LOS ANGELES – Charting a course through Middle Earth can be nearly as taxing as surviving an international media tour for an end-of-year blockbuster. Peter Jackson knows this better than anyone. His film journeys through the vast realms of J.R.R. Tolkiens writings are familiar terrain.
Just last week, his salt-and-pepper curls fell at slightly unruly angles and his white dress shirt looked more comfortably lived in than freshly pressed as he posed on a giant chair flown in from New Zealand from the set of his latest film, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
Still, the director was in good humor. Smaug opened in theaters this weekend but is already winning high marks from a chain of admirers, many of whom compare its jovial spirit to the high-water mark of Jacksons career, his epic The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Quite a few people are saying that, said Jackson, 52, sipping tea between photos shoots at a Beverly Hills hotel. We are consciously trying to deepen the characterizations and conflicts without straying too far from Tolkien.
Yet last year, when The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opened, many fans struggled to embrace the film, even as it raked in $1 billion worldwide at the box office.
Detractors seemed saddened that the soaring sense of adventure and heart that had defined the Rings films had gone missing, replaced by flatulent trolls, moments of slapstick humor and sluggish pacing.
By contrast, Smaug is brimming with action.
The story primarily centers on the middle portion of Tolkiens landmark 1937 youth novel, but Jackson and his writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens have expanded the narrative to include new characters and moments referenced in the appendixes of The Lord of the Rings.
That was one of the decisions we made at the very beginning, Jackson said. Do we take a childrens book, a very simplistic childrens book, and faithfully adapt it? Or do we make a film that will live alongside the other three movies that we made? We are the same storytellers, Philippa, Fran and I, were the same people working on it. Were trying to be faithful to the style and the tone.
In this second portion of the saga, Martin Freemans good-natured hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, continues on his quest to help the dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and company reclaim the treasure of their lost homeland Erebor, which has been usurped by the evil dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch.)
Bilbo and Thorins travels take them to the forest of Mirkwood, where they encounter not only giant, woodland spiders but also a race of Sylvan elves that includes Orlando Blooms regal Legolas (a featured member of the Rings ensemble) and Evangeline Lillys warrior Tauriel. She is the first character wholly invented for a Tolkien film by Jackson, Walsh and Boyens (Del Toro also is credited as a screenwriter on Smaug).
For some reason that I dont quite understand, a lot of women love these stories more than other types of fantasy, Jackson said. We just felt it was a bit male-heavy and we could do something about it.
Narratively, Jackson said he felt greater freedom with this installment than with Unexpected Journey or the upcoming There and Back Again. He neither had to establish the story and introduce the characters nor deliver an exciting climax for the trilogy.
But there was dragon anxiety. He acknowledged that he felt some apprehension over finally bringing Tolkiens great red-golden beast to the screen.
You keep hearing all this expectation, Jackson said. I want to see Smaug, I want to see Smaug. I hadnt seen Smaug up until a few months ago, really, not in his current form!
Those things, he added with a laugh, are a bit of a pressure.