Audience and the Hobbit: The Burden of Expectation
When adapting any popular book to the big screen, one of the most important and difficult elements of the process is staying true enough to the source material to satisfy fans of the book, whilst also making the film en- gaging and accessible enough to bring a new (and preferably large) audience into the cinema. When it was announced that Peter Jackson would be adapting The Lord of the Rings into three feature length films, few thought that he could do so without alienating either of these two huge audiences. Book readers felt that the story was unfilmable, requiring many hours to tell and featuring a world that could only exist inside the imagination.
Meanwhile, analysts doubted whether the series would be capable of bringing in large audiences due to its high fantasy storyline and the fact that pretty much the entire cast and crew were relatively unknown, with no massive stars, shooting in a country unknown at the time for its film industry. Despite this, against all the odds, the films were a massive success, taking nearly 3 billion dollars, winning 17 Oscars and, with a few exceptions, pleasing fans of the books with their faithful and epic representation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s beloved trilogy. This success however, has made achieving the same success with The Hobbit, over a decade later, an almost impossible task. Once again Jackson and his truly enormous team had the task of pleasing fans of the original book, a very different book to that of Tolkien’s later trilogy. Though set in the same world, with a couple of the same characters, The Hobbit is a much lighter and shorter story, full of songs and humour, in which problems are more often solved by intelligence and wit than by sword or axe. The number of fans of the book should not be underestimated; never out of print, The Hobbit has sold over 100 million copies and has a special place in the hearts of many. However, to match the more child- like style of the book would be to risk losing the interest of the arguably larger audience who came to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, expect- ing a mere extension of the Middle Earth story, similar in tone to that of The Lord of the Rings films. This is not a wholly unreasonable expectation. Not only did Jackson direct both trilogies, he also brought back the same writing, production, effects, props, stunt, sound and editing teams, as well as some of the same actors. Additionally the popularity and rel- evance of The Lord of the Rings did not end with the release of The Return of The King in 2003.
The trilogy ranks alongside Harry Potter and Star Wars in its influence on pop culture, having been referenced, parodied and quoted consistently for over a decade now. Their influence on the film industry has also been massive; Weta Digital, the visual effects company founded by Jackson and responsible for the remarkable special effects of the trilogy, is now leading the field, bringing many new films to New Zealand and soon to start work on the sequels to Avatar, the highest grossing film of all time. In addition the film’s pioneering use of motion capture to bring the character of Gollum to life has been expanded and has become a staple part of movie DNA. As such when the first instalment in The Hobbit trilogy came out there were many who went hoping for more of the same. In the end criticism came from both groups of fans. Many fans of the book have criticised its bloating into three films as well as its use of action sequences over the more gentle humour of the book.
Meanwhile more criticism has come from those who found themselves wanting fewer songs and slap- stick, and more of the gritty tone they had come to expect from the Lord of the Rings films. Ultimately, in trying to please these two groups of fans the Hobbit trilogy has never quite captured the magic of its predecessor, even if that was a somewhat impossible task. That’s not to say, however that the films weren’t all major box office successes with their own legions of fans. All of Jackson’s Middle Earth films offer a rich world to escape into and lose yourself within, a world that was always going to draw and enthrall audiences, even if they were expecting something slightly different.