"The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien is one book. But "The Hobbit" by Peter Jackson will now be three — count 'em, three — movies. Jackson and his team had been planning to turn "The Hobbit" into two films, but yesterday Jackson revealed in a Facebook post that "two films will become three."
"We know how much of the story of Bilbo Baggins, the Wizard Gandalf, the Dwarves of Erebor, the rise of the Necromancer, and the Battle of Dol Guldur will remain untold if we do not take this chance. The richness of the story of 'The Hobbit,' as well as some of the related material in the appendices of 'The Lord of the Rings,' allows us to tell the full story of the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and the part he played in the sometimes dangerous, but at all times exciting, history of Middle-earth."
That announcement was met with a reaction similarly split between excitement and danger: Jackson, a veritable wizard of special effects and epic fantasy, achieved great things with his first "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and it's certainly conceivable he will again. On the other hand, "The Lord of the Rings" was three novels before it was three movies — and even if there is enough material in "The Hobbit" for a trilogy, recreating a famous book shot-for-shot, scene-for-scene on the big screen in exacting detail is not always the best way to make an adaptation.
One of the more interesting thinkpieces about Jackson's potentially risky decision came from Kyle Buchanan at Vulture, who used the expansion of "The Hobbit" as an opportunity to muse on the subject of directors and franchises. Have A-list directors, he wonders, become too attached to their franchises?
"Jackson, [James] Cameron, and [Michael] Bay are part of a very small, very elite group of directors who can get just about any movie green-lit, and yet they're devoting so much of their time to more of the same. Wouldn't we rather see what new creative endeavors they could come up with, while they still have the wherewithal and studio support to do it? Even more worrisome is the trend of shooting so many of the sequels back-to-back… while there are certainly financial incentives to shooting all those movies in giant career clumps, there's something lost creatively when a director single-mindedly dedicates himself to one thing without taking the time to step away and reassess his franchise."
I'm not sure I've ever heard this argument before, that focusing exclusively on a franchise yields poor results because even the best directors need to step away from their material in order to find new ideas and new perspectives on old concepts. Certainly there aren't too many examples — except "The Lord of the Rings" — of filmmakers shooting an entire franchise in one big gulp and coming out the other side a creative success. If nothing else, the reaction to one movie enables course correction on the next; "The Matrix Revolutions" might have looked a lot different if the Wachowskis had made it after the tepid response to "The Matrix Reloaded" rather than before.
As his examples, Buchanan cites Steven Spielberg bouncing between the Indiana Jones franchise and more personal projects like "The Color Purple" and "Empire of the Sun," and Robert Zemeckis sandwiching "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" between two slices of "Back to the Future." But while it's true that those series turned out better than, say, the "Transformers" saga, it's worth remembering that unlike their successors, they weren't conceived as franchises — they were conceived as movies. Though "Back to the Future" ends on a cliffhanger, Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale freely admit they never intended to make a sequel — if they had, they say, they would have never put Marty McFly's girlfriend Jennifer into the DeLorean as it speeds off into "Part II."
Spielberg, Zemeckis, Cameron, and the rest told their stories, and if audience demand and creative impulse were good enough, then they made a sequel. Today, sequels are a foregone conclusion even for unpopular tentpoles. Franchising isn't just a business model at this point; it's a storytelling model too. Many movies, like this summer's "The Amazing Spider-Man" specifically omit crucial plot details on the assumption that they can be paid off in later movies. All sequels, good and bad, are designed to make money. But too many modern sequels feel more concerned with ensuring a good return on investment for the studio rather than the audience. Even if directors haven't gotten too attached to their franchises, Hollywood certainly has.