and Golllum for that matter) is even more remarkable. Jackson uses sweeping shots and multiple angles to record Bilbo’s desperate attempts to elude the dragon.

Now, whereas in the book Smaug decides to fly off to Lake Town right away we get the new scene that I alluded to earlier. At the sounds erupting from under the mountain, the Dwarves fear that Bilbo may perish and go down themselves to investigate. What follows is a cat and mouse chase throughout the vast expanse of the underground kingdom in Erebor. Eventually, Thorin figures out a way to trick Smaug into igniting the long-dormant forges to heat up the hardened vats of gold. The tension builds as we begin to understand Thorin’s plan which unleashes the now molten gold, covering the dragon and appearing to drown him.

Back at Lake Town, Legolas is pursuing the fleeing Orcs and has a chance to go mano-a-mano with Bolg himself. It’s a tough fight between the two but just as the Elf appears to gain the upper hand, Bolg escapes on his Warg and heads out across the long bridge that connects the town to the shore. The last we see of Legolas is his pursuit of the Orc chieftain. Where he gets the horse from is anyone’s guess. But it is as a result of Legolas’ departure that I presume Thranduil will get news of these events causing him to march on Dale for a claim on the treasure – more specifically the mysterious white jewels we keep seeing and hearing about.

As for Tauriel, she stays to try and heal Kili’s apparently mortal wound using the Kingsfoil found by Bofur. This scene really sets up the connection between the two. And it is reminiscent of the manner in which Arwen tries to pull Frodo back from the wraith world after Aragorn treats his shoulder which was stabbed by the Witch-King in Fellowship. Now, in my opinion, I generally like most of these parallels that Jackson makes with the first trilogy. But I have to be honest in that I think this particular scene is a bit much. Perhaps Kili will be portrayed in the next film as being “damaged” the way Frodo was from his wound. But the effect of a poisoned arrow from an Orc, in my mind, doesn’t equate to that which is caused by an evil ancient weapon wielded by a Ringwraith.

The audience must wait for the third film to find out Kili’s fate but we all know he’s going to survive this. The goal here is twofold: to strengthen the bond between Tauriel and Kili and make his eventual death all the more heart-breaking. I’m sure Jackson will achieve this to maximum effect in the next movie.

Now rumblings are heard from the mountain and Bard, who was imprisoned by the Master’s men, warns that the dragon is coming and begs them to let him free.  He clearly has it in his mind to try and use the last black arrow. And this will be Bard’s opportunity to seize the leadership role to which he is destined by his lineage.

Before the film closes, we head once more back to Dol Guldur where Gandalf is shown captured and imprisoned (not unlike the way he was by Saruman atop the tower of Orthanc in Fellowship). He watches helplessly as Azog leads a huge Orc army out of the fortress, heading North to join battle with the free peoples of Middle-Earth: Men, Elves and Dwarves at the behest of Sauron.

Back to the mountain, it at first appears that Smaug is vanquished by the ocean of gold washed over him. But he emerges, more enraged than ever and shakes it off. All his fury is turned toward Esgaroth as he speeds his way to rain fiery destruction on the defenseless town.

Bilbo looks out at the dragon, deduces his intentions and wonders aloud to his horror “what have we done?”

Fade to black.


Chapter Eleven, Revisited

From this point to its conclusion, “The Desolation of Smaug” interweaves three story lines covering the timeline of the next two chapters: 1) the arrival of Bilbo and the Dwarves at the Lonely Mountain, 2) the events taking place at Lake Town and 3) Gandalf’s investigation of Dol Guldur. These last two were both newly created but only one of them – Gandalf’s mission – was expected by me to be part of Peter Jackson’s translation of “The Hobbit” to film. Since I started off with that part of the story in my original post on this chapter, I’ll address it first.

It was clear from the teaser trailers being shown in 2013 that Gandalf had scenes in the abandoned fortress. Back in May of that year I wrote:
“I’m guessing [Gandalf’s exploration of Dol Guldur] will probably be edited against a part when the action with Bilbo and the Dwarves is moving slower. Here, prior to Thorin and company’s arrival at Erebor, would be a good time. In fact, we could very well get more than one scene.”
This is precisely what they did, though the previous scene involving the investigation of the now-abandoned tombs of the Nazgul was something I hadn’t guessed at. Azog had dispatched his son, Bolg, with a smaller party to pursue Thorin and the Dwarves allowing him to muster an army here at Dol Guldur under the watch of his “master”. Gandalf arrives at Dol Guldur with Radagast but, sensing the danger ahead, tells the Brown Wizard to deliver a message to Galadriel and inform her of what they had discovered so far. Perhaps he anticipated that the task before him would be too much to handle but, not knowing for sure, he sets out. And with the use of powerful spells he attempts to lift the dark enchantment surrounding the stronghold that makes it appear empty.

