Tolkien Geek

Blogging J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" and other aimless pursuits.


Middle-Earth Through The Eyes Of Peter Jackson

When imagining the creation of a film version of "The Hobbit", our reference point has already been laid out for us. With the three Lord of the Rings [LOTR] films, Peter Jackson and his production company have already created Middle-Earth - or their version of Middle-Earth - and in many ways much of the guess work has been taken away by an existing template within which this new pair of films must conform.

In addition to settings, characters, costumes, weapons and creatures that we've already seen before, it is the approach that Jackson took in crafting "The Lord of the Rings" that gives us clues to what we can expect from "The Hobbit". Each of the Extended Editions of the DVDs has a roughly twenty-minute special feature that shows how the script developed over time. Beyond the minutiae of specific scenes, plot devices and character development there are several themes that stuck out which give us a good idea of what principles are most important to Jackson and his team. Yes, the source material is extremely important but in presenting a story on film there is one overriding factor to consider - the audience.

When you read a book, you sit down (or stand if you prefer) and read as much or as little of the story as your mood strikes you, then you put it down and resume sooner or later as it is convenient. The story follows a progression of chapters, providing natural breaks that allow the reader to digest them at their own pace. A theatrical film is experienced in one sitting and the audience must feel a rhythm that not only keeps its attention but also doesn't overload it with too much information at one time.

With a film, a good screenwriter or director understands that whatever does not advance the central story must be removed. As much as many fans would have loved to have seen Tom Bombadil or experienced the horror of the Barrow-Wights those elements would have killed "The Fellowship of the Ring" as a film. And, frankly, for a movie to touch a wider audience (and perhaps create new Tolkien fans) it needs to stay focused on the business at hand. With "The Lord of the Rings", the central structure of the story was primarily Frodo's journey with the Ring. While "The Hobbit" is a much simpler story, there will still be parts that need to be condensed, changed or excised altogether.

As Philippa Boyens says, as much as you love the book you can't be a "guardian" fo the material at the expense of making a great film.

In order to accomplish the act of bringing "The Hobbit" to life, there are a number of concepts that Jackson applied to "The Lord of the Rings" that he will undoubtedly maintain this time around. What follows is a partial list of cinematic techniques and themes that they discussed in the special featurettes which will likely be applied to "The Hobbit" films.

1) Swapping dialogue - Many times there were iconic passages from the LOTR that needed to be presented at different times or in different settings from the way they were in the books. In other cases, they needed to be given to different characters because the scenes in which they originally occured were not shown. Frodo's discussion with Gandalf about wishing that the Ring had not come to him was moved from Bag End to Moria. A description of the journey Westward that appeared in the closing paragraphs of "The Grey Havens" was given to Gandalf to convey to Pippin during the siege of Minas Tirith. If certain scenes or characters are not presented in the film, expect to hear certain dialogue and quotes shifted to another part of the story or through a different voice.

2) External Input/Experimentation: In the process of filming "The Lord of the Rings", the script often changed from day to day and many of the changes were influenced by the actors themselves based on their dramatic instinct. Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens [J,W&B] are very open to input from the actors to "flesh things out" or take a scene in a different direction. While the rationale behind a lot of these changes won't be apparent until the DVD commentary, expect a few surprises to pop up now and again.

3) Additional Material Not Part Of The Published Text: Though there is not as much exposition and back story in "The Hobbit" we may see some additional material (perhaps in flashback mode) about the events that led up to the "Unexpected Party". J,W&B used elements of the "The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen" from Appendix A to expand and develop Arwen's role throughout "The Lord of the Rings". A prologue isn't necessary like it was in "The Fellowship of the Ring" but the beginning could be a little different than we might expect. Could we have an opening narrative ("In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit...) with the voice of Gandalf, I wonder?

4) Character Development: J,W&B like to develop characters and as a means to achieve this they will often create dialogue that doesn't appear in the books. They could well take the opportunity to develop characters like Thorin or Balin in this manner, giving us more insight into the race and history of the Dwarves.

5) Continuity With The Characterization Of The Ring: In "The Lord of the Rings", the writers made a concerted effort to highlight the Ring itself as a character - so much so that if "whispered" to Frodo in the Black Speech from time to time. I would expect to see hints of this, particularly when Bilbo finds the Ring and when he uses It to avoid danger. Also, as a part of Bilbo's own development in becoming braver, bolder, more adventurous and perhaps more secretive I think a clear connection between him and the Ring will be shown. This will probably not come across as too sinister. At this point, no one in the story yet suspects that this is "the One Ring".

6) The Part One "Cliffhanger": There will need to be as aspect of the ending for the first film that will leave the audience wanting more. Naturally, we fans would move on to Part Two regardless. But for those in the audience who are not Tolkien Geeks, there needs to be a build-up, climax and cliffhanger that will both disappoint and tantalize the general audience and motivate them to tick off the days on their calendar until the release of the second film. I will discuss later at what point I think in the story would make the best break, but wherever it happens it will need to be a part of the story that builds the tension and it should be full of action. As Jackson comments about the breaks between parts of the LOTR films, it has to be "emotionally fulfilling".

7) Recurring Themes: Jackson may borrow a theme or two for this adventure from the first films. One overriding concept in film version of "The Lord of the Rings" was the idea of overcoming long (if not impossible) odds and there will likely be plenty of deus ex machina plot devices designed to create emotional ups and downs and Jackson-styled "great movie moments".

There is one variable in this cinematic equation that will be hard to factor in, that is the involvement of Guillermo del Toro as the director. It's no surprise that Peter Jackson has chosen to relinquish the director's chair as it proved to be overwhelming to also write, edit and control most of every other aspect of the prior three-film production. Actually a lot of the footage shot in the LOTR films was handled by Assistant Directors (ADs). The time schedule within which Jackson had to work - releasing each film exactly one year apart - made this a necessity.

In the end, Jackson ultimately worked with three different editors - one for each film - and crafted the final products despite the fact that ADs did more than half of the actual directing. Jackson and del Toro see eye to eye on many aspects of the way their films are made, including a love of cinematic blood and gore. I don't necessarily think the change in director will be that noticable, especially when you consider Jackson's ultimate stamp of approval on how the story is pieced together.

Where my concern lies is in the purely visual aspect of "The Hobbit". I love the work of Alan Lee and John Howe as conceptual designers and Weta Workshop's beautiful and hideous creations that bring the sketches to life. But del Toro seems to have insinuated one of his prior collaborators, Mike Mignola, to be included in this project by "doing a stint on the design team". Mignola worked on the "Hellboy" films and "Pan's Labyrinth". Frankly, while the designs of both these projects are worthy efforts they don't seem to me to fit well with the established designs of Middle-earth. While being ingeniously creative, I found this stuff to be kind of on the weird side if not being downright disturbing and over-the-top.

I, personally, will probably be over-sensitive to any real deviation from what I'm already used to with Lee and Howe. We shall see (literally).

So, having framed what we might see generally I'm ready to move on the chapter-by-chapter stuff, which - of course - starts with "An Unexpected Party".

Update: Due to an unplanned hiatus, we first need to catch up.