Will Peter Jackson make ''The Hobbit''? -- MGM and New Line want the rights to the book

By Steve Daly
Updated September 22, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

Over eight grueling years, Peter Jackson turned J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings into a multibillion-dollar franchise. So you’d think that New Line, the studio that financed the LOTR juggernaut (and an EW sister company), would have long since locked up plans to adapt The Hobbit, Tolkien’s juvenile-flavored preamble to the trilogy. But a long-simmering rights imbroglio has precluded the movie from coming to fruition — by Jackson or anyone else.

Happily, that conflict seemed to be clearing up last week, when the story broke that MGM — owner of the distribution rights to The Hobbit, but not the rights to the motion picture, which is the property of New Line?was prepared to finance a new film and wanted Jackson to direct. There was just one catch: According to Jackson, nobody at MGM has actually called him. Ever.

”It’s been three years since we delivered The Return of the King, ”says the 44-year-old filmmaker. ”In all that time, nobody’s ever spoken to us about The Hobbit…. We haven’t been thinking about The Hobbit because there’s no point getting excited if [New Line and MGM] don’t have the rights sorted out.” Instead, Jackson has turned to overseeing other projects, including exec-producing a movie version of the videogame smash Halo, remaking the WWII flying story The Dam Busters (to be directed by LOTR computer-animation expert Christian Rivers), adapting the fantasy book series Temeraire, and helping out with special-effects work on James Cameron’s 3-D opus Avatar.

Jackson himself plans to return to the director’s chair for the first time since King Kong with The Lovely Bones, based on Alice Sebold’s acclaimed 2002 novel about a murdered girl watching her family from heaven. In fact, when the Hobbit news broke, he had just completed an initial script with partner Fran Walsh and LOTR collaborator Philippa Boyens and was preparing to show it to outside readers. ”We don’t want it to be a Hollywood fantasy of the afterlife, bright lights and dry ice and all that stuff,” says Jackson of Bones. ”I want this to be a journey to becoming a different kind of filmmaker. I want to achieve a movie so different than Kong and Lord of the Rings that it doesn’t feel like it was directed by the same person.”

So would one of the busiest — and most in-demand — directors in the film industry actually push back his other highly anticipated work to finish off the last major Middle-earth novel? ”Dunno,” says Jackson. ”The politics between New Line and MGM have never been shared with us. MGM seemingly wants to partner on the film, but I think New Line would rather buy MGM out and run the movie themselves.” New Line had no comment at press time, while MGM wouldn’t discuss any negotiations with Jackson, only issuing a statement to say that his LOTR success ”makes him the first and most ideal choice for directing The Hobbit.” But make no mistake: In the wake of MGM’s unilateral announcement, Jackson has indeed started thinking about what he might do with The Hobbit. He’s especially intrigued by the idea of making two films and inventing new material to fill in gaps in the story, since the plot — about how Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm in the LOTR films) befriends Gandalf (Ian McKellen), falls afoul of the miserable creature Gollum, and comes into possession of that pesky ring?is fairly simplistic compared with LOTR.

In the meantime, Jackson seems puzzled that MGM should court him publicly, but not privately. ”I don’t want to complain,” he says. ”It’s nice to wake up and turn on the Internet and see that you’re being considered for a movie. But it is kind of curious. I guess I’ll just keep watching the Net and see if there’s any more news.”

(Additional reporting by Vanessa Juarez)