11/27/2006

Lawsuit of the Rings

Posted in Side Topics at 11:38 am by Sam

This is old news by now, but still quite unsettled news. If you hadn’t heard, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh published an open letter to fans, explaining why they will not be returning to make a film of The Hobbit, nor a second planned film that takes place between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

I recommend reading the letter firsthand, but in a nutshell, Jackson has had a pending lawsuit against New Line for quite some time, now, over some millions of dollars of revenue for The Fellowship of the Ring. Details are not well-understood, least of all by me, but the point is that Jackson and Walsh feel that New Line has cheated them out of a lot of money, and that does not make for a good working relationship until that matter is settled. Jackson’s stance was, let’s resolve the lawsuit one way or another, and then let’s do The Hobbit.

The trouble is that New Line does not have indefinite rights to make The Hobbit. They have to do so within a certain period of time, or the rights revert back to Sal Zaentz, a pretty big time producer with such upscale credits as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, The English Patient, and…the Ralph Bakshi version of Lord of the Rings, not that I really think that should be held against him.

So New Line did what corporations do and added the directorial reins of The Hobbit to the equation. Settle or dismiss the lawsuit, and you can direct The Hobbit, but otherwise we’ll have to go with another director. Jackson said no, that’s the wrong way to resolve a dispute and the wrong reason to make a movie.

That’s more or less how things stand now. My personal opinion is that this was a bluff, and Jackson threw New Line for a completely unexpected loop by refusing to play. Now New Line is stuck with the choice to follow through with a new director or recant and exchange an optimal settlement for keeping Jackson as an asset.

In the days since then, news transpired that Sal Zaentz said that the rights to The Hobbit will revert to him before New Line can get underway with a new director, and then Zaentz will hire Jackson to direct The Hobbit (and the second prequel) for him. That news has been partially debunked, because the quote from Sal Zaentz was determined to predate the New Line news by at least a couple of weeks. Nonetheless, it is true that New Line’s deadline will end next year if they haven’t begun production (I don’t know how far along they have to be to qualify for holding onto the rights past the deadline), and the potential is still that Zaentz could find himself with the rights again and hire Jackson.

What will happen? What won’t? It’s anybody’s guess at this point. My own personal opinion is that Jackson worked a minor miracle with the original trilogy, filming the unfilmable. I read another movie-related board, wherein a surprising number of people seem to have forgotten this. Lord of the Rings was, and is, unfilmable — and yet, somehow, inexplicably, Jackson pulled it off anyway. I don’t care how much you like Bryan Singer or Sam Raimi or whatever other action fantasy director you care to name. There is no rational reason to guess that the Lord of the Rings movies, under anybody else’s directorial hand would have worked. Indeed, before the Fellowship of the Ring trailer came out, there was no reason to assume Jackson’s films would be anything of value either.

Now that Jackson has laid the groundwork and set the tone — and also since The Hobbit is a less ambitious story — it’s a bit more conceivable that another director could step in and come up with something passable. But it’s a roll of the dice, and you don’t win the lottery twice. In my opinion, The Hobbit should be done by Jackson or not at all, at least not for another generation. And I also think that New Line, or at least many officials within New Line, must see that The Hobbit would be far and away more valuable to them with Jackson than without. And it’s not just Jackson, either. If Jackson is forced out of the series, how likely are Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis going to be enthusiastic about reprising their roles? Regardless, Jackson has the kind of allegiance among fans that hasn’t been seen in the world of movies in a generation, and he will have it right up until he makes his Phantom Menace.

Of course that brings up an interesting point. What if Jackson finally does The Hobbit, and it goes over like The Phantom Menace? Well, if it happens, it happens. Jackson is human and fallible, and more directors than not eventually lose their edge. But when Lucas made The Phantom Menace, 16 had passed since he had produced a Star Wars movie, and 22 years had passed since he’d directed anything at all. Few directors can produce greatness over that length of time. So don’t make Jackson wait until 2023 to make The Hobbit, and I suspect we’ll be ok.

So what are your thoughts on a Jacksonless Hobbit? Can it work? Should it happen? Will it?

19 Comments »

  1. Parker (16) said,

    November 27, 2006 at 12:03 pm

    Peter Jackson should quite while he’s ahead. He’s got more than enough money to retire and live extravagantly for the rest of his life, with a goodly inheritance to leave behind.

