Never has a film title been more apt. Peter Jackson’s hugely anticipated The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has been just that. A return to Middle Earth, the fantasy land created by the author JRR Tolkien that Jackson so wonderfully realised on screen in his Oscar-winning, US$3 billion (Dh11bn)-grossing The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it should have been what Hollywood folk like to call a “no brainer”. But, like the fear-inducing trek taken by Bilbo Baggins at the heart of The Hobbit, it was a path strewn with, well, the unexpected.
“I knew it was going to happen at some point,” says Andy Serkis, the actor behind LOTR’s wizened goblin-like creature Gollum, who returns for The Hobbit. “It was never not going to happen. But obviously it’s had a very tricky entry. There just seemed to be one thing after another that was presenting itself as an obstacle.” That’s putting it mildly: the studio MGM’s financial woes meant the project was put on hold for a year, meaning Jackson’s then-chosen director, Guillermo Del Toro, left the project.
To the fans’ delight, Jackson took over – with the plan of shooting in 3D at 48 frames-per-second, a huge technical innovation that he claims will look “much more lifelike” than the traditional 24fps. His reason was simple. “I want to get people back into the cinema,” he told The Associated Press. “We’ve seen the arrival of iPhones and iPads and now there’s a generation of kids – the worry that I have is that they seem to think it’s OK to wait for the film to come out on DVD or be available for download. And I don’t want kids to see The Hobbit on their iPads, really. Not for the first time.”
As glorious and immersive as the film is, it almost never made it to the screen. Jackson faced everything from a fire destroying miniature sets to dealing with a threatened strike by the New Zealand Actors Equity in an effort to protect the film’s bit-part performers. So serious was this, the director considered shipping the whole project – which will be released as three films, like LOTR – to Eastern Europe. In the end, it took the intervention of the New Zealand prime minister John Keyes and changes to the labour laws to go ahead. No wonder Jackson then suffered from a perforated ulcer, one month before the shoot was due to start.
With the Christchurch earthquake also occurring, it’s not hard to see why the 48-year-old Serkis calls it “a very strange time” in the run-up to production. “Having said that, when Peter actually came to the first day of principal photography he was remarkably calm,” he says. On the first day of shooting, Jackson staged a powhiri – the traditional Maori welcoming ceremony. “Once we’d got to that point,” says Serkis, “it was a real sense of: ‘We’re actually doing it, it’s a real relief.’ It was really quite an emotional, beautiful start.”
One person that was glad of all the delays was Martin Freeman. The British star of the TV show The Office was Jackson’s only choice to play Bilbo, the reluctant hero recruited to reclaim The Lonely Mountain and its treasure from a fearsome dragon. But an initial schedule clash with his BBC show Sherlock meant he had to pass on the offer. “I was very disappointed,” he notes. “It was hard, very hard.” But Jackson so wanted his man, he rearranged his shoot to accommodate Freeman. “I couldn’t believe it,” adds the 41-year-old.
Joined by a troupe of Kiwi, British and Irish actors – James Nesbitt and Ken Stott included – all cast as the 13 raucous dwarfs that accompany Bilbo, Freeman sees their time together as something unique and different to the work done on LOTR. “It was definitely our own new beginning. We were starting something fresh,” he says. Still, with the return of such Middle Earth veterans as Cate Blanchett, Elijah Wood and Orlando Bloom, the continuity between The Hobbit – set 60 years earlier – and LOTR is assured.
The most prominent returnee is Sir Ian McKellen, the 73-year-old is reprising his Oscar-nominated role as the wizard Gandalf. Yet even he had brief doubts, not least because uprooting his London life for a 270-day shoot in New Zealand was no picnic. “The clincher for me eventually was: ‘Would I mind if somebody else played Gandalf?’” he says. “It was made clear to me that whatever I said, the film was going ahead. I wasn’t a film-breaker. There are other people who can play Gandalf and knowing that, I thought: ‘They’re not going to get a chance.’”
With the film 169 minutes – and concluding just at the end of chapter six of Tolkien’s book – some critics have said Jackson has been unnecessarily ponderous in his storytelling. “People think they’re stringing out the story and stretching it into three films and it’s not that at all,” argues Richard Armitage, who plays the dwarfs’ leader, Thorin. “When Pete finished filming, he realised he just had too much. He couldn’t get it into two films because he’s investing in every single moment.” It’s hard not to agree. After all, it’s taken Jackson so long to return to Middle Earth, why shouldn’t we spend some quality time there?
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is out now in UAE cinemas