The Movies Tell Us: What is a Troll

By  · Published on September 25th, 2014

Warner Bros. Pictures and MGM

Trolls aren’t real, despite what some road signs in Norway might lead you to believe. They are mythological creatures in the stories of Norse folklore and fairy tales (such as “Three Billy Goats Gruff”) and stage plays featuring orchestral scores that are overused in movies, especially documentaries (“Peer Gynt”). Some of their origin comes through the telling of tall tales to explain geological formations around Scandinavia. Traditionally they’re gargantuan monsters who could be turned into mountains when exposed to sunlight. Other times they might be more human-size, because as with a lot of ancient, orally forwarded narratives, those of the trolls have changed organically over centuries. They could be any size, really, but one common trait they’ve all shared is that they’re ugly.

In the movies, in particular, they’re a varied beast. Unlike easily defined mythological beings such as fairies and dwarves and vampires and dragons, trolls are often mistaken or deemed interchangeable with anything from ogres to goblins to giants and more. Movies and television perpetuate the idea of variety when it comes to these creatures, expanding their categorization far beyond their already broad definition. The latest to give another interpretation is The Boxtrolls, in which the title monsters are a sub-species of troll who are smaller than humans and work in tunnels and live in cardboard boxes. Thanks to adaptations of comic books based on Norse mythology and translations of classic fantasy novels and horror movies with inaccurate titles, there are tons of different looks to trolls on the big screen. Below we highlight some of the most notable depictions.


A Short, Hairy Magical Shapeshifter – In the original “Harry Potter movie,” 1986’s Troll, the title character is a wicked little monster who used to be a wizard, which explains the magic.

A Mouse-Sized Jester-Costumed Gnome – One of the smallest versions of a troll can be found in the Stephen King-based anthology film Cat’s Eye. These climb up onto children while they’re sleeping and steal their breath. They’d be more stealth if they didn’t have bells on their hats.

A Miniature Magical Human-like Creature No Bigger Than a Baby – Stan, the banished troll in Don Bluth’s animated feature A Troll in Central Park just looks like a tiny drunken man, though others of his kind are more toad-like.

A Little Doll-sized Munchkin With Glassy Eyes and Wild, Colorful Hair – You know this look mainly from Troll dolls, which are getting their own computer-animated movie in 2016, titled Trolls. It’s unclear if they’ll be completely naked.

A Stumpy Dwarf With Stone-Like Skin and Shaggy Hair and Eyebrows – More of the sort that are smaller than humans can be found in Disney’s Frozen. This sort is also quite plentiful in numbers and friendly with people, helping them or even adopting them.

A Hairy Human-Sized Big-Headed Monster – These guys are almost all head and facial deformity, as seen in Ernest Scared Stupid. Not nearly as memorable as the dog who can drive a truck and run them over.

A Hairy Ape Thing – The trolls in Willow resemble apemen in various movies and even move about like they’re extras from 2001.

A Large Oaf Who Is Bigger Than a Human and With Immense Strength – Trolls in the world of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters are servants of witches, but one meathead-like troll in the movie helps the titular witch hunters, squashing men into bloody pulp like they’re overripe tomatoes.

A Giant Ogre About Twice the Size of Humans and Lacking in Intelligence – While there exist different kinds of trolls in the Harry Potter universe, in the movie series there is just the one kind, distinct for being stupid, unintelligible and appearing only in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

A Giant Ogre With a Rather Chunky Appearance – The computer-generated type seen in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is sort of like the one in the Harry Potter movie, yet less goofy and less humanoid. In Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, they’re similar but they’re far more preoccupied with food (such as dwarves) and their speech is far more developed.

A Giant Ape-Like Ogre Sometimes With Tusks – The version in the 1977 animated adaptation of The Hobbit have hair, bigger ears, a sort of chimp-ish appearance and may come with tusks.

A Large Ape-Like Strongman With Tusks – Tusks or horns also can be found on the just slightly-bigger-than-human bodybuilder trolls in Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army, in which the creatures have a whole market hidden under the Brooklyn Bridge.

A Giant Horned Monster With Tremendous Strength – A troll that attacks the title characters in Snow White and the Huntsman looks like a cross between a devil and a large tree. Apparently they’re easily defeated by girls screaming at them.

An Enormous Creature, Tree-Sized or Larger, Sometimes With Multiple Heads – The mockumentary Trollhunter is likely the most “accurate” depiction of the mythological creatures as they’re known in Norway, in order to make it “realistic for the sake of its format.

A Goblin – The infamous cult sequel Troll 2 involves goblins, not trolls, and very badly designed goblins at that. But the title lends itself to a misconception, thanks to a change in name from Goblins in order to capitalize on a semi-familiar work, that they’re one and the same.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.