Sunday, 15 July 2012

Doing the splits

I always had an inkling that Peter Jackson was going to work wonders with The Lord of the Rings. As a book-loving nine year-old, I'd happily waded through Tolkein's weighty trilogy - a book so thick that it wouldn't fit in my school desk-drawer, and instead had to sit on the teacher's windowsill until reading hour. I also came to Jackson's own output pretty early, discovering his DIY debut Bad Taste in a dodgy video shop that specialised in ex-rentals. The film was shoddy and slapdash, but so full of ingenuity that I knew Jackson had won a fan for life. Over the years that followed, I eagerly lapped up his grisly outpourings, wincing my way through Meet The Feebles, and laughing like a drain at Braindead. But it wasn't until the Oscar-nominated Heavenly Creatures that I, and presumably the rest of the world, realised that Jackson was a true artist rather than just a heavy-handed gore-slinger. So although I was shocked to discover that a man who once filmed a scene of a man drinking a bowl of alien vomit had been given $180million to attempt the most ambitious adaptation of all time, I had no doubt that the results would be memorable.

During the six-plus years Jackson spent making his magnum opus, he took a number of risks. From filming all three movies back-to-back and insisting that every frame be lensed in his home country of New Zealand, to firing his leading man and replacing him at the last minute with Viggo Mortensen, his bold decisions all paid off beautifully. And he was rewarded with the most successful, and critically lauded trilogy of all time. When it comes to the halflings of Middle Earth, Jackson knows what he's doing.

That's why we were all so delighted when he finally stopped protesting too much, and stepped into the breech to save the long-awaited and legally troubled adaptation of Tolkien’s prequel The Hobbit. Guillermo Del Toro may well have delivered a fantastic spin on Bilbo's original adventure, but there was always the risk that the resulting film might be too stylistically and tonally removed from Jackson's originals. When he departed the project, due to unworkable schedules, it was inevitable that the project's mastermind (and executive producer) would take the reigns.

Although the long-standing rights issues had been settled by the studios, the adaptation was destined to have its own 'unexpected journey' to the big screen. Firstly, there was the decision to split a seemingly simple 'there and back again' narrative into two films. Jackson claimed that there was simply too much material for one book and that, with the freedom to make two separate films, he could expand the filmed world using Tolkien’s extensive appendices. Then there was the release of preliminary footage, shot in ultra high-def 48 frames per second. Instead of being wowed by the pin sharp detail, audiences complained that the footage looked more like a mid-70s BBC shot-on-video TV show. Even Jackson himself admitted that "it actually takes your eyes a little bit of time to get used to 48 frames.”

In spite of these setbacks, anticipation is still high for the first instalment, due on December 14th. But that excitement may be muted, given the latest revelation emerging from Comic-Con over the weekend. In an interview with HitFix, Jackson hinted that discussions are underway to potentially split the second instalment into two films: "That's a discussion we're having, yeah. We have certainly been talking to the studio about some of the material we can't film, and we've been asking them so we can do a bit more filming next year. Which, I don't know what would come of that, whether it'd be extended editions or whatnot. But those discussions are ongoing." So, just to recap, that's an unnecessary second film, being split into two, effectively creating what could be the most tenuous trilogy since George Lucas had a cheese dream about a Rastafarian frog.

Sadly, this willingness to milk a franchise until the nipples squeak is becoming increasingly popular in Hollywood. First up was the Harry Potter series; its producers arguing that there was simply too much great material in J.K. Rowling’s The Deathly Hallows to fit into a single film. Nonetheless, it doesn’t quite explain why the first half amounts to little more than two hours of our heroic trio wandering across hillsides and occasionally pitching tents, both literally and figuratively. But in the end money talks, and Warner Brothers were laughing all the way to Gringotts, with over $2bn in global takings from Harry’s swansong.

The Twilight franchise swiftly followed suit, presumably comfortable in the fact that its fans had already shown an unprecedented tolerance for bad storytelling. Keen to stretch out the series’ profitability for as long as possible, they hacked Breaking Dawn in two, like Edward Cullen performing an emergency C-section with his teeth. And just last week Lionsgate announced similar plans for their burgeoning Hunger Games franchise, giving them three tentpole releases for the price of two, and lining up sure-fire box-office winners right through to November 2015. The fans may celebrate that they get to enjoy a couple of extra hours in the company of their favourite characters, but this desire to generate extra revenue comes at the expense of the story itself, which surely undermines the point of a faithful adaptation in the first place.

Die-hard Tolkein enthusiasts will no doubt balk at these rumours of yet another unnecessary instalment in an otherwise simple narrative. So we should keep our fingers crossed that common sense will prevail, and Jackson will instead use that extra footage to supplement his creative vision for its DVD and Blu-Ray release. Anyone who owns the extended editions of his original trilogy knows that they are the definitive versions; the extra running time affording the film-maker a more expansive and immersive canvas on which to tell his tale. We can keep our fingers crossed that artistic vision will win out over more venal studio interests, but given that The Hobbit tells the tale of a foolheardy quest for untold riches, I'm not entirely hopeful.

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