Saturday, June 15, 2013

What Have I Got In My Pocket?

The Movie: Gollum screams for Bilbo to ask him a question. Bilbo requests a second to think, then, puts a hand in his pocket. He quietly says aloud, "What have I got in my pocket?" Gollum frowns, then grows angry, proclaiming the question to be against the rules. He wants another question. Bilbo refuses: "You said 'ask me a question.' Well that is my question."

"Who's got the sword, motherfucker?"

Gollum wants three guesses, and Bilbo agrees. Gollum's first guess is "handses." Bilbo, having taken his hand out just in time, says, "Wrong." Gollum starts to freak out, and verbally runs through a list of things that he thinks somebody would keep in their pocket: "Fish-bones, goblins'-teeth, wet shells, bat-wing..." before settling on "knife." He tells himself to shut up, and when Bilbo tells him he's down to his last guess, each of Gollum's personalities offers an answer: "String! Or nothing!" Bilbo chides Gollum for using two guesses at once, and tells him that both are wrong. Defeated, Gollum collapses in tears.

The Book: Gollum gets out of the boat and sits down next to Bilbo Baggins. He starts pawing and poking the hobbit, badgering him to ask a final question. Bilbo is unable to think of a riddle; he pinches himself, slaps himself, grips his sword, and feels around in his pocket. Only then does he remember the object he had absent-mindedly put there earlier. He says "What have I got in my pocket?", but not to Gollum - he's just wondering aloud to himself. Gollum interprets it as a riddle however, and argues that it wasn't a fair question. Bilbo decides to stick with his question, so repeats the question a little louder. Gollum demands three guesses, which Bilbo grants. He first guesses "handses," and Bilbo, who had "luckily just taken his hand out," says he's wrong. Gollum mentally makes a list of things he keeps in his pockets - fish-bones, goblins-teeth, wet shells, a bit of bat wings, a sharp stone to sharpen his fangs on - before settling on a knife. He's wrong again, so he takes his time coming up with a third answer. He hisses and sputters until Bilbo tells him that his time is up, so Gollum shrieks "String, or nothing!", trying to work two answers in at once. They're both wrong, and Bilbo is relieved. He knows that a riddle game is a sacred thing of immense antiquity, that even "wicked creatures were afraid to cheat." He muses that his last question was not a genuine riddle according to "the ancient laws," and he fears that Gollum will react poorly to being cheated. Instead, however, Gollum says that he will help Bilbo find a way out, but first, he needs to go get something.

Seems legit.

What difference does it make? In terms of plot, or narrative, the minor changes here make no difference at all. The only real changes are Bilbo's musing over the ring, the book's mention of the riddle game as a thing of sacred antiquity, and Gollum's reaction to losing (which I'll cover in a bit). The differences hardly matter, however; like the rest of the riddle game, the book and movie are almost word-by-word the same. 

My Opinion: I think this scene is really, really good. The only changes that were made are those that are necessary to making a successful movie adaptation. It remained as faithful to the book as possible, even managing to squeeze in a few more references, like Gollum's list of things that go in pockets. I'm not sure this scene could have gone better. However, I'm still a little disappointed in it. It's hard to exactly explain why, but, here goes:

There's a facet of Bilbo Baggins' character in this scene, in the book, that the movie fails to convey. In the book, he doesn't know what's in his pocket; his musing "what have I got in my pocket?" is a total non-sequitur that he decides to run with on a whim. His gambit succeeds, but Bilbo then worries that Gollum will grow upset that he was cheated; the sacred riddle game is something that even wicked creatures play fairly. But Bilbo Baggins, an upstanding citizen of the Shire, cheated. This shows some quick thinking and guile that I really appreciated in the little hobbit. It's not what you'd expect from him. This scene, for the first time, is his time to shine.

The movie doesn't exactly get the character wrong, here. Not at all. Bilbo still shines, and is still a witty, intelligent hero in this scene. But he already knew what was in his pocket, and there's no mention of the riddle game having any sort of inviolable laws that he just broke. The movie version is still great, but there's some depth to Bilbo Baggins that it just didn't get. 


  1. How does a movie show thoughts? Could have been this:
    Attention to the game when he turns toward Gollum; attention to his thoughts when he turns away.
    He turns away pinching slapping etc. Low voice "What...pocket?"
    Gollum: "not fair"
    Turns toward, then away, rubs temple with free hand, sotto voce: "did I just break the ancient law?" -- associates temple-rubbing with this thought
    Still turned away, removes hand from pocket to rub other temple--so there's a purpose to the hand-removal other than manipulating the game

    1. David Lynch's DUNE tried to show thoughts with voiceovers. The book was so full of them, that they were hard to leave out, I guess. But it was an effect I found jarring.

  2. The book version has an element of fate, or the will of the Ring, as he "accidentally" asks the question. His "whim" could be part of a larger pattern of "going with the flow" i.e. following fate or the Ring's will.

    There's an element of irony: he doesn't know--no he sure doesn't, he REALLY doesn't know what that thing in his pocket truly is!!!!!

  3. The scene as Tolkien originally wrote it, and as it appeared for years in the first edition, was hugely different. The ring really has no power beyond invisibility. Gollum is perfectly willing to sacrifice it to Bilbo as a prize for winning. But when he can't find it, he happily shows him the way out, and they part rather amicably.Not that he wasn't just as willing to eat Bilbo should he he have won instead.

    It wasn't until Tolkien was writing Lord Of The rings, and realized that his concepts of Gollum and the rings had changed so much that the scene no longer could be justified as it was, that he rewrote it. And that was only after giving up on Gandalf making too many logical pretzels trying to explain the whole mess to Frodo. So Tolkien sent the new version to his publisher for their feedback. When he didn't hear back from them he wrote a whole passage int he prologue to Fellowship Of The Ring explaining the difference, and that was because Bilbo kinda sorta lied, and Gandalf had to drag the truth out of him.

    Then, to Tolkien's surprise, when the new edition of The Hobbit was printed, he found that the publisher had simply incorporated the changes. Now we had the Gollum we all know.