    My thoughts are that the worth of a director’s career is a mythology of perception. Better to leave millions of fans with the memory of an infallible filmmaker who achieved the impossible, than to shatter that image with a Phantom Menace. Jackson shouldn’t press his luck. And his legacy will be exponentially glorified if he quits at the top of his game.

    LOTR was perhaps the greatest trilogy ever filmed. I thought his downfall would come with King Kong, but I was pleasantly surprised with how fun that one was. Should he continue to gamble with The Lovely Bones and… Halo?!? I think not. Buy a nice house with a swimming pool, Peter. Nothing lasts forever.

  2. Dave (130) said,

    November 27, 2006 at 12:34 pm

    My question is, what the heck has Jackson done of worth *other* than Lord of the Rings? Meet the Feebles? The Frighteners? Yet Another King Kong? So the fact that he pulled of the Rings trilogy so well is even more amazing. I still think the best thing he ever did was ignore Keanu Reeves when he apparently offered to work for scale if he could play Aragorn. A bullet well dodged.

    I’d like to think that the powers that be at New Line would realize that at the very least they need to try to keep the same tone that Jackson established, but I don’t really have any faith at all in Hollywood powers that be. I figure someone will come along and say “Hey, this is a kids picture, how come nobody’s pants fall down for a quick laugh?”

  3. Sam (405) said,

    November 27, 2006 at 1:07 pm

    Parker: I so don’t understand your reasoning. You assume legacy and money are Jackson’s two primary concerns. I suspect at this point he cares first and foremost about actually making movies. Money comes into it, sure, but if it were his primary concern he wouldn’t have knowingly invested gagillions of dollars into building a movie studio in Wellington that’s so extravagant it will be unable to recoup its investment. I don’t think stopping to do what you do in life just in case you screw up is a very respectable reason to quit. For any professional in any field that truly loves what he’s doing, the idea would never occur.

    Dave: Peter Jackson actually has a pretty impressive list of credits, but his most prominent pre-Lord of the Rings title, The Frighteners, happens to be his least admired. I actually like it quite a bit, but it does lack polish and evenness of tone.

    Heavenly Creatures is the one that seems to be most respected, sort of a period character drama with a dark edge to it. Forgotten Silver is a pretty funny mockumentary about a fictional director whose very existence was only recently discovered, but it turned out he invented sound, color, and the moving camera long before anybody else did.

    Of his three schlockfests, I’ve only seen Bad Taste, and it’s not at all to *my* taste, but I have to admit, it is freaking hilarious and so worth checking out by anyone with the stomach for it.

    And, yeah, King Kong. I honestly don’t know why people are down on it, but I thought it was the best special effects movie since…uh, Return of the King, I guess. Although nothing can replace the groundbreaking 1933 film, I actually thought Jackson’s version improves on it in one very important way, the central relationship between Kong and Ann Darrow, which is considerably more complex and interesting. Anyway, you say “yet another” like Jackson’s version wasn’t the first remake. The alleged 1976 version is actually an urban legend.

    Of course, none of his pre-LotR credits indicated to me that he had LotR in him. I respected his respect for the books, and I knew he was good with characters, but I was dubious about his ability to strike the right tone, and I didn’t know if he could work with a huge budget and all the pressure from studios that entails. So I totally sympathize with your amazement at his accomplishment with the Rings movies, which are just staggeringly wonderful.

    But you bring up an interesting point about the tone and the importance of maintaining a consistency of tone. I wanted to talk about that in my post, then just never got around to it.

    I kind of agree with you. Having Jackson back at the helm ensures a consistency of style that will be nice to have. His style clearly worked for The Lord of the Rings, and I don’t know why it can’t or shouldn’t work with The Hobbit.

    On the other hand, in terms of tone, The Hobbit has a very, very much different feel as Lord of the Rings has. The Hobbit is not a vast, sprawling epic. It’s a tight, self-sufficient children’s book. It feels very different from Rings, and it almost feels like a lose-lose situation for the movies: if The Hobbit feels like Rings in tone, it’ll please some and turn off others; if The Hobbit feels like the book and not like Rings, it’ll please others and turn off some. I’ve thought a lot about which way I’d personally prefer, and I’m not sure I have an opinion either way.

