Nine years after the stunning Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson returns with the tale that put Middle-earth on the map in the first place, ''The Hobbit.'' Inside a new trilogy — and a whole new gamble.

In a dressing room on a cavernous soundstage, there sits a hobbit — or, more accurately, a 40-year-old man dressed up as one. Like the reluctant hero he’s playing, Bilbo Baggins, Martin Freeman finds himself, on this September afternoon in 2011 in Wellington, New Zealand, on an unexpected journey. Having never been a particular fan of the work of J.R.R. Tolkien — nor, for that matter, a globally recognizable movie star — the English actor has been plunked into the center of director Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation of Tolkien’s beloved novel The Hobbit, cavorting with dwarves, wizards, elves, goblins, trolls, orcs, giant spiders, a shape-shifting bear, and assorted other fantastical creatures, all while wearing a somewhat ridiculous-looking pair of large furry rubber feet. Beyond the safe confines of this soundstage, Freeman — who gained fame playing the deadpan cubicle drone Tim on the BBC version of The Office — knows there are countless die-hard fans around the world anxiously waiting for The Hobbit and obsessively poring over every scrap of news from the production. But for the sake of his sanity, he is trying to tune all that out. Going online to eavesdrop on the feverish speculation and fanboy armchair-quarterbacking is ”a suicide mission,” he says. ”If I read one bad thing about me — it can be one person’s opinion in Idaho — I’m like, ‘Jesus, why does everyone hate me?’ If you read four of those, you think, ‘Everyone in the solar system hates me!’ Then even if you read 80 people saying, ‘I think he’s wonderful and I really want to f— him,’ you’re still thinking, ‘But that person in Idaho … ”’ He pauses and adds drily, ”In short, I don’t really seek out the Hobbit stuff.”

This may sound like an inordinate amount of pressure for a job playing the diminutive hero of a children’s book. But The Hobbit — the tale of a timid hobbit recruited by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a band of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) for a quest to reclaim a dragon-guarded treasure and restore the dwarves’ kingdom — is no ordinary movie trilogy. When the first installment, An Unexpected Journey (rated PG-13), hits theaters on Dec. 14, it will mark the climax of a wave of anticipation that’s been building for nine years, since the release of the last film in the masterful Lord of the Rings trilogy. In terms of fan excitement, merchandising tie-ins (get your ”Gandalf’s Gobble Melt” at Denny’s today!), and general hoopla, the Hobbit trilogy is arguably the most momentous cinematic second act Hollywood has seen since the Star Wars prequels — and this time there are no syntax-challenged Gungans added to the soup. For Middle-earth veterans like McKellen, there’s a very different atmosphere surrounding The Hobbit than there was at the outset of the Rings trilogy. ”When we were making The Lord of the Rings, we knew a lot of people were interested, but this time we know there are millions and millions of people who want us to be making these films,” he says. ”It’s reassuring, but it’s also a big responsibility. There’s a genuine feeling — and I think fans pick it up — that Peter is making these films for them. He’s not just indulging himself.”

Indeed, while Warner Bros. (which, like EW, is a subsidiary of Time Warner) is reportedly investing upwards of $600 million in the Hobbit trilogy, fans are investing something more intangible in Jackson: their trust. They’re trusting that The Hobbit — which is set 60 years before the Rings trilogy — will live up to the standard Jackson himself has set. They’re trusting in his choice to shoot the films at a higher frame rate than a traditional movie — 48 frames per second, as opposed to the usual 24 — despite the mixed reaction early footage garnered when it was screened at a convention of theater owners this past spring. (Most theaters will show the film in traditional 3-D and 2-D. The high-frame-rate, or HFR, 3-D version, which Jackson considers the ”premium experience” of the film for its sharper, more immersive image, will be screened at roughly 450 theaters nationwide.) And while The Hobbit is a simpler, more modest story than the sprawling Rings, the fans are banking on the wisdom of Jackson’s decision to make not just two movies out of one novel but three. Like Gollum’s precious ring, which makes its first appearance in one of The Hobbit‘s most famous chapters, all those expectations are a heavy burden, as Freeman is well aware. ”This is as sure a bet as anyone would probably ever do, but even then, who knows? You can still f— it up,” he says. ”I think that’s essential to keep in mind. I have absolute faith in Peter’s ability to make three great films. But if he’s got any sense — and he has — we all know we can mess it up.”

