Writing about The Hobbit may be a few months premature, but a big showbiz story broke in the past few days that, for a moment, made film fans talk about something other than the Aurora tragedy and, as such, I believe it deserves some attention. Of course, this story is Peter Jackson’s intention to turn his looming adaptation of the children’s classic into a trilogy.
By Martin Felipe
August 6, 2012
As a franchise, both literary and cinematic, with as passionate a fan base as Middle-earth’s, one can predict the geek tsunami that occurred in the wake of the announcement. Skeptics have attacked it as a money grabbing move, stretching a relatively short novel past its breaking point, like Bilbo’s “butter scraped over too much bread.” Enthusiasts point to material from the Lord of the Rings appendices as sufficient material to fill out the story.
Of course, sight unseen, we really have nothing but speculation to go on until Jackson’s second trilogy unveils itself over the next few years. One would think, given the virtually unparalleled success of his first trilogy, that he would have earned the benefit of the doubt. However, as we all know, when fans get passionate, nits get picked, and even a success as resounding as Jackson’s Rings gets fine-tooth-combed beyond an inch of its life.
This is not to say that we cannot all have our own dissenting opinions. Certainly there are established classics that don’t resonate with me as they do most, so I’m not proposing that Rings should be elevated beyond criticism. However, few films endure more scrutiny than adaptations of popular works, and this scrutiny is intensified when the work in question is of such enduring popularity as J.R.R. Tolkien’s landmark fantasy epic.
I’d say it’s true of most stories enjoying passionate fan bases. Look no further than Harry Potter or Hunger Games fans debating the nuances of their film adaptations. Rings, however, due to its age and enduring popularity is in a bit of a class of its own. In the months and years leading up to The Lord Of The Rings movies’ release, Tolkien fans of all ages poured over each and every tidbit of information they could get their hands on, endlessly arguing the merits or weaknesses of every choice Jackson made in bringing their favored fantasy world to the screen.
You see, in the world of modern mythologies, few are as detailed and internally consistent as that of Middle-earth. Tolkien was a linguist who created his own language, then built the world, the culture, the history, and even the story around it. As he wrote more and more about Middle-earth, he would revise and fine tune what came before to make sure it all fit and made sense. He was an early George Lucas in that respect, from a certain point of view.
This isn’t to say that Middle-earth is perfect, but you’d be hard pressed to find another fictional universe as intricate and developed as this one. As such, generations of fans have become students of not just the story, but of the cultures, languages and history of Middle-earth. Bringing this universe to cinematic life was Jackson’s challenge, and fans were not going to give him an inch.
Of course, the result has become Hollywood legend. All three films enjoyed glowing reviews, stellar box office and buckets full of awards and nominations. It’s one of recent cinema’s greatest triumphs. Nevertheless, as will always be the case, especially with such a beloved property, there are detractors.
Even with over 11 hours of story in their extended form, the trilogy takes certain liberties with the narrative and cuts quite a bit of material from the books. Understandable though this may be, fans will be fans, and everyone seems to have their own idea of how this change or that difference could have made the movie into the adaptation that they really wanted.
The thing is, Jackson was doomed from the moment he started. It would be impossible to please everyone. So his approach - reverence to the world of Middle-earth, faithful to the story to the point of making it cinematic, truthful to his own interpretation of the material - is about all one could possibly expect. Fan response was as polarized as can be expected. Many readers heralded the trilogy as the critics and general audiences did. Others expressed disappointment in this or that. It was inevitable.
The fact of the matter is, despite rich layering of cultural detail, a very full narrative, and the oft criticized multiple endings, the movies still streamline Tolkien’s tale to a great extent. It’s hard for non-readers to quite understand, but for a series of films that last so long and can seem slow or bloated, the pace of the films as compared to the books is quite rapid.
And this is where The Hobbit comes in. It’s not a short novel by children’s literature standards, but it’s also no Lord Of The Rings. If a trilogy of films is barely enough to tell the story of Lord Of The Rings, it might be too much to tell the story of The Hobbit.
The concerns are very real. Though nowhere near as eventful as Rings, The Hobbit is a very episodic novel, providing many possible breaking points in the narrative. The question is, is there enough story in between these points to fill three films, even if they aren’t as epic in length as the previous trilogy?
Again, this brings us to the appendices. There are other things afoot in Middle-earth at the time of Bilbo’s unexpected journey, and it’s clear that Jackson plans on showing us this stuff. The question really addresses the third movie. If the first two were planned as they are, what could the third movie be about? Will he move some of the second movie stuff into the third? Will he add material bridging The Hobbit and Rings, as was the initial rumor?
Whatever the structure of the series takes, I can only assume that the pace will be much slower than that of its predecessor, given the lack of material. This brings us to the possibility of stretching the narrative to the breaking point. Here’s why I’m not too convinced that this will be a problem.
One thing that Jackson has shown great interest in is exploring the world of Middle-earth. He and his team went to great pains during production of Lord of the Rings to create a living, breathing universe based on Tolkien’s vision. With so much going on, characters always rushing off from place to place, we get to spend very little time just existing in this universe.
Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It makes good narrative sense to keep the story going, lest viewers get bored. However, fans don’t just love the story, they love Middle-earth. As a modern mythology to end all modern mythologies, Tolkien’s world is as important as his story. Jackson’s seeming indulgence with the material is making fans nervous. I can’t say I blame them, given his overlong adaptation of King Kong, for example, but the man has always treated Middle-earth with respect. I really don’t mind spending extra time there, even if it means not much is going on. I love the place, and I can’t get enough of it.
That’s just me. Many folks are likely to react poorly to a Hobbit that seems as bloated as Kong. We shall see soon enough, but, my guess is that Jackson has heard the criticisms. Also, as I said before, he’s shown his reverence for Middle-earth. I’m taking the stance of assuming that he knows what he’s doing. I certainly am glad to have three films to look forward to instead of just the two. And, even if it ends up being a failure, which I very much doubt, I’ll still have the original trilogy and, for that matter, the books. So give us what you got, Peter Jackson. You’ve earned it.