    What I do think is that Jackson is talented enough to be able to go either way with it. I’ve heard some argue that, since The Hobbit feels different as a book, Jackson shouldn’t direct a movie of it, because he’ll make it feel like Rings. Hey, Tolkien wrote both books. Why assume that Jackson can’t also match his filmmaking to the differing tones of each book? On the other hand, is it necessary? A version of The Hobbit done in the epic adventure tone of Rings sounds like it could be pretty good. Whoever ultimately directs The Hobbit, you can bet that will be a big question considered in preproduction meetings: which way do you do it?

  4. LaZorra (60) said,

    November 27, 2006 at 1:50 pm

    I’ve always felt like the tones of LOTR and the Hobbit really aren’t that different: LOTR is just a heck of a lot longer. Don’t get me wrong, the Hobbit is definitely lighter and more comic, but it’s got its dark scenes and its battle scenes, like Mirkwood, the goblins and Wargs, Smaug’s mountain, etc. I feel like if the middle of the Hobbit were extended, you’d end up with a feel much more like LOTR.

    My point (amazingly, yes, I do have one) is that the LOTR movies’ tone would work better for me personally than would trying to make it less serious. LOTR does have its lighthearted moments, and I thought Peter Jackson handled them well without cheapening them or making them feel like comic relief. If that is transferred to the Hobbit, I personally would be very happy with the end result.

  5. Aaron (35) said,

    November 27, 2006 at 5:23 pm

    Wait, you’re claiming the ‘76 King Kong doesn’t exist? I didn’t know Netflix rented non-existent movies…

    http://www.netflix.com/MovieDisplay?movieid=672225&trkid=189530&strkid=1983870527_1_0

  6. Sam (405) said,

    November 27, 2006 at 5:52 pm

    Aaron: It’s a scam. The IMDb lists it too, but as we all know, the IMDb gets its data from user submissions, and they can’t fact-check everything.

    I’m kind of shocked that Netflix would be a party to the charade. I actually rented it a while back, along with its alleged sequel, “King Kong Lives.” I watched the discs they sent me, and what I saw was just too silly to plausibly exist. So, like a lot of great practical jokes, it was funny at first, but it just doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

  7. Aaron (35) said,

    November 27, 2006 at 10:07 pm

    …I just got totally stung, didn’t I.

  8. Stephen (221) said,

    November 27, 2006 at 10:50 pm

    The 1976 version is much like the alleged color remake of Psycho, that is also a clever practical joke some.

    I actually would like to see a different director handle a Hobbit film. I liked the LOTR movies (though I didn’t feel like the second two were as good as the first), and I even really liked Jackson’s King Kong, but I think The Hobbit is different enough that it’d be neat to see somebody else’s take on the series.

  9. Darien (88) said,

    November 27, 2006 at 11:20 pm

    Jackson’s success in “filming the unfilmable” is a lot less baffling when you consider his approach, which was to deviate immensely from his source material. Most of the dialogue and several of the scenes in the films are not to be found in the books, and vice-versa. Rather than filming an unfilmable book, Jackson made films *based on* a book that couldn’t be filmed as-is.

    That said, I am not as inspired by his back catalogue as you are. The dude was definitely a second-rate nobody before the LOTR films. Even in the aftermath of LOTR, I’m not convinced that he’s any use; I definitely had the impression watching Fellowship that it was successful in spite of Jackson’s direction rather than because of it. The material was strong, and the visuals were great, but there were several severely questionable directorial choices made (such as using Gimli for comic relief). Which brings me to my next point: all the goodwill Jackson built up by not casting Keanu Reeves was ruined by casting Liv Tyler.

    As for the tone of The Hobbit vs. Lord of the Rings, they are completely different. The Hobbit has no scenes with the heaviness of Boromir’s death, the oppressive gloom of Mordor, or the dramatic power of Gandalf’s unveiling at Orthanc. Mirkwood I suppose could be called “dark,” yes, but in a scary-children’s-story sort of way. The terrors Mirkwood holds are spiders jumping out at you from nowhere and freaking elves ambushing your party and dragging you back to their castle. In contrast, the terrors of Mordor are eternal ruination of the entire world.

    The key difference is that The Hobbit is a treasure-hunt set in a mostly friendly world, whereas LOTR is much more dire than that. In LOTR, there are almost no safe places and almost no friendly people. The whole world is a dangerous, hostile place. That, combined with the weight of the goal (”save the world from eternal ruin” is a touch more serious than “OMG LOOTZ”) makes LOTR a much more weighty and serious work.

