For millions of fans, from the Tolkien devotees who know the difference between Bofur, Bifur and Bombur to those who just loved the Lord of the Rings movies, Peter Jackson's return to Middle-earth is the year's biggest movie event.
Yet for most of the nine years since The Return of the King capped one of the most creatively and commercially successful trilogies in cinema history, the New Zealand director was out of the picture when it came to directing The Hobbit.
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Director Peter Jackson talks about the role of Bilbo Baggins in the company of the dwarves in The Hobbit.
First came a messy tangle between New Line and MGM over the rights to J.R.R. Tolkien's famous children's novel, with the studios ending up as co-producers. Then when Jackson sued New Line over the profits from The Lord of the Rings, the studio retaliated by insisting on another director for The Hobbit.
Three years ago, it looked as if Mexico's Guillermo del Toro, best known for Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth, would direct two Hobbit movies, with Jackson producing and co-writing the script.
When del Toro dropped out, frustrated by delays during MGM's financial difficulties, Jackson had to overcome his own reluctance to direct another Tolkien film.
''I was worried about how I'd feel stepping back into this world,'' Jackson says. ''The Lord of the Rings always felt like a once-in-a-lifetime event and that never again were we going to have this sort of success, never again were we going to make three movies back to back.
''There were a lot of once-in-a-lifetime, never-again things about The Lord of the Rings.
''I just thought, how can you go back there, how can you repeat that, and it worried me. [I was] a little bit superstitious, I guess, too.''
Nevertheless, he decided to devote a large chunk of his life to what has become a new Middle-earth saga. An Unexpected Journey, the first of three instalments, follows the hobbit Bilbo Baggins as he joins 13 dwarves on an epic adventure to reclaim the treasure guarded by a dragon named Smaug.
At the world premiere of An Unexpected Journey in Wellington, it was hard to find anyone - even away from microphone or camera - who did not admire Jackson's creative drive, unpretentious humility and community spirit.
With The Lord of the Rings, he went from cult filmmaker to revered writer-director-producer of a trilogy that employed up to 2400 people, took almost $3 billion at the box office, won 17 Oscars, turned the cast into his devoted friends and allowed him to establish a studio, film lab, post-production facilities, and visual and digital effects companies.
''When Peter made the call, I was absolutely thrilled,'' says Cate Blanchett, who is returning as the elf Galadriel. ''I'd do anything for him. I think we all would.''
Barry Humphries, who plays the Goblin King, says: ''Peter Jackson manages to get the best out of everyone. The mood of the whole company, not just the artists but the whole technical crew - everyone involved in the film - is very high because of his personality. He's an amazing little guy.''
James Cameron, who has moved to New Zealand to shoot Avatar 2 and 3, says that what Jackson achieved with The Lord of the Rings is unique in cinema history.
''Not that there wasn't an industry [in New Zealand] already, but to elevate that industry to a global level where people from all over the world - artists, filmmakers, special-effects technicians and so on - come here to work, it's really only happened a couple of times before, in Los Angeles and maybe London. It's the first time it's been done by a single filmmaker.''
On The Lord of the Rings, Jackson shot for an exhausting 266 days. By coincidence, the main shoot for The Hobbit was exactly the same length.
''When I was sitting down at pre-production meetings at the start of The Hobbit … I would sit there and think, 'I cannot believe this. I'm doing this again. I cannot believe I've got another 266-day shoot,''' Jackson says. ''It feels like a lifetime. You literally wake up in the morning and go and shoot a movie and come back, crash, sleep, wake up and go and do it again the next day. It seems like your entire life. By the time you're two-thirds of the way through that, you can't remember anything that happened before The Hobbit.''
Few filmmakers anywhere, at any time, have made back-to-back movies as big as the Lord of the Rings series. But Jackson says The Hobbit felt like an even bigger production because there were fewer human characters and more dwarves, elves, orcs and hobbits.
''Having 13 dwarves as part of the principal cast required a huge army of prosthetic artists and wardrobe people because each dwarf was wearing a special fat suit under their coats and they had to have cooling and they had to go through two or three hours of prosthetics every morning,'' he says.
''Each dwarf had a contingent of five or six people assigned to them, to look after them and make them up in the morning, [get them] dressed and look after their weapons.''
Despite all that, Jackson says he thoroughly enjoyed making the movie.
''It was a different story, different characters, different set of issues,'' he says. ''Ultimately, directing is about solving a series of problems, whether they start being storytelling problems then become problems with visual effects and designs.
''When you're on set, you've got problems with rain and weather and staying on schedule. It keeps you on your toes.''
At 51, Jackson seems to have given up the shorts and bare feet he was famous for while shooting The Lord of the Rings. Walking the red carpet in Wellington, the knighted filmmaker greeted the thousands of fans who called ''Peter, Peter'' with as much fervour as they cried ''Cate, Cate'' or ''Oogo, Oogo'' for ''Oogo'' Weaving, who returns as the regal Elrond.
A perfectionist like so many great filmmakers, Jackson finished An Unexpected Journey three days before the world premiere and admits he only knows when a movie is finished by the date of its premiere. Having slimmed down a great deal since The Lord of the Rings, he says he handled the shoot well enough.
