Every journey begins with a small step. But few journeys set out to fill shoes as big as “The Hobbit” — if hobbits even wore shoes.
Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” which opens Friday , is arguably the year’s most hyped and anticipated film. “The Hobbit” follows in the well-trod path of orc prints made by Jackson’s world-slaying “The Lord of the Rings.”
Before “Rings,” no one knew if Jackson’s cinematic version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth would have mass appeal beyond legions of existing Tolkien nerds. Yet, ever since the release of 2003’s “The Return of the King,” the final film in the cycle, fans have been waiting to bust down the gates back to Jackson’s vision.
“Middle-earth is a universe I know very well,” says Andy Serkis, who reprises his role as Gollum in “An Unexpected Journey,” and is also the film’s second-unit director. “Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that Gollum wasn’t gone.” For him, since “The Lord of the Rings,” Gollum has been “absorbed into the public consciousness.”
Indeed, he and other Tolkien characters have haunted us for 75 years. Gollum, Gandalf, and Bilbo all got their start in “The Hobbit,” first published in 1937. The venerable children’s tale was the first of Tolkien’s works to creak open a round door into his rich legendarium about daring hobbits, gruff wizards, brash dwarves, and life-changing quests.
But with “An Unexpected Journey,” the first of a planned “Hobbit” trilogy, comes a dragon’s hoard of expectations, fears, and controversies. First, can Jackson weave his magic spell again, this time to transform a jovial kids’ book into mainstream adventure fare with more adult themes? The stakes are also high for financially feeble MGM, the film’s backer, which emerged from bankruptcy only two winters ago. And will a new batch of wizardly tricks enchant or turn off moviegoers?
Certainly, fans of “Rings” will be thrilled to see many of their favorite characters again, all played by the original actors. Ian McKellen returns as the cantankerous and mischievous wizard Gandalf, Cate Blanchett is back as the glimmering elf queen Galadriel, as is Hugo Weaving as the regal elf Lord Elrond, and Christopher Lee as the grim and conniving Saruman. Even “old” Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) make cameos.
But the core of “The Hobbit” cast, and plot, largely center around new heroes — a younger Bilbo, played by Martin Freeman (TV’s “The Office” and “Sherlock”) and the Company of 13 dwarves, headed by hunky Richard Armitage (“Captain America”) as Thorin Oakenshield. Together, Gandalf, Thorin, and his dwarves persuade a reluctant Bilbo to journey with them from the Shire into the wild, where they encounter trolls and goblins, dark caves, and riddle games. Their destination: the Lonely Mountain, where the dwarves must vanquish the evil dragon Smaug and reclaim their dwarvish homeland. The next two installments, “The Desolation of Smaug,” opening next December, and “There and Back Again,” slated for the summer of 2014, recount how well Bilbo and the dwarves fare on their quest.
Compared to the novel, the movie Bilbo is “not quite so inept,” says co-screenwriter Philippa Boyens, who also collaborated on the “Rings” scripts. “The truth is, he is very quick-witted. We just [portray] him being quick-witted a little bit earlier.” (Boyens, Serkis, and others from the cast and crew spoke via telephone from New York City and Wellington, New Zealand.)
Chief among the design challenges was to create individual looks for this baker’s dozen of dwarves. “We did over 800 illustrations and numerous sculptures in the search of 13 characters so that all would appear to come from the same race, some of them from the same family,” says Richard Taylor, co-owner and creative lead at Weta Workshop, the effects shop that made the swords, armor, prosthetics, and props for “The Hobbit” and “Rings.” The dwarves, he says, also needed to be “distinctly and uniquely different, all with their own iconic qualities so that, at a glance, the audience could tell them apart.”
As for the motion-captured, digital schizo Gollum, he’s about the same, says Serkis, albeit younger, since the action in “The Hobbit” occurs 60 years before “Rings.” His first day on the set, to film the “Riddles in the Dark” scene with costar Freeman, Serkis felt he was “doing an impersonation of other people’s impersonations” of Gollum.
Just last July came the bomb that the two-film Hobbit would be expanded to three. So how can a 300-page kid’s book support a trilogy of films? Some called the three-fer a blatant money grab.
“This was a creative choice, it wasn’t a financial choice at all,” answers Boyens. “Professor Tolkien,” she notes, “didn’t stop writing ‘The Hobbit’ when he stopped writing ‘The Hobbit.’” Her script draws on the connective tissue linking Bilbo’s story to the broader Tolkienverse that appears in various appendices to “Rings,” and elsewhere. Making three films of more than two and a half hours has necessitated side plots, flashbacks, and fleshings-out of minor characters such as the batty wizard Radagast. Themes of courage and greed have been deepened.
“It’s a deceptive book, it’s deceptively slight,” Boyens says. “To those people who think this is daft, they don’t understand the story, they don’t understand how dark this story turns, how this story moves towards ‘Lord of the Rings’ in a very profound way towards the end of the book.” Yes, “The Hobbit” is a children’s tale, but it’s one with “a sad and dark ending,” Boyens adds, “and we wanted to fulfill that.”
You might call “The Hobbit” a bridge to “Rings,” and a padded one at that, but the filmmaking team is confident that its choices are in keeping with the spirit of the book.
“I think Jackson has earned the trust of many fans and has more leeway now,” wrote Larry Curtis, Middle-earth correspondent to TheOneRing.net, a Tolkien movie fansite, in an e-mail. “I hope he uses it wisely.”
The film almost didn’t get made. A dispute with local unions threatened relocation of the production from New Zealand to Europe. When the first director, Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”), bailed after interminable production delays, Jackson had to convince himself to return to Middle-earth for a fourth time. “I remember talking to him, right after ‘Return of the King’ had wrapped,” says Brian Sibley, author of the film’s “Official Movie Guide.” “He said categorically, ‘I would never do ‘The Hobbit.’”
Yet, aside from the controversies and already spirited critical response, there are the wonders of cinema magic to behold. New technical advances from Jackson’s Kiwi team make “The Hobbit” one of the most visually sumptuous films of the year.
With “Rings,” crews had “this whole landscape of characters and creatures that we had to create,” says Joe Letteri, director of Weta Digital and visual effects supervisor on “The Hobbit,” which he calls a “homecoming.” “Here’s kind of where it all started. Now let’s take what we’ve learned and do it again.”
A major breakthrough, technology-wise, was Jackson’s decision to shoot “The Hobbit” in the pioneering format of 48 frames per second, double the standard frame rate of 24, as well as digitally and in 3-D. Early reports are mixed — some feel that the technology creates an eye-popping, hyper-clear image; others report nausea.
You could also get queasy from the movie merchandising — from $400 replica prop axes to Denny’s Hobbit menus. Amid the clutter, can the real Tolkien shine through?
“I think the film is a clearly faithful realization,” says Weta Workshop’s Taylor. “At the end of the day, this is an epic, modern-day feature film that has to capture a world audience.”
Any disappointed readers still have their precious to turn to in book form. “The [‘Rings’] films, rather than taking anything away from the books, actually brought a lot more readers to the world,” Boyens says. “Which is fantastic. If this [movie] brings some kids to the book, fantastic too.”Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at email@example.com.