The Hobbit has been, for more than seventy-five years, a beloved children’s book and one of the best-selling fantasy novels of all time. You’d think there’d have been six movies, a TV show, and a Broadway musical by now, but the truth is that there’s a reason it took decades before we saw a live-action Hobbit movie. Namely, the rights were a mess.
This isn’t to say that there weren’t efforts to adapt both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; there were several, once Lord of the Rings became a bestseller, often trying to combine all four books into one enormous movie. In fact, one of the great unrealized movies of history is Stanley Kubrick making a version starring the Beatles. Once studios realized that pairing John Lennon and Kubrick would have triggered an ego blast that would have erased the UK from existence, they tried to get John Boorman to do it.
Boorman’s version would have included Frodo bagging Galadriel and Saruman and Gandalf getting into what amounts to a rap battle. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Boorman took a bunch of these concepts and made them into Zardoz a few years later. So we dodged that bullet, at least.
No, it took Ralph Bakshi, an animator, to first bring Tolkien’s world to life. Well, animated life.
Ralph Bakshi was a respected animator at the time, and he did manage to lick a problem nobody had been able to figure out: The special effects. Animating the book allowed it to be more faithful… and in fact, the animated version was a financial success, if not a critical one. A sequel never materialized because Bakshi, essentially, was burned out from fighting executives to get the movie made; if he had managed to make it happen, things might have been different for The Hobbit.
It also laid down the roots of a problem: The rights to the books, including The Hobbit, split. Saul Zaentz, who’d made the animated movie, kept the film rights. But United Artists, which distributed it, kept the distribution rights to The Hobbit.
Enter Peter Jackson
As we all know, The Lord of The Rings we know and love started development in 1995. What isn’t widely known is that it took years to figure out who owned the rights to what.
Originally, The Hobbit and The Lord Of the Rings were going to be combined into two movies, released by Miramax. And, keeping in the theme of terrible ideas around the franchise, Miramax quickly discovered that making an enormous fantasy movie wasn’t going to be cheap, especially since Miramax liked to make its movies as cheaply as possible. $15 million in the hole, the studio proposed a version of Jackson’s original script that would have cut the Battle of Helm’s Deep and made Rohan and Gondor the same place.
Jackson was now in deep; Miramax was claiming that the rights and all the work done by Weta was their property, and he either had to find somebody to pick up the tab and make Lord of the Rings, or essentially lose his studio. As we all know, he did.
But that just created new problems for The Hobbit. Before, it was just a popular book. By the time 2003 rolled around, it was a franchise worth billions with Oscar cred… and everybody wanted a piece of it.
Like anything where money was involved, there were meltdowns. Jackson and the Tolkien estate both wound up suing New Line and Warner Brothers for a chunk of the movies, which delayed production right from the start.
However, MGM owned the rights to The Hobbit, so they were very, very eager to see a new movie made, especially since they weren’t exactly rolling in cash. The problem was that MGM, being broke, kept delaying the movie because they essentially couldn’t afford it. This cost them multiple directors, including Guillermo Del Toro. And realistically, the studios wanted Jackson, who finally agreed when it became clear that was the only way it was going to happen.
And The Lawsuits Continue…
This isn’t really the end of The Hobbit‘s bizarre journey to the screen, though. The Weinstein Company is currently suing Warner Brothers for a piece of the next two movies. That won’t keep the movies from being distributed, but it seems likely that this suit will take years. But hey, at least a fifty year wait, for some people, is finally in the process of ending.