The Hobbit: Why Peter Jackson 'winging it' was not the problem

Did Peter Jackson really just “wing it” when he made The Hobbit film trilogy? As we saw in recently released documentary footage, he certainly seems to feel that way. With that rather stunning admission, it seemed that the opinions of a large segment of the fandom left disappointed by those movies were validated in the most definitive way. However, I think this narrative kind of misses the broader point concerning what went wrong with these films. We’ll get to that later, though.

Of course, this predicament was the direct result of the abrupt exit of Guillermo del Toro from the director’s chair in the middle of 2010. With over a year of prep and design infrastructure already in place, all molded after del Toro’s nixed vision for the film, Jackson walked into the grandiose production as a filmmaking relief pitcher of sorts. Feeling the weight of Warner Bros. and MGM on his shoulders, he was expected to pull off his best Gandalf impersonation and magically replicate his grandest Oscar-winning efforts with The Lord of the Rings films … only in less than half the time that it took the first go-round!

It’s a rare thing when a major director (at least, one not named Josh Trank) is so frank and forthcoming with logistical gripes about his major blockbusters, especially ones that actually did substantial business. Nevertheless, Jackson’s plight is very understandable with the discord and disorganization undoubtedly having led Jackson to the haphazard execution of The Hobbit films and even lead to a lengthy sickness. Despite all of that, I still can’t help but feel that those reasons were not the predominant cause of The Hobbit’s issues.

Hype levels that shall not pass

This may not be an opinion that’s universally shared, but The Hobbit Trilogy was actually a solid series and was arguably the definitive representation of that original story. Even if you didn’t care for them, it’s important to remember when discussing these films that a lot people actually did like them and that they collectively grossed nearly $3 billion globally. While not in the same pedigree of movie masterpieces as their LOTR predecessors, these movies were NOT failures.

Going into the first entry in 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the ever-building hype may have been the series’ initial enemy. Moviegoers were enamored with the prospect of Jackson returning to his sacred cinematic sandbox, armed with amazing new resources. The films were shot with fancy, state-of-the-art RED cameras in 5K resolution at a blazing 48 frames per second AND directly in 3D, no less! -- None of that Clash of the Titans “3D conversion” crap. It was to be both a nostalgic trip and a technically mind-blowing masterclass in next-generation filmmaking that would make Avatar look like Plan 9 from Outer Space. (Well, maybe not that far.)

However, when Unexpected Journey finally did give us our first Misty Mountain hop back into Middle Earth in nearly a decade, fans once rabid with excitement were surprisingly left divided by its overly-ostentatious aesthetics. It was also clear that the hype had built up audience expectations beyond what was feasible when giving a relatively short children’s novel an epic trilogy treatment. While appropriately packed with stunning visuals and arguably engaging action scenes, the film generally felt cold, almost perfunctory in how they tacked on those visually frantic sequences. In trying to live up to all that insane hype, The Hobbit ended up with visuals that didn't quite match the movies that fans came to see. That aspect does not seem to be the result of tight schedules.

Films that might have been too Peter Jackson-y

If The Hobbit films were an example of Peter Jackson “winging it,” then it was actually difficult to tell for those familiar with his discography. For all intents and purposes, they were movies that reflected his known style and sometimes adolescent humorous leanings. In fact, many of the rather off-the-wall sequences and un-LOTR-like creatures we saw in these films (notably the absurdly repulsive Great Goblin) seemed to be an aesthetic gross-out throwback to Jackson’s earlier films such as his blood-splattering 1987 action/horror hybrid, Bad Taste or his demented puppet troupe feature in 1989’s Meet the Feebles. In many ways, The Hobbit Trilogy were as “Peter Jackson” as films can get.

Likewise, The Hobbit films contained an abundance of his signature stylings with gratuitously over-the-top, sometimes nonsensical kills along with physical (often repulsive) humor centering on pratfalls from dubiously elevated heights and unnecessary gags involving the unyielding viscosity of Troll mucus. All of this created a problematic clash of tones when thrown into the mix with the very serious nature of the quest of the uncrowned vengeance-starved Dwarven royal heir, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) to make an arduous journey across Middle Earth to reclaim his peoples’ subterranean mountain kingdom from the most dangerous home squatter of all time in Smaug the Dragon.

