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Most geeks are spittle-flinging happy that Pan's Labyrinth director, Guillermo del Toro, has signed on to helm The Hobbit (and its ill-defined and almost certainly ill-advised extra-canonical sequel, which I henceforth dub The Hobbit 2: Electric Bilboloo), but most geeks are also not Salon.com film writer Andrew O'Hehir. O'Hehir describes himself as a fan of the Peter Jackson-directed Lord of the Rings series, and most del Toro films (Mimic rightfully excluded), but thinks the pairing of Jackson as producer and del Toro as director is bad news. O'Hehir's objections are A) del Toro is on record as loathing all things hobbitty, and B) del Toro will be wasting the prime of his career carrying water for Jackson on a project Jackson should do himself.
Is O'Hehir right? Hell, no. And here's why:
Peter Jackson Isn't a Better Choice
Anyone who suffered through the Star Wars prequel trilogy -- or Godfather III -- will understand when I suggest that it's not always wise for a director to return to his old stomping grounds. Jackson left Middle Earth as a hero to geeks and film investors, and on such a creative high note, he essentially slacked through King Kong and no one gave him any crap for it. That being the case, what's the upside for him to re-direct in Middle Earth? If he does it perfectly and sticks the dismount, it's still not fresh. If he screws it up, the fan response will make the Phantom Menace backlash look like a group hug.
Jackson put a huge target on himself by agreeing to return to Middle Earth; getting someone else to direct gets him out of the line of fire. Now, if it works, he'll still get (producer) credit. If it fails, the audience will blame del Toro -- because among other things, he's not Jackson, or more accurately, the imaginary Jackson who did the film perfectly.
That said, I don't think Jackson hired del Toro just to aim flak toward someone else. I think he hired del Toro because Jackson's aware that -- contrary to O'Hehir's worry -- these films need someone who isn't very much in love with either Tolkien or the world that he made.
This has to do with the subject matter, namely, The Hobbit. That book, written by Tolkien to amuse his kids, is a twee bit of fluff at best. Beloved, yes, but a bit squishy in the middle. This is fine for bedtime readings and Rankin-Bass animated adaptations, but for the continuation of one of the most successful film series of all time, every installment of which was nominated for Best Picture? The Hobbit needs someone willing to slice through the fat and mush and not ask himself WWTD (What Would Tolkien Do?) at every critical juncture. Jackson did this with The Lord of the Rings, which is why, among other things, the film series is thankfully Tom Bombadil-free, but The Hobbit needs an extra wash of astringency. Del Toro's love of the fantastic has never descended into huggy cuteness, which makes him perfect to save The Hobbit from itself.
What del Toro Gets Out of the Deal
All that is nice for The Hobbit, but what does del Toro get out of four years of indentured servitude to Peter Jackson in Middle Earth? He has his own projects lined up -- a third installment of his Spanish history fantasies, an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft -- and all of these get shoved to the back burner while he traipses about Hobbiton. This is a main concern of O'Hehir's: That del Toro's blowing his own shot for greatness extending someone else's franchise.
The answer is simple. Del Toro's a visual genius and a better-than-fair stick at storytelling, but he's also never cracked $100 million in the US; the closest he's come is the $82 million gross of Blade II, another example of del Toro working for hire. In Hollywood, being a genius is nice, but regularly spurting out blockbusters is better, which is why Michael Bay could get greenlit filming himself picking his nose while del Toro still has to work to get a flick made.
If The Hobbit and Hobbit 2: The Quickening make money hand over fist -- which they almost certainly shall -- O'Hehir will get his Spanish fantasy and his Lovecraft film, each with more money and far better marketing than they would get without del Toro's Middle Earth adventure. Don't think del Toro's not well aware of this himself.
Winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies as well as the novels Old Man's War and the upcoming Zoe's Tale. His column appears every Thursday.