Before the wildly successful Lord of the Rings trilogy had even hit movie screens in its entirety, Hollywood execs were clamouring to make The Hobbit.

It was a no-brainer. By the time it all wrapped up, the fantasy series had collectively raked in $3 billion at the box office, pulled off 17 Oscar wins from a whopping 30 nominations, attracted widespread critical praise and reshaped the movie-making landscape with its special effects.

Meanwhile, J.R.R. Tolkien's LOTR prequel series, The Hobbit — which takes place 60 years before the ring-bearing adventures of Frodo Baggins — was just waiting to be adapted into another blockbuster series.

(Fun fact: Today is the 70th anniversary of when it was first published).

Advertisement

PETER JACKSON VS. NEW LINE

Peter Jackson and Ian McKellen. Photo / Supplied
Peter Jackson and Ian McKellen. Photo / Supplied

Before pre-production could even get underway, the project was hit with the first signs of trouble.

LOTR director Peter Jackson, along with his screenwriting team of Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, had already expressed interest in continuing the story. Given the success of their first Tolkien trilogy, they were an obvious choice to helm the follow-up.

But that's where things got complicated.

In September 2006, Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer — which owned the rights to The Hobbit — asked Jackson and New Line Cinema if they'd work together to produce the movies.

It probably wouldn't have been an issue, if not for Jackson launching a lawsuit against New Line just one year earlier, claiming he'd lost revenue from merchandising and video games associated with The Fellowship of the Ring and was demanding an audit to see whether it had withheld money from him.

The furious studio co-founder, Robert Shaye, accused Jackson of being greedy and insisted he'd never work for them again.

But MGM wouldn't do it without him so halted production until the two agreed to work together — which fortunately (and perhaps unsurprisingly given the money at stake) didn't take too long. In late 2007, Jackson was named as executive producer of The Hobbit.

Advertisement

THE TOLKIEN STOUSH

Just three months later, the team behind The Hobbit hit another hurdle. The Tolkien Estate filed a lawsuit against New Line Cinema for breach of contract and demanded $220 million in compensation for LOTR.

According to the estate, the studio had only paid them an upfront fee of $62,500 — despite the trilogy's gross of $6 billion from merchandising and box office sales. It wanted 7.5 per cent of all profits generated from any Tolkien projects and moved to block filming of any future films until the legal stoush was resolved.

That day finally came in September 2009 when the two warring parties settled for an undisclosed amount, and the estate agreed to let The Hobbit go ahead.

BRINK OF BANKRUPTCY

Writer/director Guillermo del Toro. Photo / Supplied
Writer/director Guillermo del Toro. Photo / Supplied

Having finally dissolved all the roadblocks standing in the way of The Hobbit production, the path toward filming, for once, looked clear.

But the biggest drama was yet to unfold.

By 2008, famed fantasy director Guilleromo Del Toro (the man behind Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy and The Shape of Water) had been locked in and pre-production got underway.

While the crew was busily preparing scripts, sets and costume designs in New Zealand, MGM was struggling through a dire financial situation and teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

Even though everything was basically primed and ready, by 2010 the project hadn't actually been given the official green light — which was necessary for calculating the budget.

As MGM held a large portion of the rights, everything eventually stalled as the The Hobbit couldn't continue until their financial issues were straightened out. While that would inevitably happen sooner or later, the delay proved catastrophic for the movie's executive team.

Del Toro, having already spent 18 months working on the project in New Zealand, was now looking at having to extend his time there from the previously agreed three years to a period that would probably wind up being double that length.

His frustration was apparent in a press conference held on May 28, 2010.

"There cannot be any start dates until the MGM situation gets resolved," the director told reporters.

"We have designed all the creatures. We've designed the sets and the wardrobe. We have done animatics and planned very lengthy action sequences. We have scary sequences and funny sequences and we are very, very prepared for when it's finally triggered, but we don't know anything until MGM is solved."

Just two days later, Del Toro quit.

"In light of ongoing delays in the setting of a start date for filming The Hobbit, I am faced with the hardest decision of my life," he wrote on Lord of the Rings fan site, The One Ring.net. "After nearly two years of living, breathing and designing a world as rich as Tolkien's Middle Earth, I must, with great regret, take leave from helming these wonderful pictures … both as a co-writer and as a director.

