'The Hobbit': Peace in Middle-Earth?
Fans have long dreamed ''Lord of the Rings'' director Peter Jackson would tackle J.R.R. Tolkien's ''The Hobbit,'' but a nasty legal battle with New Line Cinema has made it impossible. Now, at last, a cease-fire may be at hand
By Benjamin Svetkey
Last month, in the academic journal Science, paleontologists presented new evidence that they had discovered an overlooked relative of prehistoric man. Officially, they've labeled the species Homo floresiensis — unofficially, they're calling them ''hobbits'' — but by any other name what they've found are the 18,000-year-old fossilized remains of a three-foot-tall hominid with a recessed chin and a brain the size of a Wiffle ball.
As it happens, they're digging for hobbits in Hollywood, too. The kind with a thing for finger bling and a knack for raking in billions at the box office. Up until a few weeks ago, it was looking as if this breed might be extinct as well, wiped out by dark lords more powerful than Sauron himself — entertainment lawyers. But now the legal battle that's kept The Lord of the Rings' prequel, The Hobbit, hung up for years — a bitter feud between Rings director Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema co-chairman Robert Shaye — may finally be nearing resolution. For once, there's reason to be cautiously optimistic. At this writing, no agreements have been announced and details of the negotiations are sketchy (neither New Line nor Jackson's camp would comment to EW on any aspect of this story), but sources close to the talks tell us that they're detecting a lot less frost in the air, and that a deal may be reached that could help usher J.R.R. Tolkien's maiden Middle-earth masterpiece to screens before the end of the decade. ''There has been a détente,'' says one insider. There is now the beginning of a discourse between Peter Jackson and New Line that's running parallel to the litigation proceedings.''
Okay, so it's not the sort of declaration of peace that sets church bells clanging. But it is a vast improvement from just 10 months ago, when Shaye and Jackson duked it out in the press and the studio co-chief angrily told a reporter that the director was too arrogant for his tastes, adding ''I don't want to work with that guy anymore.'' Besides, in Hollywood, any movement on this long-stalled project is major news. It was The Hobbit, after all, that first introduced the world to the lovely and terrifying universe of Middle-earth. The novel is set about 60 years before Lord of the Rings, and for many readers who dove into Tolkien's work as kids, it retains a warmer glow in memory than the daunting and sometimes slow-moving trilogy. Its hero is one Bilbo Baggins, an unassuming homebody hobbit who gets dragooned by one wizard and 13 dwarves into an adventure during which he relieves a dragon named Smaug of an ill-gotten treasure and the wicked Gollum of a certain all-powerful ring. Only a few LOTR cast members make return appearances in this earlier tale. But the story has precisely the same themes — of loyalty and unexpected bravery — that made the Rings series huge. And by huge we mean gargantuan, with each film earning about a billion dollars worldwide between 2001 and 2003, along with 17 Oscars, including ones for Best Director and Best Picture. In Hollywood, in other words, The Hobbit is that rarest of magical creatures — a sure thing.
And that's what makes this lawsuit mess so mystifying. What disagreement over Lord of the Rings could possibly be so important, so personal, that both sides would blow a potential billion dollars in revenue over it?
The irony is that once upon a time, Peter Jackson and Bob Shaye gave each other the greatest gifts of their careers. In 1998, Jackson's bid to make LOTR as three separate films — as opposed to two, or even one — had been rejected by virtually every studio in Hollywood. Shaye and New Line were his last hope, a fact the director camouflaged by calling a couple of times to reschedule the appointment with New Line because of his supposedly hectic itinerary. Jackson and Shaye made for an odd pair: a shy Kiwi perennially in short pants and bare feet, and one of the last real Hollywood mavericks, who was so fond of his sunglasses that Jack Nicholson once took to calling him ''Bobby Shades.'' What Jackson and Shaye did have in common was a kind of fearlessness and an absolute indifference to what other people thought was financial or creative suicide. Shaye greenlit Jackson's dream of a trio of $100 million fantasy films about elves and dwarves. (Not even Harvey Weinstein had the stomach for that; he told Jackson he'd sign on for only two. Because he was an executive producer, he wound up with a cut of the box office anyway.) And Jackson gave Shaye a $3 billion franchise and a new image for his company. New Line, which Shaye launched 40 years ago by discovering such camp classics as Reefer Madness and marketing them out of his apartment, is no longer best known for A Nightmare on Elm Street or Austin Powers.
Finally, an olive branch.
Of course, even if the lawsuit is settled tomorrow, there are still a few details to iron out before The Hobbit could get made. Like a script, for instance, which nobody has actually written. In the past, Jackson has suggested that he would make two films, with the second one filling in the story arc between the end of The Hobbit and the beginning of Rings. Although Tolkien never wrote a novel bridging the eras, he did scatter clues in shorter pieces and epilogues that could form the basis of a screenplay. This is not unprecedented. Jackson, Walsh, and screenwriting partner Philippa Boyens enhanced the Rings love story between Mortensen's and Liv Tyler's characters with material from Tolkien's extensive appendixes.
Still, it's hard to imagine Jackson having time to direct one Hobbit movie, let alone two. He will soon begin shooting his adaptation of the best-selling novel The Lovely Bones in Pennsylvania. And after that, he's scheduled to make Tintin with Steven Spielberg. There's speculation that New Line might offer him a deal to executive-produce The Hobbit, letting him pick a proxy director and oversee the production. That might be enough to keep fans' hearts from breaking, but would it be enough for Jackson? Amazingly, after all he's been through — eight years making Rings and several more in court fighting over it — the Shire still holds him in its spell. In fact, Jackson may turn out to be the only person who never once lost hope in the movie. Even in 2003, when his relationship with New Line was quite bleak, Jackson was still giving editions of The Hobbit as gifts. ''Great book,'' he wrote in one copy. ''Wonder when the movie's coming out??''
Reporting by Missy Schwartz and Vanessa Juarez. Additional reporting by Nicole Sperling