    I can discourse on this subject at truly epic length. Don’t tempt me. ;-)

  10. Sam (405) said,

    November 27, 2006 at 11:35 pm

    Darien: We’re going to have to agree to disagree, I think. Jackson’s accomplishment with Heavenly Creatures garnered pretty widespread accolades in the world of independent film. It was a small film, but it was certainly not second-rate.

    As for his tactic of diverging from the source material, I think your love of Tolkien (not at all misplaced, mind you) is exaggerating the changes in your eyes. Few books survive as well the transition to the screen. The mediums are dramatically different and usually require alteration. Some of the most faithful adaptations are among the least interesting. But Lord of the Rings makes the leap astonishingly intact, both in story and spirit. They’re different, yes. To a scholar of Tolkien, the differences are what counts. But I’m talking about the art of movie adaptation here, and in that realm, the similarities are far more substantial and noteworthy. I submit this: not only did Jackson do better than any other potential director could have done, but he succeeded precisely *because* he loved the source material and stayed truer to it than most any other director likely would have.

    I do, however, agree with your take on the differences between LotR and The Hobbit. Although I don’t quite get how The Hobbit is a mostly friendly world, when it doesn’t even let you take a breath in safety as it bounces you from goblins to Gollum to giant spiders. But yeah, the atmosphere is still different. Mostly, for me, it’s the feeling that dangers are localized, and you could be safe at home if you were to turn back and head that way. In Rings, nowhere is safe unless the impossible mission fails. Maybe that’s basically what you’re saying.

  11. Parker (16) said,

    November 28, 2006 at 5:00 pm

    I was just giving my advice to Jackson on behalf of movie fans and the mystique of Tinseltown, BTW. I’m not saying that’s what *I* would do.

    A guy’s gotta live, and do what he loves. I was intentionally dehumanizing Mr. Jackson. As a real person, sure, he needs to keep it up. Fine. But as a CELEBRITY, my suggestion stands. I’m just trying to live someone else’s life in the way most gratifying to myself… and isn’t that what pop culture is really all about?

    I don’t care about Peter Jackson. Give me cake. ;-)

  12. Darien (88) said,

    November 29, 2006 at 5:21 am

    Sam: I think you’ve badly misinterpreted me. I’m not saying the films were bad; much to the contrary, I think they were quite good. However, I am certainly not exaggerating the changes; I was being quite literal when I mentioned the divergence in scripts. I agree that the spirit of the thing emerges almost totally intact, and the story broadly so. Also, I am quite aware that film is a different medium from the printed word and will require alterations to be successful, nor was I saying I thought it would be better for Jackson to include every portentious word that passes Elrond’s lips. Eighty-hour epics tend to wear themselves a bit dry for my taste.

    What I was commenting on was one specific line from your original post: “Lord of the Rings was, and is, unfilmable — and yet, somehow, inexplicably, Jackson pulled it off anyway.” My whole argument was that it is in no way inexplicable, but, in fact, is explained rather simply - Jackson’s films are similar to the books in style and in tone - in spirit, if you will - but the content is very different in a very important manner. The books are unfilmable due to a giant concentration of dialogue and a scarcity of action scenes. Jackson’s films have added (and expanded) action scenes and a *lot* less dialogue. That seems a neat and obvious solution to the problem as far as I can tell. :-)

    I can’t agree with your statement that Jackson did better than any other director could have done; I’ve not seen every other director’s version of the film, so I can’t really say.

    And, yes, that was exactly what I meant when I said that the Hobbit was in a “safe” world and LOTR in a “dangerous” world. In the Hobbit, the danger is all localised to dungeons and wilderness areas; there are plenty of Shires and Rivendells and Dales and Beorn’s Houses and so forth to return to - hey, we have to go out and *find* the danger, for pity’s sake.

  13. Darien (88) said,

    November 29, 2006 at 5:22 am

    I think I need to use more semicolons.

  14. Sam (405) said,

    November 29, 2006 at 12:19 pm

    More news, though it requires free registration (or a trip to bugmenot.com): New York Times article

  15. Dave (130) said,

    November 29, 2006 at 1:18 pm

    Sam: I warn you, don’t get into a Tolkien e-peen contest with Darien. He’ll win.

