Where did Peter Jackson go wrong?
When it was announced the film version of The Hobbit seemed like the biggest slam-dunk in cinema history.
It would be the prequel to the hugely popular and critically acclaimed Lord of the Rings trilogy. And, after years of legal wrangling Warner Bros., New Line Cinema and MGM had finally thrashed out a deal with Peter Jackson, who was back onboard as writer, director and producer. The plan was to make two films that covered the entirety of the hugely popular children’s book with additional material pulled from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings. So what could go wrong?
Well the warning signs were there before the first instalment even opened as, in early 2011, critics began to create their lists of the best films of the previous decade. Strangely despite dominating the cinema landscape from 2001 to 2003, the Lord of the Rings films were often conspicuous by their absence. The production also suffered its fair share of problems and there was a backlash in the media regarding Jackson’s decision to shoot the films at 48 frames per a second or High Frame Rate (HFR) as it’s otherwise known.
Then, just prior to the opening of the first film, it was announced that The Hobbit would now be a trilogy rather than the originally planned brace of films. At this point some commentators began to question Jackson’s judgement but there was still plenty of goodwill for the production amongst the cinema-going public and most people were prepared to give the films a chance. Then The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey finally opened and that goodwill largely evaporated. The film received poor reviews with many critics complaining about the uneven tone and excessive CGI. However the box office was impressive, taking $303 million in the US and just over $1 billion worldwide.
A ballooning budget, a strong dollar, critical disdain and audience apathy have all worked against The Hobbit.
As for the use of HFR, that was almost universally despised, except by those raised on a diet of video games. In fact by the time the second part - The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - opened, the number of HFR screenings was limited and it was never mentioned in the marketing. The reviews for the second film were generally better, with a more even tone and an impressive new character in the shape of Smaug the dragon. However the decision to stretch the story over three movies was more obvious than ever, with much of The Desolation of Smaug feeling like filler.
Most tellingly the second film didn’t do as well as at the box office, taking less in the US and failing to break the $1 billion barrier worldwide. The final installment - The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies - was expected to do better however, if only because it was the last part of the trilogy. That didn’t prove to be the case, with The Battle of the Five Armies taking just less than the previous film in the US and, most surprisingly, failing to break the $1 billion barrier at the worldwide box office. It seems that the recent strength of the US dollar has hit the Hollywood studios, who are now more dependent on overseas revenues than ever.
Still nearly $3 billion dollars sounds like a lot of money, so why is The Hobbit considered such a disappointment? Well it’s partly down to how much it cost, with its official budget currently sitting somewhere north of $765 million. That’s a hell of a lot of money, especially when you consider that the studios weren’t benefiting from a strong US dollar when the films were being made in New Zealand. There’s also hundreds of millions in marketing costs and don't forget that a percentage goes to the distributors and cinema chains. What’s left also needs to be split three-ways between Warner Bros., New Line and MGM, whilst Jackson’s Wingnut Films will be taking its cut as well.
Suddenly The Hobbit films don’t start to look so profitable but with ancillary revenue streams such as DVD, Blu-ray, downloads and Netflix, it’s a safe bet that the studios are still making a tidy profit. Perhaps where the films really seem to have disappointed is in terms of both the critical and audience response. Unlike the Lord of the Rings films, which received almost universally good reviews, won 27 Oscars and were beloved amongst cinema audiences, The Hobbit films have suffered from a general feeling of apathy. This hasn't been helped by the studios following the same strategy as they did with the Lord of the Rings and releasing extended cuts on home video; although at least Jackson produces plenty of extras.
The sad fact is that as the final film prepares to arrive on home video, there’s none of the anticipation that surrounded the Lord of the Rings films. The same goes for the Oscars, with the last film getting only one nomination, whilst the previous two films won nothing. Why is this? The simple answer is that The Hobbit films just aren’t as good as the Lord of the Rings films and as writer, director and producer, the blame lies with Peter Jackson. He has become so enamoured with the technology of filmmaking that he has forgotten the important aspects of character and story. The desperate attempt to shoe-horn in a love triangle showed how far the writers had gone from creating an organic and emotionally rewarding series of films.
However most telling of all is that Peter Jackson had no one at the studio controlling the production, hence the ballooning budget and over-use of computer-generated effects. In fact all three films just felt excessive and bloated, with none of the realism that Jackson achieved with the Lord of the Rings films. There was no sense of restraint, just a feeling that we can do anything now so let's throw everything at the screen. So we find ourselves in the strange position of a film that has made nearly $3 billion being considered a failure and, as the final instalments limps out onto Blu-ray on the 23rd of March, the general feeling is one of relief that the entire production is finally over. Perhaps in the end we’re all just suffering from Middle Earth fatigue - proving that you really can have too much of a good thing.
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