After a pre-production nightmare that seemed to stretch on longer than the ending of Return of the King, filming of The Hobbit is finally underway. The cast have been assembled, the sets built, and the costume and props crafted with such care that their intricate detail will only be truly appreciated by those with enough time to sit through nine hours of DVD extras. As if the thought of WETA geniuses at work wasn’t enough to cause a frenzy, director Peter Jackson is also releasing behind-the-scenes video blogs to tantalise fans. From the production videos he has posted so far, the Hobbit movies, ‘An Unexpected Journey’ and ‘There and Back Again’ look set to match – and with their 3D visuals, possibly surpass – the magnificence of the Lord of the Rings. Though the use of this latest technological trend is bound to be divisive, hopefully Jackson will succeed in using 3D to create a more immersive story rather than relying on pointy swords and errant arrows to entertain his audience.
Originally written as a children’s bedtime story, The Hobbit is much lighter in tone than the Lord of the Rings. Whilst Bilbo’s heroic quest to reclaim the lost dwarf kingdom from the dragon Smaug is packed with plenty of adventure and peril, it is free from the sense of impending doom that permeates the hefty trilogy. This light-hearted mood is reflected in the seemingly jovial atmosphere on set. As Jackson introduces his cast, transformed by their extraordinary prosthetics, it is evident that his excitement is infectious. Those actors who have experienced the majesty of Middle Earth before, including Sir Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis, appear overjoyed to be back, whilst those who are new to this iconic world seem to be delighted to be included.
Of the all the new faces to grace the latest Tolkien adaptations, it is Martin Freeman who has garnered the most interest. Perfectly embodying the ‘everyman’ in almost every part he plays (The Office, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Sherlock), Freeman is impeccably suited to play Bilbo, a reluctant hobbit thrust into adventure’s path. Early images of Bilbo encountering Gollum in the claustrophobic caves of the Misty Mountains suggest that praise for the lead is well founded. Jackson appears to have made the correct decision to halt production for ten weeks to allow Freeman to finish filming Sherlock, a relief for both sets of fans. Other new names populating the cast list include Freeman’s Sherlock co-star, Benedict Cumberbatch, as the despicable dragon Smaug and Captain America’s Richard Armitage as the warrior dwarf Thorin. James Nesbitt, Stephen Fry, Evangeline Lily, and even Flight of the Concord’s Bret McKenzi also lend their talents (fingers crossed for an electronica inflected rap-folk song about chainmail).
Careful not to reveal too much, but keen to show off, Jackson also gives blog viewers a guided tour of his film studio. Though he keeps most of his new set designs under wraps, Jackson proudly displays some familiar landmarks, having identically reconstructed Bag End and Elrond’s Chambers. The stunning New Zealand scenery is also set to reprise its starring role as the backdrop for Middle Earth. In his second production video, filmed shortly after the majority of the cast and crew departed for their first 10 week break, Jackson teases his fans with some of the footage taken during a location scouting trip. The sight of the director and his team surveying spectacular mountain passes and roaring rivers is enough to generate goosebumps.
Though originally uncertain about taking on another titanic Tolkien project, Jackson seems to be relishing his Middle Earth revival. His energy, enthusiasm and pride in what he is creating radiates from his blogs, building anticipation for the first film scheduled for release in December 2012. Although it would have been interesting to see how the fantastic Guillermo del Toro (originally slated to direct) would have interpreted Bilbo’s adventure, for many, Jackson’s familiar presence is hugely reassuring. For those disappointed at del Toro’s departure, consolation can be found in Jackson’s claims that del Toro’s early influence has not been forgotten; he retains a writing credit and Jackson has embraced many of his influential designs. This unofficial collaboration between two brilliant directors can only spell good news for the forthcoming feature, ensuring consistency, whilst adding the promise of new and exciting ideas.
Whilst production seems to be going well, with another 200 days of filming to go and a mammoth editing process to follow, the final cut is still a long way off. Though there will probably be plenty of rumours, snippets and sneak-previews to excite interest in the next year, fans will just have to wait and see if more than eight years of speculation and anticipation has paid off. In the meantime, expect dragons, dwarves and 3D.