The Curse of ‘The Hobbit’: Dying Animal, Fires, Actors Quitting, and More Movie Upsets

From animals dying to fires destroying sets, the odds were stacked against Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit. Anna Klassen on the setbacks that could have destroyed the film.

Peter Jackson’s interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s tale of a hobbit’s adventure hits national audiences on Friday, December 14. But the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind the decade-old Lord of the Rings saga never intended to make LOTR before he made The Hobbit.

He and his screenwriter wife, Fran Walsh, were both invested in bringing Tolkien’s first tale of Middle Earth to the big screen in 1995, but thanks to the Hollywood bigwigs debating who owned the various rights to the adaptation, they settled on making the Lord of the Rings trilogy instead.

With the release of the final LOTR installment in 2003, it was clear the franchise had major Hollywood appeal, and to make The Hobbit with Jackson’s name attached would likely translate into huge bankability. But the odds were stacked against him from the start. By 2008 Jackson had secured Guillermo del Toro, the man behind HellBoy, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Rise of the Guardians, as the director for Tolkien’s 1937 classic, to be filmed in two parts.

But this was five years ago, and the first of almost a dozen hurdles Jackson and his team encountered to bring Bilbo Baggins and Smaug the Magnificent to a national audience. For one, MGM, the studio set to produce The Hobbit, was having financial troubles, and the war over who owned the rights after Tolkien sold them in the 60s still wore on. Fed up with the politics and delays caused by MGM’s fiscal distress, del Toro resigned as director in May 2010. With no director, the film’s shooting schedule was delayed, leading the industry to dub the project, “The Curse of The Hobbit.” It was at this point that Peter Jackson, the film’s producer, took on a second role as director.

“I felt like it may not ever happen,” Jackson said at a press screening for the film earlier this month.

The odds were surely stacked against him. Four months later, the film faced yet another setback. Actors’ unions such as the Screen Actors Guild, American Federation of Television, and half a dozen other unions instructed their actors not to take roles in The Hobbit. These unions claimed the producers of the film refused to enter into union negotiations for its cast, and asked their members to notify them immediately if The Hobbit asked them to engage in the film. Suddenly, the film about a pint-sized hobbit had turned into Hollywood’s big bad blockbuster that no one would touch.

Not even a month later, more than 50 firemen worked to put out flames that engulfed one of Jackson’s studio sets. Portsmouth Miniatures Studio in New Zealand, which would have been used as a specialist miniature shooting studio, was one of the few that exist in the world. The fire lasted more than three hours, and demolished the fantasy sets entirely.

With unions upset and fires blazing, The Hobbit had seen better days. And the next month, it took another blow. A British woman of Pakistani origin claimed she was told at an audition that she wasn’t “white” enough to take part as an extra in the film. Video footage from the auditions showed a casting manager telling actors they were looking for a particular skin-type, preferably light-skinned people to play hobbits: “I’m not trying to be … whatever. It’s just the brief. You’ve got to look like a hobbit,” the casting manager said. Now embroiled in a racial scandal, Jackson fired back, saying the incident was an “incredibly unfortunate error.”

Fast forwarding several months into April of the following year (after Jackson underwent surgery for a perforated ulcer) the director announces the film will be shot in revolutionary 48 frames per second, twice the decades-old industry standard, and presented in 3D. But, there was a catch. Film projectors that could screen film in 48-frames didn’t yet exist, so the team was banking on the technology to be present by the film’s premiere. Fingers crossed, they continued filming, but soon hit another bump in the road when one of their actors decided to quit. Rob Kazinsky signed on to play the role of Fili, brother of Kili and one of the 13 dwarves featured. The actor gave up his role for “personal reasons,” but Jackson reassured the public on his Facebook page, “Rob has been terrific to work with, and his enthusiasm and infectious sense of humor will be missed by all of us.”

Jackson went on to say that even though scenes with Kazinsky had already been shot, his absence would not delay production.

But injuries on set could.

On May 25, 2011, two crew members constructing a sculpture for one of the film’s sets suffered burns after flammable fumes ignited inside a hollow statue prop. The flames from the prop engulfed one man’s head, causing superficial burns to his nose and face, while another crew member burned his hands by beating out the flames. Just a little over a year until the film was set to premiere, one might think the worst was behind them.

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The film’s final and perhaps worst setback came less than one month before The Hobbits December release date. The Hobbit features an array of furry creatures—rabbits, horses, sheep, chickens, and more animals were used during the filming of the saga. And while the American Humane Association regulates how animals are treated while cameras are rolling, this oversight stops once the cameras turn off. Three horses, six goats, six sheep and a dozen chickens—27 in all—used in the film’s New Zealand shoot had died at a ranch where they were housed between takes.

Jackson claimed the deaths had no correlation to the film. “Absolutely none; no mistreatment, no abuse,” he said before the film’s New Zealand premiere. And luckily for Jackson, this upset was the last in a very long line of hiccups that could have spoiled the film. “At the end of the day we’ve made a movie we’re extremely proud of,” he said. “So many people have worked for so long, it will take a bit more than that to spoil the event.”