The world was a different place in the year 2000. Y2K was recent memory, the dot com bubble had just burst, and 9/11 had not yet entered our vernacular. The internet was merely emerging as a widespread tool for disseminating media, and we were still learning what it meant to be wired at high speed. The cinemas, as one might expect, were also quite different at that time - maybe not different in a cosmic cultural shift sense, but different from now. In fact, the difference becomes clear even looking at the shift between 2000 and 2001.
In 2000, the top movie was The Grinch, at a whopping $260 million (that number would be good for 7th in 2012). Four of the five nominees for Best Picture were in the top 15 money earners for the year, and only five (5!) of the top one hundred money earning movies of the year were sequels or spinoffs (compared to five of the top ten in 2012). There had been no Harry Potters, very few superhero movies - the only one released that year was X-Men - and the top opening weekend ever had been The Lost World: Jurassic Park in 1997 at $72 million. The list of top earners of 2001 is indicative of the trend of the time since, even as a number of franchises that endured for that entire span began that year. There are more sequels, more "tentpole" pictures, and more front-loaded box office earnings. Titles were released based on assumptions of making money, rather than having to earn it through making a movie that people liked. There was an increasing rift between commercial and critical success, and a rapid polarization of moviegoers according to taste and even class. Perhaps the shift had already taken place - one could argue that it dated back to the early 1990s - but the reality of the finality of the shift became clear between 2000 and 2001. And nowhere was that shift more evident than in the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring on December 19, 2001.
Just over two years later, the trilogy had earned several billion dollars at the box office and had collectively won 17 out of 30 Academy Awards, including 11 of 11 for The Return of the King, which also was the highest earning movie of its year at over $1 billion worldwide. It revolutionized almost every area of technical development in film-making - especially motion-capture technology - and it allowed the fantastical to become commercially and critically viable. It immediately inserted itself into any discussion about the greatest trilogies, epics, and even accomplishments in film ever. But The Lord of the Rings had been anything but a sure thing when it was released. Consider that the initial Lord of the Rings movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, earned only $47 million in its opening weekend, a number that seems almost silly even for that time. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is expected to open with at least three times that much - or more. That number alone demonstrates that people were not quite sure what to do with this new fantasy epic. Gladiator had been popular, but there had really been nothing like LOTR before: a mostly unknown director being given a blank slate to film arguably the most beloved books of all time all at once. New Life Cinemas was lauded for their risky business proposition - fronting a large amount of capital (just under $300 million) to make the trilogy happen - only after the initial success of the first movie. There had been excitement mixed with a healthy skepticism and trepidation at the prospect of the finality of a visual interpretation Tolkien's work, but the success of the trilogy may have muted our collective memory of those thoughts.
I raise those thoughts again as we anticipate The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which releases on Friday. Like The Lord of the Rings, it is considered an audacious project, but for different reasons. The financial insecurity is certainly not present - even if the movie is not up to the standard of LOTR, it would still be surprising if it were to earn under $300 million domestically. The possibility of critical backlash is almost irrelevant, though it would shock some prognosticators if the film did not earn a Best Picture nomination regardless of its particular qualities. This is a film measured more by its own breadth than by any of its contemporaries, and there will no doubt be discussions and defenses of its merits and shortcomings regardless of what happens. No, this Hobbit is audacious for several other reasons, most of which are connected with its director, Peter Jackson, who, despite some egregious missteps in The Two Towers, seems to have an understanding of the spirit of Tolkien's material and how to bring it to life. Many fans were excited that he decided to take over direction of the movie after Guillermo del Toro stepped out, but his presence presents a dilemma: what if this movie just is not up to the standard of the previous trilogy? What if it needed a more visionary director to bring it to life in a different way? Many critics are already commenting on scenes that evoke del Toro's sensibility, but what does it mean to be "Jackson-esque"? Jackson clearly has a vision for the movie, but might that interfere with its success? Of concern is Jackson's adaptation of the story of The Hobbit into a trilogy, which could run the risk of turning the book from a fairy-tale to an "epic legend". Jackson has already repeatedly commented on how he is fleshing out the story with annotations from Tolkien's notes and other works, and his goal is to create a pre-text for his established trilogy. Should The Hobbit be considered a "prequel" to The Lord of the Rings, or would it be better for it to be measured on its own merits? Even for all of the talk of shooting in 48 FPS and the upcoming revolution in cinema, what if it just doesn't work yet? There are a lot of possibilities of what Jackson could (and likely will) do correctly, but the challenge for him is that "good" won't be good enough. It's really a catch-22 for him - unless The Hobbit far exceeds The Lord of the Rings (which seems unlikely), this trilogy will be judged as "not as good as The Lord of the Rings", regardless of what it accomplishes on its own in story or technical advancement.
The Hobbit is one of my favourite books. I'm currently re-reading it (for the first time in a decade, surprisingly), and I have been immediately swept up in its story, just as I have been every time I have read it since I was eight. But I enjoyed it without having it attached to The Lord of the Rings; in fact, I did not read LOTR until I was 18, in my first year of university. I had never been able to make it past the dry prologue, and so for a decade, The Hobbit was separated from its spinoffs for me. Now as I read the Hobbit, I have its successors well in mind (and it is entirely possible that I will just keep reading on into LOTR after I finish The Hobbit), which enriches the story for me, but I keep on wondering whether this film needs to be laden with baggage from the earlier films. There's a beauty in the simplicity of the story and the different creatures that Bilbo and his company meet on the road that seems more childlike and innocent than the complex moralities present in LOTR, and I am concerned that Jackson will overcomplicate The Hobbit with some of those themes. The Hobbit is, in its essence, a children's story, and above all, it needs to be allowed to be for kids. I would not allow children to read or watch The Lord of the Rings without some preparation (if for nothing else than the level of language presented), but I would love for The Hobbit to be a movie that kids could watch. And in the end, I want it to be a movie that I can watch like a kid - to enjoy with wonder and merriment, without feeling like I have to evaluate or criticize or deconstruct. I hope that it is an experience of pure enjoyment, much like the first Lord of the Rings movie was for me. I want to watch it and to want to watch it again. I just hope that An Unexpected Journey won't let me down, regardless of what it does or does not do. I don't want to experience Middle-Earth this time; I just want to be a hobbit on the journey of a lifetime.