“I’d like to announce that two films will become three,” he wrote as part of a lengthy message that paved the way for press releases from the studios that followed. “It has been an unexpected journey indeed, and in the words of Professor Tolkien himself, ‘a tale that grew in the telling.’ “
But since that announcement struck lightning-quick through social media and the online press, there has been little conversation about what this means for the films. It is easy to find quick and easy criticisms of Jackson and any of the studios involved. It is likewise easy to buy everything Jackson does in true fanboy fashion.
THE EXPANSION TO THREE FILMS IS NOT ABOUT MONEY
The easiest, most common criticism tossed at The Hobbit trilogy: This is a studio money-grab.
Accountants may well be excited by the possibilities of three films -- after all, If things go well, each film should be worth about $1 billion at the worldwide box office. But this wasn’t pushed by accountants; this grew out of the creative process of Jackson’s team of filmmakers and how they like to tell stories.
During the Lord of the Rings films, the same group — Jackson and co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens — were constantly revising the script -- a process they compared to laying track in front of a moving train. They were at it again on these films with the added comfort and validation of already being commercially and artistically successful with the process. The signs are all there; Jackson’s team simply had too much story to tell and in his statement announcing the films he said so:
“. . . it’s not until you get to the very end and you can start to look at a 'cut' assembly of the film.... Look, at the end of the day, you end up with a film that’s too long. And so for purely, for what the studio and the distributors need, you need to trim it down a little bit. Which we try and do. We’re not very good at making short movies, unfortunately.”
The two-film plan probably had a first film that was too long and an impossible second film. The expansion was driven by creativity, characters and storytelling.
Not dollar signs.
Cynics and conspiracy theorists may cry otherwise, but the simple explanation is the right one. Jackson isn’t “very good at making short movies.” The danger here isn’t expansion for non-creative reasons -- the danger is too much expansion for the right reason.
SO WHAT'S THE REAL DANGER?
From a business standpoint, the decision to expand to three films is causing a lot of heartburn. Movie titles are branding and the merchandise marketing for these films was well underway when the announcement was made. Movie tie-in books, as just one example, are back on the drawing board with new endings for films and new titles. Plans made for a two-film adaptation must be reworked and rethought. With only a few months before the first film hits theaters, this was a real upheaval for not just the movie studios but for all of the financial partners and merchandisers.
For the sake of illustration, let’s agree that the original end of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
was [possible spoilers ahead
] after the liberation of Dwarves in barrels from the Elven King. There was a graphic released
just prior to Comic-Con that supports this. With that in mind, the fierce and potentially awesome character of shape-changer Beorn is in the first film.
Books, action figures, lunch boxes and Pez dispensers would all have included his bear-like visage in first movie planning. When Jackson pulled the rug out from under these plans and the ending of the film changed, Beorn -- along with his minions and environments -- may have moved to the second film. Will we see whole new edits of books or Pez sets with unexplained bears in them or will all the planning be scrapped and started from scratch? Whatever the answer, this wasn’t an easy step for the studios to make.
But even that isn’t the real danger here, or at least not for movie viewers. If we are offered merchandise that is slightly at odds with the film, who cares? It might even be more collectible!
The danger is that Jackson is so powerful now that nobody can tell him “no." Has the story spiraled out of control? Have the introduced characters of Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) and the return of Orlando Bloom’s Legolas overwhelmed the story? Have the plots hinted about offstage in the source material become bloated distractions to the main thrust of the action? Are 13 Dwarves just too many characters to flesh out and still have a good movie?
Critics would point to King Kong as an example of Jackson pushing too long of a product to the marketplace without the studio having the weight to tell a director to trim his film. This is the danger. Instead of two lean films packed with forward-moving plot, we will be handed three films with sections or subplots that don’t matter and detract rather than add to the films. Even in the Oscar-sweeping Return of the King, the multiple endings of the film have earned Jackson some ribbing. Could The Hobbit metaphorically resemble always-hungry Bombur more than Thorin?
WHY WE STILL HAVE HIGH HOPES
Whatever the eventual outcome, the stones Jackson and studios Warner Bros. and MGM have shown to expand the films at this late date are remarkable. There just isn’t a case study for them to follow. Jackson is explorer Christopher Columbus here, sailing right off the edge of the map. Whatever else happens, however these movies succeed or fail artistically and financially, nobody can ever claim the powers behind them didn’t swing for the fences.
The first film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,
seems pretty safe. This will be the easiest of the three, much like Fellowship of the Ring
was the easiest narrative in the LOTR
trilogy. Nobody knows what backstory Jackson will introduce, and there are a lot of grand possibilities with Dwarven war history, but the joy of meeting Gandalf again and revisiting Hobbiton with a cast of interesting new visitors seems easily appealing. Before things get too complicated, this seems like an easy sell.
The Hobbit: There and Back Again
also seems to have a natural conflict. For those not aware, there is a great big dragon in the movie and while he looms over the proceedings, unless there is a major change in the story’s structure, things come to a head at the end of the second film, which seems like an organic fit. This leaves the final film with an epic battle involving multiple armies and yet still a lot of rich character moments and the tying up of all the loose ends. With a little optimism, it doesn’t seem difficult to argue that the three-film structure works a lot better than two films with a dragon and a battle crammed into the same final movie. Add in the historical Middle-earth context that Jackson used so effectively in the LOTR
films and there are a lot of reasons to remain optimistic about this.
Whatever happens in only a few months time, Jackson and the story of his films just become more and more fascinating. There is sharp creativity at work for good or for ill. Onward to December 14!
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 is one of the lead content producers for the site and represents it at conventions and press functions. You can read his The Hobbit Countdown here at Movies.com every other week. You can reach him at MrCere@TheOneRing.net.