Destroy All Monsters: The Lessons Of THE HOBBIT
As an exercise in Hollywood franchise-making in the 21st century, Peter Jackson's The Hobbit is fantastically instructive. The final film in the cycle emerges today -- I've yet to see it; you can read Jason Gorber's review here-- but long before The Battle of the Five Armies shines its light upon the screen, the lessons of this long and winding production process have made their key contours known.
I think it is accurate at this point to note that most audiences did not warm to The Hobbit as they did its predecessor trilogy, The Lord of the Rings; and moreover, that key creative decisions on the new trilogy were met with impatience at the best of times, and outright anger at the worst.
The decision to split Tolkien's 300-page book into three epic-length feature films seems to be the prime offender; the High Frame Rate boondoggle that greeted the first film (and has been tidily swept under the rug by Warner Brothers since then) is another. There are many more.
I'm less interested in the subjective experience of The Hobbit trilogy as movies than I am in what those creative decisions can tell us about how blockbuster movies of this scale -- which we absorb like episodes of television in this day and age, yet hold to such extraordinarily high standards of expectation that less and less mega-sized films by year seem to be capable of fully satisfying us -- are actually made.
There is a brace of mythology around the making of a film in the first place, and a
"mainstream" film even more so. There seems to be an underlying belief among the public that the making of these kinds of films is a straight A to Z process; that due to the budget, all options are available at all times (and therefore what we see from the outside as the "best" option in any given situation is only a decision away); that the goal of the whole process in the first place is to make nothing less than the best motion picture of all time; and that everyone involved in the making of the film believes that what they are doing / have done is worthy of that honour.
The Hobbit shatters these expectations. An investment in the decision-making behind its ten-year journey to the screen reveals everything we need to know about the Hollywood industrial machine; what we should truly expect from films of this type; and how little we understand their makers.
I would argue that once you take it as a given that an adaptation of The Hobbit is going to exist in the first place, nearly every subsequent branch on the decision tree that follows leads you directly, and unavoidably, to the films we have now.
Filmmaking on any scale is not destination travel. Filmmaking teams on anything from Blue Ruin to The Phantom Menace did not work backwards from the final product you see on the screen and make every connected decision that lands them on that outcome, with creative genius (if you're Blue Ruin) or a malevolent desire to ruin as many childhoods as possible (as the TPM haters care to believe).
Instead, with a basic premise of what the film is supposed to be like -- usually called "a script," though sometimes not even that -- film projects are a myriad hailstorm of yes/no, pass/fail decisions on an extraordinarily broad variety of topics from editing cadence to fabric choices. In each case, the goal is to make the best decision possible within the parameters at hand, with the overall hope that if one makes as many best decisions as one can, the cumulative result might net out into a good final product.
But one word in that sentence -- "parameters" -- is really the lodestone of the whole problem around making ... well, anything really. Every project, from making a Hobbit movie to building a bridge to blending a cup of Starbucks coffee, has core constraints -- and no, a $500M budget does not eliminate them. Arguably, it creates more of them.
The constraints of The Hobbit, as a project, are what made the three films what they are. The filmmaking team itself -- Peter Jackson, Phillippa Boyens, Martin Freeman, et. al. -- were key decision-makers in that process; but if you're hanging onto the belief that Guillermo del Toro, for example, would have done it better, I'd suggest you're deluding yourself. The GDT version of The Hobbit would have been different in aesthetic and in some key creative decisions, but I don't know that it would or could have varied from the Peter Jackson version by more than 20%.
And -- and this is important -- the GDT version of The Hobbit didn't happen, because one of those pass/fail decisions I've referred to made the GDT version of The Hobbit impossible. Of the players in this saga, del Toro might have made the wisest decision of anyone involved: he stepped away, decided "no Hobbit for me," and moved on.
Everyone else was bound by the most core of all the project's core constraints: that there would be a Hobbit movie, no matter what.
This was a given, if not by the time The Fellowship of the Ring was released, then certainly by the conclusion of the original cycle two years later. Movie studios are profit-seeking entities and The Hobbit, truly, is the Episodes I-III to The Lord of the Rings' Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. It was always sitting there, waiting to be exploited. Studios have gone to much greater extremes to extend their franchises than adapt a ready-made, core component of the source material. (Wait'll you see what Warner Brothers cooks up to extend Middle-Earth, a few years down the line.)
Furthermore, the studio decision to make The Hobbit came attached to a cost. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, the adaptation rights for The Hobbit needed to be extracted from a complex web of parties; unlike The Lord of the Rings, the key rights-holder in The Hobbit, MGM, was in serious financial trouble that needed to be repaired. This meant there was already substantial cost and effort spent by the time Guillermo del Toro left the project, leaving Peter Jackson in one of the more uncomfortable pass/fail decisions in the whole process: stand back and risk the investment, or wade in and protect it?
Haters have accused Jackson of hubris or arrogance in returning full-time to the Middle-Earth franchise, and I doubt even Jackson would argue that it was in his own career best interests to attempt to re-do (or, more unassailably, improve upon) his earlier work. He was well-paid for his efforts and we shouldn't worry about him, but the decision Jackson made to direct The Hobbit was principally built around bailing out his investors and delivering the project his own company had assumed creative responsibility for. It was the shortest route to the most profitable finish, and few responsible leaders would have done otherwise.
The creative changes that followed -- the gaggle of capering dwarves, each distinguishable from one another and yet somehow still without differentiating narratives to bolster their costume designs; the expansion of "meanwhile..." content that occurs off-page around the events of the novel; the de-centralization of Bilbo as the lead character of a film still ostensibly called The Hobbit -- are all par for the course when facing the unique challenges of The Hobbit as a text.
As a text, The Hobbit is not a particularly adaptable movie. It would make a better 12-part HBO miniseries, being that it's entirely episodic, excruciatingly detailed, and wouldn't know a three-act structure if one smacked it over the head at the Battle of the Five Armies.
It's worth remembering that for all its pretensions to screen-accuracy, The Lord of the Rings isn't particularly faithful to its source text, either: it ditches the ballast of Tolkien's front-loaded structure, and wholly reorganizes the back two-thirds of the novel to arrive at a cinematic narrative form. Jackson & Co. attempted the same trick with The Hobbit, both to solve the adaptation problems and to provide an experience on par with the earlier, existing trilogy.
This latter bit is always the part that always worried me as the production of these films was unfolding, and it's part of the reason prequels never, ever work: you can't go backwards. Audience expectation is built on what they've already seen.
The Lord of the Rings is about the end of the world, while The Hobbit is about a tribe of dwarves who set off a border skirmish. "Every good story deserves embellishment," admits Gandalf the Grey in An Unexpected Journey, as though copping to the woolly decision-making process that saw reams of Tolkien's appendices turned into screen content to bolster The Hobbit as a spectacle movie (or series of spectacle movies). But without that process, you'd have a movie about 15 guys crowding their way through a medieval Raiders of the Lost Ark story that would be approximately four hours long and end with Bilbo getting whacked over the head and missing the battle.
And so, here we are. Three films, none of which (in adjusted dollars) will quite match the entries in The Lord of the Rings for profitability, but which will nonetheless bring in something close to three billion dollars against a half-billion dollar investment, so they worked well enough, thank you very much.
If The Hobbit illustrates anything, it's that when it comes to filmmaking at this scale, "well enough" quickly becomes a best-case scenario. Nobody lost money, and there are enough completists in the world to ensure that the boxed set is going to be under a lot of trees next Christmas. Unexpected, sure; but a successful journey, nonetheless.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and popular culture. Matt Brown is in Middle-Earth today, don't bother him.