''I've kept myself fit and healthy as best I could,'' he says. ''I sort of paced myself. The one advantage that we had this time around was that we knew what we were going into. But I believe in having an enjoyable time on the set. I try to keep the atmosphere light, pretty creative, but have a bunch of laughs.
''You can't make these movies, especially with such a long schedule, and not actually enjoy it. The enjoyment gets you through.''
After The Lord of the Rings, Jackson directed King Kong and The Lovely Bones and produced District 9 and The Adventures of Tintin. Though none was anywhere near as successful as the Middle-earth trilogy, he remained creatively adventurous enough to shoot The Hobbit in a bold new format - high-definition 3D at 48 frames a second - to create a sharper, richer image on screen.
''The film looks incredibly crisp and sharp,'' he says. ''I can only compare it to seeing a 65 millimetre film like we used to watch the old epics in. It has that kind of quality.''
Cameron says Jackson is solving the remaining problems of 3D with a format he is hoping to use for the Avatar sequels, provided it is successful on The Hobbit. ''We charged out ahead with the flag on 3D with Avatar; now Peter is doing it with The Hobbit,'' he says.
All this means the stakes are high for a trilogy estimated to cost $1 billion to make and market. In New Zealand, hopes are high the films will spark another Middle-earth tourism boom.
''Every film has anxiety,'' Jackson says. ''It's a huge responsibility. It's a responsibility to yourself to make the best film you can. It's the responsibility of spending other people's money on the budget.
''All you can do as a filmmaker, all that I can do to fulfil my part of the job, is try to make a film that I'd enjoy seeing.''
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THE TOLKIEN GENIUS
Hordes of fans plan to line up outside cinemas for Peter Jackson's latest excursion to Middle-earth, but it is likely that many of them have never read the book. This is a great shame. The Hobbit is a children's literature classic that has never been out of print.
I loved Peter Jackson's interpretation of The Lord of the Rings, but in essence it pared J.R.R. Tolkien's masterpiece down to a fairly conventional fantasy action-adventure flick, losing much of its mythic resonance. The Hobbit - a far simpler and livelier tale - will be dragged out into three separate films, inevitably losing a great deal of its narrative cohesiveness. Audiences will wait years to see the final climactic scene. If you started the book now, you could be finished in a day.
There are other compelling reasons to read the book first. When you read a book, you experience the story from inside the hero's skin; you are privy to their innermost thoughts and feelings, leading to a much deeper emotional connection. Even if that hero is a hobbit with hairy feet.
A film is all about plot, but there is much more to a novel than a sequence of events. A novel is all about the language - the yells and yammering, the jibbering and jabbering. Tolkien was a consummate wordsmith.
When watching a film, the brain is basically inert and passive. While reading a book, the brain lights up like fireworks. Reading activates many different parts of the brain. When we read about the smell of a troll's larder, our primary olfactory cortex lights up. When we read of a dwarf's leathery hands, our sensory cortex is roused. When a hobbit hero is jostled and jolted, the motor cortex, which co-ordinates the body's movement, whirrs into action.
Reading the book first can only enhance the filmic experience. A film speeds past so fast it is sometimes only a blur. Those who read The Hobbit before seeing the film will be familiar with its storyline and better able to understand what is happening on screen. This deepens our appreciation of the filmmaker's craft, while at the same time allowing us to appreciate the genius of the original creator.
Who, you must remember, is John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Not Peter Robert Jackson.
JACKSON - THE MASTER
Tolkien typed his tales of elves, dwarves and magic rings mostly at night. By day he was an Oxford academic with a reputation as a dull lecturer - at least among some of his students. Kingsley Amis thought him ''incoherent and often inaudible", and recalled the long lists of words his teacher scribbled on the blackboard, often blocking them with his body.
This tendency to dryness comes through in Tolkien's books. At risk of inviting the wrath of his most ardent fans (more terrifying than a thousand enraged orcs), I find vast chunks of his writing a hard slog. In the pages and pages Tolkien wrote about Middle-earth, there are stories of astounding creativity, moments of beauty, and even flashes of humour. But to get to the good bits, the reader must plough through minute details of geography and genealogy, textbook-worthy treatises on hobbit architecture and more poetry than seems strictly necessary. For Tolkien, much of the appeal in writing stories about Middle-earth was to flesh out a mythology to support his invented Elvish language. He was in love with the detail of his imagined world. Its richness is undoubtedly an astonishing creative achievement but it does not necessarily make for a zippy narrative.
To squeeze The Lord of the Rings into a film trilogy, Peter Jackson gave Tolkien the ruthless edit he needed, while remaining largely faithful to his extraordinary tale. Gone are superfluous scenes (Tom Bombadil, anybody?) and the poetry. Where Tolkien's characters give long accounts of what has already occurred, Jackson gives us the backstory in action-packed flashbacks. Not that all Tolkien's detail goes to waste. Although a movie, by definition, must sacrifice some of a book's plot, film is an ideal medium for presenting a universe in breathtaking detail. Instead of battling through dense paragraphs on the proximity of Bree village from Buckland, we watch the adventurers as they move through a changing landscape. We hear the soft consonants of Tolkien's Elvish spoken aloud, and see the hobbits' round-doored burrows.
The richness of Jackson's films owes much to those long nights Tolkien spent fleshing out every last particular. But Jackson whittled the story down into something more accessible.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens on Boxing Day.