How Did the ‘Hobbit’ Movies Go So Horribly Awry?

Hello there, fantasy fans! As you may or may not know, this December 17th will bring us the release of the third and (hopefully!) final Hobbit film, The Hobbit: Can You Believe They’re Still Making These Fucking Things? The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies — and just in case you were planning on sitting this one out (and seriously, who could blame you?), distributor Warner Brothers has a couple of strategically timed information leaks to lure you in. First, they’ve engaged fellow Time Warner subsidiary Entertainment Weekly to run an early feature on director Peter Jackson’s “battle plans,” trumpeting the film’s climactic, 45-minute battle sequence. And secondly, the studio has told Forbes that the film will be preceded by the first teaser trailer for Batman v Superman. Put together, these two announcements smack mostly of desperation — a quality that has come to overwhelm this increasingly irrelevant series.

Admittedly, it may be a result of our increasingly fractured and niche-oriented popular culture, but to this observer, the Hobbit trilogy hasn’t had a fraction of the impact that the Lord of the Rings trilogy had when it unspooled back in 2001-2003. Jackson’s original Tolkien adaptations weren’t just big moneymakers or geek totems — they were inescapable, whether you were a Ren Faire-goer or Average Joe moviegoer. Even if you weren’t all that wild about the movies (hi, how ya doin’), seeing them and obsessing over them was seen as some sort of cultural duty, and their astonishing commercial, critical, and award success was a giant victory not only for those who made them, but the Tolkien fans who championed them.

But you can’t just expect Hollywood to make damn near three billion bucks and just leave well enough alone. Since the trilogy was produced as a self-contained entity, they couldn’t crank out a conventional sequel (though the endless stream of “extended” editions probably amounted to one); instead, we had the not-unreasonable idea of a film adaptation of The Hobbit, the modest Middle-earth novel that Tolkien published nearly two decades before the Lord of the Rings volumes. And initially, Guillermo del Toro was directing that adaptation, with Peter Jackson merely producing, presumably to reassert himself as something other than just the Lord of the Rings guy.

Promo image from "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies"

Jackson’s subsequent takeover of the picture was explained, at the time, as the result of scheduling difficulties, though it seems safe to assume that Jackson’s less-than-stellar post-LoTR filmography may have prompted him to decide that being the Lord of the Rings guy was maybe just fine. Yet from the beginning, he clobbered the slight novel, overdoing it to death in an apparent attempt to top his earlier trilogy. He shot them in 3D. He insisted on making the expensive trilogy an ill-advised experiment in high frame rate, insisting that it would quickly become the industry standard. (It did not.)

And though Jackson admitted that “from a storytelling point of view… one of the drawbacks of The Hobbit is it’s relatively lightweight compared to LOTR,” that didn’t stop him from adapting the slender, 310 page book into two films, and then deciding that he couldn’t get the job done in less than three. (A comparison: the Lord of the Rings trilogy covered 1,500 pages.) And not even three short films; the first two alone totaled 330 minutes, meaning that the series has already topped a page-to-minute ratio that has resulted in films that, well, drag a bit. (Per The Onion: “’The Hobbit’ to Feature 53-Minute-Long Scene of Bilbo Baggins Trying to Figure Out What to Pack.”)

To be fair, the films have been handsomely profitable. The first, An Unexpected Journey, boasted the series’ biggest opening weekend to date; it did over $1 billion worldwide, and the second, The Desolation of Smaug, did just shy of that. But those numbers don’t look so great comparatively. Neither film has topped the domestic gross of any of the initial Jackson-Rings trilogy over a decade earlier — and that doesn’t even require adjustment for inflation. This is despite the fact that the Hobbit films opened in more theaters than Rings, and with 3D surcharges to goose the take. People aren’t seeing the Hobbit movies like they saw the Rings trilogy, and they certainly aren’t talking much about them, beyond the diehards.

Promo image from "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies"

So what went wrong? Frankly, the project may have just been ill-conceived from the jump. Before he took on the project, Jackson told EW, “LOTR has this epic, rather complex quality to it, and The Hobbit, which was written some 10 or 12 years earlier by Tolkien as a children’s book, is much more juvenile and simplistic. If they’re seriously thinking about doing two, it makes it more interesting, because it allows you to expand The Hobbit.” And since Jackson wasn’t able to get the rights to other, related works like The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, “expanding” The Hobbit basically amounted to making new shit up — always a tricky proposition. Couple that with his decision to jam Rings’ darker tone into Hobbit’s “children’s book” narrative and you’ve got an unwieldy mess, a lumbering narrative that’s taking three years to get nowhere in particular.

The funny thing about an unsuccessful sequel/prequel is how it can cause you to reassess the original. Watching Jackson flail about, attempting to remix his magic potion, lays bare the flaws that we might’ve overlooked the first time around, to say nothing of devaluing the now irredeemably bloated enterprise. But this much is certain: if Jackson and his studio weren’t worried about the series continuing its financial downslide, they wouldn’t have changed the third film’s title from the innocuous (but Tolkien-penned) There and Back Again to the slam-bang Battle of the Five Armies; that switch foreshadows this new “45 minutes of battles” narrative, a blatant ploy to lure in action movie fans who’ve otherwise had it with this Middle-Earth nonsense. And that is probably also a fair description of the people who would see one movie for a trailer for a Batman movie, though it also presumes that it’s still 1989 and they haven’t heard of trailers on the Internet.

And this may all be preemptive grousing and premature dismissal — who knows, maybe the third Hobbit movie will turn out to be a masterpiece that matches the original films, penetrates the culture, makes a bazillion dollars, and proves the destination was worth the protracted journey. But based on the evidence thus far, I kinda doubt it.