Larry D. Curtis, as part of the team at TheOneRing.net, has been comprehensively covering the works and adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien for more than a decade, making the not-for-profit site the leading source about The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings for fans and film makers world wide. Curtis represents the site at conventions and events around the US including the DragonCon in Atlanta. You can read his The Hobbit Countdown here at Movies.com every other week.
What makes two films based on The Hobbit one of, if not the most highly anticipated film of both 2012 and 2013 and potentially one of the biggest film smashes in history?
People simply love Middle-earth. Generations of people. Many, many millions of people.
Grandparents and parents have handed it off to children and the proliferation of genre culture has only increased the audience that looks at Middle-earth and its author J.R.R. Tolkien as one of the pillars on which so much else in popular culture, definitely including movies, is built.
Last week National Public Radio’s website revealed that Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was voted as the favorite science fiction and fantasy book of all time. Again? Yawn. In other news: People love ice cream and free money.
Yes, Tolkien’s works resonate with the masses and thanks to a guy hardly known “back then” as a box office bully, they also resonate with movie audiences. Peter Jackson directed a film trilogy without any marquee box office stars (then), made outside the traditional Hollywood studio system with his homegrown effects house and became one of the most powerful people in movies. Premiere Magazine named the Kiwi as Tinseltown’s most powerful individual in 2005, ahead of before-the-fall Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg, to name just one such list. The efforts on The Hobbit will combine the favorite book with the now favorite director, a formidable pairing.
Before there were films, the book was on top of lists in 1997 (Waterstone’s book chain in the U.K.) in 1999 at Amazon.com and on lots of others since then. Before Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring hit theaters a decade ago, many in the film industry predicted disaster and every studio except New Line Cinema passed on the chance to take on the two-part film. New Line of course made it three films to match three published books that included The Two Towers and Return of the King. (The book isn’t a trilogy but one book in three parts, a publication strategy that became the hallmark of epic or high fantasy.)
Critics or experts haven’t been so kind, with lists particularly the literati who dismiss it completely because of its genre or who find it contemptible and more so because of its enduring popularity.
Philip Toynbee said The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings “were dull, ill-written, whimsical and childish,” in 1961 and that “today those books have passed into a merciful oblivion.”
Author Tom Shippey, gave us “J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century,” in 2000 and here we are a decade into the 21st and poll results are still yielding the same answer: People love Tolkien, people love Middle-earth.
While Jackson’s films haven’t achieved anywhere near the longevity of the source material, they did win a boat load of Oscars in an industry that loves to celebrate past achievements and works hard to celebrate its history. And the films did just enjoy a anniversary theatrical run to celebrate their release on Blu-ray. The lifespan of beloved films goes on and on.
And Jackson has a similar following to the “cult” Toynbee attributed to those who adored Tolkien’s works. Instead of the dense and complex LOTR book to turn into films, this time Jackson the more straightforward Hobbit to adapt. The story isn’t without writing complications but with two films (plenty of room) to extract all the parts of the book that are most compelling and with background material from the LOTR to ramp up the stakes and the scope, this adaptation is more direct.
There are still plenty of chances to fail or course. The core Tolkienites may yet turn against the director and his adaptation because of seemingly strange invented characters (female Elves no less!) and the likelihood of a significant shift in tone from the children’s story to an epic film, but Jackson’s sensibilities and instincts put him in a good spot to get the benefit of the doubt from world wide audiences.
Can the film ever live up to hype or expectations? While that seems impossible, remember that the same staggering task was waiting for the LOTR films as well.
The final advantage this pair of future films shares that makes it so definitely different from nearly anything else at the contemporary box office is that it has a definite end. These films are the last cinematic bits of Middle-earth that will come along for quite some time, maybe in readers’ lifetime. The author originally sold the rights to some of works to United Artists a few years before his death. He wasn’t opposed to adaptation but wasn’t complimentary to scripts he saw, but he paid a bill with the sale of the rights that didn’t include any of his works outside his two most famous ones.
So while it is easy for fans to dream about the possibilities of an HBO 12-part adaptation of The Silmarillion, it just isn’t going to happen. Nobody has the rights to tackle “the rest of the story,” except the Tolkien Estate and nothing suggests they are selling. Far more important to the estate, that is doing just fine on book sales, is keeping Tolkien's literary legacy. Jackson and his crew will close the door. Unlike the Star Wars saga in its galaxy far, far away, that lives on in television, games, books and nearly every other medium, there will be no more tickets to tourism in Middle-earth.
No matter the box office opening weekend, and no matter how much Warner Bros., (now the studio overseer), wants to, there is nothing available to greenlight. No pitches on future films, no film rights, no reboots, no open ended conclusions, no The Adventures of Legolas animated series.
Fans will be spared the unsettling questions about the future of the franchise and the vague hope that their ticket price contained the full story. In this case the end will actually mean it. And who, among the many devoted millions, will want to miss that?