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Marketing mess

Listen, Peter Jackson. I get it. Why not stitch together your Hobbit promotional posters in Photoshop? It’s quicker, easier and (most importantly) cheaper than assembling your lead actors for an in-person studio session.

But if you’re going to piece together a digital composite, you’ve got to do a better job than this.

Aside from some heavy-handed color grading, nothing about this image makes me believe these actors are in the same hemisphere, let alone the same room.

The litany of offenses:

  • Every actor is staring in a different direction.
  • Bilbo looks like a two-dimensional overlay. Notice how his face casts shadows to the right (unlike every other character in the scene).
  • Thorin (far right) looks decidedly low-res (zoom in to check out his grainy muzzle).
  • Fíli (taking up the rear) has no cobwebs on his clothes.
  • Neither does Dwalin (just in front of him). In fact, of all the characters, Dwalin looks most out-of-place. He grins (everyone else appears über-serious). He swings his hammer at some invisible foe (everyone else awaits battle). He glares left (everyone else stares to the right). Finally, his hue, contrast, and edges don’t match the scene, making him stick out. Was Dwalin pasted in by a third-grader wielding safety scissors and a glue stick?

Let’s hope that Jackson & Company edit the upcoming film with more care than this trainwreck of a poster.

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Extra Elrond

As he did with his Lord of the Rings films, Peter Jackson will soon release an extended edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The box set will include “making of” extras, along with a longer cut of the film itself. This past summer, a single scene from the extended version was released to the web.

In it, Elrond (lord of the elf enclave Rivendell) joins Bilbo on a picturesque balcony. Bilbo complains about bad vibes from his dwarvish companions, and Elrond offers some consolation—even offering to let Bilbo remain at the Last Homely House.

The scene nicely captures Bilbo’s internal conflict: risk his neck with Thorin (who disrespects him) or return to a safer, more comfortable life. It also helps explain why Bilbo loves Rivendell (he seeks to return later in the film, and he retires there in Fellowship of the Ring).

I like other things about the scene, Weaving tosses some delightful little details into his performance. For example, Elrond throws a contemptuous glance toward the dwarves as he chews the word “companions”. Likewise, he offers Bilbo a gentle, bemused smile when describing hobbits’ fondness for creature comforts.

Another reason to enjoy this moment? The scene continues Jackson’s predilection for repurposing Tolkien quotes. This time, Bilbo’s whispered aside (“It’s not wise to seek the counsel of elves…”) steals a line from Frodo in Lord of the Rings.[1]

The scene has some hiccups, however. The entire conversation is shot from Bilbo’s height, forcing us to stare up into Hugo Weaving’s nostrils. In addition, Martin Freeman’s interpretation of Bilbo Baggins (usually spot-on) falls short. In particular, his delivery of the “counsel of elves” line borders on hammy, and it’s hard to hear for anyone who doesn’t already know the aphorism.

Still, the scene seems like a worthwhile addition. Maybe, just maybe, this extended edition can redeem An Unexpected Journey, a disappointment as a theatrical release.

  1. Frodo recites the saying for Gildor, who had just offered conflicting advice about whether to wait for Gandalf before leaving the Shire.  ↩

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Not quite convinced

For decades, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was considered “unfilmable.” The Professor himself doubted that any director could successfully adapt the work. Chief among the challenges? Middle-Earth’s major races come in all shapes and sizes. Men and elves wouldn’t pose a problem, but how could an actor play a four-foot-tall hobbit? Or a dwarf—built like a tank?

To create the illusion of different-sized races for his Rings adaptation, Peter Jackson combined a variety of techniques: green screen compositing, forced perspective, and “little people” as body doubles. At points, he even resorted to the oldest trick in the book: make one actor kneel, or stand another on a box.

Considering all the different tricks used, the composite effect proved remarkably convincing. Most of the time, you forget that Elijah Wood isn’t four feet tall.

