A COMMON HOBBIT AND A REAL DRAGON: AUDIENCE RECEPTION OF THE TRANSMEDIAL CHARACTERS OF BILBO AND SMAUG IN THE HOBBIT FILMS

 Tanja Välisalo
University of Jyväskylä

Characters have a central role in the reception of fictional content. This is evident for example in the way characters are the focus of many audience practices, such as creating fan art, cosplaying, or writing fan fiction. With transmedia storytelling and creation of transmedia worlds becoming more dominant modes of production in the entertainment industry, characters are increasingly becoming transmedial as well, moving between different media and different stories while appearing in different transmedia expansions.

An example of transmedial characters can be found in The Hobbit films (2012, 2013, 2014). The films are adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit, or There and Back Again(1937), but some of the characters also appear in The Lord of the Rings(1954, 1954, 1955) novels by the same author and the film trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003) based on the novels. The characters appear also in several digital games and other media products adapted from these stories or located in the same storyworld.

In this presentation, I will examine the reception of The Hobbit film characters, and what it tells us about the uses of Tolkien’s works or world and other works set in Middle-Earth more broadly. I will do this by analysing the Finnish responses to the online survey data on the reception of The Hobbit films collected as part of The World Hobbit Project.Using descriptive statistical analysis and qualitative thematic analysis,I will approach the data with the following questions: What are the criteria of The Hobbit audiences for evaluating the characters? How do audiences negotiate between different representations of the same character? What is the relationship between transmedial characters in The Hobbit and other characters outside of Middle-Earth from the audience perspective?

I will focus my analysis on the reception of two characters, the main character Bilbo Baggins, a home-loving hobbit taken on an unexpected adventure, and his main antagonist, the dragon Smaug. Both of these characters are frequently mentioned in the survey responses and both of them are among favorite characters of many respondents. Both of them also offer diverse possibilities for audience interpretation: Bilbo appeared in The Lord of the Rings novels and films, and is as such a familiar character to those who had read or seen them. As a dragon, the character of Smaug can invite interpretations based on other fantasy texts portraying dragons. The actor of Bilbo, Martin Freeman, and the voice actor of Smaug, Benedict Cumberbatch, also portray the main characters in the popular BBC television series Sherlock (2010–),creating further possibilities for intertextual reception.My analysis is informed by theories of transmedia, adaptation, and intertextuality.