Peter Jackson's eagerly awaited prequel to the Lord of the Rings trilogy opened in cinemas across Ireland and the world yesterday, and a lot is riding on the new film's success.
With a running time of 166 minutes and a budget of $270m (€207m), The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an epic in every sense of the word. Set some 60 years before The Lord of the Rings, the film charts the adventures of Frodo Baggins's uncle Bilbo, who sets out with Gandalf the Grey and 13 dwarves to reclaim stolen treasure from a fearsome dragon.
The new films stars Martin Freeman as well as most of the actors from the earlier movies, like Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee, and is expected to be this year's big Christmas film.
With a budget of $270m it would want to be, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is just the first of three films spun by Jackson and his collaborators from JRR Tolkien's rather slender children's story.
It may in fact be too slender to comfortably accommodate three long feature films, but the first looks promising enough, and the sequels will appear in 2013 and 2014.
The problem for Peter Jackson is that The Hobbit films will inevitably be compared with his Lord of the Rings trilogy, and will surely suffer by comparison. The technical and imaginative achievements of those films cannot be overstated, and may prove impossible to match.
Perhaps that's because they were made with genuine passion by a filmmaker whose future as a director hung on their success.
Born near Wellington, New Zealand, in 1961, Peter Jackson was more obsessed with King Kong as a little boy than The Lord of the Rings, and only came across Tolkien's work after seeing an incomplete cartoon version of The Lord of the Rings in the late 1970s.
That animated film was deeply flawed, but Jackson was intrigued by Tolkien's story, and subsequently read the whole book on a 12-hour train journey from Wellington to Auckland.
At that stage Jackson was 18, and trying to raise money to kick-start his filmmaking career. He couldn't believe that no one had yet attempted a live action version of Tolkien's book, and became convinced a Lord of the Rings movie could be huge. But he'd have to wait over 20 years to see his dream fulfilled.
In 1997, just a year after Jackson had begun working as a director in Hollywood, he teamed up with colourful wheeler-dealer Harvey Weinstein to secure the film rights to Tolkien's works off producer Saul Zaentz, who'd had the good sense to buy them for a song back in the 1970s.
Jackson and Weinstein's film company Miramax then planned to film Lord of the Rings over two films with a combined budget of $75m (€57.7m).
But when Weinstein found out the films were more likely to cost $150m (€115.39m), he got his brother Bob to bang out a two-hour, one-film treatment.
Jackson baulked, and trawled some footage he'd shot around Hollywood in search of a new backer. He found a kindred spirit in Mark Ordesky of New Line Cinema, who liked what he saw and told Jackson he should be making three Lord of the Rings films.
This was music to Jackson's ears, and he and his partner Fran Walsh set about writing three movie treatments.
Peter Jackson would later comment that "looking back, I think we were a bit naïve – at the beginning, I don't anybody had any idea just how difficult or complicated it would be".
Complicated is right. Jackson and New Line agreed that the three films would be shot back to back in New Zealand.
Principal photography on the trilogy was shot in just 274 days. Because so much film was being shot, Jackson would end up with three or four hours of dailies (and only four hours sleep a night).
The technical difficulties involved in realising Tolkien's epic tale were immense. First of all, the difference in scale between the hobbits and everyone else had to be surmounted. In the books they were under four feet tall, but would be played by normal sized actors, so Jackson used various tricks to make them look small.
More than 1,800 pairs of latex ears (for the elves) and furry latex feet (for the hobbits) were used and were prepared each day in a special oven. More than 48,000 pieces of armour were created by a special workshop, and some 19,000 costumes were specially woven.
British illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe were flown in to help with the crucial design of the Orcs. They were created using a mix of sophisticated Orc suits that were hell to wear during summer, and CGI technology for the depiction of vast forces.
Elijah Wood was cast in the lead role of Frodo Baggins after sending a tape of himself in Hobbit costume reading the novel, but other parts were more problematic.
Sean Connery was approached about playing the crucial role of powerful wizard Gandalf, but apparently couldn't make head nor tail of the plot. Patrick Stewart didn't like the script, but another classically trained English actor, Ian McKellen, thought it might be fun and said yes.
Daniel Day-Lewis was Jackson's first choice to play Aragorn, the mysterious Ranger and king in exile, but said no, as did Russell Crowe. Irish actor Stuart Townsend was actually cast and had started filming before Jackson and his producers decided he was too baby-faced, and went for American character actor Viggo Mortensen instead.
If all of that sounds expensive, it was. The overall budget for the three films clocked in at almost $300m (€260.63m), and that was before any marketing or publicity had been done.
Having spent all that money, Jackson and New Line were flying blind, because although in theory public interest in Tolkien's story was considerable, no one had any idea whether the Lord of the Rings films would be popular enough to earn back their massive budget, let alone make money.
The first instalment, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, opened worldwide on December 19, 2001. It proved an instant hit with both critics and public, and grossed $47m (€36.14m) in its opening weekend. It went on to gross more than $870m (€668.82m), and paved the way for two equally impressive sequels.
In total, Jackson's trilogy won 17 Academy Awards, and grossed almost $3bn (€2.31bn). They showed how CGI and new effects could be used to advance the cause of cinematic storytelling.
Jackson's films succeeded in capturing a global audience while remaining faithful to the spirit of JRR Tolkien's writings.
It remains to be seen where a sprawling, three-film adaptation of his slender children's novel The Hobbit will be able to do the same.