On the September afternoon in Wellington, six months into production, things are humming along smoothly. The 13 actors cast as the film’s unruly company of dwarves — whom Jackson affectionately calls ”the little bastards” — have spent weeks with a movement coach learning how to carry themselves in a dwarflike manner. (”You have to have your gut like a cannonball,” explains Adam Brown, who plays Ori, dropping into a sort of sumo-wrestler crouch. ”They’re kind of plowing a field as they walk.”) The handful of returning Rings actors, including Cate Blanchett and McKellen, have slipped on their familiar roles like old gloves. (”There’s an ingrained muscle memory,” says Andy Serkis of reprising the cave-dwelling, ring-crazed Gollum. ”It doesn’t do anything to my vocal cords anymore — they’re thrashed.”) But even at this relatively early stage in the film’s production, Jackson is battling fatigue. ”You just get exhausted in the first four or five days,” he says, ”and you stay at that level for the next 18 months.”

For the filmmaker, it has been a long, often grinding slog simply to get The Hobbit to the starting line. In May 2010, after two years of intensive preproduction, Guillermo del Toro, who had been slated to direct the films with Jackson producing, dropped out due to the extensive delays brought on partly by the impending bankruptcy of MGM, which held the rights to The Hobbit. Overcoming his initial hesitation about returning to Middle-earth, Jackson decided to direct, only to face further production delays, a protracted public feud with local unions, and a hospitalization for a perforated ulcer on the eve of shooting. ”We thought the film was off, then Peter took it over, then Peter got ill,” says McKellen, who wrestled with his own ambivalence over reprising the iconic role of Gandalf. ”It wasn’t really until the last moment that it was all definite.”

In hindsight it seems inconceivable that The Hobbit could have not gotten made, given the phenomenal success of the Rings trilogy, which grossed $3 billion worldwide and earned Jackson Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for 2003’s The Return of the King. For years the fervent wishes of innumerable moviegoers for a return to Middle-earth followed Jackson and the rest of the Rings team like the Eye of Sauron. ”We’d get these wonderful letters from kids: ‘Thank you very much for The Lord of the Rings — now when are you going to make The Hobbit?”’ says co-producer and screenwriter Philippa Boyens. ”There were literally hundreds of letters from kids saying, ‘You’re not finished.”’

The Hobbit has always been the lightest and most kid-friendly tale in Tolkien’s oeuvre and the entry point for most readers into his world. ”Tonally the story is much closer to a fairy tale, really,” says Hobbit producer and screenwriter Fran Walsh. ”Bilbo is an Englishman abroad, and there’s a natural element of comedy in that idea.” First published in 1937, Tolkien’s novel about an unlikely hero in an otherworldly realm originally grew out of stories he had invented to tell his own children. ”The Hobbit is written in a series of chapters that feel almost like they’re designed to be read to your son or daughter at night,” Jackson says. ”It’s got that episodic rip-roaring adventure quality to it.” In the wake of the book’s success, Tolkien poured nearly two decades into radically expanding his concept of Middle-earth into what eventually became the vastly denser Lord of the Rings novels. As respected as Tolkien’s work was, though, widespread fandom didn’t truly take hold until the late ’60s, when — as anyone who’s parsed the references to Mordor and Gollum in Led Zeppelin’s 1969 song ”Ramble On” can attest — the author’s fantastical visions captured the imagination of the psychedelic counterculture. ”Hobbits were big when I was nineteen,” Stephen King writes in the introduction to his Tolkien-inspired Dark Tower series. ”There were probably half a dozen Merrys and Pippins slogging through the mud at Max Yasgur’s farm during the Great Woodstock Music Festival, twice as many Frodos, and hippie Gandalfs without number.”

Given The Hobbit‘s foundational place in Tolkien’s work, Jackson’s original plan had actually been to make it before The Lord of the Rings. ”Back when we were developing the projects with Miramax in 1995 or 1996, our idea was that we’d shoot The Hobbit first as one film and then shoot The Lord of the Rings as two films,” he recalls. ”As it turned out, The Hobbit was a hard book to get the rights to for various reasons, and The Lord of the Rings was easier for us to do. So we’ve sort of come full circle now. I think if I’d made The Hobbit first, I would have made a very different film — and this is a better film.”

It certainly is longer. Indeed, of all the developments in The Hobbit‘s winding trip to the big screen, ironically the one that may have fans wringing their hands the most is Jackson’s decision to adapt the book into not just two but now three movies. There’s no question the prospect of another Middle-earth trilogy has a comfortingly familiar ring to it. But stretched out to three films, some wonder, will The Hobbit seem bloated and strained? Will the story ultimately feel, as one commenter fretted in Tolkienese on, ”like butter scraped over too much bread”?

