NEW YORK — After more than a decade of total immersion in the dense environs of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth that produced three monumental movies in “The Lord of the Rings” cycle and three Academy Awards (best picture, director and adapted screenplay for “The Return of the King”), Peter Jackson was prepared to turn over the directing reins for three epic films based on “The Hobbit” to someone else.
Early in the development of the three pictures based on Tolkien's slender children's volume (“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” plus “The Desolation of Smaug,” due out in 2013, and “There and Back Again,” coming in 2014), the Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro of “Pan's Labyrinth” fame was set to direct the trio that would serve as prequel to “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
But when “The Hobbit” faced several delays in preproduction due to legal tangles, labor disputes and the bankruptcy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, del Toro moved on to other projects and Jackson (already on board as producer and co-screenwriter) stepped back in to assume directing duties.
During press interviews hosted by Warner Bros. at the Waldorf Astoria, Jackson talked about his initial reluctance to direct again and the complications he faced in adapting Tolkien's lighter and larkier 1937 book.
“I guess I thought that I wouldn't enjoy it is the truth. Because I thought I would be competing against myself to some degree,” the bearded filmmaker said. “And I thought it would be interesting to have another director. Guillermo was involved for a while, for over a year.
“It was still another six months after he left before we got a green light,” Jackson said. “And in that time I just thought, ‘well I am actually enjoying this.' We'd been working on the script with Guillermo all that time and we were producing it for him. And also I'd come to realize something that I hadn't really put my head around before — that there was a lot of charm and humor there that ‘The Lord of the Rings' didn't have. So I thought that returning to Middle-earth and telling a completely different story about another time would be enjoyable.”
In “An Unexpected Journey,” a reluctant Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), journeys to the Lonely Mountain with the good wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and 13 riotous Dwarves to reclaim a treasure stolen from them by the dragon Smaug.
“I thought, you know, this is not ‘Lord of the Rings.' I'm not going to try and make another film exactly like that,” Jackson said. “This gives me an opportunity to do something different. And after all the trials and tribulations we had up to then, the first day of shooting I was completely happy I was there.”
Still, Jackson was bombarded with questions about the logic of turning Tolkien's rather slight children's tale into three epic-sized movies.
“We were originally doing two films,” he said. “But it's really a question of what you leave out. It's a misleading book. It's written at a very breathless pace, so that pretty major events in the story are covered in two or three pages because it was written almost like a children's bedtime story.
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