Azog and his Orcs respond by attacking him and almost overwhelm the Wizard before he is able to retreat. He manages to find relative safety on a cliff he created by blowing apart a chasm in front of him, sealing off the Orcs. It is here that the Necromancer reveals himself in the form we become familiar with in the prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring, though he does not appear to yet be completely in solid form. The appearance of the fiery Eye gives Gandalf the evidence of his identity that he was looking for and he whispers “Sauron!”. Had we not seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy we would probably be wondering “Who’s Sauron?” But the answer to that question is to come later.

Bilbo, Thorin and the Dwarf party arrive at the desolation of Smaug – the ruined city of Dale at the foot of the Lonely Mountain. In contrast to the overall pale of gloom described in the book at this point we get a buildup of excitement as they grow closer to the supposed location of the hidden door described in the moon letters of the map. Now, Tolkien had written that Bilbo surmises from the smoke rising from a cliff-wall opening of the mountain that Smaug is still alive and guarding the treasure underneath Erebor. But Jackson makes it clear here that the Dwarves do not yet know for certain that this is the case. Indeed, they seem hopeful that since it is so quiet they won’t have to deal with that unpleasant task.

Coincidentally, it is Durin’s Day. So they hurriedly climb up a large carving of Thror on the mountainside. Incidentally, this embedded statue is not featured in Tolkien’s original story but it is reminiscent of the statues of Numenorean brothers Isildur and Anarien that make up the Argonath, which the Fellowship passed through in Fellowship of the Ring as they sailed down the Anduin in the Elvish boats. The party reaches the small cliff where the hidden door is supposed to be located (the same cliff featured at the end of An Unexpected Journey where the thrush was knocking). Thorin can hardly contain his excitement as the sun goes down in the West and he looks for the keyhole which was prophesized to be visible by the last light of Durin’s Day.

Alas, to his utter disappointment the sun disappears and no sign of the keyhole is seen. But as the Dwarves withdraw in disgust, Bilbo refuses to give up. He stays and sees that the door is indeed illuminated by the full moon – this is the last light of Durin’s Day he realizes! And, like the West door of Moria in Fellowship, they see an outline of the door and the very keyhole they are looking for. While this turn of events differs from the scene in the book it brings us not only a heightened sense of drama but once again echoes a moment from Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.

The key opens the door and they go in to investigate. And it is here that Balin informs Bilbo that it is time to fulfill the role for which he was chosen as part of the company. But investigating the situation with the dragon is secondary here because his main task it seems is to locate and recover the Arkenstone. Here Jackson is focusing on a tangible object that will play a prominent role in the coming conflict between the Dwarves and the Elves and Men of Lake Town. As alluded to in the film’s “prologue” at the Inn of the Prancing Pony, the Arkenstone now represents Thorin’s right to rule as King Under the Mountain. And its recovery, far more than the other hidden riches, is of primary importance in this quest.

Now Bilbo faces his third and most dangerous task (the first two being the encounter with Gollum and the attack of the spiders) and Balin even gives him an out, telling him he doesn’t have to do it if he doesn’t really want to. But Bilbo’s character and courage have built to a point where he is no longer the timid, comfort-loving hobbit that we saw at the beginning of the story.

Meanwhile, we cut back to Lake Town and see the Orcs stealthily arriving in search of the Dwarves. And, of course, we have a few of them conveniently left behind for them to find. Kili, helped by Fili, Oin and Bofur, is taken to Bard’s house to have his wound tended to. Oin, the resident “medicine man” tells Bard he requires Kingsfoil (or as we have also come to know it, Athelas). Bard recognizes this as something that they feed to the pigs and Bofur goes to search for some. When he finds it and heads back, the Orcs see him and follow him back to Bard’s house and attack them.  

In the nick of time, Legolas and Tauriel arrive to save the day and take out a dozen or so of the Orcs.  Bolg and the remainder of his party decide to flee and Legolas goes after them. Tauriel, on the other hand, sees Kili’s wound and is troubled that he will die. So she does not follow Legolas. To make matters worse, Bard is arrested by the Master’s men and taken to a cell.

But the folks in Lake Town are about to have to deal with some serious trouble that is about to be unleashed from Erebor which we will see in our revisit of Chapter Twelve, “Inside Information”.