The best way to watch a movie based on a book is to only read the book through once, and then watch the movie fifteen or so years after you’ve read the book. That is the optimal time because you’ll have forgotten enough about the book to not be bothered by any changes that may have been made by the writers of the screenplay, and still be excited to see the characters come to life on the screen. This was me, going into The Hobbit this weekend: “So there’s Bilbo and Gandalf, and some dwarves, I think? Whatever, it’s going to be a good time.”
And it was, but one thing I had completely forgotten about was the sheer number of dwarves. There’s so many! The movie tries to start you out with just a few: a bald one with tattoos on his head, a white-bearded one with no mustache, a couple that look more like men of Rohan than dwarves of the Lonely Mountain, but it just snowballs from there, and soon your head is spinning in circles like Bilbo Baggins having his pantry raided.
The filmmakers did an amazing job of creating distinct looks for each of the thirteen characters, but it’s hard to fit in coherent introductions for all of them, even if you have three movies to do so. Another thing that doesn’t help is the fact that their names are all slightly similar to one another. One point that Tolkien wasn’t worried about when writing was how filmmakers were going to help audiences keep each character separate while staying caught up with the story. In fact, he may have been more concerned with not forgetting which one was which himself. I think that may be why he stuck them together in rhyming pairs or trios: Balin/Dwalin, Fili/Kili, Oin/Gloin, Bifur/Bofur/Bombur, Dori/Nori/Ori, and Thorin. (Thorin gets to be on his own because he’s special.) He wasn’t thinking about whose beard was red and whose was white and which one had braids and which was brushed so it curled at the ends. He just needed a sufficiently large group for an adventure, and thirteen was the number he chose.
One of the first things we discussed when the movie ended was how to keep up with which dwarf was which. Aside from the way they looked, one way that was put forward was the weapons they chose to wield. That doesn’t work, because there are only one or two that stick out. One of the pretty ones (Fili or Kili) sometimes employs a bow (when he’s not being a Jedi while escaping from goblins. “These are not the dwarves you’re looking for”), but the only other strange weapon is Ori (I think)’s ridiculous slingshot.
I had come across a helpful chart online, so I thought I would share it. I don’t know exactly who the original credit for this image goes to, since I have seen it in so many places, but it definitely does not go to me.
With dwarves, it's all about the beard.