    As for the feel of The Hobbit being different from The Lord of the Rings, I totally have to agree with that. As Darien points out, they have to go out and find the danger in The Hobbit. Gandalf has to kind of trick Bilbo into going on this grand adventure to get phat l00tz. If he hadn’t gone, he would have passed his entire life happily in the Shire and nothing bad would have ever happened to him more than likely. Also, all the danger and adventure is bookended by these stays at various safehouses such as Rivendell, Beorn’s house, and so on. I don’t quite get Sam’s statement that the book never let’s you breathe in safety, because it totally does, multiple times.

    I think the best comparison I can make to point out the difference in feel between the two books is to compare the big Gollum confrontations in each book. In The Hobbit, Bilbo meets up with Gollum and has a nice little riddle contest with him (and in the original version of the book, Gollum willingly gives up the ring after fairly losing the contest–that obviously got changed when Tolkien decided later that this was THE Ring.) In Lord of the Rings, when Frodo and Gollum have their big confrontation, Gollum bites Frodo’s finger off and falls into a volcano. More to the point, Bilbo had to stumble into Gollum’s lair while escaping from goblins (who had captured him only because he and his group had had the temerity to go on a grand adventure in the first place). Frodo was tracked by Gollum over hundreds of miles. In one book, you go find the danger and perhaps test yourself against it or at the very least subject yourself to the possibility of it. In the other, danger finds you, and will hunt you relentlessly wherever you go.

  16. Sam (405) said,

    November 29, 2006 at 1:45 pm

    What I meant about The Hobbit not letting you breathe is, I think in retrospect, just the impression I got when I read it as a kid. I’d never read anything like it before, and I was absolutely enthralled and remember thinking — safe stays at Rivendell and so forth notwithstanding — that once these characters got out into the big wide scary world, they bounced from one danger to another with rarely a reprieve. Even the stay at Beorn’s starts off like it will be another terrible danger to escape from, and later it turns out everything’s ok.

    In contrast, although Rings builds up this incredible atmosphere of a pervasive danger, one where you’re not safe anywhere at all, it does take more time between narrow escapes. There’s Tom Bombadil, and Rivendell again, and Fangorn (Beorn-like in starting off with a dangerous feel), and more importantly all the banter and songs and so forth on the road. The Hobbit moves along at a faster clip, at least once the journey actually begins.

    So, the bottom line is, I think you and Darien were talking about the world at large, and I confused that with the pacing of the books, one of which is considerably less hurried than the other, despite the increased sense of urgency. I dunno. I forget now why I brought it up, but I think it was just as a qualifying thought to my basic agreement with Darien’s assessment anyway.

  17. Dave (130) said,

    November 29, 2006 at 2:05 pm

    That’s funny, because I distinctly remember feeling basically the opposite about the “feel” of The Hobbit when I read it when I was little. The part of the book that stuck in my head the most was the stay at Rivendell, I think precisely because it was one of the many “safe house” stays in the book. It felt to me that after every major bit of danger, they got to stay somewhere safe for a little while to rest.

    I also distinctly remember it taking me like two days to get through the whole Rivendell stay, and really getting a feel for how long they stayed there (I believe it was several weeks or even a few months in the book, although I don’t remember for sure.) Reading it again as an adult, I realized that the Rivendell segment is only like three pages, and it took me only a few minutse to get through. So *shrug*

  18. Darien (88) said,

    November 29, 2006 at 11:45 pm

    The LOTR “safe” segments are different in one important respect from the Hobbit versions: they’re all under seige. In The Hobbit, there’s no implication that the Shire or Rivendell is about to get sacked by horde any time soon; in LOTR every place they stop is safe *for now,* but who knows how much longer? The Nazgul are in the Shire (though not openly). Bree is a disaster. The Nazgul lay siege to Rivendell but get turned away by Gandalf. Fangorn is threatened by Saruman. Everybody knows what happens at Minas Tirith - there is a GIANT battle right outside the city gates. These are not safe places like the Rivendell of the Hobbit.

    Even Bombadil’s house - the safest place in Middle Earth - ultimately will not hold. As Elrond tells us, Bombadil will be the last to fall if Sauron is triumphant, but fall he will. There is no safety anywhere.

  19. Grishny (156) said,

    December 11, 2006 at 1:24 pm

    Here’s a brief article I just came across that has some relevance to this discussion: http://www.aintitcool.com/node/30937

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