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'The Hobbit' Trilogy: Travelling To Middle-Earth For Maximum Profits

Dragons are known to be Scrooge-like misers. The team behind “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” part two of Peter Jackson’s fantasy film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” which opens Friday, might be accused of the same money-grubbing tendencies.

Jackson and his company Wingnut Films, as well as New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures (MGM), the studio backers, and Warner Bros. Pictures, the theatrical distributor, decided midway through production to extend what was to be a two-film version of “The Hobbit” into a trilogy.

Three films equals a bigger pile of gold coinage to hoard. Yet according to the filmmakers, generating money was never part of the equation.

Was this decision to turn a 300-page children’s adventure into not one, not two, but three nearly three-hour movies made in the service of telling a better story? I think not.

There’s plenty of story in Tolkien’s original book — but it’s a simpler tale than Jackson is choosing to tell. It centers around Bilbo Baggins, a humble homebody who finds the courage to tap into his inner bad-ass hobbit and go on an adventure to help some dwarves reclaim their kingdom from a nasty dragon named Smaug.

Instead, that story has been padded. Part one, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” which came out last December, inserted a flash-forward prologue involving Frodo and Bilbo; an extended flashback to explain the downfall of the dwarves ages ago; the creation of a revenge plot between the dwarf Thorin and an old orc foe named Azog; and a thread about a growing evil menace at the ancient fortress Dol Guldur. “Desolation of Smaug” contains similar tangents, sub-plots and fabricated characters — including a budding love story (I won’t say between which characters) and the return of a certain favorite elf from “The Lord of the Rings,” neither of which are in Tolkien’s original story. These additions connect the events of “The Hobbit” to “The Lord of the Rings,” which begins 60 years later. They also wildly change the tone from whimsical adventure tale to violent epic infused with weighty, Wagnerian Sturm und Drang.

To make that all happen, these films got long. Part one was 182 minutes, and “Smaug” clocks in at 161. As one friend recently pointed out, you could read aloud Tolkien’s original book in less time than the eight to nine hours Jackson is taking to tell the story.

As Tina Turner might ask, what’s money got to do with it? Well, Ms. Turner, probably everything.

Think of the math. Each of the first two films cost an estimated $200 to $315 million (depending on which industry source you cite). The first film, “An Unexpected Journey," grossed $300 million domestically, and over $1 billion worldwide. Film two, “The Desolation of Smaug,” will likely generate another $1 billion, as will the final installment, “The Hobbit: There and Back Again.” Even using the most fiscally risky budget estimate — $315 million for each film — a two film deal represents a $2 billion return on a $630 million investment, or approximately $1.4 billion in profits, after marketing expenses. Now, stretch those two films into three, and that’s a $3 billion return on a $945 million investment, or a $2.6 billion profit. Not to mention the gazillions earned by merchandising, from Denny’s Hobbit-inspired menu items to Legolas Lego sets.

Meanwhile, the third movie in the trilogy, “There and Back Again,” formerly scheduled for a July 2014 release, has been moved to one of the most profitable slots of the year: December of next year.

Three films equals a bigger pile of gold coinage to hoard. Yet according to the filmmakers, generating money was never part of the equation.

As one friend recently pointed out, you could read aloud Tolkien’s original book in less time than the eight to nine hours Jackson is taking to tell the story.

“This was a creative choice, it wasn't a financial choice at all,” said co-screenwriter Philippa Boyens, when I asked her last year if the reason behind adapting “The Hobbit” first into two movies, and then three, might have been for commercial reasons. “Honestly, in many ways it would have been way easier to just finish with the films, do the two films, not tell any more of the story, and to go on and do another film.”

Really? Peter Jackson and his team of talented filmmakers have skillfully addicted us to the fantasy land of Middle-earth. At the very least, they might be honest with us — that in addition to wanting to make a spectacular movie-going experience, they also want to make megabucks.

In response to Boyens, I might quote Smaug himself. When Bilbo snuck into the dragon’s lair, and flattered him before stealing a precious gem called the Arkenstone, this was Smaug’s reply: “You have nice manners for a thief and a liar.”


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This program aired on December 12, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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