Will Peter Jackson's next big screen treatment of Tolkien be a journey worth taking?
Rumours began circulating online last week that Kiwi filmmaker Peter Jackson was splitting his already mammoth adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s 'The Hobbit' into three parts. A press release issued a couple of days ago to just about every blog and media outlet in the world confirmed with great fanfare that, indeed, The Hobbit will now be released as a trilogy between December 2012 and summer 2014.
Jackson confirmed the 'surprise' news via his Facebook page, stating to the world that he became enamoured with the idea of a new trilogy after seeing a rough cut of Part I.
"Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and I were very pleased with the way the story was coming together. We recognised that the richness of the story of 'The Hobbit', as well as some of the related material in the appendices of 'The Lord of the Rings', gave rise to a simple question: do we tell more of the tale?"
This new-found inspiration is quite interesting coming from a man who initially handed the project over to Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro after citing he was done with Middle Earth and its furry-footed heroes. The fact that rights issues became caught up in MGM’s recent money woes stalled production indefinitely, leading to Del Toro’s exit and a fan-led campaign to get Jackson back in the driving seat.
For the studio, of course, having Jackson direct was a no-brainer, given the wild success of his LOTR trilogy. Unsurprisingly the reaction online has been hugely positive, although fanboy frothing is par for the course for this breed of Hollywood beast.
But the salient fact remains that the novel on which Jackson is basing this new trilogy is a mere 310 pages long, a veritable novella compared to 'The Lord of the Rings', which constitutes over 1,000 pages across three books. JRR Tolkien wrote appendices as part of his mythology building – he didn’t have time to write everything and quite possibly never even intended to do so. Is Jackson’s plundering of the back pages a bit desperate? And are we witnessing some kind of coup d'état in that Jackson and his team are no longer adapting the written page but using Tolkien’s appendices as a springboard?
The flip side to all this is that by exploring the nooks and crannies of Middle Earth and bringing forth largely unknown subplots and tales, Jackson is giving fans something they never thought they’d see. This might be an exciting gambit, but the success of a literary adaptation resides in capturing the spirit of the original text and not slavishly transferring every bit of information from page to screen.
The same issue plagued the Harry Potter saga in that screenwriter Steve Kloves might as well have copied and pasted entire sections of Rowling’s books. Only Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban ever felt like a true adaptation. Hardly surprising that it's often regarded as the best in the series.
Either way, it's hard to reject the sentiment that The Hobbit is being padded out in order to squeeze more money of the franchise, not to mention cinemagoers. The business of splitting material is an innovation Hollywood seems more ready to embrace than ever before. This tact is not without precedence, but it is certainly a new fad for the twenty-first-century mainstream. Why make a billion dollars from two movies when you can make even more from three? The trilogy will be sold as an artistic endeavour based on a near holy respect for the source material, but we’re way past swallowing such transparent cynicism.
Jackson is shooting the films at 48 frames per second on new state-of-the-art digital 3D cameras. Fan reaction during a 10-minute footage preview was extremely mixed with some accusing it of looking uncinematic. Excuses were readied about the roughness of assembled scenes and promised it would be different come release. Which begs the question: what was the purpose in showing the footage? Was it a PR exercise gone wrong?
Summit Entertainment recently announced that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay will be split into two parts. Giving the fans what they want is one thing, but again this decision feels like a commercially driven one. Art is increasingly becoming a by-product of Hollywood and not its raison d'être, no matter what MGM’s slogan claims.
Then there’s the chronic grandiosity that has wormed its way into Peter Jackson’s once joyfully anarchic aesthetic. Back in the 1990s, he was horror cinema’s great new hope. Now he makes engorged epic whose extra weight is less dramatic and more down to gluttony of vision. The same flabbiness is evident in King Kong and his adaptation of Alice Sebold’s novel 'The Lovely Bones, a film he gazumped Lynne Ramsay for.
But where do you stand? Does the prospect of a three-film series appeal to you? Is a six-hour adaptation of a relatively short book really necessary? Will The Hobbit be a journey worth taking?