But every once in a while, things don’t quite jive. While the characters’ relative heights remain consistent, their girth doesn’t. When you “shrink” actors via green screen composition or forced perspective, they retain their natural proportions. The result is slender, miniaturized humans. But when you film “little people” (as Jackson often does in wide shots), you capture those body double’s stockier proportions. Finally, stand an actor on his knees, and you can dial in the appropriate height, but his head and shoulders don’t scale (compared to the other, “full-size” actors in the scene).

Ideally, Jackson would have selected a single proportion—in both girth and height—then adjusted each technique to maintain that ratio. Perhaps the lead actors could have packed on a few pounds (Elijah Wood always seemed too skinny for a hobbit). Or the film’s digital wizards might have “pinched” the stouter body doubles, slimming them down in post-production.

But given the tools available at the time, it’s understandable that Jackson couldn’t quite “hide the seams.” Fortunately, the technology has improved dramatically in the decade since Rings debuted. Jackson’s Hobbit films feature more convincing character scales.[1] The only hint of trickery? Dialogue delays and eye-line mismatches occasionally make me doubt that Gandalf and the dwarves were filmed together (they weren’t).[2]

  1. One happy side-effect of shooting The Hobbit in 3D? Many of the old techniques (particularly forced-perspective shots) don’t hold up. As a result, Jackson has opted for green screen far more often. Presumably, this allowed his digital compositors to dial in a single, consistent proportion.  ↩

  2. Ian McKellen (who plays Gandalf in both trilogies) found Jackson’s compositing techniques for The Hobbit to be frustrating. Since wizard scale differs from hobbit/dwarf scale, McKellen was forced to work on a smaller Bag End, separated from his fellow cast members. At one point, the actor even shed some tears and protested, “This is not why I became an actor!”  ↩

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You got Aragorn in my Bilbo!

Recently, Daniel Wood suggested that Peter Jackson’s next two Hobbit movies should feature cameos from Aragorn, Gimli, Denethor, Arwen, Merry, Pippin and Sam.

This is a terribly dumb idea. First of all, at the time of The Hobbit

  • Aragorn is 9.
  • Denethor II is 12.
  • Merry, Pippin and Sam are –40, –48 and –38, respectively.

But even leaving aside the impossible chronology, why not let The Hobbit be The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings be The Lord of the Rings? Peter Jackson’s first prequel, An Unexpected Journey, already suffers from too much cross-pollination. Take for example, the film’s recycled music (Jackson re-uses “Concerning Hobbits” from Fellowship rather than incorporate Howard Shore’s excellent new motifs) and recycled characters (the Frodo-and-old-Bilbo prologue never should have made the theatrical cut).

The Hobbit’s story doesn’t need filler. It stands quite well on its own two feet, thag you very buch. In fact, it’s more entertaining and better-constructed than its over-serious big brother. Here’s to hoping that Peter Jackson resists the temptation to stuff the next two films with fan service and Rings cameos.

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First things first (part 2): why Peter Jackson should have made Lord of the Rings after The Hobbit

Last time, I explained why, in an ideal world, Peter Jackson would have tackled The Hobbit first (before The Lord of the Rings). But what would this have meant for The Hobbit’s bigger, more serious older brother?

Of course, much depends on how well The Hobbit performed at the box office. But let’s assume that audiences responded as enthusiastically as they did to LOTR. Here’s the scenario, then: freshly flush with Tolkien Bucks™, the studio clamors for Jackson to adapt Lord of the Rings. The suits loosen their purse strings, eager to wring every penny from the franchise. They give the (now-proven) director more than three films to tell his Rings story.

Despite any naysayer’s complaints,[1] this is a Very Good Thing. Unlike the simple, spare Hobbit novel, Lord of the Rings boasts more than enough material to fill out multiple films. Even the shortest book of the trilogy—Return of the King—outweighs The Hobbit by some 40,000 words.

So… imagine Jackson has six films to flesh out his epic. Characters given short shrift in the current incarnation develop actual personalities. Two examples: Denethor’s more nuanced portrayal earns the audience’s sympathy (instead of its unmitigated scorn). Or Jackson offers some context for understanding why Faramir struggles to resist the Ring.[2]

Even the books’ main characters—the hobbits themselves—benefit from more screen time. Jackson can establish the hobbits’ relationships more organically (as things stand, Frodo has hardly a single conversation with Merry or Pippin). Including the excised Old Forest and Barrow-wight sequences provides an effective bridge from the Shire’s bucolic safety to the hobbits’ dangerous journey. Even old Bilbo gets one last heroic beat at the Council of Elrond, where he courageously offers to carry the Ring to Mount Doom himself.

