Saturday, December 8, 2007

Holding out hope for The Hobbit

Fantasy fans have much to be thankful for these days, especially films-wise. Currently we have on the big screen adaptions of the classic poem Beowulf, part 1 of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy (The Golden Compass), and in May 2008 we'll be treated to a second installment in the "Chronicles of Narnia series," Prince Caspian. Hollywood has finally figured out that fantasy sells and that there's a wealth of rich novels and classic stories in this oft-overlooked genre worthy of adaptation.

But while thinking about the breadth of fantasy choices currently available to theater-goers the other day, I realized I remained largely indifferent to the current crop of fantasy flicks, and without exactly knowing why. But then the reason struck me--the one fantasy novel I truly want to see made into a film remains an unfulfilled hope, and a distant one at that. Unscripted and non-green lighted, even if production began tomorrow its release would likely be 3-4 years away--a very long wait even in a best-case scenario.

That novel, of course, is J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.

Given the tremendous critical and commerical success of the Peter Jackson-directed The Lord of the Rings, I expected to see Jackson and New Line Cinema ink a deal to start filming its prequel, The Hobbit, no later than 2004, when The Lord of the Rings' four-year run was finally coming to a close. But problems arose that put The Hobbit on ice.

The biggest of these was a very public blowup between Jackson and New Line, the studio which financed and produced the trilogy. Jackson sued New Line over some money he felt he was due from the studio, which reportedly refused to turn over its financial reports in a prompt manner, leading to a fine. Studio execs in turn labelled Jackson as greedy.

Could New Line go ahead and sign up someone besides Jackson to direct The Hobbit? Of course they could, and in fact, for a while they apparently were looking, even offering the job to Sam Raimi of Spiderman fame. But let's be honest--with a director other than Jackson at the helm, we'd very likely see a decline in quality from the very high standards established by The Lord of the Rings films. While not perfect, Jackson's version of Tolkien's timeless tale delivered a far greater film experience than I ever dared hope, due in very large part (I believe) to Jackson's passion, vision, and style.

To put it another way--we know what we've got in Jackson, and it's very, very good. Could another director pull off a comparable or even better job with The Hobbit as Jackson did with The Lord of The Rings? Perhaps--but given the height the bar has been set, the likelihood is slim, and the odds are that such a film would be worse. That's a risk I wouldn't want to see taken with such a valuable and beloved commodity.

There's reportedly been other problems with the adaption itself. While on the surface Tolkien's sprawling three-volume The Lord of the Rings trilogy seems far more daunting to bring to the screen than the straightforward, 300-page tale of The Hobbit, a closer examination reveals that the inverse may actually be true. The biggest obstacle to adapting The Hobbit is that its action mainly concerns the journeys of a hobbit (obviously) and a troupe of 12 dwarves. Whereas The Lord of the Rings has strong human or semi-human male and female leads, played by recognizable (and attractive) actors like Viggo Mortenson, Liv Tyler, Miranda Otto, and Orlando Bloom, the same can't be said for The Hobbit.

While that fact doesn't concern me at all, I can certainly empathize with studio executives sweating out the risk of pouring 150+ million dollars into a film whose success depends upon our belief in and attachment to a cast consisting mainly of stocky little men and little to no star power. Big names do put butts in seats. I don't anticipate that fact hurting The Hobbit, a beloved best-seller, but the fact remains that it is a less traditional tale The Lord of the Rings, and far less human-centric.

Those problems aside, I still hold out hope that one day The Hobbit will be brought to the screen. We do have the animated version by Rankin-Bass (which I like, admittedly, despite some obvious glaring problems), but that's a far cry from the live-action, big-budget production that I--and millions of other fans--would like to see.

How awesome is the potential of this film? Just thinking of the Battle of the Five Armies on film is enough to give me goosebumps. Thorin falling to the bodyguard of Bolg, only to have his body plucked from battle by Beorn in bear-shape--how awe-inspiring would that be? I want to see The Lonely Mountain, and hope that it's the same grey, sharp, mist-shrouded peak that I've seen in my mind's eye countless times while reading The Hobbit. I want to see Smaug on film, a "real" dragon depicted with the best effects CGI can muster. I want to see Mirkwood forest, and the spiders, and the wood elves. I want to hear riddles in the dark.

But most of all, I want to return to the Hobbiton lovingly crafted by Jackson in his films. I want to hear and see the dwarves drinking ale and singing of gold and the King Under the Mountain at night in the firelight of Bilbo's hobbit-hole at Bag-End.

Until then, I'll still be taking my daughter to see Prince Caspian, but with a bit of a hollow, uncompleted feeling.

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