Awards Profile: The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey

Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Graham McTavish, Ken Stott, Hugo Weaving, James Nesbitt, Luke Evans

Synopsis (from Warner Bros.): The adventure follows the journey of title character Bilbo Baggins, who is swept into an epic quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from the fearsome dragon Smaug. Approached out of the blue by the wizard Gandalf the Grey, Bilbo finds himself joining a company of thirteen dwarves led by the legendary warrior, Thorin Oakenshield. Their journey will take them into the Wild; through treacherous lands swarming with Goblins and Orcs, deadly Wargs and Giant Spiders, Shapeshifters and Sorcerers.

Although their goal lies to the East and the wastelands of the Lonely Mountain first they must escape the goblin tunnels, where Bilbo meets the creature that will change his life forever…Gollum.

Here, alone with Gollum, on the shores of an underground lake, the unassuming Bilbo Baggins not only discovers depths of guile and courage that surprise even him, he also gains possession of Gollum’s “precious” ring that holds unexpected and useful qualities … A simple, gold ring that is tied to the fate of all Middle-earth in ways Bilbo cannot begin to know.

Awards Speculation:
December 2012 will see the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first in a two-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved fantasy novel that served as a precursor to his classic Lord of the Rings series.  The film(s) had been in production for five years, and was pursued by its eventual director Peter Jackson since at least 1995; the project was finally realized through a series of internal battles, lawsuits and creative compromises that significantly impacted the careers of nearly everyone involved.

See?  Concision is possible with anything if you leave enough out, for I have summarized in just one paragraph arguably the most convoluted production of a major Hollywood picture since what eventually became Superman Returns.  It would seem like a no-brainer to any profit-driven Hollywood executive to put on the fast track an adaptation of one of the most popular novels of all time and a prequel to a trilogy that made a combined total of just under three billion dollars; with its latest installment becoming the now-fifth highest grossing movie of all time and winning a record-tying eleven Academy Awards.  But no, almost a full decade after The Return of the King cleaned house at both the box office and the Kodak Theatre, just now are we returning to Middle-earth.  To understand how such a thing is possible is to recount a series of events too long-winded for a single article, and so for the sake of brevity I will spare you those details, particularly the snafu over distribution rights in the mid-nineties that canned Peter Jackson’s early plans to film The Hobbit first and combine the Lord of the Rings novels into a two-part conclusion (Oh, you didn’t know Jackson intended that in the beginning?  That’s okay; most people have forgotten that James Cameron was originally set to direct the remake of Planet of the Apes.).

Can you name them all?

I will only detail with some level of deeper coverage Jackson’s eventual collaboration with Guillermo del Toro.  Hot off of his success with Pan’s Labyrinth, the man was thrown dozens of projects at his feet and it seemed like a week didn’t go by where he wasn’t putting something in the works, whether it was an adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness or yet another remake of Frankenstein.  Yet the news of his selection by Jackson in 2008 to helm this once-highly – but I will get to that in a minute – anticipated prequel put all of those projects on the back-burner.   He dove into Tolkien’s world with aplomb, meeting with Jackson, Walsh and Boyens several times a week for hours on end shaping the script, as well as spending his own time painstakingly researching the source material and even WWI since that event shaped the author’s worldview.

But with two full years into pre-production, del Toro bowed out of helming duties, citing MGM’s financial problems overwhelming his schedule.  Amidst a number of legal squabbles that still were being sorted out at the time, Peter Jackson was put on the fast track to negotiations to direct, with the story being split into two parts.  Ian McKellen has – despite threatening otherwise – reprised his role as Gandalf the Grey, as well as Andy Serkis as Gollum.  Playing the lead role of Bilbo Baggins is Martin Freeman, well-known to most as Tim in the BBC version of The Office and Watson in BBC’s Sherlock miniseries.  Interestingly, Sherlock Holmes himself (Benedict Cumberbatch, who I don’t really “get,” quite honestly) will be playing the dragon Smaug in motion capture, which I have to admit is the most intriguing thing about this project to me.  The other lead role of Thorin Oakenshield, leader of the company of Dwarves, is Richard Armitage, a TV actor who is rather unknown among most American audiences.  A major role like this could very well be his opportunity to become a crossover star.  Other than that, much of the technical aspects of the production will remain the same.  Weta Digital is returning to provide visual effects and New Zealand will be Middle-earth’s gorgeous landscapes again despite recent legal battles.

"So now that I have butchered The Lovely Bones with heavy-handed literalism and garish imagery, who wants to go back to Middle-earth?"

So now here we are with what should by all logic easily be the most anticipated film of at least the fall/winter season of 2012…and neither I nor, apparently, any of my colleagues are very excited about it, despite some of us being huge fans of at least one film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Clayton loving The Return of the King while Anna and I firmly on Team Fellowship).  Speaking only for myself, there is profound disappointment I feel in the familiarity of it all.  Honestly, what are we expecting Jackson to do here that he didn’t already convey in the original trilogy?  Part of the excitement of Guillermo del Toro in the director’s chair was the possibility that we were going to see a new version of Tolkien’s world.  I remember at the time being thrilled by the news of him being brought on board, as del Toro’s particular brand of gothic horror, to me, made him the realization of everything we all thought Clive Barker was going to become.  Like the fresh guiding hands of Irvin Kershner, Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan making The Empire Strikes Back the best of the Star Wars series, I felt that an outside mind reinterpreting a beloved franchise would make this film worthwhile and possibly great.  With that not only dashed but with the production consisting of largely the same team, how can this not feel like a tired rehash?

But the most disheartening development to come out of this upcoming film is the totally unnecessary and transparently financial decision to split this film into two parts.  This is absurd for two reasons.  For one thing, Jackson was able to make a single feature out of each book of The Lord of the Rings series, and each one of those were, depending on which edition you get, between 100-150 pages longer than The Hobbit!  Secondly, to artificially draw out the length of this story to two whole films – putting it, oh by the way, in the same company as The Twilight Saga – is a complete 180° from the enormous (and, sadly, retroactively dismissed via backlash) creative and financial risk from everyone involved in bringing the original trilogy to life.  Whatever one thinks of The Lord of the Rings films, it’s hard to argue that Jackson and his team had nothing but undying commitment and love for those stories, putting nothing less than their very careers on the line to see them through.  But with so many cynical marketing choices being applied to The Hobbit, it’s hard to see any passion in it, which was made painfully obvious in its listless teaser trailer.

It is possible that this will be a rousing success, and we at Awards Circuit will all eat our words like we did with Best Actress last season and admit that, indeed, Mr. Jackson Had Delivered Yet Again.  But in its emergence from development hell long after the bated anticipation from audiences had quieted down, with very little distinguishing itself from the films it serves as prelude to, and after Jackson’s spectacular failure in The Lovely Bones, I doubt it will receive anything higher than crafts nods.

The film opens in theaters December 14, 2012 and will be distributed by Warner Brothers.

Oscar Potential:
Art Direction
Costume Design
Film Editing
Visual Effects
Original Score
Sound Mixing and Editing