Making Lord of the Rings after The Hobbit offers logistical advantages, as well. For one, it makes the actors’ ages an asset, rather than a liability. In An Unexpected Journey, efforts to de-age an eighty-year-old Ian Holm fail to disguise how differently he speaks and moves than in Fellowship. Ian McKellen, thought still quintessentially Gandalf, appears noticeably older (despite the character’s younger age). Even Elijah Wood, still a teenager during LOTR‘s production run, looks strangely angular in the Hobbit prequel. Watch the trilogies back-to-back, and these incontinuities can’t be ignored. If the movies had been filmed in order, however, these problems take care of themselves. Of course Gandalf looks older; it’s been sixty years!

Another logistical advantage to making Lord of the Rings last? Better handling of locations shared by both The Hobbit and Fellowship. Both books follow the same geographical path, after all: Bag End, the Shire, the Trollshaws, Rivendell, then the Misty Mountains. In An Unexpected Journey, the characters spend hours visiting locales the audience has already seen.

Flip the movies around, though, and the audience shares the characters’ emotional responses to these locales. Like Bilbo in *The Hobbit*, we look down, astonished, at Rivendell’s beauty. We better appreciate Gandalf’s satisfied smile when he pulls up to Bag End in Fellowship. And the Fellowship’s ordeal on Caradhras rings true—echoing as it does the dwarves’ failed attempt to scale the same mountain range.

I loved the Lord of the Rings films. But had Peter Jackson filmed The Hobbit first, Rings could have breathed. In addition, the sequels could have built on the prequel’s events (rather than re-hash them).

Unfortunately, legal wrangling prevented this hypothetical scenario from unfolding. Still, it’s fun to imagine what might have been.

  1. Some non-Tolkienites consider Jackson’s Rings trilogy bloated and over-long. Adding (say) three more films would drive them batty. There’s no accounting for taste.  ↩

  2. Count me among the Tolkien fans who applauded Jackson for making Faramir more human. Still, his motivations weren’t entirely clear from theatrical cut. A deleted scene from Two Towers (Extended Edition) goes a long way towards giving an underdeveloped character like Faramir some much-needed depth.  ↩

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First things first: why Peter Jackson should have made The Hobbit before The Lord of the Rings

Back in the mid-nineties, Peter Jackson had a problem. He (and his creative partners) had unveiled plans to film J.R.R. Tolkien’s most celebrated novels, using their native New Zealand as a stand-in for Middle-Earth. They hoped to make The Hobbit—chronologically, the series’ initial book—first. But Jackson’s producers failed to secure rights for The Hobbit. Undeterred, Jackson shifted gears. Rather than start at the story’s start, his team would adapt Tolkien’s massive, rambling follow-up to The Hobbit: The Lord of the Rings.

The rest is history; Jackson & Co. convinced the studio to finance three separate LOTR pictures—one for each book. Each proved spectacularly successful (both commercially and critically). A decade later, The Hobbit finally escaped development hell; the first film, An Unexpected Journey, was released in December 2012.

What’s done is done. Still, I can’t help but wonder: what if Jackson had obtained the rights to The Hobbit, way back in 1996? What if he adapted that book first? How might this version of *The Hobbit* differ from the one now in production? And what effect might this have had upon the subsequent Rings sequels?

My next few blog posts address these questions. Next time, we’ll consider Lord of the Rings. Today, I explain why The Hobbit should have come first.

The Hobbit is a short book. Quick readers can plow through the entire novel on a long Sunday afternoon. So when Peter Jackson announced that his adaptation would span two films, fans scratched their heads. Would the material stretch that far? And then, just a few months before the first film’s completion, the studio agreed to a Hobbit trilogy. Fantasy nerds began to fret; the expansion felt like a cash grab, rather than a creative imperative.

