As reported yesterday, the first trailer for the first Hobbit film has debuted. What’s remarkable to me is how it only took a few seconds for the imagery and sounds of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to instantly take me back a decade and an Age to that triumph of cinema that was the The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Once again I felt magic wash over me and capture my attention in a way so few other big-budget films manage to. And judging by the comments here on Tor-dot and on Twitter, I’m not the only one who felt that way.
What is it about these adaptations that captivates us so? Why do they succeed where others fall short? The answer, I think, is surprisingly simple: the filmmakers on Team Hobbit continue to cherish the spirit and integrity of the source material.
Look, I’m not a studio executive. I won’t pretend to know the ins-and-outs of what it takes to produce a major screen adaptation. I’m just a fan of good fantasy literature, and I just happen to have an itty-bitty, teeny-weeny experience filming fantasy material originating in novel form. But I honestly don’t think it takes an MBA to see why some adaptations work, and others don’t.
Let’s look at four essential aspects of film adaptation that were in place for The Lord of the Rings and other successful screen franchises. I think they’ll demonstrate why the two Hobbit films will blow us away when they hit theaters.
1) Passion from the top down
The ultimate key to a successful screen adaptation begins with true and unyielding passion for the source material. Book rights are optioned and bought for many reasons, most notably of which is that the buyer believes or hopes they can turn a profit off an adaptation. Hey, it’s show business, right?
If you look at the successful adaptations which have survived the test of time; the ones which became beloved films celebrated throughout the decades of our culture, they all originated from a person or persons who radiated undeniable enthusiasm for the source material.
The Hobbit films have this in spades. Just watch the behind-the-scenes videos and you’ll see how special and even sacred Peter Jackson and his crew treat these productions. They aren’t driven by making a buck. They’re driven by the need to produce quality art. And that drive is what will lead them to the dragon’s hoard in the end.
2) Executive empowerment
There’s a wonderful story Peter Jackson tells on the commentary of the LotR DVD. After struggling for several years to adapt the trilogy down to two films—and even at one point a single film—he and his team presented a video of their ideas to Robert Shaye, the founder of New Line Cinema. Mr. Shaye’s response boiled down to, “If the series is a trilogy, why aren’t you making three films?”
I can only imagine how Peter must have felt at that moment. To have finally found somebody willing to empower his team to make an epic adaptation which matched the epic scale of the source material. Of all the millions of decisions necessary to produce a huge film franchise, that one might have been the most important. Mr. Shaye saw something special in Jackson as a filmmaker and gave him the resources to do the job right. It clearly wasn’t going to be the most cost-effective idea. It certainly was going to be a huge risk. But without that risk, the project may have been inherently doomed to mediocrity, or even outright failure.
The trailer for The Hobbit features singing dwarves. And not just one or two, but thirteen. Thirteen named characters! Singing! Can you imagine any other genre film targeted toward an adult audience getting the greenlight to (a) be allowed to have thirteen named characters in a trailer and (b) have them sing? I think not. It was that part of the trailer—the singing—that caught me. I sense confidence from the studios involved. Good for them. They’ll be rewarded for it when the box office numbers are tallied.
3) Respect for the source material
History has demonstrated the most successful screenplay adaptations are not about slavish adherence to a book’s plot. They’re about capturing the essence of what made that story good to begin with. Each book presents different places it’s more and less flexible.
Take, for example, the recent Game of Thrones adaptation from HBO. The show’s producers could have chopped it up. They could have watered it down or tried to conform it to a wider viewer demographic. But they didn’t. They embraced what made that series a triumph to begin with. They took it to a studio they knew would empower them to do it right. (See above, right?) The books had already done the hard task of proving they were timeless and engaging. Why mess with that?
The Harry Potter films also succeed in this. At times they were criticized for being too accurate to the books. While it’s true you don’t want to alienate your wider audience with confusing story elements, Steve Kloves (who adapted seven of the eight Potter films) did an outstanding job of walking that line. He nailed the essential spirit of each character which is what those particular books demanded above all else. JK Rowling is even on record saying she knew Mr. Kloves “got” her books—and herself to some extent—when he said Hermione was his favorite character as opposed to Harry or the typical-answer Ron.
There’s been grumbling about the decision to split The Hobbit into two films. Personally—and setting aside the fact that Peter Jackson has totally earned my trust—I think the decision to split the story was a good one. With one film there might not have been enough time to do the story justice. With two films you might not have enough material. But we all know Tolkien’s story went deeper than the specific scenes he wrote, so it’ll be this implied material that Peter and his writing team will pull from. Expect to see a seamless gap between the established canon and new material. Don’t expect cheap fan fic.
4) Singular vision
When you’ve got a complex book familiar to many readers, there’s going to be as many takes on it as there are people. In situations like this, you need a singular vision to act as the anchor and compass for the whole endeavor. The stronger the vision, and the more self-possessed the leader is, the greater success the project will have.
With Harry Potter, even though there were four different directors on the series, they were all united under the unwavering vision of producer David Heyman. David not only acquired the series rights to begin with, but kept his young cast consistent and engaged for an incredibly long period of time.
The Hobbit, of course, has Peter Jackson. Enough said.
Every ship needs a crew. But every crew needs a captain. The Hobbit will succeed because of the strength of theirs.
The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones are modern day examples of huge franchises which succeeded in their adaptations because they nailed every one of the items above. They didn’t try to re-invent the wheel, or try to cash in on the name brand itself. These are projects which will stand the test of time and continue to yield huge returns on investments to their studios for decades to come.
The Hobbit is shaping up to be another classic. Yesterday’s outstanding teaser trailer is an example of what you get when your production has the ideas above going for it. There are lessons here that other screen adaptions can learn from. Lessons I believe studios can’t afford to ignore.
Jason Denzel is the founder and webmaster of Dragonmount.com, the premier Wheel of Time website. He’s an award-winning independent filmmaker whose Towers of Midnight book trailer received 3 Telly Awards. In addition to working on his first novel and keeping a “regular job,” he’s currently consulting on the upcoming Wheel of Time film adaptation. Find him on Twitter (@Jasondenzel) or at JasonDenzel.com.