Now post production and only a few months away from widespread theatrical release, Peter Jackson’s long-awaited ‘Lord of the Rings’ prequel, ‘The Hobbit’, has already generated considerable hype. It hearkens back to the success of the original ‘Lord of Rings’ series while at the same time tapping into contemporary cultural trends, particularly with the inspired casting of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins and Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug. What self-respecting ‘Sherlock’ fan could miss the chance to see their idols together once more, particularly as the next season of their beloved series has been put on hold for the sake of the movie?
But as well as reeling in multitudes of ‘Sherlock’ fans, ‘The Hobbit’ has the potential to exert a broader, more family based appeal than any of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ movies; if it is anything like the book, it will have fewer scenes of remorseless, brutal bloodshed and more encounters with fantastical creatures, fewer complicated political feuds and more snappy dialogue between highly eccentric characters. In short, the film looks set to attract a diverse range of audiences, everyone from ‘Sherlock’ worshippers to children enthralled by fantasy adventure to Tolkien experts—or at least it did, before the bombshell was dropped.
It was announced that there would be not one, but three ‘Hobbit’ movies; the story would be split into thirds and released as one small segment after another. This news reignited the debate over the rise of the sequel that has been dragging on, fruitlessly, for years—do the sprawling franchises of the past decade represent the height of epic storytelling or a headfirst dive into the cesspool of commercialism? Whatever view the audiences and critics take, the outcome is always the same; they will end up dragging themselves back to theatres to see sequel after sequel, complaining all the way. But something about the restructuring of the ‘The Hobbit’ touches a nerve; it represents a definite break from the past, a new milestone along the road of movie development, since it signifies the rise of an entirely new type of sequel.
Not too long ago, sequels were generally added to the original movie as an afterthought. Any movie that stood out from the others and managed to find its own particular niche in the market, like ‘Shrek’ or ‘Madagascar’ or ‘Toy Story’ or ‘Home Alone’, would go on to spawn endless reproductions of itself, generally until the series ran into the ground and the last spark of originality was entirely extinguished. But the original movie as well as each subsequent sequel would have a structure of its own, a perfect story arc with a beginning, middle and end. The relative independence of each movie in the series gave the audience the pleasant illusion of free will; technically they could watch just the first movie and leave it at that, or even watch one of the many sequels and get a relatively clear idea of the plot. But with this new version of the sequel, even that illusion is stripped away; if the audience wants to know the fate of the characters they love and the conclusion of the struggle they care about, they have no choice but to pay the ticket for the next movie. Little by little, sequels have become encoded into a film’s very DNA; the entire film is structured around the presumption that audiences will have to come and see the next one, whether they like it or not. The cliffhanger ending, which has for so long been the staple of soap operas and reality television, has finally made inroads into the world of movies.
Of course, it can be argued that the ‘The Hobbit’ is by no means the first to embrace this lucrative innovation; cliffhangers were the driving force behind lengthy movie series like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Harry Potter’. But those series were structured according to the literary works they were based upon; even though there were rumblings of discontent over the splitting of the seventh Harry Potter book, fans begrudgingly agreed that as J.K Rowling’s longest work it probably deserved the most screen-time. ‘The Hobbit’ by contrast, does not naturally lend itself to a three part series; it is a single, cohesive adventure story, with nothing close to the epic scale and complexity of ‘The Lord of the Rings’. With no literary precedent to go by, the filmmakers must find their own way to reshape ‘The Hobbit’ into three semi-independent segments. For unlike a TV show, a movie series must do more than build up to a thrilling climax over several mediocre installments; each movie is expected to have some quality in itself that makes it worth the price of a ticket.