The December release of An Unexpected Journey has done little to allay those fears. This first Hobbit film takes far too long to do far too little. Nearly every scene would have benefited from ruthless edits, and many sequences should have been cut altogether. To borrow Tolkien’s words, the movie felt “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

But if The Hobbit had come first, things might have been different. It’s unlikely that the film’s corporate backers would have green-lit two Hobbit films (let alone three). An unproven director like Jackson (whose earlier films were low-budget and small-scale) wouldn’t enjoy that sort of leeway. Instead, the studio would minimize its risk by demanding a shorter run time. Dependent on their funding, Jackson would have been forced to trim down his Hobbit, streamlining the narrative and paring down any excess.

What padding might Jackson have stripped? First and foremost, he’d face no temptation to stuff The Hobbit with Middle-Earth footnotes. In his ongoing Hobbit trilogy, Jackson extends his screenplays by mining the Lord of the Rings appendices for relevant subplots. A shorter Hobbit offers no room for such additions. Specifically, the entire Necromancer storyline would have been cut. Since this clunky subplot revolves around characters the audience has never met (Sauron, the Ringwraiths, Saruman, Galadriel, Radagast), including it makes little sense.

With this one move, Jackson drastically improves his movie, since An Unexpected Journey’s most cringe-worthy scenes never even get filmed.[1] And good riddance! Consider: Tolkien had reasons for banishing this material to the Rings endnotes. First, it’s tangential to the story’s heart (i.e., Bilbo’s wide-eyed introduction to the world). Second, it lacks the book’s charm and whimsical tone (Tolkien wrote The Hobbit for juvenile readers).

If this hypothetical Hobbit had no time for Tolkien’s canonical glosses, it certainly couldn’t have fit Jackson’s own plot inventions. Journey’s framing device—an older, nostalgic Bilbo, badgering his nephew Frodo—wouldn’t have made the cut. With no *Lord of the Rings* for context, the audience wouldn’t care about these characters. The “orc hunting party” wouldn’t make it in, either. Why bother resurrecting Azog (in The Hobbit book, he’s unmentioned and long-dead)? Smaug the Magnificent provides all the fierce villainy you need for a shorter movie.

Make these changes, and you’ve saved ninety minutes from the bloated first film. With a few deft rewrites, you’ve made room for an abbreviated, thrilling adaptation—all contained in a single film. Or, if Jackson somehow convinced his handlers to approve two movies, these cuts set up an epic final act: the barrel ride to Lake-town, the glorious, dragon-centric climax, and the Battle of Five Armies as a stunning, poignantly tragic denouement.

Had Jackson secured the rights and made The Hobbit first, fans would’ve enjoyed a tighter film that better respected its source material. But what might this have meant for The Hobbit’s vast, sprawling sequel? Next time, we’ll explain why The Lord of the Rings would have worked better as a follow-up to a successful Hobbit adaptation.

  1. I expect that we’ll see fan edits of these films emerge soon after each DVD release. It’ll be interesting to see how well the film holds together when Jackson’s excesses are excised.  ↩

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Ian Holm as Bilbo through the years

Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins at various ages.
Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins at various ages. Courtesy of New Line Cinema.

I was thrilled when I learned that Ian Holm would reprise his role as Bilbo for the upcoming adaptation of The Hobbit. Holm’s quirky, temperamental portrayal in Lord of the Rings was uncannily spot-on.

Recent Hobbit trailers have given us a glimpse of Holm in Baggins attire once again (see above). Considering the actor’s health problems and the intervening years, he looks remarkably like his younger self. For continuity’s sake, that’s a good thing; Holm’s Hobbit cameo takes place on the exact same date we met Bilbo in Fellowship of the Ring.[1]

The most striking changes to Holm’s appearance may be filmmaker tweaks. For one, they’ve exchanged the old Judi Dench wig with one that’s more Frodo-esque. They also may have de-aged Holm’s face with CGI.[2]

  1. I’m not positive of this. But based on his identical attire (and various Internet rumors), it seems like a safe bet.  ↩
  2. A la Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in the third X-Men film.  ↩