Is the Hobbit debacle a sign?

 hobbitbookThe Hobbit is one of those upcoming films that everyone is looking forward to on auto-pilot. It’s more Middle-Earth at the movies – it has to be great, right? I’d wager many such enthusiasts are failing to consider what an awkward position this endeavour is in, and that in some ways, it is setting itself up for failure. And that’s before we consider the current debacle with MGM’s bankruptcy postponing the film’s progress. But one thing at a time.

A film version of The Hobbit is a financial no-brainer following the critical, commercial, and cultural success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s the next logical Tolkien adaptation, and possibly the only one left – no-one’s adapting The Silmarillion or the extensive notes without some major creative licence. The only surprising aspect is that it took so long to come to fruition. For that we can blame many factors, including Peter Jackson’s lawsuit against New Line Cinema for withheld profits from LotR, the implosion of New Line itself, and the rights being split from the beginning between New Line and MGM, hitherto uninvolved in any screen Tolkien.

But bridges were mended, deals were signed, and Jackson and his team returned to the fold, producing and writing the screenplay. New Line (now part of Warner Bros.) would have the New Zealand ingredients so crucial to the original films and the goodwill of Jackson’s involvement (film fans would cry foul for years, non-stop, if he hadn’t at least given his blessing). They manage to sign Guillermo del Toro to direct, despite his having a whopping 14 films in development at rival Universal including some dream projects. It’s also a two-film deal, although this is decided before it’s creatively justified. No doubt spurred by the phenomenon effect generated by LotR‘s multiple installments – and the profits wouldn’t hurt either – Warner and MGM put the cart before the horse and request two films from what is clearly a one-film book. Surprisingly, very few criticise this decision. We then learn that the second film will rather serve as a bridge between The Hobbit and LotR, using appendices, notes, digressions and other odds and sods that really shouldn’t serve as the basis for a feature film. Then when they realise this is a bad idea, Jackson and co. announce that The Hobbit story will just be split over two films, as originally feared (well, by me). I’ve yet to hear a rationale for why this story needs two films to be told. Is it just because the Lord of the Rings had three films in it? That kind of thinking can come back to bite…

MGM’s financial sputtering then becomes a death rattle as it chokes on its billions in debt, hanging on to life with extensions granted in its quest for new owners. They even put the James Bond franchise on hold, even with Sam Mendes attached to direct. With the twin moneybags that are 007 and The Hobbit, the fact that no-one has yet rescued the studio illustrates just how badly off they are.

With no end in sight to the delays preventing the start of production and even casting, Del Toro is forced to walk so he can resume his deal at Universal and not keep his family in New Zealand for nearly a decade. The coup of attracting such an in-demand auteur on a lengthy project that reportedly was not always a passion does indeed become too good to be true. I’m saddened that the project lost a unique voice that could have aided The Hobbit in justifying its existence, but his other films in development were too tantalising to delay further: At the Mountains of Madness, Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, Hellboy 3, Drood… the list goes on.

Talk of a new director begins, particularly as it may be a drawcard for potential rescuers. Speculation immediately turns to Jackson himself and negotiations are reliably rumoured shortly thereafter, despite his originally opting not to direct so as not compete against himself and spend many more years stressed out and exhausted in Middle-Earth. Ergo, his sensible and sane decision may now be reversed, and a project that shouldn’t exist will snare a director who should arguably be focusing on new horizons. If he needs a good financial bet after King Kong and The Lovely Bones, there are new ones to be found rather than dredging up old ones.

Why should it not exist? Why do I oppose the common view that The Hobbit films must be a source of great joy and excitement? Because it epitomises pop culture’s inability to leave well enough alone. This is not even a case of one sequel too many, but a matter of tacking on a smaller story to a triumphant, epic trilogy that has yet to be topped for sheer spectacle and emotional cohesion. The Hobbit is a lovely book, but a lark compared to the substantial, robust Lord of the Rings, and the films would parallel this divide.

What fans may be unwilling to accept is that The Hobbit stands a good chance of being inherently disappointing. By the time of release, ten years will have passed since LotR, and we will experience a bizarre paradox of disappointing deja vu. It will be cut from the same cloth but conjure nothing close to the original thrill, because that thrill can never hope to be replicated. We see it frequently, even in a lesser case like the more muted reaction to Iron Man 2, which, while from a quality standpoint is on par with the original, could not hope to surprise and delight as the original did when it snuck up on us. And The Hobbit is no mere sequel to a single film, but a prequel duology to a massive trilogy. It’s a little brother project being pumped up into the beefy older sibling – why else would they turn it into two films if not to replicate The Lord of the Rings? But that’s not what The Hobbit is.

So maybe these interminable MGM problems are a sign that this project just isn’t meant to be. That’s not to deinigrate the hard work that Del Toro and Jackson’s team have put in on the screenplay and the design. They clearly believed in the project to be prepared to spend years on it, and part of me is tantalised to see what these creative minds have come up with. I would love to ultimately be proven wrong, but if Peter Jackson takes the reins again, it will perfectly symbolise this project’s desire to recapture lightning in a bottle. It stands a good chance of being The Godfather Part 3, not Part 2. The Lord of the Rings was a glorious beast that was of its time. If The Hobbit had been made first, then we’d be having a different discussion now. But they made the big kahuna first, and The Hobbit will inevitably suffer in comparison, especially if it is artificially bloated into two 3-hour films.

Let The Lord of the Rings be one blockbuster success story that is allowed to stand alone, just as Star Wars should have been (the miracle that there wasn’t a Return of the Jedi in Jackson’s trilogy should not be underestimated). Let it be the Watchmen of blockbusters, remaining forever untouched despite the ever-present promise of riches because it would dilute a sacred brand. And I may not be superstitious, but if this much adversity gets in the way of a project, maybe it’s time to take the hint?

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