With 2012 winding to a close, only a few major releases remain, but that’s not to say there isn’t a healthy amount of anticipation brewing for these next few weeks. In fact, December tends to pack in some of the biggest films of the year, capitalizing on the box office attraction of the holiday season. For the last couple of years, cinephiles and geeks alike have been chomping at the bit to see Peter Jackson return to Middle Earth with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. What started out as one cinematic adventure for younger Bilbo Baggins was then split into two, a la Deathly Hallows and Breaking Dawn, and has now blossomed into its own trilogy.
Given the fact that Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy garnered as much acclaim from critics as it did from fans, Return of the King winning Best Picture at the 2004 Academy Awards, it should be a cinch that The Hobbit movies will enjoy similar success, right? His first three Tolkien films revolutionized epic filmmaking, blending grand-scale, unified storytelling with fantastic digital effects and masterful cinematography. And given that this year has yielded hollow, paint-by-numbers period epics like Wrath of the Titans and John Carter, audiences should be even more receptive to his style.
But maybe not. If you’ve been watching HBO over the last couple of years, you may already have noticed why Jackson’s road to victory has become lined with new obstacles. In short, the game has changed. The HBO series Game of Thrones, based the novel series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, exploded onto the airwaves in 2011 and almost immediately became a sensation.
While by no means the first fantasy series to appear on television, there were several fundamental characteristics that set Game of Thrones in a class by itself. First and foremost, the writing on this show is outstanding. It isn’t just the clever dialogue and well-developed characters that serve as evidence of this, but the narrative is awash with intrigue-laden twists that force the audience to remain on perpetual edge through even the precarious moments of stasis.
What does all this mean for The Hobbit? Game of Thrones has completely redefined the idea of mature fantasy. Sure, to some extent this has to do with the salacious sex and violence that permeate each episode, and by no means is the suggestion here that Peter Jackson need infuse more raciness into Tolkien’s work. It is actually Game of Thrones’ bleak, severe tone that has readjusted the conception of adult fantasy. Every week, plotlines grow more and more somber on the show, no character safe from the reaper’s grip. These deaths, and often the betrayals that precede them, are felt so personally and their impacts are not obscured by the show’s own grandeur.
Not that The Lord of the Rings movies were nursery rhymes. They featured death, war, and the destruction of kingdoms, so why do the deaths feel so much heavier on Game of Thrones? It would be one thing if it were just a matter of a difference in the ratings, but the incongruity of affective punch is not simply a function of Game of Thrones being more explicit with its violence. The world constructed in Lord of the Rings is so massive, it often disconnects us from the reality of the individual events. It’s hard for us to fully take in Theoden’s brave demise when an enormous battle still rages around him. In fact, entire battlements full of computer-generated soldiers collapsing to certain doom pale in comparison to one plunged and twisted Lannister knife in a dark hall.
Game of Thrones also has impressive production design; they have been praised for it numerous times. However, the spectacle of the world of the show never supersedes the drama. The creatures and powerful magic that populated Tolkien’s source material, while serving its story well, in the films sometimes served as escapist diffusion for the heavier moments of dramatic tension and loss. The funny part of this is that the one moment in the entire Lord of the Rings film trilogy that matches the emotional significance of Game of Thrones is the death of Boromir (played by Ned Stark himself, Sean Bean).
Here’s the good news for Jackson: he’s got three movies to cover one book. One of the unfair advantages enjoyed by Game of Thrones is its deliberate plotting over multiple seasons. Of course, with so many episodes, we have more time to get to know the characters, form attachments, and then be crushed when the merciless, brutally honest story arcs rip them away from us. Even with each book in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy getting its own movie, it still felt like it was surging furiously through pages with little room to sit and digest the gravity of each major moment. Now, Jackson has three movies to cover one novel, and he must allow the audience ample time to get to know all these new characters and to feel the impact of each dark, dramatic moment.
Additionally, with all the talk of higher frame rates and the continuing advances in digital effects (much of it spearheaded by his own company Weta), Jackson must not allow himself to get lost in the wonder of his own fantasy landscape and keep his story grounded and nuanced if he wants The Hobbit to compete in a post-Game of Thrones era.
Follow Brian Salisbury on Twitter @briguysalisbury
[Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures/HBO]