While Jackson’s claims indicated that lack of storyboard and prep became the films’ organizational downfall, as far as the main plot was concerned, the original Hobbit novel AND Jackson’s known sensibilities were covered quite adequately; especially considering the perpetually panicked state of the production. It’s just that the mix of drama and over-the-top Jackson-esque eccentricity may have rubbed audiences expecting a more disciplined Rings redux the wrong way. 

A movie series in dire need of some fellowship

In a practice that occasionally cleansed the palettes of moviegoers from that bizarre combination, the subsequent sequels, The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies amped up the action even further, due to the natural course of the story. Yet, in doing so, it left little time to thaw the rather frosty interpersonal dynamic between Bilbo and the Dwarves; notably Thorin. Unlike the impeccable character dynamics and bonding we witnessed with in the Rings films, Bilbo and the Dwarves seemed to interact more like co-workers on Freeman’s old U.K. sitcom home, The Office, going through the daily motions, rather than blood brothers on the battlefield. If there was any identifiable quintessence missing from The Hobbit films, this personal aspect was undoubtedly the most notable.

Even with the climactic moment in Unexpected Journey where Bilbo finally manages to earn the trust of the bitter, irascible Thorin by saving his life as he bravely stared down a monstrous, steed-mounted Azog the Defiler, the emotional payoff in the end seemed tepid. This was because the tension between Bilbo and Thorin that was spread throughout the first film in piecemeal fashion always felt forced, perhaps even inexplicable. Moreover, the continued evolution of their friendship in the subsequent films was miniscule, if not, non-existent. This could be chalked up to narrative negligence, rather than the aforementioned production logistics.

Indeed, the seemingly neglected curation of the Bilbo/Thorin dynamic rendered their big screen bro-out at the end of Unexpected Journey seem almost uneventful considering that their tumultuous friendship really should have been the heart of the movie(s). This is especially the case since it was all supposed to lead up to that would-be tear-jerking moment at the end of the novel when a gravely wounded Thorin apologizes for his paranoid gold-sickness-influenced actions before dying at Bilbo’s side. While Thorin’s sacrifice was still one of the sadder moments in Battle of the Five Armies, one could not help wondering if Bilbo and Thorin were effectively shown to be close enough in the films to warrant that flow of tears. Unfortunately, the payoff of pathos was somewhat lacking in this arena.

There, but not back again

As tempting as it might be to attribute the woes of The Hobbit to Jackson having to fly by the seat of his pants, we just can’t do that completely. In the end, its issues seem rooted in the films' overly-ambitious single-minded aspiration to fill an overly-delegated, three-movie timespan, only to find itself humbled quickly.

The result was a film series that seemed meekly resigned to the fact that it was telling a supplemental story to a much grander, more poignant, all-around better mythology of The Lord of Rings trilogy, whose stakes were incalculably higher. Thus, The Hobbit films always felt unfocused, gazing elsewhere, since they spent a good chunk of time simultaneously going above and beyond trying to connect itself to the Rings storyline in any manner. While it was hard not to be enthused by the array of time-consuming nostalgia bombs with the films' various Rings references and original cast member cameos, it still diminished the main storyline of the movie at hand far too much.

To reiterate my earlier, point, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m ripping on The Hobbit movies. As a member of the fandom, I’m grateful that we were able to get this iconic Tolkien story to the big screen and they do serve as worthy companion pieces to The Lord of the Rings. If they were shot by a director “winging it,” then it’s only a testament to Jackson’s experience and skills as a filmmaker that he was able to churn out movies of this quality while suffering that nightmarish schedule. However, if The Hobbit would have taken a more focused approach on the depth of its own storyline and characters and was less fixated on its own status as a prequel of sorts, they would have been more celebrated, despite the tumultuous production.  

Have any thoughts of where The Hobbit films went wrong or right? Hop in a barrel and sail down the river of our comments section to let us know!

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