"I wish the production nothing but the very best of luck and I will be first in line to see the finished product. I remain an ally to it and its makers, present and future, and fully support a smooth transition to a new director."

'DON'T KNOW WHAT THE HELL I'M DOING'

Peter Jackson, Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen on set of The Hobbit. Photo / Supplied
Peter Jackson, Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen on set of The Hobbit. Photo / Supplied

It was a huge blow for Jackson, but he still offered up a firm show of support to Del Toro.

"We understand how the protracted development time on these two films, due to reasons beyond anyone's control — has compromised his commitment to other long-term projects," Jackson said. "The bottom line is that Guillermo just didn't feel he could commit six years to living in New Zealand, exclusively making these films, when his original commitment was for three years."

The executive producer scrambled to come up with a solution — but was quickly forced to accept the inevitable and stepped up as the new director.

After having three-and-a-half years in pre-production to prepare for The Lord of the Rings, Jackson found himself with literally no time to plan his approach to the prequel series.

Instead, he and his team were left doing 21-hour days in a desperate bid to reshape Del Toro's unique vision to fit Jackson's.

"It was his artistic vision and I couldn't make that movie. I looked at his designs and I said the only person who can make a Guillermo Del Toro movie is Guillermo," Jackson told Gizmodo at the time.

"It shouldn't be me. I can't put my head into somebody else's idea — I have to generate it from the beginning."

In an astonishingly candid admission during the The Battle of the Five Armies DVD featurette, the director admitted they would often be forced to shoot scenes without storyboards, or even completed scripts, with Jackson just "making it up as I went along".

"Because Guillermo Del Toro had to leave and I jumped in and took over, we didn't wind the clock back a year-and-a-half and give me a year-and-a-half prep to design the movie, which was different to what he was doing," revealed Jackson. "It was impossible, and as a result of it being impossible, I just started shooting the movie with most of it not prepped at all.

"You're going on to a set and you're winging it. You've got these massively complicated scenes, no storyboards and you're making it up there and then on the spot … I spent most of The Hobbit feeling like I was not on top of it.

"Even from a script point of view, Fran (Walsh), Philippa (Boyens) and I hadn't got the entire scripts written to our satisfaction, so that was a very high-pressure situation."

Weta Workshop creative director Richard Taylor — who worked on both Tolkien trilogies — described the chaotic process as like "laying down the tracks for a moving train as it's hurtling toward you".

Jackson explained he'd even tell the crew to take an "extended lunch" for an hour or so, just so he could get his head wrapped around the next scenes they needed to shoot.

This shambolic situation just barely worked through filming for the first and second movies — but by the time the third one rolled around, the director realised he had no game plan whatsoever and was forced to send the actors home while he worked out what to do next.

Critically, he needed to figure out how to shoot the climactic final battle — the linchpin of the entire trilogy.

"We had allowed two months of shooting for that in 2012, and at some point when we were approaching that I went to our producers and the studio and said: 'Because I don't know what the hell I'm doing now, because I haven't got storyboards and prep, why don't we just finish earlier?' Jackson later explained.

As a result, the Battle of the Five Armies' release was pushed back by five months, from a July 2014 premiere to later that year in December.

FINAL RESULT

The Hobbit Battle of the Five Armies. Photo / Supplied
The Hobbit Battle of the Five Armies. Photo / Supplied

The three-film Hobbit series may have been an unequivocal financial slam dunk at the global box office with a $2.93 billion profit, but for many, it was also a disappointment.

While The Lord of the Rings was generally adored by fans and critics alike, reaction to The Hobbit was lukewarm.

In fact, The Battle of the Five Armies — the third and final instalment — was the saga's worst-reviewed film, with only a 59 per cent rating on movie review site Rotten Tomatoes.

The Hobbit's highest-rated movie was The Desolation of Smaug, which earned just 74 per cent — significantly lower than the Rings' least-impressive score of 91 per cent (The Fellowship of the Ring).

But while it may not measure up to its predecessor, The Hobbit was by no means a failure. It was clearly a huge commercial victory, visually stunning and — knowing what we do now about the production chaos — kind of a miraculous outcome.