Mortal Engines repeated all the mistakes of The Hobbit, and this time paid the price. The Peter Jackson-produced adaptation of Phillip Reeve's young adult novel (directed by Christian Rivers, Jackson's long-time storyboard artist) has become the biggest box office bomb of 2018, with a measly $7.5 million opening weekend see it risk losing up to $150 million for Universal. There's a lot of obvious reasons for this - the marketing never truly won prospective audiences over, there's immense competition this December from a slew of bigger named franchises - but one that's been overlooked is just how similar the whole project is to The Hobbit.
A trilogy of movies spun out of J.R.R. Tolkien's original Middle-earth book (extended by way of The Return of the King's appendices), The Hobbit is very much the Star Wars prequels of the The Lord of the Rings franchise; a series of films anticipated by a whole generation for which the original trilogy was a defining cultural landmark that saw the world collapse under a misguided creative drive. The main complaints at the time were the bloating of a short book into three long movies (the extended cuts total almost 9 hours), but that's just the entry point to a more nuanced discussion of flawed adaptation approach.
The comparisons between Mortal Engines and The Hobbit exist long before you get Peter Jackson attached. They're epic fantasies that riff on reality in hitherto unique ways, gradually expanding in scope over the course of their classical story until the very fate of the world hangs in the balance. One's a high fantasy ostensibly set in our very distant past (one aspect of Tolkien's Legendarium that Jackson's films lost is its framing as a creation myth), the other a post-apocalyptic cautionary tale, but both follow similar tracks and are certainly open to a big screen adaptation.
However, there's a question of whether either is suitable for The Lord of the Rings approach to world-building or storytelling. Both The Hobbit and Mortal Engines were, upon release, pegged as the successor to Jackson's groundbreaking trilogy, yet a string of creative decisions led to that not to be the case. In fact, the only thing more startling than how similar they are is that only one of them is viewed as a failure.
- This Page: The Hobbit & Mortal Engines Share An Origin
- Page 2: Where The Hobbit & Mortal Engines Fall Down
- Page 3: Why Mortal Engines Bombed Where The Hobbit Didn't
Mortal Engines & The Hobbit Were Made Out Of Obligation
At the end of the day, moviemaking is a business and so it's rare for a film to not be made for blatant financial purposes. However, every now and then, something comes along that is so delightfully artistically driven. A prime example is The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which is as much the product of Peter Jackson's passion for the material as it was a mission to make billions of dollars; indeed, when shopping the project around Hollywood in the late 1990s, few studios took any interest at all. That it was made unimpeded as a full three movies is nothing short of a miracle, and that they came out in 2001-2003 (as opposed to any other point post-publication) is the direct result of Jackson's drive.
That same force is not there for The Hobbit or Mortal Engines, projects that were once the subject of Jackson's interest but by the time production finally began were more belabored obligations. The Hobbit had a lengthy pre-production when Guillermo del Toro was set to direct a two-parter, but the slow-movement in attaining full rights, financing and production clearance saw him step aside. Unfortunately, by that point too much money had been sunk in the project and Jackson had to step up and make them on a deadline (eventually getting so exhausted he split the second part in two again to make a full trilogy).
Mortal Engines hadn't had quite as much money poured into it, but was still very much against the clock. The rights to the book Jackson acquired back in 2008 with the intention for himself to direct were due to expire at the end of 2018, and after The Hobbit put him out of commission until 2014, things were getting tight. It was at this point that Rivers stepped up and the film entered production. And although it had been in development for a decade, most of the designs were overhauled to reflect the passing of the steampunk craze. In the end, the movie may have released mere weeks before the rights lapsed.
The situation with Mortal Engines is nowhere near as fraught as The Hobbit, but that same overbearing sense of time constraint caused by financial considerations was there from the start, and seems to have heavily influenced how the movie was made.