The fact is, the tale of The Hobbit is less slender than it may appear on the surface. Those with only a passing knowledge of the book assume it ends with the heroes’ climactic face-off against the dragon Smaug, but the narrative actually continues well past that point, culminating in the Battle of Five Armies, involving Lake-men, dwarves, goblins, wargs, orcs, giant eagles, and elves. But more than that, as Boyens says, incidents that may be briefly described in the book can readily take on a far grander life on film: ”The book is deceptive. Professor Tolkien can almost casually mention that the characters are crossing the Misty Mountains and there’s a thunderstorm, and then they realize it’s not a thunderstorm — it’s huge stone giants battling each other. In the book, that’s literally three or four sentences. But can you imagine what Peter Jackson does when he gets his hands on that? You wouldn’t pass on the chance to show that — and I think kids would probably kill you if you did.”

Still, the notion of expanding The Hobbit into a trilogy never occurred to Jackson until near the end of shooting, after he saw an early cut of the first film. As he, Boyens, and Walsh looked ahead, they began to think about all of the material that wouldn’t fit into just two movies, including much of the 120 pages of appendixes to The Lord of the Rings Tolkien wrote that elaborated on The Hobbit‘s story. Those appendixes can be tough going for nonobsessives (”On the death of Ondoher and his sons, Arvedui of the North-kingdom claimed the crown of Gondor, as the direct descendant of Isildur, and as the husband of Fíriel, only surviving child of Ondoher … ”). But Jackson and his screenwriters were enticed by the prospect of delving deeper into some particularly juicy story elements that would flesh out the Hobbit narrative and provide a bridge to the Rings trilogy. ”Over the course of a couple of weeks, we became excited about the possibilities,” Jackson says.

The morning of the wrap party, Jackson called a few of the film’s key actors to a meeting and presented them with the plan for a third film, which would involve an additional 10 to 12 weeks of shooting next year instead of the scheduled 2 to 3 weeks. ”I think they expected us to act surprised, but the rumor had already been around,” says Freeman. ”At first, I must say, I was like, ‘Why?’ But they put it very strongly that this was an artistic decision, that they had so much great material that they didn’t think it would be served by pinching it into two films. You kind of think, ‘I’ve already put this much of my life into two movies. What am I going to do now — not put it into three?’ In for a penny, in for a pound.”

While Jackson is aware of the concerns surrounding this now-supersize Hobbit, he is utterly certain about the rightness of his decision. ”A lot of the questions I’m being asked are perfectly understandable,” he says. ”But I’m confident that when the first movie comes out, people will understand. The Hobbit is a faster-paced film than the Lord of the Rings films. It has more adventure, more action. When people see the first film, those questions will go away.”

Almost exactly a year to the day after he sat in his quiet hobbit hole of a dressing room, contemplating the opinions of that one person in Idaho, Freeman sits in a restaurant at a posh hotel in Los Angeles, where he’s visiting for the previous night’s Emmy Awards. (He scored a nomination for his role as Watson on the BBC/PBS series Sherlock but didn’t win.) With the film’s opening approaching, he’s begun to wrap his brain around the fact that after months of often highly abstract work — staring at an enormous green wall and imagining it’s the ethereal elven city of Rivendell or the forbidding Lonely Mountain — the mammoth cinematic enterprise that is The Hobbit is finally coming to fruition. ”When you’re in the midst of making a movie — certainly this movie — it’s such a long process, it starts to feel almost like you’re making it for your own pleasure, like you’re in a film club,” he says. ”You almost forget that it’s going to come out. So when you see a trailer, you go, ‘F—, of course — this is for people!”’

Even now, as his face is being plastered on billboards and bus-stop ads everywhere, it’s still surprising to Freeman that out of all the actors in the world, he was the one chosen to play Bilbo Baggins. ”If people say, ‘What do you think it is about you?’ — I don’t know,” he says. ”And I don’t want to know! It might just be that I have a weird face.” He laughs. ”If you say I have a hobbitlike face, that’s not going to send me out into L.A. feeling a lot of confidence.” Then again, if Bilbo could handle trolls, goblins, orcs, a fire-breathing dragon, and all the rest, Freeman should manage just fine.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
  • Movie
  • 170 minutes