“There and Back Again” is the subtitle of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” and it would certainly serve handily for a biography of many of those involved in taking the book to film, though none perhaps as well as Philippa Boyens.
Asked one day in 1997 if, as a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, she might have any interest in helping out friends and fellow New Zealanders Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh adapt “The Lord of the Rings” for film, Boyens, a former teacher and then executive director of the New Zealand Writers Guild, shrugged and said, “Sure, why not?”
“I figured it would last a couple of weeks,” she says now, laughing at the memory, “maybe a month.”
Instead she, like so many Tolkien characters, was swept away on a life-changing adventure, down roads long and sometimes perilous. Fifteen years later, she is an Oscar-winning screenwriter and producer, part of one of the most successful collaborations in film history and proof that a third wheel (Walsh and Jackson are also life partners) is a good thing to have if you’re going to wander over terrain as varied as the “Lord of the Rings” franchise, “King Kong,” “The Lovely Bones” and now “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” which arrives in theaters Friday.
When New Line and Warner Bros. initially decided to make two films from Tolkien’s first book — a child’s tale that turned out to be the prelude to the author’s three-book epic — Guillermo del Toro signed on as director. Boyens, along with Walsh and Jackson, took up their staffs, cloaks and keyboards, returning to Middle-earth as co-writers and producers.
The four began outlining Del Toro’s vision for the book, but after waiting almost two years for rights issues to be resolved, Del Toro left the project. Jackson eventually accepted the director’s chair, and he, Walsh and Boyens began again.
“I would love to have seen the films Guillermo would have made,” Boyens says frankly. “It would have been amazing. And he certainly helped us by bringing fresh eyes to the Middle-earth because, of course, the biggest issue was making sure we weren’t remaking ‘Lord of the Rings.’
“In some ways it was easier, though, starting again for Pete. We work in a different way, very fluid, very flexible.”
She and Walsh do most of the preliminary writing, although as with “Lord of the Rings,” scenes are rewritten even as they are being shot or sometimes after. “Pete incorporates new ideas from everyone, he likes to work with the actors, it was all quite familiar.”
But, as Boyens says, familiarity was as much an obstacle as a boon. “If we hadn’t made ‘Lord of the Rings,” she says, “this would probably be a different film — the book is aimed at a much younger audience. But this world now exists, people are familiar with it so, as Pete put it, we were going back on location to Middle-earth.”
The landscape isn’t the only thing that’s familiar; audiences now also have a certain expectation from the inhabitants — hobbits and dwarfs, wizards and elves, and above all, Gandalf, played now, as then, by Ian McKellen.
The ultimate decision to make three films of the relatively slender tale was in large part because of the writers’ decision to follow Gandalf on the mysterious journey he takes in the middle of “The Hobbit.”
“In the book, Gandalf just disappears, you know,” Boyens says. “And at the time it was written, you don’t know what he does or where he goes. But now we know, the audience knows. It’s a wonderful story, and we have such a powerful character in Gandalf it was a no-brainer to tell it. And any day you spend working with Sir Ian is a good day.”
Indeed, despite having spent years writing and prepping for filming of “The Hobbit,” Boyens wasn’t quite prepared for the emotional nature of her return to Middle-earth until she met with McKellen for a costume fitting.
“There was really nothing much new, a different scarf or something, and I wasn’t really thinking about it and I rounded a corner and there was Gandalf peering at me from under the brim of his hat,” she says. “I hadn’t seen him in 10 years, you know, and it really hit me. We’re back.”
The young Bilbo Baggins of “The Hobbit” is played by Martin Freeman rather than Ian Holm, who portrayed the older version of the character in “Lord of the Rings,” but McKellen isn’t the only actor joining the reunion; Holm is too, setting up the story in flashback.
As with the three films of “Lord of the Rings,” the writers dipped into Tolkien’s lengthy appendixes to smooth or flesh out the cinematic narrative. And so in this now three-film version of “The Hobbit,” Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugh Weaving) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) appear, as do Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Gollum (Andy Serkis).
“Talk about someone who hasn’t aged,” Boyens says with a laugh, “Cate Blanchett is even more beautiful than she was, and Orlando looks younger somehow. It’s totally unfair.”
With Jackson “bouncing around in regular form,” there was a certain déjà vu to the set at times, she says, but there were plenty of new faces; in addition to Freeman’s Bilbo, there are 13 dwarfs, including Richard Armitage as the impressive and at times imperious Thorin Oakenshield.
“Thorin is a very powerful character in the film,” Boyens says, “and a very difficult one because he is so complicated.”
Everyone was aware of the essential challenge — to revisit a familiar land but at a slightly earlier time and to tell a very different sort of story.
“A lot of it came down to casting the right person for Bilbo,” she says. “Because there’s a whimsy to ‘The Hobbit’ that is not easily translatable.”
Then there’s the structure of the story, which is so episodic it could have easily felt like a TV miniseries and doesn’t have the sense of higher purpose required by an epic, which if you’re going to make three films, “The Hobbit” had to become.
“It’s not a noble quest to begin with,” Boyens says, “it’s a quest for treasure. And Bilbo is not a traditional hero — he doesn’t kill the dragon, some guy from out of nowhere does. Bilbo is heroic but not in that way.”
She says the first part of the trilogy hews close to the book, though with a darker tone that will then carry on to the other films. Liberties are taken, but the three writers have learned that though they will never be able to satisfy the Tolkien purists, most fans understand that the films are versions of the books and judge them as such. (It remains to be seen how audiences will respond to the new 48-frames-per-second technology that Jackson employed for the shoot, which is designed to create a hyper-real look.)
Which isn’t to say that Boyens doesn’t have a few bones to pick with final edits. In the case of “Lord of the Rings,” she went nine rounds trying to figure out how keep the character Tom Bombadil in the film (she couldn’t), and in “The Hobbit” there is at least one scene she “just loves” that she is pretty sure won’t make the final cut.Even her youngest child’s film debut hit the cutting-room floor fairly early. In the “Lord of the Rings” films, the Jackson and Boyens children all had small roles, as hobbits and children of Rohan and Gondor. In “The Hobbit,” Boyens’ daughter plays a dwarf.
Her now-3-year-old son, Isaac, also played “the cutest little hobbit baby you’ve ever seen,” but, alas, his big moment came in a scene Jackson did not think was crucial.
“My child got cut,” Boyens says, a note of good-humored outrage in her voice, “by his own godfather.”
— Mary McNamara
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